At the Crossroads
I have no idea why this one is busting to get out of my chest today, but it wont stop nagging, so I’ll spill it out and if it’s only read by five people, so be it.
The title of this blogpost is the literal meaning of the name “Travis”, which is derived from Old French. As I blogged here, my first logical assumption about the choice of that name is that, like most boys with southern origins, it is a tribute to Col. William Travis of Alamo fame. But I’m fairly obsessive about searching for significance in things, and I’ve always read a lot more into that name, given its etymology.
A main theme of my life has been the clashing of two cultures, a sometimes unbearable tension between the Southern ways of my father (which prevailed in my home when I was growing up) and the Yankee culture of my mother’s home turf, which was what I lived in every day when I stepped outside. Both were old, American and full of tradition, but they were unalike in so many different ways, and this went back for centuries. The differences in the two cultures can be measured at a glance. Thomas Jefferson…vs. John Adams. One smiles and bows and offers endless hospitality but will be quite willing to end you if you insult him. The other barks like a lap dog from dawn to dusk, but by God, you know where you stand, cuz he ain’t hiding a thing.
The place where my father’s culture met my mother’s is a small, unincorporated village called Shannock, Rhode Island. As we wrote here, World War Two brought my grandfather north to serve in the naval base at Quonset. After the war, he sold his Tennessee farm and sent for the rest of the family. They were among the millions, black and white, who took part in the post-war Great Migration, from south to north in pursuit of better paying work. (We wrote some about that in our immigration post a few days back). Most of the migrants went to big cities: Chicago, Detroit, New York etc. My family went to one of the smallest excuses for a town imaginable. Bringing us back to our theme of “At the Crossroads”, for, like many tiny towns, Shannock is just a couple of crossing streets. The streets also cross the railroad tracks and the Pawcatuck River — more crossroads. And the village straddles the towns of Charlestown and Richmond; to walk around Shannock is to walk back and forth between two towns all day as far as the map is concerned.
As I mentioned in the previous post, Rhode Island is full of mills — practically every town there (at least the ones that aren’t beach resorts) is built around a mill, and all the mills are located on rivers. Shannock is located at the Horseshoe Falls on the Pawcatuck River, a site where saw-, grist-, and wool mills all went up in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1771, Joshua Clarke bought a couple of existing mills and added another, thus founding a dynasty that was to last until my own time. In 1837, the railroad came through thus paving the way for new growth. In 1848, Simeon and Joshua Clarke founded a cotton mill. In 1901, their descendants morphed it into the Columbia Narrow Fabrics Company (silk and elastics) and it was this incarnation of the factory that my family went to work in when they moved to Shannock circa 1945. Both grandparents worked there, as did my dad and my aunts and uncles, at least when they were younger.
The plant closed in 1968, leaving Shannock a sort of ghost town, and this is how I knew it when I was growing up. In 1979, I attended a memorable event — a party to celebrate the 100th birthday of George P. Clarke, one of the founders of Columbia Narrow Fabrics. I was amused to read in this Library of Congress document a description of Clarke as “paternalistic”, for that was the vibe I got at this event, which was exactly like a company picnic — ten years after the company had closed. Very hard to describe something like this if you’ve not experienced it. My Southern family had been sharecroppers before they moved. Thus they were already culturally inclined to treat “the boss” as a kind of feudal lord. There was a lot of reverence and subservience and bowing and scraping. He was a “great man”, the font from which all good things sprang. My sister and I were ushered into his presence and introduced to him in hushed tones as part of a long receiving line as though he were a king on his throne. I don’t think we actually bowed and curtsied but it feels that way. And naturally some of this deference was due to the fact that he was born during the Rutherford B. Hayes administration. He was scarcely in the world any more. Rather he seemed to be standing behind it like some éminence grise in a wheelchair.
And the reality is, the Clarkes and the other factory owners had built the mill and the mill WAS Shannock. The other buildings in the town consisted of about three dozen houses, a company store, and the Baptist church at which my grandparents worshipped. That’s it. There’s nothing else. So George P. Clarke was the sun, and this little town town was the solar system. I think this very much informs the attitude about unions I described here.
An irony of all this, in light of all the stepping and fetching for George Perry Clarke, is that I’m likely related to him on my mom’s side. An old Rhode Island family? Got Perrys. Got Clarkes. Part of me wants to go back in time and go, “Yeah, hand me the potato salad, will ya, George P.? Thanks a lot, buddy.”
Like I say, when I was growing up, the mill was shut. And the character of the town, which ought to have been charming by default, was in serious deterioration. I don’t think my grandparents helped. They had a very large house in the middle of the main street — it always seemed like the most important house in town to me, but I’m sure it was just because it belonged to my grandparents. But, you know — my grandparents were hillbillies. There were always old rusty cars and trailers parked in the yard, and clothes hanging from jerry-rigged clotheslines every which way. The grass was unmowed. My grandparents made ends meet by renting rooms to a large number of dubious characters, single men in a town with no jobs. They always seemed to have mustaches, and carry brown paper bags. And this was the aesthetic tone of the whole town. Barking dogs in the middle of the street. It didn’t even rate a train stop any more — every hour or so an Amtrak train would fly past, rattling all the tea cups. (Seen from another perspective, when you ride the train from New York to Boston, you fly past my grandparents house. I always watch for it like a five year old when I take the northbound train.)
Once (and the memory shames me) around 1980 or 1981, my friends and I got involved in a documentary project with a local photographer who had one of the first video cassette camera outfits I’d encountered, in some early, now obsolete format. And for some reason he was documenting Shannock. I think he may have been affiliated with some real estate speculators, and the idea was, because of its proximity to the University of Rhode Island, these factory worker houses would make good student housing. (But that was cockamamie. Shannock is way too far from the college). But anyway, there was a good deal of joking at Shannock’s expense, the poverty of the surroundings, the people who lived there. I snickered with everyone else just to be social (if they knew my relatives lived there, they weren’t respecting the fact) but my behavior at the time now feels treacherous. I wish I’d put everyone in their place.
Anyway, like I say, there’s a nice report here about the historical nature of the town. Really it has the potential to be idyllic. But there’s so much in this country that needs fixing up. There are far bigger jobs in need of doing at the moment. Buffalo? Detroit? Like I say: At the Crossroads.