Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A 1773 Half Penny Inspires Some Thoughts About Warwick's Past

The “church green” in the center of the Village of Warwick was the center of my world during the years I spent living at 22 High Street (1973-1976). If I were there today and still 10 or 11, I would be sledding down the hill from a point not far from the three sets of steps to the Old School Baptist Church down to the bottom where the darkened cement wall still defines the green. That cement wall really put a damper on the experience, for it ended a steep and speedy run abruptly; sometimes with a bruised knee or two.

We, my sister and the neighboring kids on the block, shook off the mishaps and injuries rather than seek sympathy inside; we trudged up the hill a couple dozen more times with the same result, for fun supersedes all when your 10 or 11. We wanted to stay out until it was dark if we could, or, at least, until we were called for supper. That meant skipping lunch to forgo the hassle of getting in and out of a soaked thru snowmobile suit and face rebukes for tracking snow all over the house trying to get those goofy looking boots with the half broken clasps on them off. What engineering genius thought up those things? Snowmobile suits were all the rage as were the boots with the clasps during that time when I probably never saw a snowmobile much less rode one. The suits, one for me and one for my sister, had probably been the result of some bargain shopping at Playtogs in Middletown.

There were other sled runs on the church green that we manicured after a snowfall. The snowfalls that were especially great were those punctuated with the three consecutive soundings multiplied by three from the roof of the Excelsior Hose Company at the end of the street. I wonder if that sound is still bringing smiles to kids' faces lying in bed like it did for me on a schoolday? The soundings signified a snow day, a day of uninterrupted play; we prayed for those days.

There was a slope on the side of the church that stretched down diagonally to some lilac bushes and a Catalpa Tree at the back of Lewis Park, but that was slower by comparison than the front of the church. Speed was optimum. At the back of the church facing Church Street was the steepest hill of all, but that run ended with the extremely dangerous situation of going over the concrete wall, dropping thirty inches, and crashing down onto the blacktop. In-town traffic was minimal back then, and if someone watched out for cars it was worth the risk and the danger of jumping the wall and going out into the street, cars or not. I tried it once or twice, and wisely decided to forgo injury by keeping to the front of the church.

That is not to suggest that we weren’t usually out in the street, and people simply took it in stride and drove slowly. I never remember anyone yelling at us for doing so. We were a good respectful bunch most of the time. There were the occasions of walnut fights that fanned out into people’s front yards, and you might see a scornful eye or two in the windows of our neighbors but it was quite awhile before anybody talked to us about the inevitability of a broken window or a serious injury.

The large walnut tree was on the fence line between Mr. Gove’s property on Church Street and the back of the church property. The walnuts with their green noxious coverings spilled out onto to the street and church lawn every fall. Cars would run over them and send them flying in every direction. I don’t know who it was that first picked one up and threw it, but things were never the same after that. The kids on High Street had to cut across the church green to and from the school bus stop that was at the corner of Forester and Church, so we all passed the temptation of those walnuts on the ground throughout the fall months.

You might think that the stains they made on our hands and everything they touched would have been enough of a deterrent to not pick them up, but we couldn’t help ourselves. That is, until somebody got hurt. I seem to remember Mr. Gove giving us a heartfelt talk eventually about the possibility of taking out a car window or someone’s eye, when he heard the tears. We refrained from even picking them up from that point on because we knew all this would eventually get back to our parents if we kept it up.

There were lots of kids that lived on Church and High Street in the early 70s. Many of these kids were the sons and daughters of renters of modest means. When I return to Warwick on occasion I am struck by the contrasts between how run down the village was back then when I lived “in town” and how it is seemingly brimming with prosperity these days. The prosperity has meant fewer kids in-town running around unattended by adults. People had less fears back then than they have today; I don’t remember any adults ever discussing the possibility of strangers preying on their children in our little town. Everyone seemed to know everyone, and that provided a comfort level that rarely exists today, or was I just naïve?

When we weren’t making “snow forts” and sledding during the winter, we jumped at the chance to shovel people’s sidewalks for a couple of bucks. A dollar and half or two bucks was the going rate. I could always depend on old Fred Horton who lived on High Street a few doors down from us to let me do his front walk and path down to his back porch where he was almost always fixing lawnmowers and bicycles during the warm weather months.

