Several years ago our archivist, Patricia Millar, wrote the following article, titled From the Loft, for one of our newsletters:
What better time to launch an exhibit of wedding gowns and bridal paraphernalia than the
month of June? I have heard and read that October is now the month featuring the most
weddings and that June has taken a second or third seat from the top, however June still
seems to be the magical month, possibly because birds are mating, flowers are blooming
and there is a refreshing,” new beginning” song, and fragrance of Spring in the air.
The Richmond Historical Society’s textile collection began with a wedding gown; not
just a gown, but a dress with a history: the wedding gown of the mother of a person of
note in Richmond.
Our wedding gowns give us a view of traditions, life styles, wedding attitudes, and
creativity of South County brides. They give an opportunity to those of us who like to
go back in to perhaps be reincarnated as we help a daughter to squeeze into our own
dreams of yesteryear.
Speaking of yesteryear, apparently people are never too young to learn bridal etiquette as
evidenced by this 1938 photo of a mock wedding sponsored by the Wood River Baptist
Church Ladies’ Aide Society at the Mission Rooms in Wyoming. Participating, left to
right are Raymond Gardiner, Patty Smith (author of this article), Margaret Wheeler,
Lowell Hawkins, ?, ?, and Orrin Parker as minister. These gowns were no doubt hand
made for the occasion as were most of the” for real’ gowns in our collection.
The first gown in our collection is brown silk with velvet trim. It is two-pieced with a
stand-up collar on a high neck. Eighteen small velvet buttons secure the front closure.
Leg o’ mutton sleeves have 3-inch wide fold back cuffs. The skirt is gathered onto a
cotton sateen waistband. The front and sides have a 3-inch pleated velvet ruffle at the
hem. The skirt back is pleated and gathered into a fullness to accommodate a bustle.
There is a concealed pocket in the bustle area. The entire gown is completed lined.
Sarah B. Kenyon, the lady in brown silk velvet married John L. James . The James
couple lived in Providence when they had a son, Daniel R. James born January 6, 1886.
They moved to Wyoming in the Town of Richmond in 1930. Dan almost immediately
took an interest in town politics and its history. He served on the Richmond Town
Council in the 1930s and State senator for six years in the 1930s and 1940s. For many
years he was on the Richmond Republican Town Committee, and in 1952 was elected to
the board of tax assessors and served until 1948. He was superintendent of the Wood
River Cemetery for almost 40 years during which time he spent many hours walking the
woods of Richmond, looking for hidden headstones and neglected cemeteries. He was a
founding member of the Richmond Historical Society and served as its honorary
president until his death in 1969. Two houses on the river’s edge opposite Wyoming Fruit and Vegetable Stand belonged to Dan James. One house being renovated, has been
idle since the day his wife, Marie Viola Lord died in August 1947.
The most recent wedding gown to come to our collection, also comes from the village of
Wyoming and it represents a family once prominent in town, now known only for the
way to the farm that no longer exists: Stilson Road.
Sweet simplicity comes to mind as I view the wedding gown of Fannie Elizabeth
Johnson who wed William Earl Stilson from Wethersfield, CT on March 25,1908, in
Newington CT . The gown, of creamy ivory colored silk chiffon, featured a low, boatnecked bodice gathered onto a flower embroidered lace yoke with a ruffled stand-up lace collar. Sleeves bloused to the elbow where they were gathered onto a six-inch flared lace cuff. The bodice was tucked to enhance a Gibson girl look. The lady in this tale was a
vision of Spring, much in contrast to the brown gown described above. The skirt is a
cloud of chiffon, evenly tucked into eight sets of three pleats each, stitched to a 25-inch,
5/8-inch wide waist band. The skirt is 31 inches long. At the bottom of this length is a
diagonally cut 3-inch band which helps to secure a train which varies from nine inches in
the front to 21XA inches in the center back. Accompanying the gown is a pair of soft
leather, French heeled pumps in matching ivory with a tan binding around the upper edge
and across the vamp strap which fastens with a pearl button. A pair of lace knit kneehigh
stockings and a head piece which features orange blossom buds complete the
This gown can be viewed in the display case at the Clark Memorial Library during libraryhours the first couple of weeks in June.
About the Stilson Family: recollections by Bessie Stilson Applin and her great great
grand children give some insight into life in 20 century Richmond.
The house in Richmond that became the Stilson home was believed to have been built
about 1710 by unknown early settlers. It was an impressively large two story farm house.
It was finally purchased by the Stilsons around 1919. Over the years the house was
relatively unchanged. Until the late 1930s the family used the outhouse in the yard and
Bessie remembers that each night before bed, her brother Ted (8 years older) would take
Mom to the outhouse and go in first to “shuck” (chase) the critters (rodents and snakes)
out. A bathroom adjacent to a first floor bedroom was added in the 1950s. As money
became available modern utilities were added, such as indoor plumbing, washing
machine, a new kitchen sink and hand pump among other things. Great grand-mother
Bessie does not recall when the farm got electricity, but she does recall oil lamps
throughout the house so it was probably in the 1920s. Refrigeration was mentioned as
having been added about that time.
All the boys did most of the plumbing and mechanical and carpentry work on the farm in
addition to the usual farm chores. They also built a garage which was large enough to
house a 1947 Dodge, wood, tools, and freezer, the latter of which changed the family’s way of life in that the culture switched from canning using Mason jars to freezing which
was a lot easier for preservation of farm gown producing including chickens.
How did they spend their time?
GGGWill worked at the Fred W. Smith garage (where Chariho Furniture is now ) as
Head Mechanic. He was the wage earner and never lacked for work. Because of his
dignified behavior, absolute integrity and skill, he was called “The Colonel” during his
Bill left school to work for a cabinetmaker in Wakefield where he learned patternmaking
skills that would be his career. He lived at home until he was in his 20 s and paid for
many of the modernization projects in the house.
Fred (Ted) suffered the ravages of a terrible fever as a child and was enrolled in a special
program at Cranston High School. After a year he left school for good. He worked as a
farm hand most of his life and always lived on the farm even after his marriage. He was
a mason and accomplished builder; he was talented in many ways but simply did not
have the academic or social skills to leave home except during WW II where he
experienced more combat (’42 in N. Africa, ’43 in Italy, and ’44 in Germany) than the
vast majority of soldiers. As a retired soldier with two tours in Viet Nam his record of
active service was simply extraordinary. As an anti-aircraft artillery gunner, he was
credited with shooting down a Masserschmidt. After the war he returned to the farm.
Warren also became impatient with school and at age 16 or so went to live with Johnston
relatives in Newington/New Britain where he went to a trade school for auto mechanics.
Since he’d been trained by GGGampa Stilson, he left after 6 months because he had
learned all they could teach him. He returned home to the farm and also worked at
Fannie Elizabeth Johnson, the lady of the gown, married William Earl Silson on March
25, 1908, in Newington, CT. Their grand-daughter Sarah Elizabeth Stilson married
Ralph Joseph Tucker, September 28, 1957. It is she who posed with bridesmaid’s
bouquets spaced along the hem of her skirt two generations later.
*See Genealogy/Recent Passings/Amy Reynold Payne – 1941 wedding photo