Town Hall, Warren, R. I.

Click on image to enlarge.

Tour the Smith-Appleby House, Decorated for Christmas, on Dec. 19

Smith-Appleby- Teddy-Bear-Christmas-treeTour the Smith-Appleby House — festively decorated from floorboards to rafters to celebrate Christmas — on Saturday, December 19, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Visitors will delight in the beautiful Holiday trimmings as volunteers from the Historical Society of Smithfield in Colonial-era dress host tours of the historic 319-year-old house.

The Smith-Appleby House dates to 1696 and was built by Elisha Smith, the grandson of John Smith “The Miller,” a member of Roger Williams’ original party of six men who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to start the colony of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636.

Expanded from its original construction as a one-room stone-ender cottage, the delicately restored 12-room historic farmhouse features beautiful cabinet work, varied architectural designs, original stencils, and furnished rooms showcasing an intriguing collection of antiques.

There is a $5 donation for adults. Children are free. No reservations are needed.

Visit the Smith-Appleby House at 220 Stillwater Road in Smithfield, RI, just off I-295.

In case of inclement weather, check our website at or call 401-231-7363 for cancellation information.

Bring the Kids to Share Christmas Wishes & Photos with Santa & Mrs. Claus at Smith-Appleby House on Dec. 6

15795058740_fda593e509_oBring the kids to share their Christmas wishes and take photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus at the historic Smith-Appleby House in Smithfield, RI, on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

15795056820_05b61d9448_o Visitors to “Christmas Wishes & Photos with Santa & Mrs. Claus at the Smith-Appleby House” will also enjoy homemade holiday treats as volunteers in Colonial-period dress present the history of the 315-year-old family farm home.

Christmas02The Smith-Appleby House dates to 1696 and was built by Elisha Smith, the grandson of John Smith “The Miller,” a member of Roger Williams’ original party of six men who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to start the colony of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636. Expanded from its original construction as a one-room stone-ender cottage, the delicately restored 12-room historic farmhouse features beautiful cabinet work, varied architectural designs, original stencils, and furnished rooms showcasing an intriguing collection of antiques.

There is a $5 donation for adults. Children are free. No reservations are needed.

The Smith-Appleby House is located at 220 Stillwater Road in Smithfield, RI, just off I-295. For more information, call (401) 231-7363 or email

The House is owned and operated by the Historical Society of Smithfield, RI, as a living museum hosting a variety of educational activities, programs, and events throughout the year. Group tours are available for schools, scouts, and other community organizations. The House and property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are also available to rent for private events. For more information, visit the website at or follow on Facebook at and on Twitter at


Antiques, Collectibles, and New England Crafts Show at Smith-Appleby House, Sunday, Oct. 4th

Please join us at our third annual Smith-Appleby Antiques, Collectibles, and New England Crafts Show on Sunday, October 4, 2015, on the grounds of the Smith-Appleby House, 220 Stillwater Road, Smithfield, RI.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., visit antique dealer booths featuring historic, vintage, and collectible items. See a live blacksmith demonstration, spinners, and a wool demonstration. There will be many quality craft artisans’ booths of handmade soaps, baskets, various country items, baked goods, and more.

In addition, everyone is encouraged see and hear what daily life was really like in Colonial Rhode Island during the American Revolutionary War era — by taking a tour of the rooms and exhibits of the historic Smith-Appleby House. Tours are led by educators and history enthusiasts in Colonial dress.

The Smith-Appleby Antiques, Collectibles, and New England Crafts Show will run from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., rain or shine. Admission to the show is free. House tours are $5 for adults and free for children.

The Smith-Appleby House, which dates to 1696, was built by Elisha Smith, the grandson of John Smith “The Miller,” a member of Roger Williams’ original party of six men who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to settle in Providence. Expanded from its original construction as a one-room stone-ender cottage, the delicately restored 12-room historic farmhouse features beautiful cabinet work, varied architectural designs, original stencils, and furnished rooms showcasing an intriguing collection of antiques.

