SEEKONK – As a near-lifelong resident of Seekonk, Dan Horton well remembers the early 1960s, when he'd climb aboard the bus that would transport him and his young neighbors to Anne C. Greene School for grades 1-3 and Pleasant Street Elementary for grades 4-6.
He grew up on County Street, not far from the Rehoboth town line, and still resides in the same home with wife Linda.
“We'd ride the bus through what were then farmlands, and we used to count the horses along the way,” Horton grinned Thursday afternoon. “Now, those farmlands are mostly plats, so I'm sure the kids count the houses.”
When current Town Clerk Jan Parker asked him about 18 months ago to help formulate a plan to celebrate Seekonk's 200th anniversary, Horton naturally jumped at the chance. Parker knew Horton understood how far the town had come from its early days, as he now acts as Seekonk Historical Commission Chair.
“Those of us who have lived in town all our lives, or nearly all, we have experiences that shape our memories, and those memories have become part of the town's history,” Horton stated. “To participate in at least 40 years of that history, it's unbelievable. That's what gets me so excited about being part of this celebration.
“The fact that some of us are descendants of the original proprietors, the band that purchased the land from the Wampanoags back in 1641, it's thrilling to me.”
Truth be told, Seekonk's exact bicentennial birthday will be on Feb. 26, 2012, as the town was incorporated on that date back in 1812.
But the Seekonk 200th Anniversary Committee – made up of Horton, Parker, Carol Bragg and dozens of others – has already enlisted individuals, organizations, schools and businesses to create a year-long list of events in which everyone is cordially invited to partake.
“We started developing this about a year and a half ago, and we had the first meeting here at Town Hall,” Parker noted. “About 30 people showed up from different organizations, and I was surprised – actually, thrilled – by the turnout.
“One of the first things I heard was, 'Isn't it a little early?'” she added with a chuckle. “I went to an open town meeting last May and asked for $10,000 in seed money, and it was voted on by a great majority. I put that money in a bank account, and part of it was spent on booking the band 'Malloi' (formed by former East Providence and Seekonk high school band director Gaston Malloy).”
Seekonk may have been incorporated in 1812, but settlers first came to the area in 1636.
The first inhabitants of Seekonk – which over the decades has been spelled a variety of ways, including Seconch, Sink Hunk, Secqunke, Seaconke and Squannakonk – were native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe, or “People of the Morning Light.”
In 1641, the Wampanoags granted a large part of modern-day Seekonk to purchasers from Hingham, and they included Edward Gilman Sr., Joseph Peck, John Leavitt and others. Twelve years later, Chief Ossamequin (or Massasoit) and his son Wamsetto signed a deed granting the massive land to Thomas Willitt, Myles Standish and Josiah Winslow.
That trio paid 35 pounds in sterling for it.
Three of the earliest English settlers in the area now known as Seekonk and Providence were William Blackstone, Roger Williams and Samuel Newman. They and their followers proved it was possible to provide a living away from coastal areas, and that allowed groups of individuals to separate from Puritan control.
In turn, that led to a greater diversity of cultures and religious and philosophical freedom. By forming the alliances with the Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes, the early settlements were able to flourish.
For decades, the area currently called Seekonk primarily was a farming community, though town meeting accounts have communicated just how contentious deciding what was best for the large community could be.
Boundary disputes often sprung, and Rhode Island and Massachusetts officials both claimed the land that is now Pawtucket, Seekonk, Rehoboth and East Providence as their own. In 1828, however, the Pawtucket village separated from Seekonk, and it became Pawtucket, Mass.
In 1861-62, the U.S. Supreme Court gave a large section of Seekonk – including its town center near where the Newman Congregational Church in Rumford now stands – to Rhode Island to settle a border dispute with Massachusetts, Bragg said.
“That court had approved an agreement between Boston and Providence, so Seekonk lost the East Providence section,” Horton mentioned. “Pawtucket, Mass. became Pawtucket, R.I., and Fall River received a small city named Troy.
“That agreed-upon state line between Rhode Island and Massachusetts provided protection for Narragansett Bay; that protection was the Seekonk River,” he continued. “When that happened, Seekonk lost its waterfront.”
He also explained Seekonk became incorporated as a town in 1812 after breaking away from the eastern part of Rehoboth.
“The issue was getting the population together to vote,” he said. “These people were being asked to trek from Rehoboth to Seaconke Village (Rumford), and they didn't want to travel that distance … In 1811, a fight broke out at a town meeting, and bodily harm took place; they ripped up chairs and table tops because they didn't want to travel that far.
“Seekonk lost out again; East Providence won that battle because most of the population, businesses, churches and the waterfront went that way,” he added. “Seekonk didn't see its first church edifice until the mid-1880s with the construction of Seekonk Congregational Church. The Supreme Court decision didn't stop the conflict; it just changed the geography from east-west to north-south.”
Bragg mentioned Seekonk's incorporation occurred “just 36 years after the (signing of the) Declaration of Independence and 25 years after the U.S. Constitution was adopted.”
