The Hermit of Narrow River

When I started school at URI in 1966 the only road to get there was a small winding road. I would pass a falling down house situated on a charming spot. One day I found the courage to knock on the door; thats how I met Bill Lacy, the hermit of Narrow River. He wasn’t really a hermit; he just couldn’t get around very well as he had no car and there certainly was no bus passing by.

The skiffs in the photograph were one of Bill’s only source of income, you could rent one for a quarter a day, to go rowing or fishing on the river.
The photo of Bill sitting on the steps of his house with his cat, tells quite a story.
The man with the rake was Bill’s nearest neighbor, they didn’t speak. His source of income was smoking pogies in his outhouse. I was never certain if he revealed this to his customers.
The day Bill died his house was bulldozed and it was as if he had never existed.

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ws lirakis

a sailor who carries a camera

7 thoughts on “The Hermit of Narrow River”

  1. Thanks for the memories your photos evoke. The guy with the shovel is Bill Yoman. He and his brother Joe lived on the farm next to Lacey’s. In the 50’s I spent childhood summers in the homestead across the street from the Yoman farm. On summer nights I would hang out at the bridge with other kids listening to Bill Lacey talk on into ther night, tall tales all the way. Bill Yoman was wonderful. Joe was unique. I knew them all until they passed in turn. My aunt still lives in the corner lot across from Lacey and the Yomans.

  2. This is Richard Barker Grant, President of the Narrow River
    Preservation Association (NRPA) and we will be attempting to
    have a news release in our newsletter with comments from
    people who know Bill Lacey. So we would like a note and especially pictures that you can email to narrow or From the children who used to
    know him and listened to his long stories and the mother who
    used to bring hem meals, still feels in her heart how life ended
    for a narrow river character.

  3. This is Maryann McCaffrey Knag. My parents bought the old former school house at 32 Bridgetown Rd in 1953. I and other family members still own it and use it.

    We first met Bill Lacey in the summer of 1954. We were told that locals called him “BillyWhiskers”, but never to call him by that name because he was very strong and had once thrown a teenager into the River for doing so.

    He was known as the last of the Narrow River Fishermen because he and his mother lived strictly off income from fishing, selling bait, renting skiffs and the vegetables they grew in their small garden.

    The house was very small but two storied and unpainted wood. It had a small porch with a strand of Christmas lights across the front year round.

    We rented boats from him. Not sure if we paid a nickel or a quarter/hour. We loved watching him. In the next house (now owned by the Panoffs) lived Judge Watts who had a man servant who farmed the field in back. Judge Watts had no electricity. When we drove by at night we could see candle lights.

    My mother, while researching the history of the school house at 32 Bridgetown Rd, came and interviewed Bill Lacey. He told her that after the school house was abandoned, squatters lived there, including Bill and his mom, African-Americans and Native Americans. So Bill Lacey lived in our house for a time.

    I don’t remember when his mom died. But some time in the early 60’s, we learned that Bill had died. The story was that one night he was seen at Twin Willows “flashing a roll of dollar bills” and the next day he was found floating in Narrow River. This was hearsay, I have no corroboration.

    He was a real man we knew, as well as a local legend.

    Maryann Knag

  4. The story told to me by the family who knew him went like this.
    In the end, Bill Lacy was found dead on the South Kingstown side of Narrow River. One of the kids from that family found Bill and ran home (to the Narragansett side of Narrow River) and told his mother,
    “Bill’s is lying on the shore.”
    It was the mother who called Narragansett police.
    Narragansett police reported to the scene even though the body was found on the SK side of Narrow River. South Kingstown police found out and became agitated and a conflict between the two departments ensued.
    Bill was face down with a cut on the back of his head! The death certificate ruled he slipped and fell and no further investigation was warranted.
    The family closest to him said he’d never fall in a place where he learned to crawl. There was also talk he visited the Twin Willows on this fateful night and flashed a wad of cash throughout the bar. Thats the only grain of proof of the conspiracy theory.
    Bills lineage related him to the Carpenters, Tuckers and the Harvey, all established South County families.
    Another guy who grew up with Bill told me this. In young adulthood, Bill was denied entry into the armed forces. At the start of WWII, all the young men from town took buses to Providence to join and go fight in the World War. Bill joined in the ride up but got sent back home….because as I was told,
    “He didn’t know nothing”
    Meaning, I guess, He
    wasn’t schooled and probably couldn’t read or write.
    Oddly enough; if you were at War you’d probably want Bill by your side the entire length of the conflict. I’m just saying he’d could’ve been the best fighting soldier among them but because he couldn’t write a full sentence he was sent home in disgrace.
    This bothered Bill Lacy more than anything and for years he sulked around town and carried that shame and rejection for the rest of his life.
    I did mention the family near Bridgetown who called Bill Lacy part of their family. I know them personally and when I visited the mother of this crew; she had photos of Bill and her kids covering the walls.
    They were all suspicious about how he died all for the sake of a couple of bucks? No one will ever know what really happened to Bill Lacy but can only speculate on the the life of one South County soul who lived his entire life on Narrow River and died on it as well.

