WESTERLY, R.I. -- From the duplex mill houses of Bradford to the oceanfront mansions of Watch Hill, Westerly's villages tell a story of the people and industries that shaped this city.
There are five "official" villages -- Bradford, Dunn's Corners, Misquamicut, Watch Hill, and Westerly -- each representing a fire district, with its own station, trucks, chief, and tax rate, said Cindy Gaccione, secretary for Westerly Fire Chief David A. Sayles. Before the age of motor vehicles, she said, fire districts grew up independently in different areas of town. The members were workers at mills or plants, who left work to fight a fire when they heard the horn.
It would be hard to find a better guide to Westerly's villages than Isaac "Ike" Smith, 84, a lifelong resident and descendant of the family that discovered the granite quarries that put Westerly on the map. Smith himself cut stone for 13 years, starting as an apprentice in 1946. When he recognized that the industry was declining he went to work for another 23 years at Electric Boat in Groton, Conn. But he hasn't forgotten those early years . "I can still feel the stone in my hands, in my arms," he said.
The streets of Bradford are lined with duplex houses with unusual dormers. These are typical of English architecture, Smith said, since Bradford was established by English businessmen and named after a town in Yorkshire. In contrast to the modest workers' homes, the superintendent's home is a large, gabled structure that looks a bit like a Swiss chalet. A tiny but formidable all-granite building was once a bank; now it's occupied by a gallery, and the old schoolhouse across the street is a private home. The Bradford Dyeing Association still operates in the old mill, treating camouflage fabric for the military, Smith said.
A stretch of farmland leads from Bradford to Dunn's Corners, which has become strip mall central. As Smith said, "Nothing standing now was here when I was a boy." The area on both sides of Route 1 is home to stores, restaurants, and motels.
Shore villages are Shelter Harbor and Weekapaug (both covered by the Dunn's Corners fire district), Misquamicut, and Watch Hill. Shelter Harbor was established as a community of musicians and that legacy is evident in street names such as Wagner, Handel, Bach, and Verdi. Noyes Neck Road in Weekapaug leads to a stunning view over rocks and ocean to Block Island and Montauk Point. Large but unpretentious homes with shingles weathered silver dominate the oceanfront.
Just over the Weekapaug Bridge, made with Westerly granite, is Misquamicut, a seasonal community perhaps best known for its state beach. The houses closest to the water are those that survived the hurricane of 1938, Smith said. Newer houses are farther back from the ocean and built on stilts. Atlantic Avenue is one long stretch of hotels, motels, clam shacks, clubs, and amusements for children.
Watch Hill oozes money, with stone-pillared driveways leading to extravagant oceanfront homes barely visible behind tall, manicured hedges. Since the Civil War, Watch Hill has been a destination for wealthy vacationers, Smith said. There are shops, restaurants, and galleries in the village, but precious little parking.
Avondale, in the Westerly fire district, was once called "Lotteryville," Smith said, because the original house lots were sold by lottery. Formerly a fishing community with a large marina along the Pawcatuck River, it has become an area of upscale homes.
White Rock, also part of Westerly, is anchored by a large mill dating to 1849. The base of the attractive building is of Westerly granite, topped by red brick, with scalloped brick molding along the top, a theme repeated across the street in the building that was the company store. A screen printing company operates out of the mill today.
Westerly quarries produced some of the finest granite in the world. The Smith Granite Co., founded by Isaac Smith's great-grandfather, Orlando Smith, was one of the town's chief employers until the quarries stopped operating in the 1950s. There were six quarry holes all in a row on Granite Street, Smith said. Today the property is Granite Center, offering retail space and luxury condos.
Some of the finest examples of stonecutting skill can be found in River Bend Cemetery on Beach Street. The type of monument testifies to the particular skill of the stonecutter, Smith explained. Creating raised letters is one specialty, polishing is another. And stones with intricately carved flowers or statues are the work of the most skilled carvers. Of particular note are the monuments marking the graves of brothers Angelo and Columbus Zerbarini, legendary statue cutters who worked for the Smith Granite Co.
Some would extend Westerly's umbrella of villages to include Pawcatuck, Conn., just over the Pawcatuck River. In the early 1900s, Irish stonecutters lived in Pawcatuck and worked in Westerly, Smith said, and today the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce promotes the combined area to visitors.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.