Gone Gaspee

Who are the modern-day Rangers behind Gaspee Day?

They march in the best parades. They wear pristine red uniforms and carry authentic muskets. They’re ball-in-a-cup experts, and they prefer their meat on a spindle. But who are the modern-day Pawtuxet Rangers, and why do they, year after year, resurrect the spirit of Rhode Island’s eighteenth-century rebels?

The old adage is true: You can’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in his or her shoes. In this case, on a sticky Saturday in June, it’s two-and-a-half miles and the shoes are pre-Revolutionary in style (read: shockingly comfortable).

I arrive at Pawtuxet Park at 6:30 a.m. to meet the Pawtuxet Rangers, the scarlet-breasted stars of the Gaspee Days parade. The gray of the morning only brightens fresh-painted red, white and blue stripes winding down the route on Narragansett Avenue in Warwick, and the company is in a celebratory mood. It is, after all, their big day.

The Rangers, a chartered militia group out of Pawtuxet Village, are taking me on as an embedded reporter for the annual Gaspee Days Weekend, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. I have to know: Why does this ragtag group of preteens, college students, careerists and senior citizens dedicate so much time to Colonial encampments and parades?

According to Colonel Ron Barnes, the Rangers’ commanding officer, many are lured by the company’s long, valiant history. The Rangers are one of the oldest existing chartered commands in the United States, and they still follow the rule of their 241-year-old charter.

The militia, Barnes explains, was commissioned by the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to protect the seaport of Pawtuxet in 1774, just two years after the looting and burning of the British revenue sloop, HMS Gaspee — a momentous event that’s commemorated during the Gaspee Days Weekend. The Rangers manned the fort on Pawtuxet Neck during the Revolutionary War and some members fought during the Battles of Rhode Island, Saratoga and Yorktown.

The unit remained active until 1847. In 1972, the Gaspee Days Committee raised a fife and drum corps under the Pawtuxet Rangers moniker for the annual Gaspee Days Parade. Two years later, the militia was reinstated and the original charter was transferred to the modern group. Although the Rangers were resurrected for reenactment purposes, they’re not just shooting blanks. If their supervisors — the governor or adjutant general of Rhode Island — call them up to fight today, they’ll go.

Historian John McNiff argues the merits of attacking the HMS Gaspee at a WaterFire event.

But the Pawtuxet Rangers do more than fiddle with guns, cannons, fifes and drums. In early 2013, thanks to a successful fundraising campaign, the group purchased and restored a clerk’s copy of their charter from a Boston-based auction house. They operate out of the original Rangers armory on leafy Remington Street in Pawtuxet Village, which members bought from a private resident in the early 1980s. Eight of the fifty active members are lifers, meaning they’ve participated in annual activities — including weekly meetings, holiday celebrations and educational events — for more than twenty-five years each.

“Part of the mission is perpetuating history,” says Barnes, dressed in the company’s red and gold uniform with a Brown Bess flintlock musket propped on his shoulder. It’s possible that the very first Pawtuxet Rangers wore red — America was, at the time, still under Red Coat rule — but Barnes wants to set the record straight: The uniform was selected by the militia’s first modern colonel, Robert Lynch. Mostly, Lynch thought the red uniforms were handsome. But he also wanted his militia to be able to role play as British soldiers during the state’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976.

Kristel and Joe Henry serve the food rations

Some modern members have a greater opportunity to wear historically precise clothing. Kristel Henry, a sunny human resources manager for an elevator safety company in Attleboro, sews her Colonial-era garments by hand from fabric purchased on eBay or from fellow women in the reenactment circuit. Henry’s husband, Joe, joined the Rangers to support his wife; he does the cooking for the militia during the weekend-long Gaspee Days encampment and other events around the region.

Despite the early hour and the task at hand — dressing me for the parade — Henry possesses a youthful, rosy way that befits those who play dress-up most weekends, all year round. “I wish I learned I could do this twenty years ago,” she says, carefully unpacking her garments inside the Boathouse at Pawtuxet Park.