  5. I first heard the story about Bill Lacey’s death (Twin Willows, showing a wad of money, leaving the Willow’s in a white van, conflicting reports re: cause of death–a fall or fowl play). A couple years after his death I was told his house was vacant and became a “party house”.

    I went with a friend to check out the house on Lacey Lane on Narrow River (maybe 1979-81, I can check my records for a more precise date). It was vacant but oddly “in tact” — curtains on the window, back door ajar, dry cereal on the kitchen counter, beer cans on the floor). When I/we rounded the corner from the kitchen into the small parlor area and up the stairs, lying on the steps were photos, greeting & post cards, old pharmacy receipts. At the top of the stairs was a box that had photos, negatives, and more memorabilia.

    We ventured to the small second floor. I remember vividly seeing a bathrobe on the back of the bathroom door, a tooth brush in ceramic holder affixed above the bathroom sink. Across from the bathroom was a bedroom. The wallpaper was peeled back, the mattress was off the bed frame and tilted up and ripped in several places.

    My friend had a German Shepherd, Ruby, who seemed agitated. As we were leaving I saw how the photos had been stepped on. I decided to take with me the photos, negative, cards, misc receipts. I justified it because I was a photo major at URI and I didn’t want to see these photos destroyed by people partying in the house.

    When I got to review them there was an incredible series of negatives (late 1890s turn of the C) and photos seemingly 1920-30s all the way up to 1950s. BUT, never the name “Bill Lacey”. Instead, several cards were signed by “Natalie Pekham” (an old South Kingstown family name). And the name “Fredrick Ogden” was on pharmacy receipts and other material. There is the consistent presence of a particular man (maybe Fredrick Ogden) from youthful late 20s through maybe his 50s–some at Narragansett beach (a boat is identified with Narraganset on it) and a lot in Providence. The photos include trips to Europe between the wars–two gentleman (one looks like the “Fredrick Ogden” person, the other was bit older silver haired) with two younger females–seem like maybe daughters. There are pictures with these females that look like they were taken at a women’s college.

    About 2-3 weeks later, mid-Summer, I was at the top of Tower Hill Road (across from the tower at the traffic light). I saw a rather large smoke plume coming up from Narrow River–at the bottom of the hill where Lacey Lane was and where I had been at an abandoned house I thought to be Bill Lacey’s house. No one could go down the road to Narrow River because there were Fire trucks. The next day I drove by and the house I had been in was burnt to the ground. I decided it was a good thing I did take the photos…

    I photocopied these images and collaged them into my own art (mid-to-late 1980s and show this work at the old Hera Gallery in Wakefield). I’ve loved and cherished these found pictures. When the internet became a thing I would occasionally google “Bill Lacey”–always vague info.

    Who’s house was I in that day: Bill Lacey or Fredrick Ogden?
    If I was in Bill Lacey’s house, then who is Fredrick Ogden to him?
    Who is Natalie Peckham?

    These are very distinct historic photos of a singular person who had photos of ancestors (circa late 1800s) through his own life with southern RI and Providence, RI images of landscapes, seascapes, and a specific urban neighborhood.

    I’ve been living in Albuquerque, NM now 28 years. I still have these photos (about 42-43 years in safe keeping). I literally decided (Jan 2024) that I needed to find Fredrick Ogden’s family, maybe Natalie Peckham, too. Maybe Bill Lacey–was that his house I was in? I’ve pondered seeing if could link me up to family members of those mentioned. And, I’ve thought I would take them back to RI on a personal pilgrimage to “repatriate” these artifacts to family and/or a RI historic society.

    If there is anyone interested in seeing some sample images, I can digitize them. Feel free to contact me if you can help me solve this mystery in order to get these pictures home. ~Ramsey Lofton

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