Oral History Project

1950s Hospitality and Hurricane Season

By: Ashlyn B. Buffum

Sydney Hinkle Buffum and her parents got a lot of questions about what she was doing with her life. Her parents would often say, “Oh she is married to a hotel man. They summer up in Rhode Island and winter down in Florida.”[1] Sydney and Robert C. Buffum helped Robert’s father, Frederick C. Buffum, run the family hotel, the Weekapaug Inn, until they took full ownership around 1965. During the era when they were apprenticed to the family hotel business, the 1950s became another boom for the hotel business, the middle class, and tourism. Despite this boom, during the1954 hurricane season the prosperity came to a screeching halt.

During the 1950s, the country was just coming off World War II and the Great Depression. The U.S. was experiencing a time of return to an emphasis on domestic life, a baby boom, and another technological revolution. Modern highways helped promote tourism, but older modes of transportation still mattered.  Buffum recalls, “people drove from the Midwest to come here [Rhode Island], but they also took the train”.[2]  She notes that many visitors arrived in this more traditional fashion from states “in the middle of the country,” like Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. [3] The ease of travel which was helped by the highway system resulted in more travelers.

 

A 1950s tourism add for Rhode Island (1955)

With this rise in highway systems and cars, the roadside motel became popular. “Families of the broad middle class took vacations, usually by car. They stayed at motor hotels—“motels”—located on highways rather than near downtown rail depots”.[4] Not only does car travel evolve, but also jet and planes. Spending money on ones children and vacations became the norm especially with the opening of Disneyland.[5] The 1950s were a “golden age” for tourism and the resort businesses around the country.[6] Vacationing families sought freedom from care, a complete rest, relief and recuperation.

Other new technologies evolved as well to help make the guests experience easier and more enjoyable. For example, in the Weekapaug Inn of the 1950s, there was a communication device called “an enunciator”.[7] Buffum recollects the many uses for the machine and says “ people that were in the hotel room had a wire that came and they had a box in the back office. If somebody rang the buzzer for ice or something like that the little arrow would flip up to the room number and then the bellhop would run down the hall and would get to the door and ask what he or she wanted. If they said they wanted ice, then he would take their ice bucket and go down and bring it back. He would get a tip on that. That would go on every single night”.[8]

It was a time for the hotels to be family run and “interactive” for guests. One of the rising inventions of the 1950s was the TV. Despite the rise of TV, there still might not be a TV in every room. Instead there was a singular room with a common TV which guests could use collectively. This results in televised events being shared by the guests as a collective body. Televised sporting events also rose in popularity during the 1950s. “Many sports events during the decade of the 1950’s were telecast during the day on weekends”.[9] The hotels would also have events like, “Saturday dances”.[10] Buffum remembers “ We would have a funny little band. They would clear all the tables and chairs out of the Sea Room and people would all dance Saturday night”.[11]

Another aspect of 1950s hotels that adds to the “interactive” experience for guests are communal bathrooms that are sometimes within hotels or motels. An example of this room set up can be seen on top floor of the Weekapaug Inn. This floor was known as the Bridge.[12] Though Sydney and Robert soon found a fatal flaw with the Bridge bathrooms when, “One very naughty boy and most rowdy was a minister’s son and he went in one time to the ladies’ room and he went under the stall doors. He locked all the doors. Then in the morning when all the women woke up and went to the bathroom they found all of the doors locked. All the old ladies didn’t think to crawl underneath the stall doors”. [13]

Vacationists coming to New England are primarily coming for “the peace and quiet of the ocean, bathing, mountain scenery, or rolling meadowland”, but during the 1954 summer season for hotels was anything but.[14] The first sign of trouble happened during June of the 1954 hurricane season. “A tropical storm developed rapidly in the west Gulf of Mexico on the 24th of June and by early on the 25th was of hurricane force. It moved inland south of Brownsville, Tex., early on the morning of the 25th”. [15] This storm would be called Alice.[16] Next came hurricane Barbara, which hit the coast of Louisiana.[17] Another storm started to brew in the Atlantic Ocean, but no one knew how dangerous it would become. “The system developed from a tropical wave over the northeast Bahamas on August 25, 1954”. [18] The New England resort community and residents had been lulled into a sense of security during the rising prosperity of the 1950s. The residents of New England had forgotten the devastation of the 1938 hurricane. “No one had experienced that before. Of course ships had went down before, but nothing had really destroyed the land”.[19] Hurricane Carol hit the coast of New England on August 31, 1954. [20]

