The People's Museum
The century-old Westerly Armory is a tribute to Rhode Island's military history - one of 18 historic armories spread across the state. But over the past three decades one of the town's native daughters has worked to transform it into a place where locals and visitors can learn about the community's history as well. This month Jim Hummel takes us inside the largest gathering spot in South County and explores the rich collection of memorabilia.
They are spread across all corners of the state, a testament to the rich military history of Rhode Island. And you don’t have to travel very far to find one of the 18 historic armories, built in the 1800s and early 1900s.
But it is the Westerly Armory - which went up more than a century ago in a largely residential neighborhood - that has been the focus of Roberta Mudge Humble, who has spent the better part of three decades renovating and preserving the iconic building near downtown.
Humble: “As a kid I was always here, my father remembers coming here for dances, people met their husbands and wives here at the dances.”
You might say Humble, a retired CCRI professor, has a thing for armories. Twenty years ago she wrote a book detailing each of the state’s armories, and during an interview last month rattled off details about their history and architecture.
It is the Westerly Armory, though, where you will find her on most Mondays and Thursdays, talking about the rich past of a building that was constructed in 1901, after its wooden predecessor a few blocks over burned down two years earlier.
She calls it The People’s Museum because Humble wants visitors to see it for more than its military history.
Humble: “We’re trying to work out our image as being community as much as military. We love them both. When you’re outside it looks so fierce and it’s meant to because it’s an armory, I would like people to visit more and not be afraid to come in. I think they’ll enjoy the tour. It’s very bright and cherry in here, once you’re in here.”
The most striking feature is the 6,000-square-foot drill hall: which before the pandemic was used for an average two dozen plus events a year. Humble said Ella Fitzgerald once sang here and Rocky Marciano boxed on this floor.
Humble: “I like seeing it because I like seeing people use it, No. 1, but also there’s no other space like it in this area, it’s the largest space of its kind in the area. So they really enjoy it.”
Among Rhode Island’s armories, Westerly is considered medium-sized. It is one of five designed by architect William Walker. The best-known is the massive Providence Armory, known by most Rhode Islanders as the Cranston Street Armory. But Walker also designed the armories in Pawtucket and Woonsocket, constructed in 1912, the Warwick Kentish Artillery Armory near City Hall and the Armory of Mounted Commands on North Main Street, currently home to the Rhode Island National Guard.
The Guard was housed in Westerly when Humble formed a nonprofit organization in 1992 to give the building some love. But the structure she knew as a child had changed dramatically.
Humble: “I came down and I was rather horrified by the condition of the building. I thought w2ow. So I put my hand on the piece of granite and said, I will restore you. It was very hard to raise any funds because the state owned it. People would say, well the state should restore it. And that was true, but the state wasn’t going to give any money to these, the old armories.”
The guard eventually moved out in 1996 and the state sold the building to the town of Westerly for $1.
Visitors will find a treasure trove of military and community memorabilia - a lot of it donated - spread out across multiple floors.
Humbel: “Almost every day we’re here, somebody comes in with something, these mementos. It can be anything from old newspapers, articles to artifacts of different sorts.”
And the armory is home to the Westerly Band, the country oldest active community band, which rents out a room on the second floor and has performed in the drill hall.
The armory hosted the town’s 350th anniversary in 2019, as it did the 300th half a century earlier. On display: the gown worn by a young Roberta Mudge in 1969.
In January, before the pandemic shut down much of the state, Humble hosted the latest class of the group Leadership Rhode Island. She kicked off the day with a variation of a talk she has given dozens of times over the past 15 years - highlighting the best, first and unique aspects of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns.
It was the inspiration for a book she wrote in 2006 titled A Right to Crow. It raised $50,000, which she has funneled back into the armory. Since Humble has created a popular series of Rhode Island-centric games and books highlighting both the distinctive and quirky qualities of the state. There is a standing display on the first floor museum for visitors to look at and purchase, with proceeds going to help with the armory.
Humble: “I like that people are pleased with the state, that they smile, that I make them happen with the knowledge that the have a great state.”
And it comes full circle with the armories - a reminder of Rhode Islander’s past and present, for those for who come here.
“Armories are wonderful, you have no idea until you’ve been in them what they contain - and what value they have to not only our history, but to today. These are the largest monuments that we have that represent sacrifices made for our freedom in America.”
In Westerly, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.