William Simmons

[What was the neighborhood like when you lived there?]

Boy, there were many children and, and they played in the streets by and large. We didn’t really have a playground that I can recall anywhere nearby and [pause] evenings after supper was always an interesting time because that’s when people, the kids would, children would leave the house. You could hear dishes being washed up and down the street all at the same hour [chuckles]. I think most of the people there were factory workers or they did one thing or another but they all basically kept by the same schedule. And the fire station at the corner of Roger Williams Avenue and Reservoir Avenue, as I recall, had a bell and, and that bell would sound the time that you know, we, more or less, lived by. 

There was a sense of community, I think, among children that extended for probably three or four blocks in every direction [clears throat]. And, we had rituals of a sort – that is, in the fall, everyone knew it was time to play football, and, and, kids from a nearby neighborhood on the other side of Reservoir Avenue, between Reservoir Avenue and the pond, had their own sort of group, and the people on this side of Reservoir Avenue where I lived had their own group, and we would play against each other in football, and things of that sort. The Reservoir Avenue was kind of a dividing line.

...And, in the winter, kids from both sides of the Avenue, as if by clockwork – I think around January 1st, January 2nd, whenever that was – families would take out their Christmas trees, and the city would pick them up and so the people would leave them on the sidewalk. And whatever the day was that the Christmas trees went out, I mean, the children would just automatically gather pieces of clothesline, rope, and whatnot, and drag Christmas trees to an empty lot that was about the size of three house lots that was on Sinclair Avenue, just south of Rutherglen Avenue [clears throat] and, pile all those Christmas trees up into a humongous heap and, and then we would all stand around until someone had the chutzpah, or whatever the word is for it, to light them on fire. And it was always the biggest, oldest kid in the group that would do that, I mean it’s sort of like they, you know, smoke cigarettes maybe and had a cigarette lighter and that kind of stuff. So someone would always step up and light the fire and we’d just stand there and watch the thing blaze up and adults would come out to watch it but it was sort of our little world. I think the kids had a huge amount of autonomy and freedom. 

But we also knew to stay away from Mashapaug Pond, the word was that it had springs. I didn’t even know what springs were but it turns out it that it must’ve referred to underground sources of water, and [clears throat] but nevertheless the folklore among my, my peers was you don’t swim in Mashapaug Pond because of the springs, and why you don’t swim because of the springs, and why you don’t swim because of the springs, I don’t know but nobody ever did. Nobody would dare go in that pond, it was a strange thing. But we just knew it was dangerous. And, it partly could have had something to do with the pollution from Gorham’s manufacturing, I don’t know, there’s plenty of reasons why it was dangerous but, at the least the reasons that we knew were that there were springs there and you didn’t want to take a chance in the water. But the pond would freeze in the winter, most of the time. And that was great for ice-skating, we’d play hockey there and so forth. I was never that much into ice-skating myself but I did it from time to time. Most of the time when I ice-skated it was at Roger Williams Park on the other side of the railroad tracks. 

Army hats at the Pontiac Tap

[On the Pontiac Tap]

And, and this bar room, well I was familiar with it, sort of by, around the end of World War II, and so, whoever owned it, was a veteran and brought back a huge armory of war souvenirs – guns of all kinds, helmets, German hand grenades, special kinds of daggers [chuckles] for killing people and whatnot. And the whole wall of the bar was filled with these things – you know, helmets, hand grenades, mortar shells, handguns of various sorts, rifles. It was like a museum of World War implements, World War II implements. And, so the bartender would let kids come in, because that was a big attraction.  And, and, you’d go in there and look at those things, his name was Henry, and, so we wouldn’t obviously, he wouldn’t serve us liquor or anything like that but it was perfectly fine to come in and look at those things. It was just sort of like a neighborhood thing to do that, and, then there were neighborhood, you know, usually elderly types that went to that bar in the evening. I guess that was their night out, that was their recreation, so they’d go down there and have a few drinks and we’d be sitting in front of a friend’s house on Rounds Avenue and they’d be coming up the street wobbling from the Pontiac Tap [laughs] on their way home. And that was just sort of part of the rhythm of life –“Oh, here comes Mr. Cook, we know he’s had a few drinks” and he’d be walking down the street, like that. 


[How had things changed?]