Our Gaspee getups start with the stays — the eighteenth-century name for corset; great for posture but incompatible with overall bending and breathing — and a loose-fitting undergarment called a shift. Then, on goes a heavy skirt, a jacket, an apron, a pair of white gloves, a silk scarf, a flat-brimmed straw hat, white stockings and, finally, period-appropriate black buckled shoes.

After dressing, I join Major Kenneth Gilbert, a life member of the Rangers, on a visit with the scoundrels in the next camp: the Rhode Island Pirate Players, a spirited reenactment group of which a few Rangers claim membership. “You know where to come if you want to have a good time,” one says salaciously as Gilbert steers me away.

But we’re not here to socialize. Gilbert lists the many points of contention that led to the historic raid on the revenue sloop HMS Gaspee in June of 1772, which collected taxes for the British crown. The Gaspee affair was one of the first forceful acts of war by colonists against the British — and, Gilbert notes, an event that occurred eighteen months before the Boston Tea Party.

The Pawtuxet Rangers were chartered two years after the burning of the Gaspee, but Gilbert suspects the militia’s first enlistees were moved to join for the same reason the British sloop was burned: They were fed up with Colonialism. “We have ships of our own, we’re used to being taxed, we pay taxes locally,” he says. (Note the present tense; he’s good.) “Nine men in ten own property and can vote, we have a large town of our own — do we still need the Colonial system?”

Gilbert’s gifted in Colonial-era vernacular — so skilled, in fact, that it’d be easy to convince a child or gullible adult that he time-travelled here from the 1700s. He fills lulls in conversation with Revolutionary-era trivia: In times of famine, militiamen lost four stone. An officer’s sash doubled as a stretcher in the case of a field injury. The gorget, the last vestige of armor, was a symbol of rank. Wealthy officers would have gold or silver; Gilbert wears brass.

His fascination goes beyond the historical; it’s a way to inject something big — brave, even — into his twenty-first-century life.

“I’m a quality control technician but, for a few hours a week, I get to be a Ranger,” he says.

Just before parade time, the color guard, fife and drum corps, militia and the distaff — Rangers who perform peripheral duties, such as cooking and sewing — hop aboard a trailer carting the militia’s cannon for a ride to the start of the route.

As we roll down the parkway, young spectators shout “pirates!” — “Must be the feather in the cap,” says Corporal Pablo Youngs, a twenty-year-old fife and drum member — while twenty-six-year-old Julia Winitsky, a plucky militia member, sings the mid-eighteenth-century tune, “Johnny Hope.”

Before long, we’re marching at the front of the parade ahead of the Mummers, school bands and dance troupes. Spectators shout “shoot!” and the militia complies, stuffing gunpowder down the necks of their muskets. One sideline group waves a poster bearing photographs of veteran Rangers, and the group pauses for a salutary fire. They’re in their element, sharing a slice of their lives — and of the region’s history — with thousands of people packed tight along the two-and-a-half-mile parade route.

After the march back to Pawtuxet Park, the Rangers settle into camp. The Henrys rotate a ham on a spindle, Sergeant Denise Foggo teaches passersby how to master the timeworn ball-in-a-cup game, and Sergeant Major Jonathan Ryder, a surly militiaman who daylights as a Classical High School librarian, orchestrates drills with the youngest visitors.

He instructs tiny girls in red, white and blue dresses how to prop wooden muskets on their shoulders. “Congratulations. You are somewhat trained — at least as much as those guys there,” he says, pointing towards a cluster of Pirate Players. The girls are pleased.

Ryder’s comical gruffness appeals to the little ones. He’s had practice with his own toddler, Michael, who visits the encampment later in the afternoon with Ryder’s wife, Lynda.

The family’s had a tough year; Michael was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent chemotherapy at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. In treatment, he lost his wispy blond hair and, in solidarity, Ryder shaved off his strawberry blond ponytail, too. “As long as he is bald, I am bald,” he says.