Photograph of Hurricane Carol
hitting the Coast of New England

As recounted in Robert Buffum’s book, a guest named Micky McQueenie Mathews recalls her experience in the hurricane, “That first summer I was to fall in love with this place of sunshine and the occasional storm. Along with my parents and four siblings we were spending a months vacation at the Inn when hurricane Carol hit with her fury. Upon arising I remember a few families packing their cars and heading for higher ground. I thought, “what sissies they are”—there is such excitement about a hurricane, especially when you are 14”. [21]

Robert Buffum, himself, recalls looking at the Weekapaug Inn during the storm, “The Inn was like a ship in deep water—pointing the way! There she is with guests aboard, pointing her bow into the sea and wind. Almost it appears looking toward the beach where the first inn was born and destroyed, saying, ‘I’m here, staying strong to protect those aboard’”.[22]

Hurricane Carol ripped through New England with force, “highest winds were at Block Island, RI where 130 mph was measured in gusts” and up into Canada [23]. The damage from the 1954 hurricane was tremendous. “The storm left 60 dead and over 460 million dollars of damage to property and crops in the North Atlantic States”. [24] Sydney remembers the damage that her little family endured during a storm and the damage that a hurricane can swiftly cause. Their 38-foot trimaran, Wings. “It was in the Stonington Harbor, but it dragged because it flipped over on one hull and then of course the trampoline and stuff in between acted like a sail. She had two hulls and one hull was up in the air and the trampoline between the two acted like a sail. The wind was coming down the Stonington Harbor so it just blew the boat right a shore and the water pushed the boat up onto the railroad tracks. We didn’t see the boat until the next day. We went to go look at it and someone came and said, “What is this boat doing on the railroad tracks” and of course Grand Bob [Robert C. Buffum] with his great sense of humor says, “Oh she was trying to get a ride on the train [down to New York]”.[25]

The day after newspapers began to report the damage of Hurricane Carol. Some of the numbers are too large to even comprehend. The front page of a paper later reads, “By states the number of affected families was given as 6,000 in Rhode Island, 3,760 in Massachusetts, 1,200 on Long Island in New York and 825 in Connecticut” [26]

Finally, Eisenhower calls a relief effort for the victims of the hurricanes. One newspaper reports, “President Eisenhower today ordered the federal civil defense administration “cut through any red tape” to provide aid for victims of the hurricane which hit the northeaster section of the United states [27]

New England Historical Society
Photograph of the aftermath

Finally when all the rain, wind, dust, and debris settled, there were 7 hurricanes that hit the Americas in the 1954 hurricane season. Hurricane Carol and Hurricane Hazel were so bad that their names were retired from further use.[28] The 1954 Hurricane season was one of the worst that ever hit the coasts of the United States. The 1950s was a time of both prosperity and destruction.

[1] Phone Interview with Sydney Hinkle Buffum, April 24, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 80.

[5] Ibid, 73.

[6] Phone Interview with Sydney Hinkle Buffum, April 24, 2017.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Keller, Richard. “Sport and Television in the 1950’s: A Preliminary Survey,”29

[10] Phone Interview with Sydney Hinkle Buffum, April 24, 2017.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Tranquility of New England Vacation.” New York Times, 10 May 1959, 33. [ProQuest]

[15] Walter R. Davis, “Hurricanes of 1954”, Monthly Weather Review (1954):370

[16]Ibid.

[17]Ibid.

[18] “1954-Hurricane Carol,” Hurricanes: Science and Society, accessed April 23, 2017, http://www.hurricanescience.org/history/storms/1950s/carol/

[19] Phone Interview with Sydney Hinkle Buffum, April 24, 2017.

[20]Davis, 370.

[21] Robert C. Buffum, The Weekapaug Inn: The Best of All Possible Worlds (Robert C. Buffum, 1999), 123.

[22] Ibid, 123.

[23] Davis, 372.

[24] Ibid, 372.

[25] Phone Interview with Sydney Hinkle Buffum, March 22, 2017.

[26] “11,785 Families Hit By Hurricane,” Daytona Beach Morning Journal September 9, 1954, 22.

[27] “Ike Tells CD Chief to Cut Through Red Tape” Spokane Daily Chronicle September 1, 1954, 1.

