Tobey’s Store was the “Capitol” of Smithfield

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – March, 2011

Author’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series of articles.  J.I.  

 ———————————————- 

Tobey’s general store circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt

Tobey’s general store circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt

There is a joke that GPS units don’t work well in Rhode Island because we always give directions by where things used to be.  A case in point is the corner of Route 44 and Smith Avenue, where the Wood Items & More craft supply store is located today.  There are some who still refer to it as, “the old Benny’s hardware store”, even though it hasn’t been Benny’s since about 1970. Others like to point out that at one time it was also the site of Oscar Tobey’s general store, a Greenville landmark that helped to weave the tapestry of Smithfield’s history. Tobey’s was unique in that it was a general store, a post office, a jail, a social center, a stage coach stop, and a make-do town hall, all rolled into one.

Built in the early 1800s, the store was initially run by William Tobey, who leased the building from a local businessman. William’s son Oscar was born in 1837, and grew up helping his father at the family business. Oscar was educated in local schools, and went on to higher learning in Massachusetts before eventually returning to Greenville to run the store when his father retired.

In 1868, Oscar was elected to the Smithfield Town Council, and held his seat until the division of the town in 1871.  Under the new town organization, he was elected Town Clerk, a position responsible for the accurate recording and preservation of town records. 

Before 1871, Smithfield’s Town Hall had been located in Central Falls, but after the division Central Falls became part of Lincoln, leaving Smithfield as we know it today without a formal seat of government.  Since Oscar was the Town Clerk, it was agreed that he should keep all records pertaining to the new town of Smithfield at his store where he could administer to his office between serving customers. 

Above the store was an open hall where town meetings were held, thus establishing Tobey’s as the unofficial Town Hall.  The arrangement seemed to suit most citizens, at least in the beginning, for the costly alternative was to build a permanent Town Hall, and most taxpayers didn’t see the need for that type of commitment just yet.  (In later years it would be a different story, but that’s for another article.)

Greenville’s first post office was established in 1823, and although it is unconfirmed, it’s been said that it was located in the building that housed Tobey’s store.  In later years, beginning in 1861, William, and later Oscar, both served as Greenville’s Post Masters. 

Of collector interest today are the many vintage picture postcards produced by H. Tobey Smith in the early 1900s that were sold and mailed from the store. If one happens to find one of these postcards with a “Greenville” postmark, there’s a chance it was cancelled by Oscar Tobey himself.  

Tobey’s store had two wrought iron cells in the basement that served as a “bridewell” to house prisoners waiting to be brought to court, or who just needed to “sleep it off”.  A bridewell is an old English term meaning jail, and the term was used with regularity in town records up to the 1930s. 

When a prisoner was lodged, a constable was assigned to see to his needs.  Town records indicate that it was the constable’s responsibility to pay for food and other necessities out of their own pocket, and then submit a bill to the Town Council for reimbursement. 

Oscar Tobey died in 1917, and the store came under the new management of Walter A. Battey, and his son Raymond.  Raymond’s son, Ralph Battey, still lives in Greenville and remembers helping at the store as a young boy.  He related how his father and grandfather had run a store in Rockland, (Scituate), but had to relocate due to construction of the Scituate Reservoir. They came to Greenville and leased the store from Nicholas Winsor who owned the building at that time.   

When interviewed at his home with his wife, Dorothy, and daughter Sandi, Ralph recalled that the store was usually busy with customers, those getting their mail, or those socializing around the pot-bellied stove. The post office occupied a small corner, and had a window for buying stamps and sending packages, as well as a wall lined with small mail boxes.  “May Lamb was the postmistress,’ he remembered, ‘and Cora Burlingame was her assistant.”

The town continued to maintain the jail cells in the basement, but Ralph doesn’t remember them being used very often. He said his father kept a pistol under the counter, but the only time he remembered seeing it brought out was the day a group of rough looking characters entered the store.  His father simply placed the gun on the counter and they left.

The store sold a lot of groceries, and Ralph’s father owned three Model-T Ford trucks that made morning and afternoon deliveries. All one had to do in those days was call the store and place an order.  Most of Greenville’s citizens were steady customers who got deliveries every week.

