Eugenia “Genie” Getchell Rawson
This is the story of a woman brought up in one world who transitioned at mid-life into something wholly new – or seemingly so, even though many of the characters and the setting, a few square miles on the Rhode Island shore, remained the same. Though I can never know the story in depth, it’s of great interest to me, partly because it’s characteristic of Little Compton but mainly because the woman is my mother, Genie Rawson.
In her 50s, when Genie and husband Jon had rehabilitated the Stone House and were running it as an inn, tap room, and party venue, she would register amazement — when she had a free moment to think about it at all – that having grown up in considerable comfort, with servants, a summer house, prep school, coming out parties, etc., etc., she now found herself planning and cooking meals for 100, cleaning up afterward and enjoying almost all that it entailed. The journey says a lot about the woman who made it.
Born Edith Eugenia Getchell in 1915 in Woonsocket, where her family owned a steel fabricating business, she was the fourth of four girls. Her parents, Eugene and Edith Getchell, must have been hoping on this fourth try to have a boy they could name Eugene after his father. But realizing that this child was to be their last, they named her after him anyway, and after her mother, too. Still, Eugenia was the name they used, and Genie was her nickname all her life.
The Getchells had discovered Little Compton in the first decade of the 1900s. The story is that Genie’s grandfather, Seth Getchell, was on a fishing expedition in Westport and missed the stage back to town, so someone drove him over to Sakonnet to take the boat. As Genie tells it in Johnnycakes and Cream, “he decided he liked Sakonnet better than Westport so he transferred his allegiance here.” Initially, he stayed at the Lyman House. In later years, when Genie and Jon ran an inn of their own, Carl and Carol Haffenreffer gave them an old Lyman House guest register that they found in the Lloyd house. Under one year were the signatures of “H. Eugene Getchell” (her father) and “Edith Almira Ellis” (her mother), then the year after, “Mr. and Mrs. H. Eugene Getchell.”
Seth liked Sakonnet so much that in 1913 he bought the Davis boarding house at the Point in the name of his daughter, Blanche. And in 1918, Eugene bought two houses by the harbor: Harboredge, with its own rickety pier on the rocks out front, and the Cottage (so called) in back. Harboredge is where Genie grew up in summertime comfort, with her parents, three older sisters, and some combination at different times (memories differ) of a cook, housekeeper, chauffeur, and part-time gardener who also ran some lobster pots. Filling several of those roles, along with doing the cooking when they came down for spring or fall weekends, was Joe Sylvia, who pretty much came with the house.
Each year the family made its lengthy trek down from Woonsocket through Fall River, since the Mount Hope Bridge hadn’t yet been built. (Her father was an early car owner, which is why he got R.I. license plate 82; “I don’t know why he let 81 people get in front of him,” she says in Johnnycakes.) There were two summers when they went instead to Quebec, because her mother suffered from tuberculosis, but they all longed for Sakonnet, their second home. Two houses south of Harboredge there’s a lovely image of those years in the mural painted by George Marsh over the fireplace, showing three females and a man on the Harboredge pier, with another female diving off the end; in spite of the uncertainty of what Genie says about it in Johnnycakes, it almost certainly shows the four Getchell girls and (less certainly) George’s son, Reginald.
Genie’s affection for Sakonnet is witnessed in the intensity of her youthful memories, some harvested in Johnnycakes. She remembered the neighboring summer families, some from Woonsocket, whose children (mainly boys) she played with, including Farnells, Kelleys, Houghs, and Bullocks. When she was six, there were also the Comstocks, who had a grandson named Richie Hart, her future husband and my father. She remembered lots about the pre-’38 Point: Mack’s, the bowling alley and barbershop, the pre-Fo’c’s’le Clamhouse, and movies there before dances at the Golf Club. As to the latter, I made use of some of her early memories in Where Stone Walls Meet the Sea: Sakonnet Golf Club 1899-1999, which I researched and wrote after her death, as much in gratitude to her for bringing me up in Sakonnet as out of historical zeal.
Johnnycakes (thank you, Lucy O’Connor!) also recorded her enigmatic comments on the mysterious fire out on West Island, along with a good deal about the ’38 hurricane, especially the immediate aftermath, when she moved in to help care for her sister Joan and new baby Bruce in her in-laws’ big house on Taylor’s Lane North:
It was a strange combination of luxury and not having utilities. … we had to go out and draw water out of the well and we didn’t have any electricity or anything, but here we had these two maids waiting on us. We used to make a sandwich and go over to the beach and sit in the car and listen to the radio because it was in 1938 and things were going on in Europe then, so that’s where we heard all about “Peace in Our Time,” sitting in a car over at Warren’s Point.
Edith and Eugene died young in 1935 and 1936, respectively. Meanwhile, their four daughters had been marrying: Martha to Doc Harrall, Joan to E. Shaw Cole (whose family had that house on Taylor’s Lane North), Celie to Bud French, and Genie to that Richie Hart, grandson of the Richard Borden Comstock who was one of the main founders of the Golf Club.
Eventually there were 10 cousins. Although during the school year two of the families lived in Providence and two in Montclair, N.J., we all gathered in those two houses in the summer. Actually, as was the summer colony practice back then, the women and children moved in for the summer and the men came for weekends and vacations. We kids lived in the Cottage with a resident housemother-wrangler, Jenny, and sometimes Rita, while the four sisters and husbands lived in comfort in Harboredge. Pretty cushy for them! “We’d go over and take the kids to the beach [Warren’s Point],” Genie recalls in Johnnycakes, “and then we’d come home and drop all the little sandy darlings off at the Cottage,” on their way back to the peace of the bigger house.