[28] “Retired Hurricane Names Since 1954,” NOAA, accessed April 27, 2017, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutnames_history.shtml#retired

 

 

Selections from Interview Transcripts

-Phone Interview with Sydney Hinkle Buffum, March 22, 2017

Transcript

Q: Where were you when you heard that the Hurricane was coming?

A: We heard that the hurricane was coming and from Goshen, CT we drove down. We wanted to help since it was the first time they had gone through the hurricane since 1938.

Q: Were any of your possessions lost or damaged during the 1954 Hurricane season?

A: We did lose a bout up in Stonington it went up on the tracks. It tipped over. It was our Trimaran, Wings . We were not on the boat at the time it was broken. We took it out and tied it off as well as we could in the harbor over in Stonington. It was in the Stonington Harbor, but it dragged because it flipped over on one hull and then of course the trampoline and stuff in between acted like a sail. She had two hulls and one hull was up in the air and the trampoline between the two acted like a sail. The wind was coming down the Stonington Harbor so it just blew the boat right a shore and the water pushed the boat up onto the railroad tracks. We didn’t see the boat until the next day. We went to go look at it and Someone came and said, “What is this boat doing on the railroad tracks” and of course Grand Bob with his great sense of humor says, “Oh he was trying to get a ride on the train [down to New York]” We came by and picked it up and took it back to Cape Cod where it was rebuilt.

Q: Did the Weekapaug inn receive any insurance money for damages?

A: The insurance claimed that they wouldn’t pay. After the 1938 Hurricane he made sure to insure the new one [Weekapaug Inn] so that if anything would happen the insurance would cover the cost the repairs. Well they read the contract and it said if the occurrence or problem is off premises then the insurance statement does not have to cover the thing and the insurance salesmen didn’t tell him.. Of course the electricity went off from the wire that came down from Westerly and the town water didn’t work either, but that wasn’t on premises so they wouldn’t pay. So Grand Bob lost a whole weekend and then the people that piled out of there afterwards that didn’t come back for the last weekend of the season. So he lost quite a bit of money, but he didn’t lose a single shingle off the inn. So he actually the only thing he wanted was to get some restitution from money fast. Actually the insurance man was very upset because he didn’t realize that that was really a possibility. That he was only insured if the damage happened on premises. He didn’t read his own insurance policy. You have to read those things yourself sometimes. He [the insurance salesmen] felt very badly about it and he tried to do as much as he could, but it still didn’t help at all. I think they gave him a little bit more money then they ordinarily would have, but they didn’t have to pay the full amount that he lost.

Selections from Interview Transcripts

-Phone Interview with Sydney Hinkle Buffum, April 24, 2017.

Transcripts

Q: Was anything done to prevent this from happening again?

A: A westerly family had lots going down the beach and those that bought them. Bob went around and tried to get everyone to give back their beach area and create an association that they have now. And that’s why they own the beach because people gave them their land, which was no good to them really. The water washed over the whole bank along there. So nobody ever built out there. Bob said “no one is going to be allowed to build out here again” because lives were lost. He went around and got people to sign petitions that the land would never be built upon.

Q: What was the travel experience like in the 1950s?

A: People drove from the Midwest to come here, but they also took the train. There was a lot of people that came from the middle of the country, Illinois, Idiana, Ohio. It was a lot easier for people to travel. It was a golden age…No one had experienced that before. Of course ships and had went down before, but nothing had really destroyed the land

Q: What did people say about what you were doing?

A: What is Sydney doing? Oh she is married to a hotel man they summer in up in Rhode Island and winter down in Florida.

Q: Did you and Grandfather do anything special while you were running the Inn?

A: We carried on the traditions of the Inn. They always had Saturday dances at the Inn. We would have a funny little band. They would clear all the tables and chairs out of the Searoom and people would all dance Saturday night.

Q: Are there any differences in the hospitality business now vs. then?

A: there was a buzzer system. It’s called an enunciator. The people that were in the hotel room they had a wire that came and they had a box in the back office. If somebody rang the buzzer for ice or something like that. The little arrow would flip up to the room number and then the bell hop would run down the hall and would get to the door and ask what they wanted. If they said they wanted ice so then he would take their ice bucket and go down and bring it back. He would get a tip on that. That would go on every single night… The bridge (the third floor) of the inn had communal bathrooms down the hall. One very naughty boy and most rowdy was a minister’s son and he went in one time to the ladies’ room and he went under the stall doors. He locked all the doors. Then in the morning when all the women woke up and went to the bathroom they found all of the doors locked. All the old ladies didn’t think to crawl underneath the stall doors.


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