Mr. Horton was in his eighties then and drove this old baby blue Ford Falcon station wagon about 20 miles an hour, and he was always tinkering with it. It was an eyesore. The car was severely rusted but one day I watched in amazement as he cut up pieces of old bicycle inner tubes into square patches and glued them over the rust to conceal the car’s flaws. Then he painted the whole thing with a can of baby blue oil paint using a brush. The paint was a couple of shades off from the car’s original color accentuating, in my estimation, the damage even more but he seemed pleased with his own handiwork.

Mr. Horton was always sharing his schemes and conspiracy theories with the kids on the block who would listen to him, and many of us gravitated to his back porch where we could admire his selection of used three and five speeds, and, perhaps, a coveted ten-speed or two that he offered up for low prices. All us kids were fascinated with anything mechanical, but I remember us taking a lot more apart than we put together or fixed. Mr. Horton's bikes were in top working order but they all had a grittiness about them which I attribute to the generous doses of oil Mr. Horton administered to just about everything.

I had little temptation for the bikes myself, for I had a new green, three-speed Western Flyer at the time, which had replaced an earlier Schwinn Stingray; my sister had inherited that. I came for the conversation. I did call on Mr. Horton to help me with bent spokes and a flat tire or two, which he fixed for a nominal fee. My dad never seemed to have time for such things. Many of the other kids on the block learned to fix their own bikes because any contact with this old man meant sacrificing a huge block of time trying to think of ways to politely exit and an earful of his latest doings punctuated with language we wouldn’t dare to repeat to other adults. All the cussing was habitually interrupted by a pucker on his face and a stream of tobacco infused spit shooting across your feet and hitting some mark on the porch floor.

The old man took an interest in me though and answered my inquiries about the way life used to be when he was young, which would have been the end of the nineteenth century. I remember him telling me that he was born in 1888, which must have made an impression on me because I remember that date. It was probably akin to a hundred years ago at the time in my mind. My interest in history was blossoming, and anything old was an obsession. I spent much time rooting through attics, cellars, and long abandoned dumps around Forester and High street"excavating" bits and pieces of the past that we kids eventually coined "good junk." I still hang on to some of my treasures from that time.

Answer my questions about the past Mr.Horton did, but there always seemed to be some hidden agenda on his part. A number of times he would rope me into some type of barter agreement, “you shovel my sidewalk this winter, and I will give you that fishing pole and reel.” That’s just how one agreement went exactly, and I remember shoveling an awful lot of snow for a rusty rod and reel until one overnight snowfall that seemingly crippled the village in the waking hours of a Saturday morning.

The kid next door and I were inseparable at this time, and we planned to make tons of money shoveling sidewalks as soon as we met up that morning. We walked downtown, and even got a few businesses to let us shovel their walks. Ending up at Akins by noon, after shoveling a sidewalk down on West Street, we decided to collect our just rewards for all the hard work. It seems a bit odd now, but the reason for doing all that work was to be able to afford as many vanilla milkshakes as we could drink at Akins’ soda fountain. The shakes simply weren’t that good at Opper’s, and besides having the best tasting shakes Akins gave you the entire contents of the stainless steel container it was mixed in all for 60 cents. I would guess that we got through at least two shakes a piece while we spun around on the counter stools and checked out the large display case of Matchbox cars I remember being nearby.

On our way home we passed Mr. Horton’s, and his sidewalk had been shoveled by this time. I had wrongly put off doing it until after I sought out what other shoveling jobs I could get for money. I didn’t think much at the time about the fact that Mr. Horton either did it himself or got someone else to do what I had promised to do. I rationalized that I had merely put it off for later, but later had amounted to a couple of hours. Mr. Horton rarely went anyplace, but that particular day he had somewhere to go. He had to do the shoveling himself, and when I learned that, I felt bad about it. He caught me on the street the next day and brought me into his house where he rebuked me for reneging on our agreement; he said the deal was off. He never mentioned the fishing pole again, nor did he ever address the fact that I had shoveled his walk for most of the winter without compensation. One would suppose that I learned a valuable life altering lesson about responsibility, but, honestly, the lesson learned was just not to get inveigled into any more bartering; I was simply a C.O.D. man from that point on.

