True tales of a town historian: Edna Kent is the keeper of Glocester’s past

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GLOCESTER – Edna Whitaker Kent of Chepachet was born one month before the 1938 hurricane and grew up on Money Hill Road.

She remembers one Halloween, when she was of early elementary school age and trick or treating with cousins and friends at a house in Burrillville. Her aunt knew the owners and had arranged for the visit. Kent met the two elder lady residents, one deaf, the other blind, who invited the youngsters in for treats and pleasant conversation. So impressed was the child with the two ladies, who, although disabled, effectively communicated with each other, that years later Kent recalled the day by creating a pastel titled “Who Goes There?”

Kent, today, is honorary town historian for the town of Glocester, and is telling tales of her hometown.

She recalls attending school in the building that now serves as Town Hall. Now the site of council meetings, planning, taxing and everything else a town does, the structure on Main Street was once the Chepachet Grammar School. Glimpses of the past remain, including a tiny room that served as Kent’s third grade classroom.

The room retains charm, and one might imagine the sounds of children laughing and reciting lessons there. The teacher was Mrs. Jahn from Bridgeton, now part of Pascoag, and “such a nice teacher. Everybody loved her,” according to Kent. 

Back in those days of grammar school, the students had recess, “in the morning and recess in the afternoon,” and, “if we finished lunch, we could go out at noontime and play,” Kent recalled. There was, “all this extra curriculum, so to speak, but we were in charge of what we would do. The pupils had the freedom to do what they wanted.”  

At Chepachet Grammar School, the girls had a baseball team and the older boys had the backfield, says Kent.

“We girls would stand and watch the older boys with their powerful arms,” she said. But, “we didn’t go out where the boys were.”

Music teacher Bill Pickett let Kent know, “I had the voice,” she says. 

“He was determined he needed me to sing at Mathewson Street Methodist Church,” Kent said.

In those days, when Kent was 11 or 12-years-old, she notes you could walk around a bar room and no one would bother you – which was fortunate since she had to walk through one to get to her bus.

“I would take the last bus home at 11 p.m. after Thursday rehearsal [in time] for church on Sunday,” she said.

Kent was a girl from a poor household, and the only child.

“My grandmother – we would go to her home every other Sunday,” Kent recalls. 

“She collected papers at a time when you didn’t have a lot of paper – anything that had a blank side she gave to me,” said Kent.

A budding artist and writer needs paper, and the story is not unlike that of the Bronte sisters, three writers who sometimes suffered from lack of paper upon which to write their tales. 

Kent’s grandmother, “was subtlety encouraging me to draw,”  she now says.

“My dad, God bless him, was an electrician,” she said.

But she notes that her father, James Whitaker, couldn’t get his journeyman’s license, as the mill were he worked wouldn’t allow the time needed. And her father’s work was essential to Glocester daily life. 

“My father connected all the houses in the Chepachet village to John Steere’s powerplant,” she said with pride.

Kent speaks lovingly and admiringly of both of her parents.

“My mother stayed home and took care of me,” Kent said of Catharine (Holbrook) Kent.

She recalls her mother helping fill those hours of youth when there seemed nothing to do. The clever mother, who was at one point a Brownie Girl Scout assistant leader, placed blankets on the floor loaded with, “all kinds of hand crafts,” said Kent.

“I was a Brownie before I was a Brownie,” she said, with a smile. “Brownies hated me. I was younger but telling them how to do the crafts. I was kind of advanced in my attitudes and knowledge.”

“They were both very smart,” Kent said of her parents. “My mother could have been a teacher; self-taught. My mother was a wonderful teacher.”

Kent notes she was reading at age four or five, before entering school. When she was a student at Burrilville High school, she was in the newspaper club, and did drawings. Sometimes she would stay late at school and then walk home carrying a load of books. Teachers would pull up offering the student a ride home but she declined, preferring to walk the four miles. 

A singer as well as artist, while still in school, Kent sang for local radio.

“At around ten years old, I was asked to sing on Mabel Morgan’s WWON radio show,” said Kent, noting she sang My Dream of Love at the Woonsocket-based station. 