The Smith-Appleby House is located at 220 Stillwater Road in Smithfield, RI, just off I-295. The House is owned and operated by the Historical Society of Smithfield, RI, as a living museum hosting a variety of educational activities, programs, and events throughout the year. Group tours are available for schools, scouts, and other community organizations. The House and property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are also available to rent for private events. For more information, visit the website at Follow the Smith-Appleby House on Facebook at and on Twitter at

Learn to Weave with Hand Looms at a Free Workshop on Sunday, Aug. 9

SMITHFIELD, RI — Take a step back in time and learn to weave using a hand loom at the Smith-Appleby House in Smithfield, RI, on Sunday, August 9, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

All ages are welcome to join the free “Learn to Weave with Hand Looms” workshop to learn a once-common skill of days gone by. Participants will take home their finished project as a useful souvenir — their own woven bookmark. The workshop is free.

After the workshop, you’re invited to tour the rooms and exhibits of the Smith-Appleby House, which dates to 1696. It was built by Elisha Smith, the grandson of John Smith “The Miller,” a member of Roger Williams’ original party of six men who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to settle in Providence. Expanded from its original construction as a one-room stone-ender cottage, the delicately restored 12-room historic farmhouse features beautiful cabinet work, varied architectural designs, original stencils, and furnished rooms showcasing an intriguing collection of antiques. For tours of the house, the adult admission is $5; children are free.

The Smith-Appleby House is located at 220 Stillwater Road in Smithfield, RI, just off I-295.

The historic Smith-Appleby House is owned and operated by the Historical Society of Smithfield, RI, as a living museum hosting a variety of educational activities, programs, and events throughout the year. Group tours are available for schools, scouts, and other community organizations. The House and property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are also available to rent for private events. For more information, visit the website at Follow the Smith-Appleby House on Facebook at and on Twitter at

Rhode Island’s First State Police

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine, July – 2013

By Jim Ignasher

In 1874, the Rhode Island Legislature created a special squad of state police constables to enforce newly enacted prohibition laws.

In 1874, the Rhode Island Legislature created a special squad of state police constables to enforce newly enacted prohibition laws.

This is not an article about the present-day Rhode Island State Police, an agency which was established in 1925, but rather it‘s about the state’s first statewide police force, a long defunct organization which existed nearly fifty years earlier that few have ever heard of.   

The Rhode Island State Police Constabulary, as it was called, was established by an act of the Rhode Island General Assembly on June 25, 1874.  The organization was not a state police agency as we know it today, for their authority was limited to the enforcement of Rhode Island’s liquor prohibition laws.    

 The formation of a state police force was in response to political pressure brought by certain religious and civic organizations who believed that alcohol consumption led to a host of social problems and immoral behavior, and should therefore be banned.  They highlighted cases where men squandered their paychecks on booze while their families went hungry, and declared that money wasted in saloons hurt the economy via unsold merchandise in local stores.  

One may be surprised to learn that these well meaning groups began their crusade in the early 1800s, nearly one-hundred years before the infamous “Prohibition Era” of the 1920s. 

Of course, not everyone considered the consumption of alcohol to be a problem, particularly those who made their living from producing, transporting, or serving it, or by those who enjoyed consuming it, which seemed to be the majority of the voting block.  Even religious leaders disagreed on the issue with some preaching total abstinence, while others urged moderation.  It was for reasons such as these that little action was taken by state politicians for the first half of the 19th century.  Then in 1852, those involved with the temperance movement succeeded in getting the “Maine Law” passed, which essentially banned the sale and consumption of “spirits” in Rhode Island.  Enforcement of the law was left to county sheriffs and local police, and was often selective at best, until the law was finally repealed in 1863. 

Undaunted, temperance advocates succeeded in getting another prohibition law passed in 1874, only this time enforcement would be carried out by a group of special state constables.  “Dry” advocates felt that a statewide police force was necessary to ensure success of the new law since in many municipalities local authorities seemed reluctant to take action. 

 The newly formed state police force consisted of a Chief Constable and seven deputies.  Appointments to the agency were political, as they were to virtually all law enforcement agencies of the time, for civil service laws were not in existence yet. The appointees came from all corners of the state; Warwick, Pawtucket, Newport, Providence, Bristol, and Westerly.  At least one constable was a church minister, and all presumably did not drink alcohol. 