I probably wouldn’t remember this story, if it wasn’t for the 1773 Colonial Half Penny I still have from that time. The money that I had made that day shoveling snow, minus the cost of some milkshakes, had been saved for a rainy day. During the following summer, one of my uncles could often be seen metal detecting for old coins on the church green; this was before a lot of people who were responsible for some historic sites wised up to the fact that these guys were making off with a lot of valuable historical information that could just as easily be retrieved by an archaeologist for the sake of scholarship.

At the time the treasure hunting was all I could think of, and I would tag along as my uncle made swathes up and down the hill in front of the Old School Baptist Church where we not only sledded in the winter but played ball games in warm weather. His rationale for searching the hillside was rooted in the fact of our contemporary play. He reckoned that kids a hundred or more years ago would have played just like us and lost their change as they rolled, frolicked, and fell on the incline. Other places like the site of the first Hamilton Avenue School, beyond the visible outline of its former foundation, weren’t as fruitful as the church green, for that first Hamilton Avenue had burned in a great fire and the ground around it was lousy with rusted nails just below the surface. Those nails meant a lot of work for nothing. The church green was his Eldorado.

After a few times of making a nuisance of myself by following him and asking too many questions, he set me to work with a second older metal detector he had so that I could search too. I will never forget that on the first occasion he hooked me up with earphones and sent me on my way I found an 1838 penny. What was especially remarkable was that he had never found a coin as early as that up to that point, or, at least, that’s how I remember it. That and a few mercury head dimes were my great finds of the day, but I also remember much of the time was spent digging up tin foil and bottle caps. I was especially intrigued by pieces of old toys and the like, for I was actively collecting cast iron toys at this time. He let me keep that junk while he made me fork over the coins I found.

It seems that my uncle’s frequent activity on the green attracted others with metal detectors who would show up on the weekends that he didn’t. I would follow them around too. On one occasion there was this kid from my class presumably accompanied by his father who was doing the metal detecting. My father was around that day too, and he knew the father of this kid. At some point the kid knocked at our door and asked whether we might be interested in what they had found on the church green. My father asked him what he had found, and the kid gestured that he would be right back with the answer. He ran to the man on the hill with the metal detector who raised his hand to us and reached into his pocket and emptied it in the kid’s hand. We watched all this from the front door of our house. The kid returned with a handful of dirty coins. He pointed out the 1773 Colonial Half-Penny that he claimed they had found that day. He wanted five dollars for it, so I got the five dollars I had earned snow shoveling, and I paid him for the coin.

Although I believed at the time that the coin was found there on the green, I am not so sure now. At the time my believe had been validated by my uncle who believed it was authentic after closely examining it; he was actually a bit put out that he hadn’t found it himself. I remember he referred to a reference book that he always kept with him, and there was a better version of the same coin in black and white in that book.The fact that the church on the hill was built in 1810 and not in the colonial period cast no doubt on the coin’s provenance at the time, but then again I was only 10 or 11.

The first thing to consider is that this coin was likely in circulation in Warwick before and during the American Revolution. Another circumstance of these types of copper coins was that they were frequently forged. Some claim that 60 percent of the small change in circulation during this period was counterfeit. One characteristic of a forgery was that the legend was altered to protect a forger from a mandatory death penalty if caught. For example, by altering the GEORGIVS-III-REX legend to something like BRVRVS SEXTVS a forger might claim that this was not meant to be a forgery but a token issued for some other purpose. My coin has no such deviation from the standard.

By 1775 there was no minting of currency, and this condition lasted until 1797, so many coins that had been minted before 1775 were in circulation for a very long time. The lack of small change forced businesses, cities, counties, and the like to issue their own tokens in lieu of formal coinage (Hume 162-63). The fact that George the Third is unrecognizable on this coin is evidence of wear sustained above ground during the several decades it was probably rattling around in the coin purses of virtually all the Warwick residents of that time at one time or another and not any alterations occurring during its nearly two hundred years of burial on the church green.

