Sounds are with us all, every day of our lives. Some sounds we’d rather forget; others we remember forever. Growing up in Stonington, I can relate to a few sounds from times gone by.
The Steamboat Whistle: Before we had the bridge in 1939, all our mail and most of the freight and passenger service was by steamer from Rockland. When the North Haven or W.S. White cleared Green Head point and entered the Thoroughfare every weeknight, she’d sound her whistle. It was a sound we all got so used to we sort of took it for granted. It meant that within the hour you’d be getting your mail, storekeepers would be getting their grocery orders or whatever, and folks would be coming in from Rockland or Boston. It was the very busiest time of the day, and it all got triggered by that whistle.
The “Make-and-Break” Engine: This engine was a fairly simple engine, installed in a number of lobster boats. It was easy to operate and fit the needs of some lobstermen. However, it was very noisy and, when running at dawn when most lobstermen were starting down the bay to haul traps, it woke up many folks who were still sleeping. The engine had, to my knowledge, no muffler, and the noise was a constant “dat-dat-dat-dat” which could be heard halfway to Isle au Haut. Again, this was a sound accepted then, as a part of our community. It woke us up but—hey—they had to go to work and besides, maybe it was time to get up anyway.
The “Wet Clutch:” I lived right at the top of Russ’s hill. All cars and trucks were standard shift in those days, and most of them were shifted back into “drive” right by my house. I could really tell whose car it was with out even looking, just by the sound of the transmission shift. One in particular was Dr. Noyes’ car. He drove a Hudson which had a “wet clutch.” I don’t know anything about it except to say that that’s what they called it, and it made a loud clanging noise as he shifted from second back into high gear. Anyway, he kept on going, so I guess it wasn’t as bad as it sounded, but it sure made one hell of a noise when he shifted into high gear!
The Whistle from the Quarry: Sure, the whistle blew when work started and ended, but if it blew during the work day, it meant that someone was hurt—badly. My dad worked at the John L. Goss quarry, but he was in the office. The great majority of the workers were out in the quarry proper, exposed to all kinds of dangerous situations. I just can’t imagine how some folks were thinking and reacting when that whistle blew during the work day: Was it my husband? My father? My son? Dr. Noyes did his best to respond to the situation, but it was sometimes too late.
The Opera House Doors: How many hundreds of times was that entrance door opened, and you took about five steps towards Doc Tewksbury, who sold you a ticket to the movie. The door always slammed shut until the next person came through and the sound repeated itself. Again, we’re talking about sounds or noises so repetitive that they become part and parcel of the scene. When the movie was over, most kids went out the back exit door. That door made the same noise as the front door. It was a noise you got used to and never even thought about it.
The School Bell: The school day started and ended with the sound of the bell. In between, the bell sounded for recess and lunch. I remember that the noise we heard for changing classes was a buzzer, not a bell. Harry Colby was the school custodian for as long as I can remember. Harry was the ringer of the bell, and woe unto anyone else who tried to ring it.
Mark Island Fog Horn: To me, and perhaps to others, the fog horn always sounded “lonesome.” It was—and still is—one of the “background sounds” in our lives. But for those who depended on it to find their way home safely, it was a godsend.
Just a few examples of sounds that we heard so regularly that they were taken for granted—and then, perhaps many years later, you hear a whistle, a horn or a gong that instantly reminds you of things and situations from days gone by.
Montelle L. “Monty” Small