...I was shocked by the degree to which the public infrastructure has declined. The public schools for example, and the neighborhoods surrounding the public schools. I mean, it’s just, I just can’t even comprehend how that could happen. But I think that a lot of it had to do with the industry just moving out. I mean, during the time when Brown and Sharpe and Nicholson File, and Colonial Knife, and all of those places were working, they employed, you know, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of families. And Gorham’s Manufacturing there on Mashapaug Pond would be another example of that...They required technical knowledge and expertise that people got by middle school. Gilbert Stuart, for example, we had metal, we had type, and woodworking – those were things that we learned along with everything else. And we had mechanical drawing, which is how you do geometrical drawing...most elementary from of mechanical engineering. I mean, how you make angles, and this and that. So this education, I think, was geared towards this workforce. They made machine tools that, you know, were accurate to within a thousandth of an inch, and that kind of thing. Amazing work was done here. And all of that went. And so service industries came in, and then that was a different thing. People learned how to, you know, greet people at restaurants and, you know, whatever that involves, you know that sort of thing. I think life just became just a lot less interesting – and, and, connected to anything. 

 

Part of the pond, too, the other thing that I grew up with an instinct about was landfill [clears throat]. This is from the earliest, um, I can remember, once I knew what landfill was, that I could recognize it, in artificial lakes and things like that, that this is something incomplete, or, or, it was a product. It wasn’t real. That whole eastern side of Mashapaug Pond is landfill. If you look at it, it’s all just debris – sand and gravel, old junk, old tires, stuff like that, that were just, you know, pushed into the side of the lake there to create more land for businesses along Reservoir Avenue. And so that part of it, you know, I mean, to even go to a place like that wouldn’t interest me at all. But there’s still the parts of the pond where the natural shoreline can be seen. There’s a little cove back there, in the back of that Job Lot area over there, for example. There’s a brook that comes out of the pond there – have you walked over there to look at that brook? 


 



...Well, over and back there (around Job Lots)  there’s a brook. That’s comes out of the pond and it goes all the way over to Cranston. In fact, I think that brook is the boundary line between the original Providence, [short pause] gift by the Indians to Roger Williams. But Mashapaug Pond goes out on the brook, and it goes over to Roger Williams Park. And, and, where a dam was built at a certain point in that brook farther out into Roger Williams park. It filled it up and it helped create some of those lakes. But that brook still exists, it’s still there. But then, it was more of a brook, and there were cattails growing. And there were actually, what do you call them, alewives, a kind of fish that ran in the spring, early spring. You know, it was a big time for Indians as well as it was for English, and even for kids in my generation, to go out there when, they called them “buckies” here. They didn’t call them alewives, they called them buckies. And there was a stream, a brook in Warwick, for example, that was called Bucky Brook. But, anyway, the alewives would flood the stream at a certain time of the year, and kids would all go there, they’d make little fish spears with a broom handle with three nails [laughs] sticking out of the top, and try to catch one, and so forth. That was a big deal. 

Arrowhead found around Mashapaug Pond

[I was wondering if you would want to speak a little bit about the Native American history in the area or, if you have any knowledge about that.]

I have a little bit, yes. Well, certain, there’s the archaeological part. I guess I had always known that Mashapaug was an Indian name, although we never called it Mashapaug, we always called it Mash. But [pause] and I probably more than anyone knew that there were Indians that lived around there because I actually found their artifacts. But one thing I didn’t know was that opposite Gorham’s across the pond there was another little settlement, between Niantic Avenue and the pond. I don’t even know if it had a name. But, the streets were unpaved, and it was sort of like, you know, craftsmen build houses, cabins and shacks and whatnot. And they were basically poor white people, and colored people. And, at least what was called colored people back at that time. So we just knew that, nobody had, we never went over there. Although I had some friends that did, once they joined a rifle club, and one of the guys in the rifle club lived over there, so they went over there to talk with him now and then, but my father never let me have a rifle so I never did that. But, anyway, we knew that there were lots of colored kids that lived over there, and that was about it. But I can’t say that I knew any of them. 

But, at a certain point, in the 1980s, I interviewed a couple of old Narragansetts down in Charlestown...they talked about the Pond Street Baptist Church and Tyler Avenue and Calhoun Avenue and so forth, and the different friends and neighbors they had and they said that these were people of Indian origin. People who identified as Narragansett. And, and some who identified as Pequots and whanot, but, so clearly that community there was people of Indian descent, from not very far away from the pond. But what made that more interesting to me was that in the 18th century, there’s an account, it’s in the Life of John Howland...of a guy who, I guess John Howland, was reporting that if you travel along Cranston Street in the area that goes by the pond, that there’s a lot of Indians still living there. I wondered since that time whether if those Indians who were still living there, they were probably for sure, the ones that lived there in Roger William’s time. And were they the same ones, who, at least some of the same ones, who were still living there in the 20th century, in this neighborhood that defined itself as Indian. Because it’s the same place. But I can’t answer that question, cause I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question. They, they definitely felt that that was their home when they came to Providence, so.