In the pre-dawn hours of January 23, 1924, a fire swept through Greenville which destroyed the store and temporarily put them out of business. They relocated nearby until a new brick building was constructed on the same site.  In fact, the new building was built on the same footprint as the old store, utilizing the original fieldstone foundation.  

W.A. Battey & Son reopened in the new brick building later that same year, and remained there until 1927.  The grocery store continued under a franchise called Nicholson-Thackery, which went out of business during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and was replaced by another grocery chain known as First National Stores.  In the 1950s it became a Benny’s hardware store, and between the 1970s to the early 90s, it was occupied by a milk store, a clothing store, and flooring company.  In 1998, the building was purchased by Maureen and Robert Van Herpe who opened the Wood Items & More craft supplies store, and it remains so today. 

One small mystery related to the building is the approximately eight by ten foot vault located to the rear. Some say it was built to store town records, but research has revealed that this is unlikely, for all town records were permanently transferred to Georgiaville in 1923.  Others think it may have served as a bank vault, but that too seems unlikely since the building was never used as a bank.       

The door to the vault is missing, which makes it hard to determine the age of the vault.  The bent steel of the door frame, combined with the twisted metal of the top hinge bracket, suggests that it was removed in a rather rough fashion – but for what purpose?  Was it done for safety because the combination had been lost, or was it needed for a scrap drive during World War II? (Perhaps someone reading this will know the answer.)

The two 19th Century jail cells are still in the basement, but now they can only be accessed through an outside door, and not from within the building itself.  

Since buying the building in 1998, Maureen and Robert have tried to retain the original character of the structure while making necessary renovations. For generations a business has stood on that site dedicated to serving the community, and the Van Herpe’s hope to continue that tradition.       

———————————————-

Next in the trilogy: The Great Greenville Conflagration of 1924.

 

 

 

 

The Industrial National Bank Disaster

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – November, 2011

This Greenville rescue truck was one of the many pieces of fire apparatus that answered the call for help when disaster struck on the Glocester-Smithfield town line in 1962. Photo by Elwood Kelley, courtesy of John Tucker.

This Greenville rescue truck was one of the many pieces of fire apparatus that answered the call for help when disaster struck on the Glocester-Smithfield town line in 1962. Photo by Elwood Kelley, courtesy of John Tucker.

There is an underground building, more of a bunker really, that is hidden in plain sight at the four-way intersection of Snake Hill Road, West Greenville Road, and Smith Avenue, almost directly on the Smithfield-Glocester town line.  Built during the height of the Cold War in 1962, it was designed to withstand a nuclear attack.  Hundreds of people pass it every day barely aware of its existence let alone the awful tragedy connected to it, for ironically, the building did suffer the effects of an explosion during its construction; a blast that left two men dead and eleven others injured.

For those too young to remember, the Cold War was a time when the United States and the Soviet Union threatened mutual annihilation with nuclear weapons. In 1962, the Russians began building nuclear missile launch sites in Cuba, a move that led to a high-seas showdown between President Kennedy and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev in what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It was the arms race and threat of a nuclear holocaust which led some forward thinkers such as Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon to urge construction of protected sites for the storage of banking and financial records in the hopes that society would continue after the fallout. Thus it was that Industrial National Bank began construction of its ultimate safe-deposit box, an underground vault of re-enforced concrete located twelve miles northwest of Providence in what was then rural Rhode Island.

Construction began in April of 1962, and all was proceeding on schedule until November 23rd, when an explosion tore through the cavernous structure, blackening walls, and blowing both bodies and equipment through doorways and hatches.  For most working at the site, the shock came without warning; one moment they were at their jobs, the next moment they found themselves amidst total chaos and fighting for survival.   

Ernest Imondi, an electrician from Coventry, later related how a welder working in the main part of the building complained to him of a “knock” in the welding system.  Imondi went to an adjacent room to inspect the generator used to power the welding torch, and when he returned he saw flames climbing a wall covered with one-inch thick insulation material.  He grabbed a nearby fire extinguisher but discovered it didn’t work!  As he and others began to shout warnings of “fire”, an explosion occurred.   