Then there is the issue of where the coin was supposedly found. The church as previously stated wasn’t built until 1810, so could a coin that predates the republic itself been lost on a site that had undergone the upheavals of a major construction like the church? Why not? I have never come across information that there was a prior building on the site now occupied by the Old School Baptist Church (correct me if I am wrong). The footprint of the church was likely leveled off to a degree, but as far as I know the foundation of the structure, other than several courses of stone below ground that serve as footings to a foundation that is shallow and above ground, the construction of the church didn’t alter an existing topography much.

Although the site of the church was likely not altered much for the church’s construction, everything beyond the cement wall that for a long time has marked the church property in front was transformed. Many of the houses on both Church and High (which was previously called "Front Street") were built after the church. The topography from the banks of the Waywayanda Creek to the top of the church green eventually underwent some major transformations after 1810. These were amazing if we consider that the removal of such large amounts of earth from a natural and steep grade on both sides of the church had been removed by hand, horse, and oxen and sculpted into the level village streets, High and Church.

The greatest evidence of the steep hill that once stretched to the Waywayanda is that most of the houses between numbers 18 through 24 on High Street all have backyards that are some fifteen feet plus below street level. The foundations of these houses were all built after a significant amount of earth was removed that once was part a natural slope down to the banks of the Creek, so these houses were essentially constructed out of a hollow made in a hillside. They were not built until after 1875 because the property had only one dwelling, the home of G.Burt, that sat back from Front Street. The property was essentially an open field.

There was a house to the left of this property owned by F.Gurling, and this was right on Front Street. This maybe the house that was inhabited by the McCombs and the Hortons in the 1970s. The property to the right was that of the Warwick Institute. The 1875 Map of the Village does not include dwellings that existed right on the Waywayanda. There were stone foundations to two, if not three, buildings down at the water's edge, and these likely dated to before the turn-of-the-century because of the mortarless and manicured stone blocks that their foundations consisted of. They must of appeared after 1875, or they were ignored on the village map. These I dug around and screened for artifacts in the early 1970s finding many clay marbles and one badly marred sulphide marble with a horse figure inside. I don't recall any charred remains which would rule out their destruction by fire, so they may have been torn down long ago by 1973-4.

These foundations were below a wood frame house that had long been abandoned and was owned by Mike Myrow who had it bulldozed shortly after a bunch of us neighborhood kids started exploring it. Apparently, the building had been inhabited by a local junk dealer named "Pee Wee Jenkins" at one time, but that may only be a story I was told as a kid. There was a late 19th century telephone mounted on one of the walls in the house that sadly got plowed under because I hadn't devised a way to get to it across the collapsed second floor.

The house and the wooded area around it were a popular destination for us neighborhood kids. There were fragments of a 1920s Ford, an old safe without its door, and a 1942 Buick on the property that made for some great make-believe scenarios. The Buick had long ago been stripped of its head leaving a bare and hollowengine block , but the chassis was complete with doors, a dash board with a speedometer, and a steering wheel. Shortly after the house came down all the metal debris and cars was cut up and carted away. I had salvaged some parts from the Buick including the windshield wiper mechanism and some pitted chrome hardware that sat on the floor in my room for quite awhile until it mysteriously disappeared one trash day.

The footprint of the former Miller and Stockton Lumber Yard was likely created by fill that came from the excavations of the above sloping hill by the turn of the century, when this particular stretch of Front Street houses had been constructed. Each of these houses had a footprint including their backyard of under .25 of an acre. The buildings of the lumber yard closed in the gap between these properties and the banks of the Creek.There was probably earlier shifts of earth with the construction of the earlier homes on the east end of Front Street like the J.D. Pitts house and others, and these earth shifts also added to the site where the lumber yard eventually stood.

The natural incline is revealed when entering South Street from either Main or High Street today. This is likely how steep the grade ran from what is now Smith Street up to the heights of the Old School Baptist Church. One could probably view the Creek from the steps of the church when it was built if the trees had been felled for farmland. Finally, the slope in front of the church is likely the remainder of the natural one that ran to the Creek long before any European set foot in the Warwick Valley, and decades before the church was built someone may have lost a well-worn Half Penny in the grass on the hill.


Hume, Ivor Noel. A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1970.

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