Elsye Julia Johnson

Elsye Julia Johnson

1926 – 1999

Elsye Johnson at the Cove Market. Courtesy of Karen Leeming.

Essay by Karen Johnson Leeming

Essay by Clem Brown

Essay by Jim Ryan

Essay by Walter and Norma Elwell

Essay by Karen Johnson Leeming

When I think of a dedicated, hard working woman of our community, I think of my Mom, Elsye Johnson, and her many dedicated years as Proprietor of “The Cove Market” at Sakonnet Point, approximately from the years 1956 – 1977. Earl Hienz was the original owner of The Cove Market, prior to Hurricane Carol in 1954, when the building was located on the other side of the Harbor. It was rebuilt where it stands today. In all her years of running The Cove Market, Elsye rented the building from Dick Rogers.

Elsye took great pride in The Cove Market and the services she provided to our Little Compton year round residents, and our Summer Families. 
Also, were the boats that entered the safe haven of The Harbor. She let them borrow her car to visit our lovely quaint town & find our beaches, with not so much as a blink of an eye. It came natural to Elsye’s kind nature. Yes, the times were certainly different then. She also volunteered my services of taking the boaters laundry home, to our home, which I did… as the Harbor had no laundry facilities. Elsye’s kind, helpful & giving nature became part of me as one of her many life’s lessons. To this day I carry her lessons…. Be Kind, Be Kind, Be Kind…. was always the strongest….

Elsye ran The Cove Market, with the help of my Dad Frank & the dedicated employee’s I remember as… Bobby Briggs, Donald Gomez, Clem Brown, Jimmy Ryan, Malcolm Collins & Jimmy Medeiros as I grew up in my play ground of The Point. My parents worked hard to provide for our family… what a daily adventure I was enjoying, as my young life was Fun growing up. Swimming in the Harbor, the ever present fishing boats, a Breakwater walk, with a bag of fritters from the Fo’c’s’le (that of course I shared with the seagulls). All was foot loose and fancy free for me, AND SAFE.! Because the world was different then! I was a harbor rat & loved every bit of it.With an occasional glance out of any window, or a report from Bobby Peckham, the owner of the NASALUGA, Elsye always knew where I was & what I was up to! Many thanks to the People of the Point & her trusted, dedicated employees, that were really more like family! But importantly, I also grew up seeing, experiencing & learning friendship, trust, work ethics & morals that have lasted my whole lifetime. Thanks Mom…

I watched her carve a swordfish effortlessly ( with the usual cigarette in hand mind you) with her variety of knives & machetes. The scrap cuts, which were absolutely delicious, went into a big pot making “chowda” for all her employees, fisherman or anyone that just stopped by to say Hi, or needed a break in the back room for some relaxing time out, or a stimulating conversation with Elsye. Maybe even a quick card game of Gin Rummy, while her poodles Taffy or Princess kept guard as to when a customer came in. Their friendly bark was louder than the bell on the door chain! Other items on Elsye’s Backroom menu included, Portuguese Kale Soup, Quahog Chowda, Lasagna & always a bowl of picked Lobster meat. No one could pick a lobster faster or more precise than Elsye! The best part of it was, this was all free of charge & offered from her heart! Therefore, it was no wonder when she needed help to bring in a tote of lobsters or help carry a big chunk of Swordfish in, help most always presented itself. It was that kind gesture again & again that came so natural to so many! What a wonderful way of life!

Many people remember her homemade fruit cocktail, bathed in orange juice, that she could also whip up in a heartbeat in the midst of a busy day, with fresh fruit that was not so fresh after a few days of summers heat. I learned quickly, nothing  went to waste at Elsye’s. Oh, so many life’s lessons we all learned…

The backroom was always open as a comfortable safe haven for many, including delivery venders bringing their fresh fruit & veggies, soda, milk, ice cream, bread… the list goes on & on, as Elsye had everything you could imagine. And if not, she would get it for you! She was dedicated to her customers giving them fresh fish off the docks, lobsters & shellfish from the locals, all the staples they needed & requested.