Two who felt the effects of the blast were Gerard Desjarlais, and Noe Barrette.  Both were blown through an outside doorway and landed almost forty feet from where they had been standing.   Remarkably, each man suffered only minor injuries, and quickly discovered that their proximity to the doorway had been a blessing.  At least they were outside, away from the smoke and flames, and alive.  Others weren’t as lucky.

One man who was killed was 31 year-old Donald Arndt of Harrisville, who was tasked with insulating pipes in the computer room.  It was only to be a one-day job, and he was nearly finished when the explosion occurred. That morning he had told his wife he would be leaving the construction site at 4 P.M., and expected to be home by five o’clock.  The blast took place at ten minutes to four.   

Robert W. Knight of Knight’s Farm, located directly across the street, reported that he saw twenty to thirty foot flames shoot from an escape hatch atop the building, followed a few seconds later by black smoke.

Within moments of the explosion, acrid smoke permeated the building, disorienting and choking those still inside.  Men working close to the source of the flames suffered burns on various parts of their bodies, and were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to escape. 

In all, there were about thirty workmen present at the time of the accident. While most made it out, one who didn’t was 62 year-old Vincent Mulvey, an electrician from Pawtucket who found himself pinned beneath some staging.   Charles S. Wilson Jr., a civil engineer and sport-scuba diver from Providence was in the parking lot at the time of the explosion, and when he heard that a man was trapped inside, he ran to his car and retrieved his scuba tank from the trunk.  With the help of Edward Milazzo, he entered the building and located Mulvey. 

Wilson tried to teach Mulvey how to “buddy-breathe” off the scuba tank while he and Milazzo struggled to free him, but were unable to do so.  When the air in the scuba tank ran out they were forced to abandon their mission and withdraw from the building.  As it was, both Wilson and Milazzo had to be treated for smoke inhalation.    

Meanwhile, sirens were wailing at fire stations in Harmony, Greenville, Georgiaville, North Providence, and Scituate, as volunteers rushed from their homes and jobs to man the fire trucks.  Fire engines from Harmony and Greenville were the first to arrive, and Chief William Corbin of the Harmony department took command.  The danger was far from over.  A fire in an underground building of this type presented special challenges, especially with only one way in or out.  Corbin knew firefighters would have to lay hose lines and snake their way through the structure to hit the flames at their source, all the while enduring heat, smoke, and other dangers. The situation became even more acute when Corbin was informed that some workers were unaccounted for.  He had no choice but to order some men into the building to fight the flames and search for the missing, while directing others to care for the injured.

One firefighter tasked with search and rescue operations was 17 year-old Robert Aldrich of Harmony, who still lives about a mile from the disaster site.  In a recent interview he related how he responded to the scene from his home, and upon his arrival, was told that three men were trapped inside.  As he was donning his air-pack and other protective gear, one of the missing was carried from the building.  That left two men still unaccounted for.   

With disregard for his own safety, Aldrich entered the smoky structure alone, with nothing more than a hand-held floodlight connected to a portable generator by a series of extension cords daisy-chained together.

“The smoke was so thick that at first I couldn’t even tell if the light was on!” he recalled.

Aldrich maneuvered his way through the inky darkness along a series of wooden planks and ramps traveling a considerable distance into the structure.  Suddenly, through the smoke, he could hear the alarm bell of another firefighter’s air-pack sounding, indicating that the tank was low on air.  Although he could see nothing, he moved towards the sound in case his comrade needed help.  As he did so, he was bowled over in the darkness, presumably by the other firefighter who was understandably in a hurry to exit the building. As he recovered, Aldrich suddenly found himself in a dire situation, for he had dropped the floodlight which served as his only lifeline with outside world.  Without it, he couldn’t follow the cord to backtrack his way out of the building!  As he crawled about in near total blackness feeling for the floodlight cable that would lead him to safety, his own air supply began to run low!  

Aldrich remembered his training and didn’t panic.  When his air supply ran out, he removed his face mask, and began gulping air from the space between his body and his fire coat.  In this way the air was somewhat filtered, but he couldn’t go on that way for very long.  It was then he found a ramp that seemed familiar and followed it.  Luckily it proved to be the right way to salvation, or he might have become a third fatality in the incident.  As it was, he developed pneumonia due to smoke inhalation and spent five days in the hospital.  Fortunately he suffered no long-term effects, and went on to serve another twenty-eight years as a volunteer with the Harmony Fire Department. 

