Alice Greene Comstock
1858 – 1938
This is a partial biography by diary, hence a kind of autobiography, of the summer of 1897. Alice Greene Comstock figures in the history of Little Compton as one of the pioneers of the summer colony that is now the town’s chief industry, although normally she can be seen only in the shadow of her indefatigable husband, Richard Borden Comstock (1854-1933), one of the primary founders of the Sakonnet Golf Club. I’ve read several accounts of his life and I don’t think she is even mentioned.
The only picture I have of her is a telling one. She is the large, complacent figure in a striped dress and imposing hat in the middle of a photo by Roswell Burchard of 76 members or friends of the Golf Club, almost certainly at the end of its first year, 1899, when it made use of the Harry Richmond farm, extending from the north end of Warren’s Point Road down toward Briggs Marsh. (The club didn’t move to the James H. Bailey farm where it remains today, considerably enlarged, until 1901.) To her right (our left) is her daughter, Marjorie, then 15, of particular interest to me because she grew up to marry Henry Clay Hart and become my grandmother.
According to the Encyclopedia Brunoniana, Alice’s father, Samuel Stillman Greene, one of 11 children of a farmer, rose to be a professor at Brown of didactics, mathematics, natural history, astronomy, logic, and civil engineering! He was apparently loved by students because, as one testified, “It mattered little to him what the subject was – algebra, mechanics or grammar, if only he could seem to set a mind aworking. … it became his peculiar pleasure to educe the lesson of the day out of the pure mind substance of a pupil innocent of all special knowledge thereof.” All this aside, what made him famous was a series of books he wrote or edited on grammar, which continued as standard college texts well into the 20th century.
I don’t know anything about Alice’s mother, as is too often the case back then. Her husband, Richard (she called him Dick) was a successful Providence lawyer and president of the R.I. Bar Association and Legal Aid Society. (He had once been a cabin boy on a ship his father captained, blockading Confederate ports in the Civil War.) He was the kind of man who busies himself in the affairs of his community, whether it be Providence or Little Compton.
The family – Richard, Alice, and their three girls, Marjorie, Louise and young Alice – appear on the Little Compton scene in the 1890s, when they regularly packed up the house in Providence and moved to rented rooms, presumably on a farm, or a rented house, but always near the sea. What makes this snapshot biography possible is that Alice kept a day-by-day diary, which is preserved in the collection of the R.I. Historical Society in Providence. (Thanks to them for providing a photocopy even under the limitations of the pandemic.)
I came upon the diary in the course of research for the history of the Sakonnet Golf Club. I didn’t find anything of note about that, but I did find this record kept by a faintly hypochondriacal summer colonist at the dawn of the summer colony at Warren’s Point. In spite of its general placidity, it is interestingly representative of well-to-do summer people at the time. Reading it, you remember the kind model her father had set, and it’s worth noting that her children and grandchildren all turned out to be amateur or professional poets or actors.
She regularly comments on the weather, everyone’s health, the comings and goings of her husband and friends (by boat, train, and possibly car), tennis and croquet, “marshmallow toasts,” and books she’s reading. There are almost daily trips to either Mr. Kempton’s beach (present day Warren’s Point) or Bundy’s beach (?), or both. Dick normally came down from Providence on Friday night and went back Sunday night or Monday morning, just like generations of summer colonists to come. They read aloud a lot to the children: Marjorie, then 13; Louise, 8; and young Alice, 7.
I don’t know who the omnipresent Annie Ghio was – perhaps a companion, housekeeper, or nanny brought along from Providence. I can’t even tell from the part of the diary I’ve read just where they rented or with whom they boarded, but the names of other summer colonists (Harry Richmond, Drowne, Meneely, Alden, Withington, Gardner) are mainly from Warren’s Point.
Here are selected excerpts from the summer of 1897, with occasional comments in italics. I have reproduced her prose, spelling and punctuation. No day’s entry is quoted in full, so the selection is both among entries and within them.