I recall many times, after a long hot busy day, as we were closing up, the phone would ring with an urgent plea for her to please stay open a bit longer! As one of her loyal customers had unexpected company & they needed another pound or 2 of Swordfish, 4 more chicken lobsters, butter & a lemon! Stating, “We’ll be right there.” And Yes, Elsye stayed for them, of course… that was her devotion & dedication to her people, they were more than just customers…. Throughout the years, many of them became family.

She loved watching generations growing up at The Cove Market, from the penny candy to the essentials, summer after summer went by, as well as the threat of a Hurricane. When there was a hurricane warning, Elsye, her family, her dedicated employees & her friends would help pack up everything possible in totes, wooden soda boxes, anything available, to our home on Long Highway out of harms way. Once it passed… all went back to The Store!

As I briefly touched on “The Penny Candy”, along with The Back Room, I mention this with a light heart & humor, that I bring to mind, the little people that had slipped a few pieces into their pockets. (surprise.. I was one of those as well ). I have had wonderful conversations throughout my life with a chosen few, about their visit with Elsye to that back room. Again, we were taught yet one more of Elsye’s life lessons…. & never did it again! It cannot be forgotten or brushed away… that was an important one!

Winters were quiet & rejuvenating, when Spring came, it was all hands on deck as Elsye came out of her winter’s rest to clean, fix the shelves, move that cooler & stock those shelves! Here we go again… another Summer to remember…she cherished what she did, year after year, for Her Community, for Her People & for Her Summer Families… that She So Loved!

May You Rest in Peace Mom… Thank You for the Memories, Thank You for Life’s Lessons…
Thank You For Me, Your Loving Daughter, Karen…. I Miss You….

Karen Leeming

April 9, 2020

Essay by Clem Brown

I worked eight summers at Elsye’s–also known as the Cove Market–down at Sakonnet Point next to the Fo’c’s’le and the breakwater. It was at the end of the road taken by the Sunday drivers from Fall River. It was the quick stop for the summer folks who lived at the Point or around the golf course or on Warren’s Point and a source of cigarettes, soda, and candy for the fishermen working out of the harbor. I got the job in high school and at first Elsye taught me to stock shelves and run the register. Over time, I got pretty fast at ringing people up and bagging groceries when there was a line at the register. I learned to carry 50-pound milk crates, two at a time, up from the basement cooler while stooped in half under the low ceiling and to deal with the odorous crisis when the lobster tank pump failed, which happened more than once. Later, Elsye taught me how to buy lobsters, clean fish, and haul huge swordfish carcasses up from the fishing dock (in those days, we rarely took anything under 300 pounds–now a 150-pound fish is considered large). We’d bring the swordfish up from the ice house by rolling them onto a tarp draped over the tailgate of Elsye’s big old brown station wagon and then slicing them up with a big machete.

For eight summers, I worked the counter, gutted and cleaned fish, scooped lobster out of the tank, shucked littlenecks and quahogs, washed down steamers, sliced store cheese, shot the breeze with the fishermen and lobstermen, smoked Camels, and for lunch, ate packages of cream cheese with Slim Jims out on the breakwater. For a treat, Elsye would make us “soupish caldene”, kale soup, or fruit cup, which we’d eat with a stuffed quahog and a Reese’s cup out on the Cove’s back porch looking over the harbor. At the end of the day, I’d walk the long walk across the parking lot to dump fish bones and lobster shells into the sea, accompanied by a flock of seagulls flying low over my shoulder. Cats loved my smell. My hands were always scarred with wounds from the spines of bass and bluefish. (When I got fish poisoning, Elsye would apply a black salve she had that always cleared up the problem in a day or two.)

A lot of characters came through there: net fishermen; lobstermen; sword-fishermen; bartenders, cooks, and waitresses from the Fo’c’s’le; Sunday drivers down from Fall River asking for “Lagosta”; and, the summer folk, who included several elderly heiresses, a Congressman, Rockefeller’s campaign manager, the Secretaries of Navy and Defense, and a famous socialist journalist who was friends with Pete Seeger. We even got a couple of visits from the famous wrestler Haystack Calhoun, who drove a Volkswagen Beetle convertible from the back seat, with the front seats taken out, and who was a really congenial guy.