Another volunteer firefighter who was at the scene that day was 20 year-old John Tucker of Greenville. John remembered how he could see black smoke billowing in the distance from his home on West Greenville Road, and drove to the scene in his car. He arrived at the same time as one of the fire-rescue trucks; “I don’t remember if it was Greenville’s or Harmony’s’ he stated, ‘but I took an air-pack from the truck and began putting it on.” As he was doing so, a construction foreman ran over to him and asked to take the air-pack because he knew the layout of the building and Tucker didn’t.  The young fireman had to make a quick decision; if he went in not knowing the structure’s floor plan he might be wasting valuable time. The foreman, he reasoned, would be familiar with the building, and more importantly, where men had been working at the time of the blast.  With visibility in the building at near zero it seemed like the best course of action, and Tucker gave the man the air pack.

Tucker then focused his attention on three men with soot-blackened faces suffering from smoke inhalation.  After assisting them aboard one of the rescue trucks he accompanied them to Roger Williams Hospital.  After turning the patients over to physicians, the rescue raced back to the scene.

“Smoke was still coming from the building when we got back.’  Tucker recalled, ‘so after suiting up I entered the building with a booster line (fire hose) and life-line (rope) tied around my waist to put out a few remaining hot spots.”   

Smoke and flames weren’t the only dangers emergency workers faced that day as evidenced by the experience of another firefighter, 19 year-old Laurence Sasso Jr., who responded with Greenville’s rescue truck.  He recalled how the heavy vehicle became stuck in wet mud up to its chassis, and when the truck’s portable generators were put into service to power floodlights and exhaust fans, the truck became electrified!  One fireman who touched the truck while standing on the wet ground became frozen in place unable to let go, and Sasso was forced to give him a hard shove to save him from possible electrocution!

Thankfully that fireman didn’t suffer any serious harm, but fellow Greenville firefighter, 26 year-old Robert Broady, required hospital treatment for smoke inhalation.

The bodies of Donald Arndt, and Vincent Mulvey weren’t recovered until after the fire was out.  Arndt was found in the main storage room of the building, but there was a delay in his identification because he had forgotten his wallet at home that morning.  Mulvey was found in a separate room still pinned beneath staging.  Reverend Joseph P. Hynes of St. Phillip’s Church in Greenville administered last rites to both men.  As to the living, besides Aldrich and Broady, nine others received injuries serious enough to require medical attention.  

An investigation into the cause of the disaster was conducted by state troopers assigned to the State Fire Marshall’s Office, along with investigators from the Rhode Island Department of Labor.  Unfortunately copies of their reports were unobtainable for this article, but it was speculated at the time that the blast was caused by the ignition of flammable glue vapors produced by sprayers used to apply glue to the walls before attaching insulation.

Despite the devastating tragedy, structural damage to the building was minimal.  Construction was scheduled to be completed by January of 1963, but delays set the opening back until the following summer.  When the facility opened, it became one of the first non-government underground computer centers in the United States. The building is still in operation today, storing and protecting important records as it was designed to do, however it is no longer owned or occupied by Industrial National Bank.   

Long Lost Local Lore about Lightning

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – August, 2010

Long Lost Local Lore about LightningIt was May 3, 1878, and Daniel Aldrich was tending to his farm on Log Road when he heard the rumble of thunder in the distance, but thought nothing of it.  It was after all, mid-spring, generally not the time to worry about severe electrical storms. The next time he heard it the sound was closer, and he noticed the sky was now visibly darker.  The storm was getting closer, and even before the first drops began to fall, Daniel noted that the air now “smelled” like rain.  Just to be on the safe side, he went into the barn to feed the livestock until the storm passed.