Gradually this Edenic (for the adults) and rambunctious, semi-Edenic (for us cousins) communal life broke up: the Harralls moved to Bailey’s Ledge, and when Joan died all too young, Shaw Cole married Vivian Guerin and moved next door. That left Celie and Genie (who had by then divorced Richie Hart and married Jon Rawson, who became my Dad) in possession of the two houses. Then suddenly, in 1959, what was left of Eden was shattered as the two sisters decided to sell the houses to Jessie O’Connor. Doubtless their inherited money was dwindling. Celie’s motive for selling was so she and Bud could build their own house a few hundred yards further inland from those hurricanes of the ’50s. For Mother and Dad, who also sold our house in Providence, it was in order to buy this run-down place called the Stone House and move to Little Compton year-round.
And to become innkeepers. For the fuller story, read Dad’s small book, Inn for Keeps (privately printed, 1985; available in the Brownell Library). He gives Mother lots of the credit for making this improbable project work, as well he might, since for the first few years he had a day job as H.R. director at a small factory in Fall River. My sister, Joanne (later Joanne Wildes), was also pressed into service. After one summer of hammering and painting the Stone House into shape, I escaped innkeeping, being away at college and grad school.
The Stone House is just a half-mile up the road from Harboredge; both look out over bodies of water (Round Pond, the harbor) to the ocean; one view features swans, the other seagulls; both are also holdovers from past wealth. But the move was as abrupt a U-turn in Genie’s life as one could imagine. Suddenly she and Jon had to learn how to run an inn with a dozen bedrooms, not to mention negotiating evolving relationships with social friends who became customers. Assuming it would mainly serve the established Little Compton summer colony, they chose to run it as a club, which (however easy it was to gain admission) did give them some control over its growth. But within a few years they were serving not only breakfasts to inn guests but also dinners to members and presiding over an ever-more popular Tap Room in the basement. For Genie, there was a kind of circularity to this: the Tap Room was where she had had her first legal drink, right after Prohibition ended.
Then they decided not to tear down the big, handsome, ramshackle 19th-century barn, but to restore it, the better to host a growing array of community and private events, from weddings, meetings and dances to cocktail parties of every size – that being the summer colony’s favorite form of social expression. Together they invented the Saturday soup, salad and sandwich suppers, which became really popular – no reservation necessary. I was there often enough to see Mother racing to the kitchen to open some cans or chop something up to accommodate a sudden influx of customers. We used to call what she could accomplish under pressure, “the miracle of the sardines and the cheese whiz.”
They were a real partnership. Dad was the consummate handyman; mother had a sense of color and style. She could touch type; he couldn’t, but he was organized and kept files. He couldn’t spell, but she could. They could both balance checkbooks. And mainly, she could cook and generally enjoyed it, finding new recipes, especially for large groups.
The Stone House was hard work, with lots of 18-hour days. You couldn’t hire a manager and run it at arm’s length: to make a go financially, they had to be fully engaged, doing as much as they could themselves. What would they have done without the indefatigable Emma Anderson, who came with the building? (Her husband had bartended in the Tap Room before it was shut down by the ’38 hurricane; he probably served Mother that first legal drink.) They were also lucky to be encouraged by their friends of many years, let alone relatives, some of them former summer people who had themselves become year-rounders.
The winters were a time to re-charge. Although the third floor wasn’t fully heated, we made good use of it at Christmas, when many of the Getchells would gather, and some of the Harts as well. Mother loved that, and then grandchildren started to appear. She was a loving grandmother as well as a favorite aunt and loyal friend. She actually wrote letters. I thought she was everything wonderful, excepting only her golf.
Mother took pride in what she and Dad had done, creating an institution of benefit not just to the summer colony, which was their initial plan, but gradually to the whole town, as they added off-season meals and events. But their success increased their workload. So in 1973 they were happy to sell what had become a flourishing institution and settle into a retirement house they built (thanks, Eddie Souza) at Quicksand Pond. Although the first buyers of the Stone House found innkeeping didn’t suit them, they quickly sold it to Tod and Ginny Moore, who continued and substantially grew what Mother and Dad had started. It would disturb them no end to see what’s happened to it in recent years.
As a third generation summer person until her mid-40s and then a year-rounder for some 30 years more, Mother never doubted Little Compton was her home. It provided the continuity between her privileged youth and hard-working middle age. She and Dad had no intention of ever leaving. Only the lack of an assisted living facility sent them to Cape Cod for their final years. She died of cancer in 1994; Dad lived on, cared for by Joanne, until 2001.
There was a time when Carlton Brownell, the invaluable and distinguished Historian of the Little Compton Historical Society, didn’t consider the town’s summer colony as “history” – it was too recent, not having really developed until the end of the 19th century. The earliest summer people barely made it into Benjamin Franklin Wilbour’s magisterial Little Compton Families. But times change. The descendants of the four Getchell girls now number well over 100; some live in town year-round, some seasonally, and many others keep connected. For most of us, being fourth, fifth, sixth or even seventh generation summer people is enough for us to claim Sakonnet as our own. And now, the LCHS has a plaque in its archival area honoring the Jon & Genie Rawson Summer Colony Archive.