Setting The Record Straight

Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine


By Jim Ignasher

An early postcard view of the Harmony Cemetery in Glocester, R. I.

     Oscar A. Tobey was one of Smithfield’s most popular and distinguished residents of the 19th Century. He served on the Town Council from 1868 until 1871, before being elected Town Clerk, a position he held for over 45 years. To this day, he is noted for being the longest serving Town Clerk of any municipality in Rhode Island. When he died in 1917, he was laid to rest in Harmony Cemetery, located on Route 44, a short distance from the Smithfield town line, and that is where this story continues.

     Tobey’s great-granddaughter, Priscilla W. Holt has been a member of the Harmony Cemetery and Chapel Association since 1980, and wants to set the record straight about a few things relating to the cemetery. Although the cemetery lies in Glocester, many former Smithfield residents lie in repose there, but until rather recently, one might have been hard pressed to find a complete list of their names.

     Priscilla herself, grew up in Smithfield, and presently lives on the shore of Waterman’s Lake with her husband, Hubert. During her tenure with the Harmony Cemetery and Chapel Association, certain questions arose to which nobody seemed to have answers. For example, she discovered that no map existed showing the complete cemetery. The burial plots were laid out on three separate maps representing different potions of the cemetery, but there was no master map that put everything in context. Furthermore, much of the information as to who was supposed to be buried, and where, was missing.

     The cemetery dates to the early 1800s, and most of the burials took place during the later half of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, so the sloppy record keeping couldn’t be attributed on anyone currently serving with the association, but Priscilla felt this was unacceptable, and set out on her own to find the missing information. What followed were several years of painstaking research.

     Her first stop was the Glocester Town Hall, but she soon found out that the town had no burial records for the Harmony Cemetery. Worse yet, the clerk she said she spoke to seemed totally unaware that there was a Harmony Cemetery! Once Priscilla assured her that such a place did exist, the clerk recalled driving past it from time to time, and stated that she thought only three or four people were buried there. Priscilla informed her that the number was closer to four hundred!

     Reaching out to the Glocester Historical Society also proved fruitless, so Priscilla was forced to spend many hours doing her own research which included: pouring over town records, searching the internet, and digging through old newspaper archives. Over time she pieced the facts together.

     The cemetery itself was established in 1805, when Nehemiah Tinkham purchased two acres of land for ninety dollars. The cemetery was expanded three times after that which accounts for the three different maps. Priscilla has since drawn up a new map (On her own.) which for the first time shows all three parcels of land on one map, complete with the names of who is buried in the plots.

     One of the graves at Harmony Cemetery belongs to Charles Whipple, a Greenville “undertaker” who likely escorted many of those lying near him to their own final resting place.

     Besides the Tobey family, names such as Steere, Smith, and Winsor, are also well represented.

     Other graves include William Tinkham, who was president of the Woonasquatucket Railroad Company that was chartered in 1872, which later changed its name to the Providence and Springfield Railroad. Tinkham and his board of directors were responsible for bringing the railroad to Smithfield in the 1870s. (The tracks were removed in the 1960s.)

     Priscilla’s research has also revealed a few graves that for whatever reason bear no headstone or marker of any kind. In two cases there are small unmarked stones, presumably for babies who died at birth or shortly afterward.

     One grave is believed to contain the remains of a German immigrant who was possibly the hired hand for a prominent Smithfield family. When the man died, it was said that nobody came to claim the body, so he was buried in Harmony at the family’s expense.

     The cemetery also contains a curious small headstone bearing the name, “Colonel Chico”. This grave dates to 1957, making it one of the newer burials, but the corpse resting therein is not that of a human, but of a monkey! “Colonel Chico” was the pet of an association member who Priscilla states buried it without the knowledge of others, which created quite a controversy at the time.

     The cemetery also has a chapel, an unassuming white building just a few feet off Putnam Pike that could easily be mistaken for someone’s house. It is currently occupied and maintained by the historic preservation group, Friends of Harmony Village.

     For years, many had been under the impression that the chapel was originally a school house built in 1828 that was moved to its present location in the later part of the1800s. However, research conducted by members of the Friends of Harmony Village discovered that this was not the case. A search in Glocester deed book Number 18, proved that the chapel had been built on its present site in 1816. An expert who examined the structure during its restoration concurred that the building had never been moved.

     Priscilla discovered further documentation that proved the building was used as a Baptist meeting house in 1820, before the First Freewill Baptist Church in Greenville was built in 1822.

     Over the years, Priscilla has collected a lot of information about the cemetery, including copies of land records, newspaper clippings, and even old photographs. She keeps everything in organized file folders, and for the first time, virtually all of the information about the Harmony Cemetery can be found in one place.

     Her research also led her to write a through and complete history of the cemetery, copies of which she has given to the Glocester Town Hall, and the Harmony Library to set the record straight, and so the information will be available to future genealogists and historians.


Tobey Store Burglary – 1892

Article from The Olneyville Times, March 4, 1892.

For more information about Oscar Tobey, click here.

Tobey’s Store stood at the corner of Rt. 44 and Smith Avenue.  It burned to the ground in the 1920s. 

Greenville, R.I. Postmasters, 1823 to 2005

     Information provided by Tom Green of North Providence, R. I.

     The Enfield Post Office was in existence from January 17, 1881 to October 15, 1908.  It then became the Esmond Post Office on October 16, 1908.  The original Esmond Post Office was located on Esmond Street near Waterman Avenue.   It was later moved to Waterman Avenue just south of Esmond Street.  

     The Georgiaville Post Office opened October 19, 1852 and closed on August 31, 1955.    

     Today the post office that serves Esmond and Georgiaville is located at the intersection to Farnum Pike and Old County Rd. 

     The restored train station presently at the Smith-Appleby House property served as a post office from September 18, 1886 to January 31, 1914. 

     The post office that once existed in the village of Stillwater was in operation from May 23, 1877 to June 30, 1924. 



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’s 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.





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