He was hardly inside when the skies opened up and the rain began pelting the roof, but what came next was an experience he would always remember.  There was a blinding flash of light followed by a tremendous clap of thunder that seemed to erupt almost directly overhead, the sound of which seemed to shake the solid oak timbers of the barn.  That was startling enough, but what happened next was even more remarkable.  Almost immediately, several orbs of glowing light came bounding through the door and began dancing about the barn!  Before Daniel could even comprehend and react to what was happening, the orbs abruptly vanished leaving behind the distinctive smell of sulfur, often referred to in the 19th Century as “brimstone”, a sure omen of evil.

The whole ordeal was over in a few seconds, but Daniel and his livestock were left understandably shaken.  Emerging from the barn he could see that the only real casualty of the incident was an ancient Ash tree fifty feet away that had been split into three parts, its bark completely blown away by the bolt of lightning.  Even more intriguing were the three darkened pathways leading away from the tree; one directly to the door of the barn, where the lightning had evidently traveled underground.  

The incident was so unusual that it was reported in the Woonsocket Patriot where the event was described as one of “considerable excitement”. 

What Daniel had apparently witnessed was an extremely rare phenomenon known today as “ball lightning”.  It’s so unusual that some scientists dispute its existence, but it’s likely that if Daniel were around today he would argue the point.

A lightning storm can be fascinating to watch.  We see a flash of light, followed by a tremendous boom, and count off the seconds between the two to roughly determine how far off the storm is.  The spectacular light shows provided courtesy of Mother Nature can be beautiful, yet destructive and deadly, so we observe with reverent care.  Few spectators ever consider how lighting has played a role in the course of history.  

It is believed that early man got his first fire from lightning strikes.  Ancient civilizations thought of thunder and lightning as a sign that the gods were angry, and planned their politics and wars accordingly. 

Benjamin Franklin attempted to scientifically understand the properties of lightning, and the image of him flying a kite in the middle of an electrical storm comes to mind, although experts and historians are divided as to whether that actually happened.  What Franklin did invent was the lightning rod, no doubt responsible for saving many buildings (Some even in Smithfield.) that might otherwise have been destroyed.   

Lightning has even played a role in shaping local history, for it could be said that lightning was responsible for Smithfield obtaining its first fire engine which ultimately led to the formation of the Greenville Fire Company. On the night of June 20, 1870, as a thunderstorm passed over Greenville, lightning struck Whipple & Co. Wheelwright Shop located in the heart of the village on Putnam Pike where a florist shop stands today.  As shouts of “fire” sounded, a bucket brigade was hastily formed, but the flames had gotten a good start and before long a neighboring building was also in flames.  By morning, all that was left were piles of smoldering ruins.

The incident proved the need for better fire protection so a horse drawn hand-pumper, dubbed “The Water Witch”, was purchased shortly afterwards.  The apparatus arrived in Greenville in time for the July 4th celebration that year, and saw continuous service into the early 20th Century no doubt saving lives, livelihoods, and property that otherwise would have been lost.  

It could be argued that Smithfield’s landscape in the 1800s made for a greater potential for lighting strikes to buildings and people.  By the second half of the 19th Century, the land had been cleared of many trees, leaving large tracts of open vistas as wood was harvested for everything from lumber, to heating and cooking.  Although there are instances where buildings were set afire by lightning strikes, a search of town death records reveals that lightning strikes on people were just as rare then as they are today.  Unfortunately, when they did occur, it was with tragic results.

On May 27, 1878, just four weeks after Mr. Aldrich’s hair raising affair, four men arrived at Waterman’s Lake for a day of canoeing and fishing.   It was a beautiful day and the fishing was good.  After awhile, the men rowed ashore to an island in the middle of the lake where they cleaned their catch and built a small fire.  As they were preparing their meal a fast moving storm came over and rain started to fall.  The men weren’t overly concerned, and stayed relatively dry under the pines while waiting for the return of the sun.  Suddenly a bolt of lightning hit the very tree they were sitting under, blasting it apart and tossing the men several feet.  A newspaper account described the men as “mangled” by the strike.  Killed instantly were Daniel Norton, of Smithfield, and William Colvin, of Scituate.  The other two men, Jeremiah Angel, and Daniel’s brother Eugene, were severely injured.  