The new state police organization wasted little time in getting started.  On August 16, 1874, they raided a saloon in West Greenwich and seized a considerable quantity of alcohol.  This action was quickly followed by more raids in Warwick and Providence.  In Providence however, the state police learned that local officials were unwilling to assist them in any way, and refused to recognize the authority of the new state agency. Furthermore, liquor peddlers in that city had discovered what they believed to be a legal loophole to circumvent the prohibition law by enlisting the help of Rhode Island’s United States Marshal.  

The validity of this “loophole” was tested when the state police raided a Providence saloon and seized a large quantity of alcohol.  The saloon owner cried foul, claiming that the Rhode Island Marshal had already “seized” the alcohol on his premises.   However, the seizure was in name only, for the saloon owner had been allowed to maintain possession of his alleged illegal property courtesy of the U.S. Marshal!  The owner thereby continued to sell the “seized” liquor in violation of state law.  Acting on this information, the state police took possession of the illicit stock, which was within their legal purview to do, but when they asked for assistance from Providence’s Chief of Police, the chief refused, and sided with the Marshal.  

A month later the case was heard before the Rhode Island General Assembly which directed, “That his Excellency the Governor be requested to cause to be prepared and transmitted to the President of the United states a statement of facts relating to interference of the United States marshal for the District of Rhode Island with the State Constables in the discharge of their duty.” 

In other words, the Governor was asked to contact the White House and let the President settle the dispute.  Unfortunately the final outcome is not recorded, but one can certainly surmise the politics surrounding this case.

 When the prohibition law of 1874 was repealed the state police were disbanded.  However, another state prohibition law was enacted in 1886, and with it the legislature reconstituted the Rhode Island State Police, this time with a force of one Chief, and ten officers. 

Under the new law, the state police had the authority to enter an establishment or private home to search for alcoholic beverages without a warrant, and could hold any homeowner or business owner for up to twelve hours while they investigated the allegations against them!  Many breathed a sigh of relief when this law was also repealed, and the state police were once again disbanded.

In 1919, the Federal Government instituted the unpopular Volstead Act by passing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which ushered in the “Prohibition Era” for the entire country.  Ironically, Rhode Island was one of two states that refused to ratify the amendment; the other being Connecticut. 

In September of 1922, two of the most infamous Prohibition Agents to ever work for the Federal Government, Izzy Einstein, and Moe Smith, came to Rhode Island to assist local agents in shutting down the numerous establishments that openly served alcohol apparently without fear of local authorities.  Izzy and Moe were known for using various disguises to gain entrance to “speak easys”, yet evidently in “Little Rhody” such ploys were unnecessary.   

After conducting several raids in Providence, the duo reported that patrons and bartenders alike simply laughed at them, and in one case a pitcher of beer was thrown in Izzy’s face! 

Yet the worst insult occurred on September 9th when they were both arrested by sheriff’s deputies and charged with assault and trespassing due to a complaint filed by a bar owner whose establishment they had raided!  When news of the arrests reached Washington, a team of lawyers descended on Providence to defend the agents. Agent Einstein later described Providence as a “wide open town” that was worse than New York in its disregard of the Prohibition laws.  

The colorful exploits of Izzy and Moe were depicted in a Hollywood movie starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in 1985.

The Rhode Island State Police organization that we know today was established in 1925, and although apprehending “bootleggers” and enforcing prohibition laws of the 1920s may have been part of their duties, it was not their sole mission. 

The “Prohibition Era” ended in 1933 with repeal of the Volstead Act.   Even today, there are some who would like to see a “dry” America, but the chances of such an occurrence are slim.  History has proven that prohibition of a product doesn’t work, for as long as there is a demand there will always be those willing to supply the want.

Click here for a newspaper article about the State Police: Rhode Island Liquor Law  – 1887

Where was “Skeeterville”?

Originally published in The Smithfield Times – February, 2015

By Jim Ignasher

skeetervilleMany have heard of Hanton City; Smithfield’s infamous ghost town dating to the 17th century, but how many know it isn’t the only “lost” settlement of our town?  There was another village, one that may have pre-dated the Hanton settlement by about fifteen years, and it existed for more than two centuries before it disappeared.  Yet unlike Hanton City, this one prospered with industry and fortunes were made.  It was known by different names; Ripper’s Brook, Reaper’s Brook, and Fountain Spring, but the most colorful was “Skeeterville”. 

