Caroline Wilkie Wordell
Essay by Traci Wordell Brady
Many people know her as “the Tree Spree lady.” Caroline Wordell founded Little Compton’s most celebrated and iconic Ben and Chet Wilkie Memorial Tree Spree in 1993. This annual fundraiser created to commemorate the life of Caroline’s brothers, Arthur (Ben) and Chester (Jr.) Wilkie, brings the Little Compton community together every December to kick-off the holiday season, reunite with friends, and celebrate the spirit of the season. The Tree Spree gets more popular every year and the gymnasium at Wilbur School just about holds all the people that come to this event. Since its inception, the Tree Spree has raised more than $500,000 for Scholarship Little Compton providing college scholarships for Little Compton youth.
Caroline Wilkie Wordell was born on September 30, 1943 to Inez Cornell Wilkie (daughter of Mable (Tripp) and Arthur Cornell of Westport, MA) and Chester (Chet) Wilkie (son of Benjamin and Addie Wilkie of Little Compton). Caroline was one of four children – Arthur (Ben) Wilkie (May 29, 1935), Chester Wilkie Jr. (October 4, 1932), and twin brother Carlton (Butch) Wilkie. Butch wrote, “Caroline was born September 30, 1943 and I know that because I came into the world the same day, only 3 minutes apart. My Mom said that when she had Caroline that she thought it was all over and then the Doctor said, ‘Well Mrs. Wilkie, you have another visitor’ and that is when I came on the scene. In those days women didn’t know if they had twins or not; as they didn’t have all the sophisticated ways of telling if there were two or more, and the sex of each one; it was a Surprise. Surprise!! Caroline grew up to be one of the most respected and talented people I know.”
A lifelong resident of Little Compton, Caroline married Donald Wordell (born November 10, 1935, and son of Herbert and Beaulah Field Wordell) on July 6, 1963, and had one child, daughter Traci (Wordell) Brady. She became a widow on June 20, 1998 when Donald passed away from a sudden heart attack.
Caroline attended Wilbur Elementary School and J.F. Wilbur High School. She attended Rhode Island College for two years, and later graduated with an Associate in Arts degree in Liberal Studies from Bristol Community College. Caroline lives on William Sisson Road in a house she and Donald moved into the day she gave birth to their daughter. While everyone was moving furniture from their apartment in Adamsville into the new house, Caroline went into labor. Caroline’s mother, Inez, insisted on driving her to the hospital. The only vehicle available to drive was a 1963 Red Volkswagen Beetle with a standard shift, and Inez had no idea how to drive it. Working together, Caroline and her mother drove that Volkswagen to the hospital. In the passenger seat and in labor, Caroline shifted while Inez drove!
Caroline grew up with her brothers on Peckham Road. Her father was a well-known auctioneer and square dance caller, and owned Chet’s Barn (now Crowther’s Restaurant) on Pottersville Road, as well as Wilkie Excavating and Wilkie’s Garage on Long Highway. Chet’s Barn was a local business providing food and drink, and entertainment such as roller skating, auctions and square dancing. Caroline recalls many Saturday nights dancing and Sundays roller skating in the converted dining room at Chet’s Barn while her older brothers tended bar. Many auctions were also held at Chet’s Barn, where Caroline learned very early about creative retailing. Her father, while auctioneering, would comment (tongue in cheek) about George Washington sleeping in the bed being sold! Her love of antiques and interest in collecting them is directly related to her father’s auctions and the many hours she spent working with him. Her mother, Inez, earned money cleaning houses and later as a floor person at Fairhope Fabrics in Fall River, MA.
Caroline held several jobs in Little Compton during her lifetime. As a young adult she worked at the Commons Lunch and The Mill Stone restaurants as a waitress. Caroline worked as a secretary at the United Congregational Church on the Commons during the 1970s; and was the general manager of Wilbur’s Store from 1985 – 1998. She also managed the dining room at Sakonnet Golf Club before retiring.
Caroline’s love for Little Compton runs deep and serving the town has been an important part of her life. Although the Tree Spree is probably her best-known accomplishment, Caroline’s dedication to her community and love for Little Compton is evident in her long history of volunteer work. Some of this work has included Girl Scout Troop Leader, Vice-Chair of Little Compton Tercentennial and Bicentennial Committees, Coordinator of the Town’s Easter Egg Hunt and Tree Lighting ceremonies, and Little Compton School Committee member for 9 years. She is a board member of the Little Compton and Tiverton Historical Societies and Scholarship Little Compton, and has served as an active member of the Village Improvement Society (serving as President), Preservation Society, and Little Compton Community Center as well. At the United Congregational Church, she was a Sunday School Teacher and Superintendent, Village Bell Editor, and coordinator of the Youth Group and the Summer Fair.
