Hidden History in Plain Sight

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln has hung in a Smithfield school since 1939, yet few today know the tragic story connected to it.

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln has hung in a Smithfield school since 1939, yet few today know the tragic story connected to it.

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – September, 2013

 By Jim Ignasher

Sometimes, metaphorically speaking, things can hide in plain sight simply because they’ve always been there.  They become part of the landscape, and we pass them by, perhaps many times, hardly noticing and never realizing they have a story connected to them.  The following tales concern three such items in Smithfield: a portrait, a statue, and 133-year-old bell. 

The Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

There is a large oak-framed print hanging in the library of the Smithfield High School depicting a statue of President Abraham Lincoln. One can tell it’s an old print, but only if they take the time to give it more than a passing glance, and even then, there is no plaque citing as to why it is supposed to perpetuity hang in a Smithfield school. 

The story connected to the picture began on beautiful Sunday afternoon, April 22, 1939, when 13-year-old Wilfred Louis Emin Jr. and his two friends, Joseph St. Jean (15) and David Ward (13) ventured out on Stillwater Pond in a canoe.  The boat capsized near the middle of the pond pitching the youths into the cold water.  None were wearing life jackets.  Ward and St. Jean surfaced immediately and clung to the overturned canoe, but Emin had disappeared.  Ward, being a strong swimmer, set out for shore to get help. 

Meanwhile, three men on shore witnessed the boy’s plight and quickly commandeered a row boat to attempt a rescue, but barely twenty feet from shore the tiny boat took on water and sank beneath them. 

After watching the boat founder, a housewife dove fully clothed into the water attempting to reach the boys, but was forced to turn back.  

David Ward made it to shore on his own, and Joseph St. Jean was rescued by Georgiaville firemen, but Wilfred Emin wasn’t found until the following day.  

Wilfred was to graduate from the Irving S. Cook School (Today the administrative offices of the Smithfield School Department) on June 20, 1939.  The picture of Abraham Lincoln was presented to the school by the graduating class as a perpetual memorial to Wilfred.  That is why to this day it still hangs in a Smithfield school.

(The author wishes to thank Dorothy E. (Schenck) Reynolds, formerly of Smithfield, for contributing information relating to this story.  She was a classmate of Wilfred Emin.) 


The Statue of St. Michael

St. Michael’s Church in Georgiaville is named for St. Michael the Archangel, who is the patron saint of police officers.  There is a life-sized statue of St. Michael that stands watch over the church from atop a small hill on the property.  Few may realize how it came to be there.

The statue was made sometime in the early 1950s for a Providence order of Franciscan nuns located in Olneyville.  Years later, when the order re-located to newer quarters, the statue was left behind.  There it remained until 1990, when Richard Kless, a Providence Fire Department arson investigator, happened upon it during an investigation. Realizing that the Statue was of St. Michael, Kless thought of St. Michael’s Church in Georgiaville, and thought it might be nice if it could be re-located there. 

Ownership of the statue was traced to a Massachusetts man who agreed to sell it to the Church for one dollar.  The sale was completed on April 2, 1991.  It was now up to the church to figure out the logistics of transporting the seven-hundred pound statue to Smithfield.  Due to its age and condition, many moving companies weren’t interested in assuming the liability for possible breakage.  Finally Dan Ciotola of Smithfield agreed to undertake the task, and managed to get the statue to his home in Smithfield in one piece.  Over the next four months volunteers painstakingly restored the statue before it was brought to its present location. The official dedication ceremony took place on September 29, 1991, with Father Robert Valentine officiating.

Had the statue not been rescued it would most likely have been destroyed, for the location where it stood for nearly forty years was bulldozed shortly after its removal to make way for new development.


The Old Greenville School Bell

It’s hard to fathom today that there was a time when the average citizen didn’t carry a watch.  Perhaps they didn’t have to, for ringing bells generally told the time.  Churches, mills, and schools of the 19th century typically rang bells to announce when it was time to worship, work, or learn.  The sound of each bell was unique due to its size, shape, and material content. Therefore, there was usually no mistaking which bell was being rung.   

Large bells were usually cast in bronze by professional bell makers; an occupation virtually extinct today.  Bell making was an art, and certain makers were known for producing high quality bells which rang in perfect tune.   Bronze is also more durable than wood, and it is perhaps for this reason that some bells have outlasted the buildings they were meant for, such as in the case of the Old Greenville School Bell.    

The school itself was built in 1874, erected where an art studio and a lawyer’s office now stand near the Greenville Post Office.   The two story structure was actually the third school house to occupy the site, replacing the old Greenville Academy, which replaced an even older building dating to 1804.  

In 1880, a belfry was added to the school to contain a bronze bell cast by the William Blake Company of Boston, Massachusetts.  

The Greenville School remained in operation until 1930, when the William Winsor School on Putnam Pike was completed to accommodate Smithfield’s growing population.  The modern Winsor School had no use for the antique bell so it was left behind.   

In 1939, the old Greenville School was acquired by the Greenville Grange No. 37, an agricultural and fraternal farm organization.  The unused bell remained in the building, and was thankfully overlooked for scrap during World War II.  

On November 29, 1969, a fire broke out in the building, but thanks to some intrepid volunteers, the bell was rescued from the flames, but not before it suffered “battle damage” in the form of chips along its rim from being dropped and dragged.  (The bell is quite heavy.)

Afterwards, members of the grange felt the historic bell should be placed in a more secure and practical place, but the question was, where?  After much discussion it was decided that the bell should go to the Greenville Public Library.  The reasoning was that the land the library currently stands on was donated by Irene Jenckes, who had been a school teacher, and committed to preserving town history.  Unfortunately, the library had no place to properly display the bell so it was kept in storage until 1989, when the library announced plans for a major expansion project.  The new project didn’t include plans for displaying the bell, which revived the debate as to what to do with it.

Some felt the bell should go to the Historical Society of Smithfield.  One man suggested it be placed in the foyer of the Smithfield High School.  These were great ideas, but it was not to be.  The bell was eventually obtained by State Representative Thomas Winfield, who brought it to the Anderson Winfield Funeral Home located in the heart of Greenville.  There, he put it on display where it remains to this day as a piece of local history preserved for future generations. 

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