Skeetersville’s origin dates to a town meeting held in Providence on July 3, 1663, when present-day Smithfield was still considered the “outlands” of the Providence settlement.   At that meeting William Hawkins was granted fifty acres of land that today is located between the Lark Industrial Park off Route 44, and Greenville Avenue near the Smithfield/Johnston line.  The grant came with the stipulation that Hawkins improve the land and live on it for a period of at least three years.  Furthermore, the property couldn’t be sold without the consent of Providence town officials.  

The Rhode Island colony was less than thirty years old at this time and it was understood that for the state to thrive some had to be willing to leave so-called civilization to populate the “outlands”.  Offers of free land created incentive, for land afforded one wealth and opportunity.   

Being the first to settle in what was then a forested wilderness was not without its trials and dangers.  Clearing the land and building a shelter had to be done with hand tools such as a broad axe and saw.  One would need to hunt or grow their own food, maintain a constant supply of firewood, and contend with wild animals that roamed Rhode Island at the time such as bears and wolves.  Being far from the protection of the Providence settlement also meant one was left to their own “doctoring” if they became sick or injured.  Therefore, homesteading was not an agreement to enter into lightly. 

Hawkins, it can be surmised, was an intrepid man who liked a challenge.  His family was part of the original group of settlers who came to Providence with Roger Williams in 1636.   

Hawkins established his home along a stream known as “Ripper’s Brook” that is listed as “Reapers Brook” on contemporary maps.  (The origin of the name is unknown.)  The brook begins at Cedar Swamp, on Cedar Swamp Road, and runs south under Route 44, and eventually flows into Factory Pond off Greenville Avenue.  From there it empties into Hawkins Pond on the other side of Greenville Avenue.  The exact location where Hawkins built his home has been lost to history, but before long other hearty souls followed and settled the area.  

At this point in American history, wool was a common material used for making cloth and clothing.  However, raw wool sheared from barnyard sheep was often clumped with dirt, oils, and other barnyard matter that needed to be removed before spinning.  A process called “fulling” removed the impurities. 

Fulling mills had been around since the medieval period, but not in America. 

Seizing a business opportunity, about 1699 Hawkins partnered with Daniel Williams to build a fulling mill along the brook.  The mill was supervised by a man named Robert Sanders, who later partnered with Moses Bartlet to build a second mill nearby.  

Much of the clothing worn by the average person in early America was “homespun”, meaning it was manufactured in the home.  (Factory-made cloth from England was expensive.)  Raw wool or cotton would be spun into yarn on a wooden “spinning wheel”, and then placed in a loom to be woven into cloth.  The cloth could then be sewn into clothing.  As one can imagine, the process was time consuming even for the simplest garments, which is why fulling and textile mills were much welcomed in their day.  

It’s interesting to note that these two mills existed in Smithfield before the so-called “Industrial Revolution”, which began with Samuel Slater erecting his first textile mill in Pawtucket in 1793. 

By 1800 textile mills were beginning to appear along the Blackstone Valley, and Nehemiah Hawkins, a descendent of William, converted one of the mills to the production of textile machinery to meet growing demand.  His business was so successful that he later constructed Skeeterville’s largest building, a three-story factory that according to one report measured 140 feet long and 40 feet wide.    

By 1830 some began referring to the settlement as “Skeeterville”, which one may presume was due to a large mosquito population, possibly breeding in the two mill ponds.  Whether the name was coined by those living in the area or by outsiders is unknown.  In either case, the name stuck, even though in later years the settlement became officially known as Reaper’s Brook, and Fountain Spring. 

1851 H. F. Wallings Map – Click to enlarge.

An 1851 map of the area produced by H. Wallings indicates the large mill at that time was being operated by the Fisk & Aldrich Company.   Wallings produced another map in 1855 showing the same mill, but with the name Reaper’s Brook – not “Rippers Brook” in bold letters to designate the area.   

An 1871 Beers Atlas map of Smithfield refers to the area as Fountain Spring.   The name is said to have come from natural springs located in the area.  According to a 1905 Providence Journal article, some of the mill homes had springs in the cellars, and one tenant reportedly kept shiners (bait fish) in his spring to have a ready supply of bait for fishing.  