Mon, June 28: Dick (her husband, a lawyer) went back to Providence early this morning – and our regular Seaconnet life has begun. Genie Meneely called.
Tues, 29: The children keep bringing up crabs from the beach, much to my disgust.
Wed, 30: Harry Richmond has been to see us. Everyone is talking of Edith Church’s wedding which must have been a very brilliant affair. (Church, a Cincinnati heiress, married Roswell Burchard, and from Oldacre at the top of Meetinghouse Lane they presided over Little Compton society for years.)
Fri, 2: Katie (a maid?) was to have gone to Mrs. Drowne’s yesterday, but owning to my being miserable with this neuralgia they have let me keep her until Saturday. She and the children went to Kempton’s Beach this morning.
Sat, 3: A rather foggy day. Marjorie, Louise and Alice went with Mrs. Park’s maid Maggie and the twins to Bundy’s Beach and had a lovely time.
Mon, 5: This is the day that the 4th is celebrated (because it had fallen on a Sunday). Quite early 3 of the Withington children came over and Dick & Mr. Gardner organized a company – and we all marched around the flag pole. There were 14 of us. (Dick hurt his hand in the festivities and she worries about it for many days.)
Wed, 7: I wished I might get a letter from Dick today but no such good luck. (He was just in Providence, but the mail service was fast. There was no electricity yet and presumably no telephones.)
Fri, 9: I went down to Bundy’s Beach today and all 3 children went in bathing. The water looked lovely. I should like to have gone in myself.
Tues, 13: Marjorie can now say she has been out in a heavy sea. The Queen City was tumbled about a good deal yesterday on her trip down. There is a big so-east wind blowing today. This A.M. we walked around the beaches and Anita Ghio and I took views with our cameras. This P.M. it began to pour and tonight there is a wild storm.
Wed, 14: Rain, Rain, Rain! The surf has been magnificent since Monday and we can see it from the house boiling and seething over the rocks and beach. This morning I spent in pasting my last views printed by Milliken into my scrap book. They were especially good.
Thurs, 15: This morning it was a beautiful bright day. … The surf (on Kempton’s Beach) was still high and the shore covered with seaweed but a few intrepid bathers ventured in.
Fri, 16: Genie Meneely and I planned go together to get Dick to-morrow at the boat (she coming here to tea.) Many of last year’s people are here – the Hoxies – Browns – Burleighs – Miss Parmelee and others. Just after tea, to my joy Dick drove into the yard.
Sat, 17: I forgot to say that yesterday P.M. we went to the Lloyd’s beautiful new house to a party, especially for children (a talk on bees). Well this morning Dick, Anita Ghio, Marjorie and I drove over to call on the Lloyds.
Sun, 18: Gene Meneely & Anita Ghio both went to Mr. W.F. Wilbour’s party for “young people.” Ethel Drowne called for them here. … We all drove down to the beach this morning … Everyone was there. Dick left this afternoon. I drove him over to the boat with Alice May as company.
Tues, 20: Eleanor Curran who is staying at Mrs. Alden’s came up to play croquet with Marjorie & Louise this P.M. Played whist tonight.
Wed, 21: Marjorie & Louise went to the croquet tournament at Robert Withingtons.
Fri, 23: Foggy! … We have had two bad, howling storms and the water has washed up a lot of stones, and changed the whole character of the beach. Gladding came to the Drown’s this A.M. He and Gene came over on their wheels. (Bicycles.)
Sat, 24: This afternoon Dick, Anita Ghio, Marjorie and I marked out the tennis court.
Sun, 25: Dick drove over to the breakwater to meet Miss Murphy (his stenographer) and a friend who had just come for the sail. They all took dinner at the hotel.
Mon, 26: Mr. Metcalf of Providence intends taking Minnie and Genie Meneely to Narragansett Pier on Tuesday in his yacht
Wed, 28: Dick wrote he had a nice sail Monday P.M. with Minnie and Genie in Mr. Metcalf’s yacht. He sent some of our pictures that had been printed.
