Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – June, 2011
By Jim Ignasher
Imagine being the first European to settle a wilderness area in the “New World”. There would be no roads to accommodate a wagon, so everything you brought with you would have to be carried on your back. Once you arrived at your destination the daunting task of constructing a home would await you. Failing to complete the work before winter would likely mean freezing to death. The dangers would be many, from hostile natives to wild animals, from natural disasters to sickness and injury, and with no neighbors to call upon for help. You would have to be of hardy stock; self-reliant, and able to improvise, for without those qualities you would be doomed to failure, and possibly never heard from again.
How many of us today, with our comfortable life styles and modern technology would measure up to the task? Probably not many, but thankfully those who came before us did; otherwise Smithfield as we know it today wouldn’t exist.
Every school kid knows that Rhode Island was established in 1636, but it’s hard to picture a time when the tiny settlement of Providence stood alone as the sole light in a vast wilderness. Yet there was such a time, and as the settlement grew to a village, Roger Williams and his followers knew that the wilderness, a.k.a. “The Outlands” must also be settled in order for the state to firmly establish itself. The question was, who would be willing to leave the relative comfort and safety of Providence to inhabit the unknown?
Fortunately it was a time when land ownership meant wealth, social position, and power, for in the beginning, only those who owned land could vote! The earliest settlers of “The Outlands” came as homesteaders, occupying land granted to them by the Town of Providence. The land grant came with stipulations such as mandatory improvements, i.e. construction of a home or mill; a set time-table for said improvements, and the length of time before the land could be sold; subject to approval by the Providence Town Council.
Despite the difficulties and restrictions, there were some who rose to the challenge. One of the first was a man named William Hawkins, who came to our area and founded a small industrial settlement between present day Putnam Pike and Greenville Avenue in 1663. Hawkins was granted fifty acres, and established a home and a mill on the banks of Ripper’s Brook, today known as Reaper’s Brook. Before long, others were attracted to the area and the settlement grew. Over time, the name was changed to “Skeeterville”, presumably because of large populations of mosquitoes, and later to Fountain Spring.
Unfortunately, very little remains of the original settlement which at one time boasted the second fulling mill to be built in Rhode Island, and the first manufacturing plant to produce machinery for textile mills. This was all accomplished nearly a century before Samuel Slater established his famous mill in Pawtucket!
As more people settled “The Outlands” of Providence, talk of incorporation began. There were benefits to incorporating, among them; self-government, and not having to travel to Newport to pay taxes, or to “downtown” Providence to conduct municipal business. (At that time, Newport was the state capitol, and there was no postal system as we know it today.) In February of 1730-31, (depending upon which calendar one uses.) the Rhode Island General Assembly granted charters dividing the “Outlands” into the towns of Smithfield, Glocester, and Scituate.
At the time of its incorporation, The Town of Smithfield included present day Central Falls, Lincoln, North Smithfield, and that portion of Woonsocket located south of the Blackstone River. Central Falls was the business and commerce center of the town, what we might term today as “downtown” Smithfield. Villages like Georgiaville, Greenville, and Esmond, was where the rural “country folk” lived.
The naming of Smithfield is somewhat shrouded in mystery, for no historical records pertaining to the name are known to exist. Some have theorized that the name was due to the large number of families living in the area who shared the last name of Smith, but this would have been true in many places as Smith is a common name even today. A more popular theory states the town is named for an area outside London, England, where many early settlers to the region are said to have immigrated from.
Slightly more than one hundred years after incorporation, the idea of dividing the town was put forth in 1838, and again in 1843, but was rejected by voters both times. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the idea started to gain momentum and was finally put to a vote in 1871.
Why would the residents of Smithfield want to divide the town? For some, size and convenience might have had something to do with it, but for others it was the acquisition for power. Dividing the town would add two additional seats to the Rhode Island Senate, and create new town councils as well as other town officials, committees, etc. in the new communities. As a point of fact, not everyone was in favor of the idea, but not enough to prevent it from happening.
The main concern was that each new town be divided into equal portions, both size wise and taxable income wise. At a special town meeting held January 21, 1871, Thomas Steere spoke in front of a map with lines drawn on it that denoted the present-day boundaries of Smithfield, Lincoln, North Smithfield, and Woonsocket, and asked that voters approve this plan. They did, by a three to one margin.
The next question became what to call the newly created towns? This was the cause of considerable debate, for some weren’t anxious to drop the name of Smithfield. It was finally agreed upon that since Central Falls was where the Smithfield Town Hall was located, that portion would retain the name of Smithfield. (In 1871, Central Falls was still a village within the town. It didn’t incorporate as a city and separate from Lincoln until 1895.)
Those living in Greenville, Georgiaville, Spragueville, Stillwater, and Enfield, (Later Esmond), decided that they could still retain the name Smithfield by calling their new town “West Smithfield”, and those to the north opted for the name of North Smithfield. The villages of Hamlet, Globe and Bernon were annexed to Woonsocket and became part of that municipality. Everyone seemed to be in agreement, but then things don’t always go as planned.
What was to be North Smithfield initially incorporated as the Town of Slater, in honor of mill owner John Slater, but sixteen days later the name was changed to North Smithfield. However the biggest surprise was to the people of Lincoln, who went to bed one evening believing they would still be in Smithfield the following morning, but awoke to find themselves residing in Lincoln after what some termed eleventh-hour “shady dealings” by the General Assembly. The name had been chosen to honor President Abraham Lincoln, but why this was done literally at the last minute was never explained.
The citizens of Lincoln were outraged and vowed to fight the unexpected change. The Woonsocket Patriot reported on March 31, 1871 that, “The inhabitants of this town (Lincoln) will not yield what they consider (their) just and proper rights.” Unfortunately for them, their objections were in vain for the name stuck.
With North Smithfield initially being known as Slater, and what was to have been Smithfield now calling itself Lincoln, those living to the west saw no reason to stick with the name West Smithfield, and incorporated as the town we know today as just plain Smithfield, thereby effectively ending all arguments as to which community would retain the name. Was this all the result of “shady dealings” as the people of Lincoln alleged? With the vast amount of time that has passed, one has to “read between the lines”.
As a point of fact, another vote to divide the Town of Smithfield occurred in 1923, but was thankfully defeated. Eight years later Smithfield celebrated its Bi-centennial as a municipality amid much fanfare. Today the town still prospers and continues to grow. One wonders what thoughts William Hawkins and those like him would have if they could see how the seeds they planted have grown.