Close-up of 1871 Beer’s map. Click to enlarge.

In 1892, the three-story mill and surrounding property was purchased by Greenville businessman Nicholas Winsor.  An 1895 map of the area shows a large mill and other buildings were still standing, and while “N.S. Winsor” is listed as the property owner, there is no name associated with the mill indicating it was not in operation at that time. 

Winsor later sold the property in 1904 to Frederick W. Thrift of Providence, who in turn sold it to Doctor Archibald Hughes of Smithfield in 1921.  (Contemporary maps show a Hughes Drive leading in off Greenville Avenue.) Hughes planted numerous apple trees on the property, and used the vacant three-story mill for apple storage. 

By the 1920s Skeeterville, now Fountain Spring, was nearly two-and-a-half centuries old.  The original structures of the 1600s were gone, and most of what  remained, including the factory, eventually succumbed to the elements and the wrecking ball.  Thus Skeeterville essentially disappeared. 

1895 Map of Fountain Spring. Click to enlarge.

One enduring mystery connected to Skeeterville is the question as to what happened to its cemetery.  In 1919, a man named James Arnold took on the formidable task of documenting every grave in every cemetery in Smithfield.  For some reason the Skeeterville cemetery was overlooked, most likely because it was in a very advanced state of deterioration.  (This cemetery is not to be confused with the historical cemetery on Factory Pond Circle.) 

Evidence of the missing cemetery can be found in a Providence Journal article dated June 2, 1918, one year before Arnold conducted his survey.  The article places the cemetery on a “prominence” overlooking a pond, with about twenty-five head and foot stones, with nearly obliterated markings.  Only one stone was readable due to it having fallen over face down, with the name “Sanders” on it.  Those in modern times who have searched for this cemetery have been unsuccessful. 

The area that had once been Skeeterville lay more or less undisturbed until the late 20th century when developers began building homes in the area. Today certain streets such as Factory Pond Circle, Reaper Court, and Fountain Spring Lane, reflect the area’s historical heritage.  While some of the homes along Hughes Drive date to the 19th century, the site of the large factory is now occupied by modern dwellings.  Yet some who live in the area will say that if one knows where to look, traces of Skeeterville can still be seen.

Authors note: A special thanks is extended to Mr. Peter DuPont of Greenville for supplying some of the information in this article.

The Olneyville Times
January 15, 1892

The Olneyville Times
January 29, 1892

The Olneyville Times
March 4, 1892

The Olneyville Times
June 3, 1892

1894 Illustration of Skeeterville

The Olneyville Times
April 21, 1899

The Olneyville Times
December 23, 1904

The Olneyville Times
December 23, 1904

The Olneyville Times
January 27, 1905

The Olneyville Times
April 14, 1905

The Olneyville Times
June 23, 1905

Forgotten Tales of the Esmond Mill

Originally published in The Smithfield Times – March, 2015

By Jim Ignasher

Esmond Mill, Esmond, RI 2015

Esmond Mill, Esmond, RI 2015

The Esmond Mill opened in 1906, and at one time it was known world-wide for the high quality blankets produced there.  Unless one worked there, this is likely the extent of the average person’s knowledge relating to Esmond’s largest structure.  Yet as with any old building of its kind, events have happened there which have faded with time and were then forgotten.  The following are but a few such examples culled from different sources.  

On April 2, 1943, Smithfield’s Chief of Police Alfred La Croix was called to the Esmond Mill for a report that a young woman assigned to the weaving room had been attacked; her throat slashed to within a half-inch of her jugular vein!  Her assailant, a male co-worker, was set on killing her, and likely would have succeeded had nearby employees not tackled and disarmed him.  The wound was serious and would require numerous stitches to close, something that could not be done on site.  After being treated at the scene by fellow employees, she was rushed to a hospital in Providence. 

Lacroix’s investigation revealed that the man had slashed his victim because she had repeatedly rejected his romantic overtures towards her.  In the days leading up to the attack he began making threats, perhaps thinking fear would change her mind.  When that didn’t work, he decided to kill her.  Why he wasn’t fired due to his threats before the attack is not recorded.

