Ida Pearce Wilbur Smith
1893 – 1985
Essay by Caroline Wilkie Wordell
Ida Pearce Wilbur was born in Little Compton, R.I. on January 28, 1893 to Charles Richmond Wilbur and Nancy Ann Pearce Wilbur. Charles was the son of Ichabod Pearce Wilbur and Deborah Ann Brownell, and Nancy was the daughter of Joseph and Phoebe Pearce Pearce, all of Little Compton.
Ichabod ran a chicken farm on the west side of Maple Avenue, and Charles continued running that until he bought a grocery store on the Commons with his sister Cornelia and her husband William Wood. They bought the store, house and other buildings from Maria Richmond on July 4, 1894 for $4000. Ida liked to think of this purchase as a birthday gift to her! Charles subsequently moved his family to the house adjacent to the store.
The following is a memory written by Ida as found in her personal effects and printed exactly as hand-written by her. This was previously published in “From Around the Potbelly Stove,” Volume 2, No. 1, published by the Estate of C.R. Wilbur, November 1988.
The Estate of C.R. Wilbur, more commonly known as Wilbur’s Store, was purchased by my father, Charles R. Wilbur, and my uncle William S. Wood from Mrs. Maria Richmond in 1894, and was then known as Wilbur and Wood.
However, in 1897 (November 30th), my uncle decided to move to Fall River and open a fish market, so my father bought him out and the name changed to C.R. Wilbur’s Store.
For many years he used to go to Providence to do his buying, leaving home early Tuesday morning at 5:00 o’clock. He would drive to Tiverton where he put his horse in Grinnell’s Stable, which was just in back of the Stone Bridge Inn, and was driven to the train by Mr. Grinnell. The train came in from Newport, and he changed in Fall River for the consolidated line to Providence, arriving in the city about 8:00 o’clock,
He would walk from place to place doing his buying and banking, and return in the same way, arriving here about 8:00 o’clock at night.
The groceries and merchandise were shipped down the next day by boat, namely “The Queen City” or “The Islander” to Sakonnet, where he sent a man and a pair of heavy horses and an express wagon to pick up the goods and bring them home.
In those days we had six to eight horses and covered wagons for deliveries. The town was divided into routes and was covered every day by horse and wagon, going in the morning to take the order and then delivering in the afternoon.
My father passed away in October 1914 and after that the business was run by my brother, mother and myself going under the name of The Estate of C.R. Wilbur. (Editor’s note: Probate ordered that the store remain open during the administrative process because of its importance to the community, to preserve the good will, and keep it from losing value.)
In 1923 our barn was entirely destroyed by fire of unknown origin, starting in the haymow, and we lost all our horses, two pigs, and two cows, pleasure car and other equipment. Through the efforts of Mr. Frank Hathaway we were able to save the store and house as he put a charge of dynamite in our old ice house which stopped the fire from spreading.
Practically everything was taken out of the house and carried across the street to the church and one cannot imagine the mess which occurred when things were brought back. Things which belonged upstairs were down, and vice versa. It was several weeks before we were able to find anything, but we were fortunate to have our house, and didn’t complain.
(Editor’s note: Another fire struck in July of 1940, in a front section of the store displaying fireworks. Arthur Wilbur recalled “I was sitting at my desk about 6 p.m. when suddenly zip, pow, zing, bang. Everything went flying through the air, pinwheels, skyrockets, firecrackers. The place was quickly enveloped in flames and the smoke was terrific. After the blaze was knocked down and we could survey the damage, the front section was ruined and the whole store was about jet black. What a job!”)
(Again in the late 1970’s another fire burned out the front of the store. Within hours, Ida was open for business on the front porch of her home with provisions salvaged from the flames. A small annex to the north of the original store escaped damage and was converted for use pending repairs to the main building.)
That was the end of the horses and a new garage was built on the old barn foundation.
It has been said that you can get anything at Wilbur’s from a pin to a bag of cement, and even to this day people are constantly saying I couldn’t get this or that in the city, but I knew you would have it, and the newcomers are very much surprised at the variety of goods we carry.
Time or space would not permit me to enumerate the various articles, but just ask and we may have it. Of course, in the old days, everything came in bulk; sugar in the 100 pound barrel, butter by the tub, tea and coffee in canisters and we ground our coffee by the old hand methods. Pickles by the barrel, which you would dive into and come out with your arm wreaking of vinegar up to the elbow. Crackers and cookies in boxes which had to be weighed out, candy in glass jars and many other items which I could enumerate.
Ida was educated in Little Compton schools, attending the elementary school on the Commons which later became the American Legion Hall (and now is attached to the Town Hall and serves at the office of the Town Treasurer and Tax Collector), and she then graduated from Herrick’s Institute, a business school in Fall River. She fulfilled various duties in the store, and was also the town librarian for quite some time. She was a talented musician, playing both the piano and the organ, and was a vocal soloist. Ida was a member of the United Methodist church in Little Compton and was their organist. When the church succumbed to the ravages of fire in 1940 and was razed, she joined the United Congregational Church (according to her copious notes, on Sunday evening, June 30, 1940), and became the pianist for the Sunday School and the church organist. Many was the time she was rallied from her office at Wilbur’s to become the organist at an impromptu wedding across the street. Ida also gave piano lessons to many local children. Her 1927 diary references giving lessons to Ralph, Leo, Blanche, Emma, and several others.