She was also featured on a Providence-based radio station, WJAR.

“They had their station on an upper floor of the Outlet Company Department Store,” she said.

The business was considered a famous and fancy department store, and stood on Weybosset Street. In those times, people in the cities dressed in their Sunday best, whether visiting or working in an office. 

For a singing gig, her accompanist was Cora Kent, who resided on Dorr Drive in Chepachet. Kent also met Cora’s son, Richmond Kent.

 “He would spirit through while we were practicing,” she said. “I hated him.”

Again, she smiles, recalling that eventually, she began dating Richmond, who at the time drove a vanilla-colored Plymouth.  

“My father felt very close to Richmond. They were like-minded,” said Kent, noting that the two would discuss electricity, sound and sciences, along with mechanical and esoteric things. “My father liked him.” 

Meanwhile, back at school, “They knew me well,” she said.  

At least one teacher, Alma Kolhoff, who taught Kent from grade one to high school, encouraged her artistic talent.

“She tried to put into me all the things she knew,” said Kent, adding that the art teacher obtained two grants, of $100 and $200, to try to get her into Rhode Island School of Design.

“I couldn’t take them,” she said. “I was getting married.” 

More, Kent’s father had suffered several strokes, and she didn’t want to be far from him. 

Right out of high school in 1956, Edna married Richmond. She went to work as an artist at Paramount Cards in Pawtucket, designing greeting cards. She also became a mother, giving birth to a son and daughter. 

She kept singing in various groups, such as Rhode Island Civic Choral and Orchestra, and kept at her art, as well as raised a family. 

Regarding her work with town history she says, “I fell into this.”

Her involvement began when Cora Kent – who had by then, was her mother-in-law – Mini Brown, librarian at Glocester Manton Free Library, and a few others expressed concern that the townspeople would forget their history. The ladies started in 1966 with an exhibit in the library basement, and a year later the Glocester Heritage Society was legally organized. Kent was a founder with Barbara Westcott and Molly Harrington.  

Considered “Town Historian” since the 1970s and officially Honorary Historian of the town of Glocester since the late 1980s or early 1990s by her recollection, Kent has three books of town history to her credit. Kent was the author of Glocester, Rhode Island (1998, Images of America Series); the editor of Glocester – The Way Up Country: A History, Guide and Directory (1976, Compiled by The Heritage Division, Glocester Bicentennial Commission), and, in 1995, reprinted, indexed, amended the 1886 book by Elizabeth A. Perry, A Brief History of the Town of Glocester, Rhode Island.

A self-taught genealogist, Kent says she, “gets calls from everywhere.”

“People from California came out here and I took them to a cemetery,” she said. 

These days, Kent and her co-worker Bill Brown can be found with their team finding and cleaning the more than 100 cemeteries in town, from cutting back vegetation – needed to even glimpse the graves, to placing American flags on graves honoring veterans. 

What’s more, author Kent is the Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Commissioner for Northwest Rhode Island, and a Chepachet River Historic Sites Survey Advisor. She is also a member of the Historical Records Advisory Board for the State of Rhode Island. A founding member of the Glocester Heritage Society, she’s served in various capacities from 25 years as newsletter editor and librarian/archivist, to stints as vice-president and president. 

Kent’s work for the town includes bringing Circus Kirk to Chepachet in 1976, and everything on this list and more:  a preliminary survey designer of Chepachet’s Historic District; introduced walking tours in the Chepachet village; organizer/manager of the Elephant Day 150th observation; organizer/manager of the Dorr Rebellion 150th Reenactment; organizer of Tri-State Historians’ Symposiums. 

Kent was also a lifestyle interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, and teacher at Trimtown Lyceum with Barbara Sarkesian. Her achievements are also documented on the Glocester Heritage Society’s website here

That Halloween evening long ago left an impression on Kent’s mind, eventually inspiring her to create a pastel of one of the ladies. It, along with a few of her other works, are displayed in her home, where the phone often rings as people want, more and more often to learn their own history, and the history of Glocester. 

Meanwhile, she has many more tales to tell, many written in longhand. She says shr looks forward to sharing these stories with the public.

 

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