NORTH KINGSTOWN – There have always been amazing women living among us in the community, quietly working in ways that earned praise. In honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll spend the next few columns writing about them.
Some are women I knew through long-ago interviews; others are connected in more obscure ways. They are all gone now. I hope remembering them will bring smiles to the faces of readers who haven’t seen these memorable names in awhile.
This week we’ll celebrate two women who were ahead of their time in running businesses that filled needs nobody else seemed to recognize.
Both became known for the high quality of their hospitality and their skills in the kitchen. Both were awarded warm nicknames: Aunt and Mother.
The first is North Kingstown native Carrie Campbell, a farm girl who grew up in the Lafayette area. She married Ulysses Cooper and together they founded Aunt Carrie’s overlooking the sea in Narragansett. The business grew like Topsy, becoming an iconic eatery.
While the menu and the building, built in 1920, have expanded, chowder and clam cakes remain favorites at the take-out window. Indeed, for many regular diners (including me), it’s not truly summer until at least a half-dozen of the plump, oddly-shaped cakes have been downed.
The dining room is old-fashioned and comfortable with generous portions of everything plus the yummy desserts for which Carrie was famous. Many of the original recipes are still used.
After her marriage, Carrie lived in Connecticut but the couple, with their brood of six, always returned to Rhode Island in the summer where they would camp on the beach.
They started in business modestly, selling cold lemonade to fishermen and other vacationers. Soon Carrie was combining the clams her kids dug up with her own corn fritter recipe. Knowing a good thing when he tasted it, Ulysses added the clam cakes to the lemonade-stand menu.
They bought the property in 1920 and it has done a booming seasonal business ever since. According to family lore, the restaurant got its name because at any given moment, at least one of her nieces and nephews was bawling out her name, seeking attention.
Ulysses died in 1953 and Carrie retired. She died in 1964. Successive generations of the family have owned and operated Aunt Carrie’s, believed to be the oldest clam shack in the country.
In fact, it has been reported that Carrie Cooper invented the clam cake. That can’t be proven, but generations of happy diners would not disagree.
If you walk down Main Street, toward the water, you will find a large, handsome structure across from St. Paul’s church and next door to its fellowship hall. A plaque names it: Wickford House, but historians and old-timers sometimes call it Mother Prentice’s.
She was born Ellen Lucas, in Provincetown, in the mid-1850s. By 1870 she was married to George Prentice and they had transplanted themselves to North Kingstown. A dozen years later, Mother and Dad Prentice (why don’t we hear more about him?), opened Wickford House, what today would be a small bed-and-breakfast.
It would go on to achieve national renown, primarily for Ellen’s skills as a baker and hostess. It stayed in business through World War I.
Wayne McCarthy, a Prentice relative and resident of Old Baptist Road – he and his wife, Jackie, are also former innkeepers – recalls childhood tales of Mother Prentice’s famous desserts.
Like many big old homes in the village, Wickford House has survived a lot of heavy use including occupation by naval officers during World War II and annexation by the church.
“I had Sunday school classes in that place in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Wayne says. “I used to look around and try to imagine what it had been like.”
An article appearing in the Standard-Times, in 1952, reported Mother Prentice had been acclaimed for her generosity, kitchen skills and large portions, including homemade bread, served at meals.
Ellen Prentice died in December 1930.
For more than 30 years, starting in the early 1970s, I was a frequent guest at Wickford House, owned by Charles and Violet Daniel, who were devoted historians.
In keeping with Mother Prentice’s traditions, the welcome mat was always out and food was delicious and plentiful.
Martha Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org