Ida was active in many organizations in the community. She belonged to the Ladies’ Aid at both the Methodist and Congregational churches, was a member of the Auxiliary of the American Legion Post #37 where she spent countless hours planning fundraisers such as suppers, whist parties, and bake sales in order to raise funds for those at the Veterans’ homes. Ida was active in the Grange as well as the Village Improvement Society at the Brownell House. Again, she spent many house planning events there, including the infamous Lobster Salad Supper. Every high school girl at Wilbur was expected to waitress at this event (and I was no exception!). The annual Chicken Barbecue sponsored by the Village Improvement Society was THE event of the year. In addition to the chicken barbecue with Abe Quick’s secret barbecue sauce, there were so many events including a horse show, doll carriage and bicycle parades, food sales, baseball games, etc. This was the major fundraiser for the Village Improvement Society and Ida was a major contributor. Even when she got older and was not able to continue with the heavy work, she would be in her office selling tickets, soliciting customers and questioning them on what they were going to contribute to the event.
Ida was honored by many organizations for her continuous charitable pursuits. In May of 1969 the Village Improvement Society honored her for exemplifying the women who have served their community with dedication. She had been a member for 35 years, serving as treasurer, expending the same efforts and time as her mother had done many years before when she was president. Again in 1983 she was honored by the Village Improvement Society who named the day in her honor during the annual chicken barbecue.
In 1969 at the Memorial Day exercises Ida was named Citizen of the Year by the American Legion Post #37.
The Men’s Club of the United Congregational Church met many times in January every year at the Wilburs’ house to plan their annual supper. Ida was involved in the planning, the entertainment, and wrote in her diary on January 24th that she “made cranberry sauce for Men’s Supper.” She also wrote that she “felt mean so retired early.”
Ida was a member of the Social Rebekah Lodge, the female counterpart of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Many times she was responsible for the entertainment or planning a supper, or refreshments for this organization. She wrote that she had to attend the Rebekahs at the Adamsville Odd Fellows Hall to play the piano for the conferring of degrees (there were two Odd Fellows organizations in Little Compton).
According to Ida’s 1927-28 diary, there seemed to be so much going on in Little Compton, and Ida was always in the middle of it. In her diary she always listed the weather, where she was working (Wilbur’s, the library, etc.), trips to Providence, New Bedford, Fall River to attend plays, other organizations’ events, etc., what they were eating for dinner (“went to the Harbor Road and bought lobsters for dinner after church”), calling on people, and people calling on them, going to play cards (mostly bridge) at various friends’ homes or hosting bridge parties in her home (“Mae and Brooks came down after supper to play bridge. We won by a large majority as usual. Served strawberry shortcake.”). Her diary mentions illnesses and funerals, and important town events (April 3 – Town Meeting, “Vote for new school was carried. Taxes were raised”; March 27 – “A lot of booze came ashore by William Sisson’s. Exciting times”). Her diaries (just about every day) mentioned Walter Wordell, (son of Gershom and Emma (Potter) Wordell, whom Ida dated for many years.
January 11, 1928 –went for a ride with Walter. Returned about 11 p.m.,
February 2 –Walter took mother and I to Providence to do some shopping and get my teeth filled and cleaned
February 10 –Warren took me over to see Walter, Found him very sick with pneumonia. Stayed until 11 o’clock. Came home and retired. Walter’s temperature was 104
February 20 – Got stuck in a snow bank down by Steve Wilbur’s. Kenneth shoveled me out. Got Walter and he drove to the Commons, with me going home alone with his car.
February 26 – After dinner, mother, Walter, and I went to Swansea and called on Mr. & Mrs. Wordell. (Editor’s note: The Wordells were Walter’s parents)
June 12 – Went up to Howard Peckham’s with Walter to fix baby carriage. Saw the new baby. (Editor’s note: That “new baby” would be Virginia Stevens Peckham.)
Unfortunately, on July 2, 1931 Walter C. Wordell died from wounds received in the war. He had served with the 310th Infantry.
Ida continued to be active in the community. At the age of 82 she became a member of the Steering Committee for Little Compton’s Tricentennial/Bicentennial. She made sure that Wilbur’s history was represented in the Tricentennial parade with a fabulous float on which she rode, along with her friends and employees.
Ida’s history at Wilbur’s was a long one. She was born into the business, worked there during her adolescence, took over the running of the operation with her step-brother Arthur, and her mother Nancy after her father died in 1914. When Nancy died in 1936, Ida and Arthur took over all the responsibilities. Ida married Fred Hill Smith from Maine in 1936, so he then helped with the store. When Arthur died in 1959, Ida and Fred took care of everything, and then when Fred died in 1965 Ida was left with the sole responsibility of “minding the store,” a job she did well with the help of her loyal employees until she died on September 6, 1985 at the age of 92. She is buried in the Pleasant View Cemetery in Tiverton, R.I.
Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition
Ida Wilbur liked to say the store her family purchased in 1894 was a birthday gift to her. Ida grew up in the house adjacent to the family business. When her father died in 1914, Ida inherited the “Estate of C.R. Wilbur” along with her mother and brother. Nothing – including multiple fires or even firework explosions – could stop the Wilburs from serving the community. Ida wrote, “It has been said that you can get anything at Wilbur’s from a pin to a bag of cement… people are constantly saying I couldn’t get this or that in the city, but I knew you would have it.” In 1959 Ida became the sole proprietor.
In addition to running the store, Ida was also a town librarian, church organist, piano teacher, and a member of an amazing number of community organizations: the Ladies’ Aid Society at both the Methodist and Congregational churches, the American Legion Auxiliary, the Grange, the Village Improvement Society, the Social Rebekah Lodge, and at age 82, the Tricentennial/Bicentennial Steering Committee. Ida’s diary shows that no matter what was going on in town, she was usually in the middle of it.