Working at The Cove for Elsye was like being part of a large family, consisting first of her mother “Nana”, husband Frank, and daughter Karen, but also of the many close friends Elsye had from several worlds–the working folks who fished or worked at the Fo’c’s’le, the salesmen an delivery guys, and many of the summer residents–they too were part of Elsye’s extended family. At the time, my own family lived at the Commons and my brother even worked at Wilbur’s Store (the competition up on the Commons), but I always felt that I was at home on the Point and part ofthat family, too. Elsye always labored tirelessly around the clock to keep things going–you really got the sense that the store was her life’s work–and she always treated me like a son she’d never had. She had other adopted “sons”, too, and one of them, Jim Ryan, became my real brother (inlaw). When he got back from serving in the Army, Jimmy worked part-time with me at the Cove and during that time he met Terry, his wife-to-be. When they married that January, I was invited to the wedding and his sister Helen and I brought the wedding presents back from the reception to the family home. Three years, later, we got married, brought together thanks to Elsye’s special magic.

Clem Brown

April 2020

Essay by Jim Ryan

In 1962 I worked at the Fo’c’s’le Restaurant as a dishwasher and everything else.  Dick Rogers was my Catechism teacher at St Catherine’s Church and I asked him for a summer job.

In 1963 Elsye offered me a little more money to work at the Cove Market and so I jumped ship.  I worked for Elsye every summer until I went in the Army in January 1967.  I worked with both Don Gomez and Clem Brown at the market.

Some of my highlights from working for Elsye:

               *   Elsye was a terrific boss and a good friend.  She was always working for Great Customer Satisfaction.  She treasured every customer.  If a customer came into the store and asked for a certain item and we did not have it in-stock she would somehow get the item almost always by the next day.  Her way to treat customers and everyone rubbed off on me. Thanks Elsye.

               *   Everyday Elsye would inspect her fruits and vegetables and she would remove any items that were too ripe.  She would cut up the fruit and put it in a big bowl with orange juice.  After work we would all go out on the back porch and enjoy a huge bowl of fruit.  What a great way to end a workday. Overlooking the harbor and talking to the fishermen and tourist and locals.

               *   On weekdays from noon until about 3:00 pm it was a slow time at the market.  Our customers at the beach or golf course.  If we did not have shelves to restock Elsye would give me the time off to take her daughter Karen to South Shore Beach.  I would use the company truck.  It was a great way to enjoy LC summers.  Most days I hitch hiked to and from the point.  How times have changed.

               *   Elsye was glad to teach me everything about the business. I learned how to fillet strippers and blue fish, open little necks, bone swordfish and many other skills.  It was not a boring place to work.

               *   No one worked harder than Elsye.  She set the pace and we all worked hard because she was in the trenches with us.  Great boss.

               *   When I was in the Army from 1967 – 1969 Elsye never forgot me. I received many letters from her with news story clippings about LC people we knew. Very thoughtful of her.

               *   When a visiting boat anchored in the harbor often times the crew wanted to wash clothes or a drug store or postoffice or visit someplace in the area.  There are no taxis in LC and man times Elsye would let them use her car.  She was very generous and had a good heart.

               *   Much of what I learned by working at the Cove Market helped me in my professional life in manufacturing.  She was a great teacher.

Jim Ryan

April 2020

Essay by Walter and Norma Elwell

Elsye Soares Johnson was raised in Little Compton, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Alphonse Soares. She attended local schools and was very interested in all activities as Seaconnet Point. In the early forties when “Fort Church” was active and soldiers were everywhere, Elsye found the man of her life, Frank Johnson. Elsye is remembered by all as the owner of the “Cove Market” with her great personality. She was active at St. Catherine’s Church , L.C. American Legion Auxiliary, and with her children.

Walter and Norma Elwell

March 2020

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