Williamsburg storyteller, historian Ralmon Black dies at 78

  • Floyd Merritt of Goshen, left, and Ralmon Black discuss a potash kettle that has been on Merritt’s farm for generations, in this undated photo. Black wrote a treatise on the potash industry in New England that is still, years later, almost the only published writing on a product that was of crucial importance to the first European settlers in the region. COURTESY ERIC WEBER

For the Gazette
Wednesday, March 07, 2018

WILLIAMSBURG — Ralmon Jon Black was the quintessential Renaissance man who traveled the world, loved history, supported his community, helped people discover their genealogical roots, and shared his wealth of knowledge with anyone who would listen.

Black died Monday night at Linda Manor after an illness that had forced him to be hospitalized a few times since late December, according to his good friend and colleague Eric Weber of Williamsburg. He was 78.

“Ralmon knew more about the history of Williamsburg than anyone else alive, and he shared it with unfailing generosity with anyone and everyone who came along,” Weber said. The two worked together closely on the Williamsburg Historical Society.

Weber said Black was the unofficial greeter for Williamsburg. He would show up at the homes of new residents to welcome them and tell them all they needed to know about their new community.

He would often regale them with stories of the town and its history and frequently the home they just purchased.

“He was the best friend that I could ever hope to have and his loss will be felt by many — including people that never knew him,” Weber said.

Black was also a primary source of information for many people near and far who were doing genealogical research.

“I first met Ralmon when I was the town clerk and I was always astounded by how much he knew about town government and town history,” Town Administrator Charlene Nardi said. “Whenever I got a request for information on genealogy, he was my go-to person. It was like we worked as partners.”

Town Clerk Brenda Lessard described Black as a “walking history book.”

“Ralmon served on the Historical Commission and he was also on the ZBA when the town’s current bylaws were first written,” she said.

Black also served on the board of directors for Camp Howe in Goshen.

A storied life

The Black family goes back at least four generations in Williamsburg. Black’s home on Goshen Road is a non-working farm that he dubbed “Wildemere.” Once a dairy farm, the property belonged to his father, Lewis Black, and his grandfather before him.

John Merritt of South Street grew up with Black and they remained friends ever since playing together as toddlers.

“Our families were friends before we were even born,” Merritt said.

Merritt said he was always amazed at the accomplishments of his friend who went from being a mediocre student in the town’s small high school, to being an accomplished writer, historian and world traveler.

Merritt said Black attended UMass after high school then served in the U.S. Air Force.

“He has an amazing story,” Merritt said. He went on to detail Black’s adventures.

When he left the Air Force, Black decided to travel the world and though he did it on a shoestring, he was able to collect invaluable treasures along the way.

He painstakingly documented his travels, beginning in Germany, where he learned to speak German and worked in a paper mill. He then traveled through Europe and Scandinavia, the north coast of Africa, hitchhiked to India through the Khyber Pass, then went to Thailand, where he taught English for a while before catching a smuggler’s boat to Borneo. He stayed there awhile then hopped a freighter to Australia, where he worked in Sydney on the railroad.

Merritt said Black then went off to Japan, where he taught English in Tokyo for a time before going to Nepal to hike in the Himalayas. After traveling to Russia, spending time in Siberia and Moscow, he returned home to Williamsburg to settle down and raise a family.

“He had slides of all of his travels and when he returned, he would give talks about his adventures, in churches and grange halls and other places,” Merritt said.

Nardi called Black a giant of a man who was a great storyteller and fun to talk with.

“Every time he would walk into my office I knew it wasn’t going to be a short conversation, but that I would certainly be richer for it,” Nardi said.

Black’s family members said Monday they were not yet ready to speak to the media.

He leaves his wife, Gloria Black, sons Farlin, Collin and Edlin Black, and daughter Vivian Ruth Black, as well as his sister, Candice Black Smith.

“He touched so many people and he loved this community,” Nardi said. “He wanted to make sure everybody knew how wonderful Williamsburg is and to make everyone feel welcome. That says a lot about him as a man.”