Two generations ago, the Westerly Armory was a busy place. Dances were held in the spacious drill hall. Car shows were hosted here, and poultry shows were well attended. Celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald performed for sold-out crowds. The Armory is a massive structure, built like a brick castle. Within its sturdy walls, much of Westerly’s civic life once unfolded.
“It was the hub of social activity, right through the 1950s,” says Roberta Mudge Humble, founding president of Westerly Armory Restoration, Inc. and co-creator of The People’s Museum. “Then things started to drop off,” she adds. “People stopped coming here.”
Roberta is a force of nature. She speaks in quick, precise sentences, as if trying to keep up with her whirring mind. She taught professional writing at the Community College of Rhode Island for 47 years, and she can clearly explain a gamut of topics: local war heroes, international firearms, hand-carved model airplanes, antique dolls, and the street value of a Medal of Valor. Passing the rehearsal room, she mentions that the Westerly Band was founded in 1852, making it the oldest continuously active civic band in the country.
A Westerly native, Roberta didn’t think much about the Armory until 1992, when she started volunteering there. The nearly-century-old structure had seen better days; four years later, the National Guard ceased using the Armory at all.
Roberta conscripted her ex-husband, John Humble, to help resuscitate the neglected facility. Today, Westerly Armory Restoration, Inc. has an energetic leadership committee and its own battalion of volunteers. To help everyday locals connect with their history, Roberta created Rhode Island Books & Games; she has published numerous chapbooks on Ocean State culture, such as Sing Rhode Island and The BIG Rhode Island Quiz. The museum has amassed a diverse collection of artifacts, from uniforms to paintings to toys. More than just rooms full of militaria, The People’s Museum is also an homage to Westerly’s civilian past, including sports, industry, and women’s fashion.
On May 18, the Armory will host the Westerly 350 Encore Gala, celebrating the three-and-a-half centuries since the town was founded. The museum has also begun its Marching in Time campaign; proceeds will benefit the renovation of the lower level, radically expanding its floor space and collections.
“I want it to be about community,” says Roberta. “The military is not a separate world. They’re part of us.”