Ryder says his time with the Rangers is restorative. During the encampments and events, he embodies a different man from a different time. This point is particularly evident during an after-hours Gaspee Project debate outside the Wild Colonial Tavern in Providence, in which Ryder participates.

The event is held in conjunction with a WaterFire lighting and a performance by the Rangers’ fife and drum corps. Ryder and historians John McNiff, John Concannon and Earl Salisbury gather beneath lights in the parking lot of the Wild Colonial — the exact location of the debate that occurred two-and-a-half centuries before, by what was then Sabin’s Tavern.

The basis of the debate is this: Four community leaders argue the merits of burning the British revenue sloop HMS Gaspee, which is trapped on a sandbar in Pawtuxet Cove. For six months, the Gaspee interfered with free trade in Pawtuxet Village, and most colonists, though not all, want it gone.

We know the outcome, and we’ll see it for ourselves during the next day’s encampment. But the experience of watching the deliberations go down in real time, and in the same location as the original debate, is nothing short of magical. About fifty people — most of whom meander with curiosity from the nearby bar — clink pints of beer and hard cider and let out cries of “huzzah!” into the star-studded night, as thrilled by the grand scheme of history as the re-enactors themselves.

Later, back at the camp in Pawtuxet Park, several Rangers, including Privates Carol Lawton, Doug Frangillo and Dylan Gomes, prepare for an overnight encampment. Gomes, a twenty-year-old who comes from a long line of Rangers, looks forward to overnights in the park, where members gather around the campfire and sleep in reproduction military-grade tents. But it’s not all historically precise: Bend an ear towards Pawtuxet Park late on Saturday night, and hear a rousing take on the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island.”

The next morning, it’s easy to spot the Pawtuxet Park overnighters from the Rangers who tucked in at home after the WaterFire performance and debate. They’re a little unkempt, but their experience is an authentic one. As Frangillo explains, “We get into the feel of it so when we start the next day, we’re not thinking ‘modern day.’ ”

Sunday is sunny, humid and blue-skied, a nod to the impending dog days of summer — the busy season for our Rangers. Many march in the Bristol Fourth of July parade, camp out for reenactments and attend musters all over New England, their weekends booked through autumn with Colonial-era activities. Throughout the year, the Rangers also visit classrooms and Boy Scout troops for living history lessons.

This encampment is much like the afternoon before — musket drills, ball-in-a-cup, period-appropriate meat on a spindle — plus a little wartime excitement. By the end of the day, the HMS Gaspee will burn once more.

Before the action, I catch up with Susan O’Hara and her kids Jon Jr., Jack and Katie, all members of the Pawtuxet Rangers in the fife and drum, militia and color guard. O’Hara, who is originally from Pennsylvania but now lives in Pawtuxet Village, remembers the first time she attended the Gaspee Days Parade. “I saw this beautiful wall of red,” she says of the Rangers in uniform. “It kind of stuck with me.”

O’Hara and the kids signed on after husband, Jon, who is from the area, joined the militia. “I can’t be the mom here,” O’Hara says. “I have to let it be in their hands that they will do the right thing. It takes a lot of responsibility on their part.”

Our conversation is silenced by cannon fire. The Rangers stuff their artillery with gunpowder and invite honorary members — including Gaspee Days Committee president, Erin Flynn — to blast away, too. The explosions surge through the park and children cover their ears, shuddering. Older folks whip towards the gunners, startled by the reverberations of war in Warwick’s most pleasant public space.

Then, the Gaspee goes down — metaphorically, at least, and only after a few rogue kayakers are shooed out of the way. In the water, a Gaspee Days volunteer torches the mock schooner, a cutout of a ship propped atop blue slats. The flames climb slowly but surely. Cheers rise over ringing ears, and several Rangers shoot celebratory blanks through a row of waterside trees.

A few moments later, two volunteers float close and extinguish the flames, a practical denouement that keeps the ruins from collapsing into the blue. This modern decree protects Rhode Island’s most storied cove, just as the Pawtuxet Rangers of past and present would have it.

Visit gaspee.com for more information.