The town remained mostly agricultural through two-thirds of the 20th Century, but few farms currently exist in Seekonk, which now covers a total area of 18.4 square miles and has 13,722 residents (as of the 2010 Census).
The 200th Anniversary Committee wants to honor that history and heritage with several events to be held monthly beginning in January. In fact, it will kick off the celebration with a dinner-dance (music to be provided by “Malloi”) at Johnson & Wales Inn on Saturday, Jan. 21.
Tickets may be purchased for $50 per person, and they're available at the Town Clerk's Office at Town Hall and the American Legion Post 311 on Fall River Avenue, or by calling Parker at (508) 336-2920.
“I spoke with officials at the American Legion, and they're going to combine their military ball with our dinner-dance,” Parker said.
On Feb. 7, the Kiwanis Club will conduct its annual “Taste of the Town” fete at Johnson & Wales, and Newman YMCA representatives will hold a “Happy Birthday, Seekonk!” party later that month.
Parker has planned a “Seekonk Night at the Boston Celtics” for March 4, but she isn't sure if that will be held due to the NBA owners' lockout. She indicated she has 105 ducats reserved for that contest, and – should the rift between players and owners end – they will go on sale sometime afterward.
The Seekonk Honor Guard, consisting of police officers and firefighters, will be featured before the game, and children 14 and younger will have the opportunity to “high-five” the players at halftime.
From April 9-11, the four Seekonk schools – including Martin and Aitken elementaries, Hurley Middle and the high school – will hold various activities, including a premier performance of a symphony commissioned by Superintendent of Schools Maddie Meyer.
Parker pointed out students at all schools involved themselves in a contest to design T-shirts commemorating the anniversary, and one created by each school may be purchased at the Town Clerk's Office.
The annual Memorial Day Parade on May 26 will feature floats and costumes consistent with the early 1800s; and, on June 23, an ecumenical gathering featuring choirs and other musical offerings will occur at The Meadows Park behind the library.
The following day, the Seekonk and Hearthstone Lions clubs will host a family event with a chicken barbeque, antique fire trucks, a “Battle of Local Bands” and other activities behind the Hurley Middle School.
Though it's still tentative, Parker and Co. have planned a “Seekonk Night at the Pawtucket Red Sox” at McCoy Stadium on Saturday, July 7.
“Rick Medeiros, the PawSox' head of security, came to our organizational meeting on Tuesday night, and he said he was so impressed with our group and our plans, he and his wife will attend the dinner-dance,” Parker said proudly.
She also revealed former PawSox/Boston Red Sox pitcher and Seekonkian Kenny Ryan will sign autographs under the barbeque tent before the game. Likewise, the Honor Guard will be there, a resident will sing the National Anthem and a group of students will be chosen to yell “Play Ball!” at game time.
(Cost of the pre-game barbeque/fete is $26 per person, and that includes a ticket to the game, food and beverages and a fireworks display. Also, attendees will be in line to win one of three personalized baseball bats).
The committee is still ironing out plans to hold a golf tournament at Ledgemont Country Club and a blueberry pancake breakfast at American Legion Hall in August, and residents may partake in the annual Seaconke Wampanoags' Pow Wow at Rehoboth's Red Plain on Labor Day weekend.
Sometime in October, Greg Esmay, owner of the Olde Grist Mill Tavern, will host a luncheon, then provide a history of his restaurant.
“The people at the Jacob Hill Bed & Breakfast will conduct a tour of that facility in late October, and cookies and cider will be served,” Parker said.
In November, Horton and other Seekonk Historical Commission members will host a holiday house tour. It also is in the process of organizing and publishing a 2012 calendar complete with photos of historic Seekonk.
(If anyone wants to submit a photograph to be considered for the calendar, or a Seekonk photo album, he or she may do so by e-mailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org . Those without access to a computer may bring photographs of to the Town Clerk's Office for scanning. A historic Seekonk quilt also will be made and raffled off to a lucky winner).
In December, the Kiwanis Club will hold a special Holiday Tree Lighting at Town Hall.
“Thank God for Carol! She's doing all of our publicity for me, and she's organizing the calendar and the e-mail list,” Parker noted. “She's very good at that, and that's how we're getting the word out. After the meeting on Tuesday night, I was overwhelmed because we have so many things going on.
“We have a lot of people who have donated their time, and we're very thankful for that,” she added. “You know, early on, I never thought we'd have so many. I can promise there will be at least one event that every resident will enjoy.”
Offered Bragg: “We hope our friends from Pawtucket, Rehoboth and East Providence also will participate because we do have that shared history. Consider this: Pawtucket was part of Seekonk from 1812-1828, and E.P. was from 1812-1862, so we have 50 years of shared history with the Townies.
“We're truly excited about this, and we want others to be, too.”
Anyone interested in helping the committee may attend the next organizational meeting, slated for 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 6, at the Board of Selectmen's committee room at Town Hall, 100 Peck St.