The man was brought before the court where a judge set bail at $4,000 which was a large sum in those days.  When he couldn’t make bail, he was ordered to the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston.  The result of his trial is not available, but ironically this wasn’t his first brush with the law.  Just two years earlier in 1941 he slashed a man’s throat inflicting a wound that required thirty-two stitches to close.  For reasons not stated, he was given a deferred sentence in that incident.   

Fortunately, the victim survived her wounds.

The mill has also seen its share of tragic accidents, for textile mills everywhere were dangerous places to work before the days of mandatory modern safety regulations.  Long hair and loose fitting garments could get caught in drive belts and other moving machinery, while exposed gears could crush fingers.  The “lucky” ones escaped with broken bones or severed digits.  Others suffered severe disfigurement, or worse.  Beginning in 1893, state factory inspectors filed annual reports to the General Assembly regarding working conditions on the (then) numerous mills around the state.  A portion of each report addressed industrial accidents, of which more than one-hundred were reported every year. 

The report for 1909 listed two fatalities at the Esmond Mill.  The first occurred on April 19, 1909, when a 23-year-old man went into the lint pit located under the napping room to clear lint-dust that was clogging some pipes.  For some unknown reason the lint ignited setting him afire.  He was treated at the scene by Doctor A. W. Hughes, and then taken to Rhode Island Hospital where he died the next morning.   

The following November a 53-year-old man was dumping a tip cart when the body of the cart came back and struck him in the abdomen causing fatal injuries.    

However, not all deaths were due to accident.  At least one suicide is on record of having occurred at the mill.   

On January 10, 1913, workers at the Esmond Mill went on strike when their demands for higher wages and other issues weren’t met.  When non-union workers were brought in as replacements the strike turned violent.  On February 5th, large stones from a cemetery wall were placed across the trolley tracks that once ran along Waterman Avenue from Centerdale to Esmond.  When the trolley carrying replacement workers came to a stop it was attacked by a club wielding mob of thugs who broke the windows and injured some of those aboard.  Others in the group attempted to cut telephone lines, presumably to prevent calls being placed to the police. 

In addition to those who were injured, the strike led to two fatalities.  The first casualty was a Georgiaville butcher who reportedly took his life due to the loss of revenue created by the situation. On the morning of January 20th he was found in his shop, dead from a self-inflected gunshot wound. 

Another casualty connected to the strike occurred on February 28, when a slow moving freight train heading from Pascoag to Providence was moving along the tracks that once existed behind the mill.  As the train was passing, several strikers climbed aboard for a free ride to Graystone where the strike headquarters was located.  One of the strikers, a 20-year-old man from Georgiaville, slipped and fell beneath the wheels receiving fatal injuries.   

On New Year’s Eve, 1951, five well-dressed masked gunmen entered the mill and forced the night watchman and two other workers into the boiler room where they were tied to some pipes.  These employees were the only ones in the building due to the holiday.  The gunmen appeared as if they might be on their way to a New Year’s party, but decided to stop and commit a robbery first.  

The young night watchman later told reporters that the men repeatedly said, “We don’t want to hurt you.”  However, as the watchman studied the bandits so as to remember their descriptions for police, one punched him in the face and another placed a cloth sack over his head.  For the next two hours one of the robbers stood guard over them while the others loaded a truck with bolts of nylon material which had recently arrived as part of a government contract to make parachutes.  Despite the rough treatment received by the watchman, from time to time the hostages were asked if they were “all right” and if they needed cigarettes or water. 

The bandits left just before midnight, and the crime was discovered about fifteen minutes later when a relief worker arrived.   

The value of the stolen Nylon was estimated to be in the thousands of dollars.  

Not all stories connected with the mill involve crime or tragedy.  The following tale was related to Laurence J. Sasso Jr. in 1993, which became the basis for an article he wrote titled “Weaving Lives Together”. 

In 1908, 16-year-old Henry Dexter worked in the mill’s maintenance department.  At that time a new iron water tower had just been constructed next to the mill, and the owners wanted the mill’s trademark, the Esmond Bunny, painted on its side.  To do so, staging would need to be erected along the “catwalk” at the top.  It was a dangerous assignment, but Henry was a good climber, and volunteered to do the job when nobody else would.

