Thursday, June 9, 2011

Take a Shot at Gaspee Days

This article is reprinted from the June 9, 2011 edition of The Providence Journal
By Rick Massimo
Journal Pop Music Writer             
Gaspee Days Weekend has the attributes of any summer festival of food and fun, with activities for all ages — including a parade, a road race and live music — filling the Pawtuxet Village area from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon.
What makes Gaspee Days different, of course, is the history. The weekend wraps up with a symbolic reenactment of the burning of the Gaspee, a British revenue ship, in Pawtuxet Harbor. The real burning of the Gaspee, also in Pawtuxet Harbor, in 1772 — two years after the Boston Massacre and a year before the much more-heralded Boston Tea Party — is one of the overlooked historical events of the Colonial era.
Keeping history alive is what Col. Rob Barnes is all about. He’s the commanding officer of the Pawtuxet Rangers, a militia that’s been around since 1772, and he and his group will lead the Colonial encampment that’s the visual, historical and emotional centerpiece of Gaspee Days.
It’s serious business for Barnes and the Rangers — as the hometown boys, they’ll be playing host to a batch of similar groups from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, all of whom will be re-creating the reality of a Colonial-era military camp. And for more reality, “I believe there will be some pirates who come down and harass us,” Barnes says. “And ladies who camp and cook.”
They begin setting up on Friday, and it takes most of the day to put up the 10 or so tents and build a fire pit. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the major event of the year for the Rangers, who participate in other reenactments and give talks in schools on Colonial-era history.
People will be able to walk through the encampment Friday evening, Barnes says. On Saturday, the Rangers will hold military drills, including the firing of their muskets and cannons, and Sunday will include a demonstration of maneuvers, which includes an example of marching and firing routines, as well as a fashion show of 18th-century clothing for men and women, soldiers and civilians.
Also on Sunday, interested children can join their drills, partaking in the group’s wooden replica muskets and cartridge boxes. “We outfit them and march them around the field,” Barnes says. The Rangers make presentations on Colonial life in schools throughout the year, “but when we can get them out on the field, that’s a lot of fun.”
As you can imagine, if the Rangers are going to interact with 21st-century kids, the demand for realism can get a little flexible. Barnes says, “We’re not that Sturbridge Village thing,” where the re-enactors keep up the historical pretense to the point of claiming not to know about the existence of things that didn’t exist at the time, like cars or, for that matter, North Carolina.
But they do try to keep it as real as possible. “Technically, you should have no modern stuff out. You’re supposed to be portraying camp life in the late 1700s. Well, we both know there are some modern-day amenities you gotta have.” But comforts such as bottled water are out (they keep them hidden, and use mugs). They have period-correct utensils too. “That’s a very tough part of it.”
Still, Barnes, who joined the Rangers 24 years ago in high school as a drummer, particularly enjoys the celebration not only because of hometown pride, but because of the place afforded his and the other militia units. “It’s a Colonial parade. If you go to most of the other parades, the Colonial units are stuck in the back. If you go to the Gaspee parade, the first few units are all militia units, fife-and-drum corps, Civil War units. They keep to those roots, and that’s nice.”
The weekend culminates with the burning of a mockup of the Gaspee, which Erin Flynn of the organizing committee describes as a metal silhouette of the ship with cloth sails on a float in the harbor area of Pawtuxet Park. And on Sunday afternoon, the Rangers fire on the ship, and the sails are burned.
Flynn says that Gaspee Days is getting more statewide interest, with more young families attending. At the arts and crafts fundraiser Memorial Day weekend, there were lots of young families with strollers. “It’s a great generational kind of thing — families coming back and having reunion picnics. It’s a traditional activity.”
And the weekend commemorates one of Rhode Island’s points of pride, which Flynn says are always important to remember. “I think people need an understanding of the process, that it was the first act of defiance, and how important that was.… I think in true Rhode Island fashion, we’re a great state but we don’t even know it ourselves.”

If you attend any of the Gaspee Days celebrations, be sure to take a short ride to POP in East Greenwich. We will be open Friday 1 - 7pm, Saturday 1 -7pm, and Sunday 12 - 5pm.