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An Island of Untraditional Traditions

Charles Hillinger's America

December 30, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER

PRUDENCE ISLAND, R.I. — "The one thing I miss most is when one of the kids says something really funny and there's no one to share it with," laments Liz Hambly.

Hambly, 28, is the only teacher in the 1896 Prudence Island School. Her tiny school has four students.

Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay is nine miles long by two miles wide at its widest point and has a year-round population of 100.

The island's schoolteacher lives in Portsmouth. So every morning, she drives five miles to Bristol where she boards the 8 a.m. Prudence Island Ferry. Its 2 1/2-mile crossing of Narragansett Bay takes half an hour.

"Seems like half the islanders are always at the dock greeting every ferry. (There are two round trips a day.) It's their big social event," Hambly told a fellow passenger. "They come down to visit, to see who and what is coming over to the island."

She was right. A couple dozen cars were parked at the ferry landing as the boat arrived at Homestead, the main island settlement. Hambly was carrying her lunch bucket. "Hi, Liz," sang out the islanders standing at the edge of the dock.

Another regular passenger was Michael Hrycin, 23, of the Newport Electric Co., who had come to Prudence Island for his monthly day-long visit to read the meters.

Hambly hopped into the old car provided by the islanders for the mile drive on the narrow, windy road to the quaint old Prudence Island School. She drove by a dozen white-tail deer, stands of oak trees, past blueberry bushes and wild grape vines.

Shortly after she arrives at the school, her four students show up--Kellie Jenness, 5, in kindergarten; first-graders Daniel Jenness and Shannon Cubellis, both 6, and second-grader Ethel Flynn, 7. Shambly teaches all the grades.

Once a month, the students wait for the Prudence Island schoolteacher at the Homestead dock. Hambly and the students then ride back to the mainland on the ferryboat to spend the day visiting the Herman Melville School in Portsmouth.

"It's important for them to be with other children, to experience what it's like in a normal school," explained Hambly.

Half an hour before each ferryboat arrives and half an hour after the boat leaves, the Prudence Island General Store and Post Office is open.

Marcy Dunbar, a 66-year-old widow, is both postmistress and storekeeper. She has lived on the island all her life. "Marcy knows everything about Prudence Island," said Hambly.

"I graduated from that little school in 1938. All six of my kids graduated from there. We are very protective of the school. That school is like the one in 'The Little House on the Prairie,' " observed the storekeeper.

Tom Parker, 52, is the island's policeman. He has lived here 31 years. "It's a different way of life out here. We all know each other. Everybody's friendly. We help each other out. We have old-fashioned values you don't find many places any more," said Parker.

There are 340 homes on Prudence Island, most of them weekend and summer places. Parker keeps the peace. And it is a peaceable place.

Edna Davis, 67, was on the midday ferry, heading for Bristol "to get my hair done." She said islanders never lock their doors. "I've never missed as much as a matchstick in all my years on the island," she confided.

There are no stores other than the general store, no restaurants or other business establishments on Prudence Island.

Davis is a member of the island's two women's clubs, the Tuesday Sewing Group and the Quilting Club.

Most of the men on the island are members of the volunteer fire department. They get together Monday nights in the firehouse to play cards. Chet Warner retired last month after 40 years as fire chief and a road on the island has been named in his honor.

Many of the old homes on the island go back to Colonial times. The cemetery has graves dating back to pre-Revolutionary days.

Many things are untraditional on Prudence Island. Vehicles are not required to be registered, for example, and islanders are not required to hold driver's licenses to operate vehicles.

"People don't want Prudence Island ever to change," said policeman Parker. "Most people in Rhode Island don't even know Prudence Island exists. That suits us just fine."

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