Even large and sturdy buildings such as textile mills were not immune from the destructive forces of lightning.  On March 21, 1940, Smithfield’s fire and police departments were summoned to the Lister Mill in Stillwater after a bolt of lightning had struck the 180 foot tall smoke stack and completely blasted away the upper two-thirds of the solid brick structure.  Tons of debris came crashing down through the roof smashing equipment, damaging machinery, and injuring three workers.  To make matters worse, the bolt had also set fire to the roof, and the whole structure could have been destroyed had it not been for the quick actions of both workers and firemen in dousing the flames.  Damage was estimated at fifty-thousand dollars, a substantial sum even today, and a remarkable sum for 1940.    

It has been said that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, yet the very same chimney had also been hit by lightning two years earlier causing eight-thousand dollars in damage.   

Smithfield has seen its share of lightning strikes, and will no doubt see more in the future.  In recent times lightning has been responsible for the disruption of power and phone service.  A small inconvenience when one considers what else can happen.

 

The Mystery of the Water Witch

By Jim Ignasher

Greenville’s first fire engine, the Water Witch, mysteriously vanished without a trace. Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt

Greenville’s first fire engine, the Water Witch, mysteriously vanished without a trace. Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt

This is the tale of Greenville’s first fire engine known as the Water Witch, and its unexplained disappearance during World War II.  Rumors and speculation surround the mystery.  Some have claimed she was lost to a scrap drive during the war, while others, in a twist of irony, believe she was destroyed in a barn fire.  Still others have ventured she was sold to a private collector.  And some believe she is still around, hidden away in a neighboring town. Whatever the case, those who know her true fate have refused to tell, while others have continued to search.  Perhaps someone reading this can help solve the mystery.    

It all began with a thunderstorm that swept through Greenville on the night of June 20, 1870, during which lightning set fire to Whipple’s Wheelwright Shop in the heart of the village.   Volunteers formed a bucket brigade, but the flames spread quickly, and before long an adjacent building owned by Barnes & Sprague was also ablaze.  A newspaper report of the incident stated that a man named Martin was badly injured when he fell from a ladder while helping to remove items of value before the flames could consume them.  Both buildings were a complete loss, and only one was partially insured.

Besides being a blow to Greenville’s economy, the blaze made it clear that the village needed something better than bucket brigades in the way of fire protection.  Over the next few days, Martin Mann of Greenville began soliciting donations to purchase a fire engine.  At a special meeting held in the Greenville Baptist Church he announced that he had collected pledges of $366.00 thus far, and urged others to contribute.  Mann had also taken it upon himself to locate fire engines that might be for sale, and after some discussion it was decided that a hand-tub engine belonging to the Dexter Hose Company of Pawtucket would be best suited to the needs of the village.

The fire engine was purchased for $475.00, with additional money spent on hose lines.  It arrived in Greenville on July 4th amidst much fanfare which included a parade, a brass band, and refreshments served on the common. The engine was dubbed the Water Witch, although it’s unclear at this time weather the name was given by those of the Dexter Hose Company, or by the citizens of Greenville. 

The Water Witch was a “hand-tub” that required a team of strong men to operate – at least five men on each side who would operate long pump handles to draw water from a pond or cistern, while other firemen directed hose streams at the flames.  She would arrive at a fire being pulled by a team of horses or men with ropes.  Such apparatus were already obsolete by 1870 with the advent of steam powered fire engines, but still a great improvement over bucket brigades.

It could be said that the arrival of the Water Witch was the beginning of Smithfield’s fire department as we know it today, for it was the first fire engine in what is now Smithfield after the town was divided in 1871.

Historical Society of Smithfield photo

Historical Society of Smithfield photo

Greenville’s fledgling fire company was called “The Rescue Fire Engine Company”, and Andrew B. Whipple was elected the first fire chief. Martin Mann, whose efforts were responsible for obtaining the Water Witch, was elected First Assistant Forman, a title known today as Deputy Chief. 

The Water Witch was first housed in a barn owned by Mrs. Abby Evans, but in 1885 it was re-located to the basement of the National Exchange Bank of Greenville.  This sturdy brick building still stands on Putnam Pike at the intersection of Smith Avenue.   