The tank had been built by the Chicago Iron Works, and when company inspectors came to approve the work, they noticed the staging and made inquiries.  When they learned it was Henry who had done the job alone, they offered him a job as an iron worker, and he accepted.  He was sent to work on another water tower project being done in Danvers, Massachusetts.  It was there he met Katherine Morrissey, a woman he later married.  The couple settled in Georgiaville and had six children.  One could say they were brought together because of the bunny logo. 

The Esmond Mill closed in 1948 leaving hundreds of workers unemployed.  Today the massive brick structure serves as a warehouse for a local retail business. 

The Olneyville Times
October 21, 1892

A Footnote to History

By Jim Ignasher

The hangar of the former Smithfield Airport. Photo courtesy of John Emin Jr.

The hangar of the former Smithfield Airport.
Photo courtesy of John Emin Jr.

Like the ripples caused by a pebble tossed into a still pond, sometimes a minor event can have far reaching effects.  Take for example a boy in Pennsylvania who yearned to be a pilot; or the young man in Rhode Island with a passion for flying who decided to build an airport.  The decision made by each would touch the life of the other, and ultimately play a role in the outcome of the Second World War.

This story is true, but it’s virtually unknown beyond the borders of Smithfield, Rhode Island, and therefore won’t be found in any history books about the war.  It might never have come to light had it not been for cards and letters saved by John and Marjorie Emin; owners of a farm once located where Bryant University stands today.  

John was a pilot, and like most pilots, he wanted to own an airplane.  In July of 1931 he purchased a two-seater Curtis Pusher aircraft which he kept at What Cheer Airport in Pawtucket about twelve miles from his farm.  Twelve miles may not seem like much of a distance today, but automobiles and roads in those days made getting from Smithfield to Pawtucket a bit of an effort.  Therefore, John fancied the idea of an airport closer to home.

The following year while on a visit to Massachusetts, Emin happened upon an airplane hangar for sale and bought it.  It was dismantled and brought to his farm where he reassembled it himself.  When he was finished he painted “Smithfield Airport” across the front in large letters.  After clearing a nearby cornfield for use as a runway, Smithfield had its first airport.  (The Bryant University football stadium now occupies the area were airplanes once landed, and a maintenance building has replaced the original hangar.) 

In December of 1932, William G. Benn of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, was a 2nd Lieutenant with the 103rd Observation Squadron of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Three days before Christmas that year he and his observer, Private John G. Mallon, left Boston for Philadelphia in a Douglas O-38, bi-plane. 

The weather of course was cold, as is typical for New England in December. Snow flurries were already falling as the plane lifted into an overcast sky, and within an hour the flurries turned to snow.  As winter winds buffeted the plane, ice began forming on the wings causing a loss in airspeed and altitude.  Before long, Benn was struggling to keep his ship in the air.

The men knew they were in trouble, but finding a place to set down presented a problem, for the plane lacked a radio and they were over unfamiliar countryside.   Checking a Department of Commerce map, Mallon discovered that the nearest airport was already several miles behind them in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.  (The Woonsocket Airport no longer exists.) By this time the plane was barely one-hundred feet in the air and in danger of stalling for lack of airspeed.  With no other choice, Benn took a heading for Woonsocket, when suddenly below them appeared a small airport that wasn’t on their map for it had only opened a few weeks earlier.  Thanking God for their deliverance, Benn set the plane down on the snowy field and coasted to a stop. The name on the hangar told him they had landed at the “Smithfield Airport”, but neither of the airmen had any idea where Smithfield was.  

As Benn and Mallon climbed from their airplane they were met by John Emin who had seen their emergency landing from his farmhouse.  (The farmhouse stood where the dome of Bryant’s “Unistructure” is located today.)  After brief introductions, Benn asked to use a telephone to notify his superiors that he had landed safely and hadn’t crashed in the storm, but John explained that he didn’t have one.  The nearest phone was at a general store about a mile down the road in the village of Stillwater, and John graciously allowed the airmen the use of his car to get to it.

