Toni Andersen is putting out a call for a ship’s captain, gravedigger, bailiff, class of students, member of the militia, teacher, blacksmith and jailor, along with a prisoner or two.
To qualify, they should at least be a third-grader – and, in a stretch, can be a middle school student.
There are other positions – there could be as many as 100 – Andersen is looking to fill for the 20th anniversary of the Pawtuxet Village Historic Walking Tour, to be held Saturday, May 16, with Sunday, May 17, as the rain date.
The tour – during which groups are guided through the village, making stops at homes and locations along the way where students dressed in costumes of the era play the roles of colonials – has its roots in Wyman School and fourth-grade teacher Maureen Stabile, who all these years later still teaches at Wyman.
Former Ward 1 Councilwoman Sue Stenhouse remembers she wanted her son Garrett to be in Stabile’s class as she took her students on a walking tour of Pawtuxet. As a transplant from Minnesota, Stenhouse was interested in learning more about her adopted community. She was looking for that pride of place.
She connected with Lois Hollingsworth-Eagan, whose children also attended Wyman. The two got to dreaming how they might foster that pride of place among the students while at the same time engaging them in an activity to work as a team, build confidence and learn of the village’s rich history.
“I’m really obsessed,” Hollingsworth-Eagan said, describing how the idea of students playing the roles of local colonists simply grew and grew, becoming more elaborate with each iteration.
The whole Eagan family was at one time part of the Pawtuxet Rangers, so an activity with a historical bent was appealing. Former Mayor Scott Avedisian and the late Hazel Kennedy put them onto “A Walking Tour of Pawtuxet,” which the two of them collaborated in publishing. It was the start to research that Stenhouse and Hollingsworth-Eagan continued at the Warwick Public Library and City Hall archives with the assistance of Marie Ahlert.
Henry Brown, who has since been named city historian, came up with “boxes” of information about the burning of the British schooner Gaspee as well as the history of many Pawtuxet homes. Other parents pitched in. Jennifer Coates took on the task of lining up high school students to act as guides for the groups as they walked from one historic location to the next.
Hollingsworth-Eagan held colonial costume sewing bees at her home until the group became unmanageable and they relocated to the Aspray Boat House. The organizers made a trip to Boston to find tri-cornered hats.
To inspire students, Stenhouse and Hollingsworth-Eagan dressed in colonial garb and staged skits at the school, speaking as colonials would have spoken and portraying characters they were looking for students to play.
It worked. Students learned their scripts. Costumes were made and, just as important, the owners of historic village homes agreed to have kids looking to be from a different time invading their property for one day in May.
It was during one of those tours that Andersen learned of the event.
“I saw all these funny dressed kids,” she said.
Soon enough, Andersen found out what was happening and took more than a casual interest. She has been involved with the tour for the past six years. As the tour was a PTA-sponsored event, she explains, there were issues to opening it up to participation to home schooled students. In December, the tour was formally incorporated under the wing of the Gaspee Days Committee.
As chair of the tour, Andersen is looking to revive the heydays when more than 100 children participated and there were 22 stops on the tour. Last year about 50 kids participated and there were 12 stops. There weren’t enough boys, so there wasn’t a jail and jail keeper on the tour.
While St. Peter School has been actively engaged with the tour for the past five years, Andersen is looking beyond the neighborhood to engage students. Participation is being opened to all elementary school students, and not just those from Warwick. Andersen welcomes home schooled and charter school students.
Tentatively, students wanting to participate will meet after school one day a week for the next six weeks on Wednesdays starting April 1 at the Wyman all-purpose room. Depending on the size of the group, meetings could be held at the Aspray Boat House. During the sessions, students are introduced to what colonial life was like. Registration starts the week of March 16. Details will be available on the Walking Tour of Historic Pawtuxet Village Facebook page.
“We’re going to go bigger or we’re going to go broke,” Andersen said of her goal to have the tour grow.
She’ll be getting some help from her son, Chace, a sophomore at Bishop Hendricken who has been a tour guide. “It’s cool,” he said, “you get to see all the sites.” He connected with the tour as a third-grader and at one point in his Wyman career played a bailiff.
Andersen said participating students are asked to sign a contract that they will attend the weekly sessions where they learn their scripts and how a presentation fits together. She points out just like a theater production, everyone has a role and “they can’t back out.”
Stenhouse calls the tour one of her proudest moments.
Part of it is that “pride of place” she talks about, but it is also what it does for students. She said it teaches research skills, public speaking and build confidence. She believes it has also helped to curb vandalism and build community.
Those seeking additional information on registration and the event should check the Facebook page, or they can email email@example.com.