Thanks to the Water Witch and the men of the Rescue Fire Engine Company, some notable landmarks were saved.  Among them were the Resolved Waterman Tavern, and the Greenville Baptist Church, both of which were hit by lightning, as well as several “historic” homes that still remain standing. The Water Witch served Greenville for many years until motorized fire engines made even “steamers” obsolete. 

Firefighters are a traditional lot, proud of their history, and dedicated to preserving it.  It is for this reason that the men of Greenville decided to keep the historic Water Witch for parades and special functions. 

During the 1920s and ‘30s the Greenville Fire Company (as it came to be called.) began to acquire motor driven fire engines and quickly outgrew their fire station under the bank.  By 1939 the organization had moved into a new fire station on Putnam Pike which is still in use today. Oral history of the Greenville Fire Company states that by the late 1930s storage space for the Water Witch became a concern, but the problem seemed to be solved when members of the Chepachet Fire Company asked to use the vintage fire engine in Glocester’s annual Ancients and Horribles Parade.  The engine was loaned on the condition that Chepachet store it for the time being.  Then the United States was drawn into World War II and the young men of both communities left to serve their country.  It wasn’t until after the war that men from Greenville went to retrieve the Water Witch only to be told that it had disappeared, and nobody seemed to know what happened to it.   

Inquiries were made, but to no avail.  Some said the old fire engine had been discarded to a scrap drive during the war, but it seemed unlikely that Chepachet’s firefighters would have allowed the destruction of such a valuable and historic antique.  For the next twenty-plus years the fate of the Water Witch remained a bone of contention between the two towns. 

Greenville Fire Company - Circa 1900. Priscilla Holt photo

Greenville Fire Company – Circa 1900. Priscilla Holt photo

In 1970, as the Greenville Fire Company made preparations to celebrate its 100th Anniversary, a renewed effort was made to recover the long lost Water Witch.  Information was received from a Chepachet resident that she was hidden in a barn at a Glocester cemetery, and men from Greenville went to investigate.

At first the caretaker reportedly refused to allow anyone to look inside, but later, when permission was granted, all that was found was an old horse-drawn hearse. 

The matter was never resolved, and in later years a rumor circulated that the Witch had been stored in the barn of a “collector”, but the barn had reportedly burned down and the old gal was lost at that time. The exact location and date of this fire is unknown.  Another story surfaced that she was sold to a collector in Coventry who later donated her to a museum, but this was never verified.  

The mystery was brought to light again in a 1987 Providence Journal article titled; “Fire Officials In Two Towns Disagree About Who Owned A Lost Antique Fire Truck”.  According to the article, both Chepachet and Greenville were claiming ownership of the missing fire engine!  Members of the Chepachet Fire Department at that time had been told that it was Greenville firemen who had borrowed the engine from their station and never brought it back, however the Chepachet fire captain who spoke with the reporter acknowledged that he didn’t know if the story was true or not.

The article went on to point out that neither town had records to prove ownership which would seem to leave the matter in legal limbo should the Water Witch ever be found. However, research has uncovered information that seems to support Greenville’s claim.  Newspaper articles from the Woonsocket Patriot, report of the lightning strike to Whipple’s Wheelwright Shop in Greenville, the subsequent purchase of a fire engine, and the formation of “The Rescue Fire Engine Company”.   

Additionally, publisher and historian Laurence J. Sasso Jr. researched and later wrote about the history of the Greenville Fire Company in a 100th anniversary supplement published in The Observer on October 1, 1970.  His extensive article, which spanned twelve pages, included information about the Water Witch that was gleaned from original hand-written Greenville Fire Company records.  

Furthermore, there are at least three different vintage photographs known to exist depicting Greenville firemen posing with the Water Witch in front of the old National Exchange Bank of Greenville.  All three images pre-date World War II. 

Ownership aside, the original question still remains; what happened to the Water Witch?   In recent years the rumors have quieted to a whisper as those with first-hand, and even second-hand knowledge fade away. There are those who believe the Water Witch still exists, perhaps hidden away in a secret location known only to a select few, and it is for this reason that they continue the search. 

The last active search for the missing antique fire engine took place in 2006 when a delegation of aging Greenville volunteers once again tried to solve the riddle.  Unfortunately they were unsuccessful, and while some have since passed away, the mystery lives on.

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