Thurs, 29: Played tennis this morning. … We pasted the new pictures into our books, Anita Ghio and I. … Mrs. Spencer & Blanche came to their cottage to-day.
Fri, 30: This P.M. Mr. Richmond invited us on the Marsh to eat our supper on “Kettle Crag.”
Sat, 31:Dick has promised to give a cup for a tennis prize if they will set up a tournament. We went on to Flat Rock this P.M. (Perhaps Granny Carr at Warren’s?)
Sun, Aug. 1: Six newcomers are here from Worcester – at least four from W. and two from Providence. Mr. Hutchins & a brother, Mrs. Hutchins & a sister, Mr. Spring & Miss Hobart, all young.
Wed, 4: Drove over to meet John (presumably her brother) with the three children.
Sat, 7: Mr. & Mrs. Parks, Miss Ghio, and myself went to drive and to see Miss Parmalee’s watercolor exhibit at Mr. Slicer’s.
Sun, 8: Dick and I went around to Kempton’s Beech by way of the Bundy shore. He wanted to examine a row boat which has come ashore from some vessel, probably, so that he can advertise her for Mrs. Bundy. (Does this help place the Bundy Beach?)
Tues, 10: This evening John took us (unclear) by moonlight. We went to the church fair at the Commons.
Fri, 13: To-night we went to the Breakwater with others to try our moonlight sail … The skipper would not take us. It was too rough.
Mon, 16: Chester Meneely & Mr. Barnum have come to the Aldens. Some of the “Point” friends called last night & some this A.M. after the storm.
Tues, 17: The tennis tournament began to-day at Mr. Joshua Richmond’s. … John may be one of the winners this morning.
Thurs, 19: John won twice to-day in tennis. … Tomorrow morning the “Finals” are played. John and Tim Hoxie.
Fri, 20: I was glad I did not go for Tim Hoxie defeated him. The cup that Dick gave came to-night and John took it up to the (unclear) … and gave it to Tim. It is a beauty.
Tues, 24: The children’s tournament in tennis was to have begun this A.M. but on account of the rain is postponed. It is to be held at “Land’s End,” Mrs. Bowen’s place.
Wed, 25: Marjorie played Sidney Withington in the first tournament match this A.M. & beat him after a struggle 2 sets out of 3.
Thurs, 26: Today I spent at Newport …. We drove a while on Bellevue Avenue and then witnessed the great tennis match between Dr. Evans the Englishman & R.D. Wrenn, our champion. It was very exciting but Wrenn was victorious in 3 sets out of 5.
Fri, 27: This morning Marjorie met Stephen Miller in the children’s tennis tournament at Mrs. Bowen’s place. Stephen was victorious. This P.M. he met John Alden in the “finals” and won again – His name goes first on the cup.
Sat, 28: When we came back we found Dick here. He came by train.
Sun, 29: I wish Dick could take a week off right now. He is going up this P.M.
Mon, 30: I fancy our good weather is going to be in September. I am going home Thursday to open the house & coming back with Dick Saturday. We all go up the 9th of Sept.
Tues, 31: This P.M. Marjorie, Louise & I went sailing with Sidney & Robert Withington on Long Pond.
Wed, Sept. 1: I took Marjorie and Louise out on the pond in the Bundy’s boat. We rowed, Marjorie & I, quite a way & picked some late pond lilies.
Thurs, 2, Providence: This morning I left in the early boat for Providence to open our house, preparatory to our going home next week. Found everything all right at home – but dusty and cobwebby.
The Comstocks continued to spend summers in Little Compton at least until Dick died in 1923, apparently always renting. Long before then Marjorie was married to Henry Clay Hart, also a Providence lawyer, and they purchased a farm on the left where the road turns down to South Shore and called it Mallow Marvel Farm. Their three children were Henry Jr. (known as Mud), Alice Blackburn, and Richie Hart. Marjorie’s younger sister, Alice, built a house on land at the end of Indian Rock Acres, looking out toward South Shore; it’s still in the family. And the family is still in Little Compton.