Although Caroline’s volunteer work has been impressive, her true super power is identifying a need in the community and finding a solution. Whether helping a community member with transportation for medical treatment or developing a community fundraiser to benefit others, Caroline is willing to assist in finding a way – almost always a creative one – to meet the need. In a December 25, 1995 Providence Journal piece, Caroline was quoted as saying, “I like to do things that will raise the funds that are needed but in an unusual way, in order to capture the imagination of the community.” Out of that creativity were born ideas for the Ben and Chet Wilkie Memorial Tree Spree, town bed races, incredibly scary Halloween haunted houses, and dozens of raffles to support local people and organizations in need. None of these things were done alone; Caroline seems to have a way with mobilizing the community to work together toward a common goal.
Whenever she sees a need, Caroline responds. Caroline handmade more than 400 T.E.D. (Taking Each Day) bears and donated them to patients at the Breast Health Center at Rhode Island Hospital. Each patient received a bear to help them through their treatment. Nurses at the Center recounted stories of patients bringing their bears to every treatment; and of an incarcerated patient who had to leave her bear with the nursing staff after every treatment and refused to start her next treatment until the nursing staff brought her the bear.
Caroline loves her town and is an essential resource for its history. She remembers taking a Little Compton History class at Wilbur School, which spurred her quest for historical information about the town. She has a vast collection of vintage Little Compton Post Cards, old Newspaper clippings, and Little Compton history books. She is a member of the Little Compton and Tiverton Historical Societies and has served in various board positions. She has assisted in developing fundraising events, and has made significant donations to these Historical Societies, including donating to the Little Compton Historical Society the 1800s Wilbur’s Store delivery wagon which she purchased from the estate.
In 1993, at the age of 49, Caroline won a Jefferson Award, a national award sponsored by the American Institute for Public Service to recognize citizens whose public service benefits the local community. A Congressional Citation from this time notes that, “Mrs. Wordell is known by many in the Little Compton area for her tireless dedication and commitment to a myriad of significant community related organizations.” Caroline was also recognized by the American Legion in 1980, and the Little Compton Grange #32 in 2001 with the Community Citizen Award for her public service work in town. In 2001, the Little Compton Town Council created an official Proclamation that April 4, 2001 be Caroline Wilkie Wordell Day in the Town of Little Compton.
Caroline’s hobbies include reading, quilting, sewing, knitting, crafts and collecting antiques. As a child, Traci remembers her mom making her clothes, including a very special dress made of white eyelet with small yellow flowers for her 8th grade graduation. Caroline used her creative and retail skills in several ventures during her life. She co-owned The Patchworks in the 1970s, and Jonnycake Farm Gift Shop in the early 2000s where kids knew her as “the Beanie Baby lady.” More recently, Caroline was featured as Mrs. December (in honor of the Tree Spree) in the Women of Little Compton 2006 calendar!
Traci Wordell Brady, Daughter
Excerpt from Remembering Adamsville
To me, Adamsville has always been Little Compton. I know that some residents now feel that Adamsville is set apart from Little Compton, but to me it is no different than Pottersville, the Commons or Sakonnet Point.
I grew up on Peckham Road, which is closer to the Commons, but we always shopped in Adamsville—mostly at F.A. Simmons’ Store and Sanford’s Meat Market. I remember old Fred Simmons, and Hap and Gracie. Hap used to deliver groceries to us also. My fondest memory of Simmons is, of course, the penny candy.
Later, when my dad started the square dancing craze in Little Compton, we danced first at the Odd Fellows Hall. Then Walter and Hannah Harmon built a restaurant on Crandall Road called the “Bon Ton,” and we danced on the blacktop there, under the stars.
Since my mother was a Rebekah, I belonged to the Alpha Rose Theta Rho Girls Club, and we met in the Odd Fellows Hall in Adamsville. I actually don’t remember doing anything in that club except our ritual meetings and dressing up in gowns to be “installed” in one of the offices.
We always skated on Adamsville Pond. My father or one of my older brothers would take a small Jeep or truck with a plow to clear the ice so we could skate. Someone would start a fire on the big rock (probably a tire or scrap wood they picked up along the sides of the pond) so we could keep warm. When we got really cold, we would clomp across the street with our skates still on, and climb the steps to Eddie Cook’s Store (Gray’s).
When I was first married, our first apartment was upstairs in the old Dr. Warden House. Jackie and Alan Governo were the owners of that house at the time. It was different being in Adamsville because I could walk to the store and the post office. Gracie Simmons was very good to us as newlyweds, saving “day old” fruit and veggies for us, and inviting us to her annual holiday party.
Much later, when I was manager of Wilbur’s Store, we rented Simmons’ Store, and I managed that also. Connie McGee and Leslie Deschene, who had worked for Gracie Simmons for many years, stayed on to work for us.
Caroline Wilkie Wordell
First published in “Remembering Adamsville” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2013.