In March of 1935, Benn published his recollections of this day in an article he wrote for the Pennsylvania Guardsman, in which he described the store in Stillwater as “the original country store”, with a pot-bellied stove in the center and shelves lined with tobacco, groceries, shoes, clothing, toys, and “notions”.  Benn described how he and Mallon ate bananas while waiting for their call to be put through, and noted the attention they were getting from several card-playing locals who stopped their game long enough to give them a thorough once-over while a dog stood at their feet begging for a handout. 

When their business was complete, they returned to the airport where John and Marjorie invited them to stay until the weather cleared.  The flyers graciously accepted, but having lived in a large city like Philadelphia, they were surprised to learn that country living meant doing without certain “luxuries” such as indoor plumbing and electric lights.  In his article Benn recalled how they spent an enjoyable evening with their hosts and slept soundly in an antique featherbed.  The following day the weather in Rhode Island had cleared enough where they decided to try for home.

The young men didn’t forget the kindness shown to them and wrote thank you notes.  These letters and other correspondence have survived, and are still in the possession of the Emin family.    

In his letter Lieutenant Benn wrote:

Dear John and Margy:

May this note of appreciation find you snugly returned from a very Merry Christmas in New Bedford.

The trip down to Philadelphia was none too pleasant.  The snow lasted down to New Haven with haze and mist from there into this city.  Landed here at 2 in the afternoon so it did not take very long.  Found that all of this area was closed in with clouds and rain Saturday so am all the more glad that we were honored by your hospitality.

Would like to have put on a little more show for you but trust that you will believe me when I say that it takes but a small amount of ice formation on a wingfoil to change the flying characteristics of the airplane.  She flew right wing heavy all the way down to Trenton where the warm air into which we were flying, melted most of the ice away.

Might call to your attention the fact that upon landing, we asked if they had any trouble in finding Smithfield.  The answer was no because they had a late edition of the Department of Commerce map of that area and that it was well marked.  I trust that you will not be swamped with transient pilots who, after hearing of our wonderful experience with you, would like to duplicate.  We both wish to assure you that we had a most enjoyable time and were truthfully reluctant to depart.

We thank you sincerely and hope that we may have the good fortune to call upon you again.

With every best wish for the New Year, truly,

                                                             W.G. Benn
                                                            2nd Lt. A.C. (P.N.G.)


Private Mallon related in part, “I have related the experience to many other people over the holiday and all agree what a delightful couple we must have visited.”

What followed was a pen-pal relationship between the Emin’s and William Benn that lasted into World War II.

Benn sent the Emin’s a copy of the Pennsylvania Guardsman magazine containing the story of his unexpected visit, along with a letter describing how his mother liked the informal account he had sent to her, rather than the formal version that appeared in print.  To this Benn wrote: “But after all, I do not pretend to be any sort of writer – to the contrary, just a good pilot, and to that end, my story is going to remain. However, I did so hope that some others would have the pleasure of enjoying our trip with us.  I believe that many of the boys have and therein, the purpose fulfilled.

Benn had taken courses in archeology hoping for a career in that field of science, but by the late 1930s it seemed apparent that the United States would be drawn into war so he elected to stay in the military.  All the while he kept up his correspondence with the Emin’s through cards and letters.  In March of 1941 Benn wrote that he and his wife Dorothy were the proud parents of a daughter, Bonnie. The following Christmas the United States was at war.  

The Emin’s mailed Benn a Christmas card that season of 1941, but he waited nearly four months to respond. It’s understandable due to what was going on at the time for all military personnel. 

In his letter dated April 26, 1942, he wrote in part:

“Christmas & New Years wasn’t much – constant alert, and probably will not be much for several years to come.  In the meantime, many are the times that I reflect back to Pennsylvania & New England – to places & people like you – to things done and odd experiences, people met and liked.  It is true enjoyment in a busy life.”

At the time Benn wrote that letter he was assigned to the U.S. 4th Air Force, commanded by General George Kenney, based in San Francisco, California. 

Kenney had been in the army since World War I, and was held in high regard for his innovative ideas in the use of aircraft serving in combat roles. In the spring of 1942 he took command of the 5th Air Force which was ordered to Australia to fight the Japanese.  He brought with him fifty hand-picked pilots who had served under him in the 4th Air Force, one of them being William Benn, who was assigned as the General’s aide. 

Part of the mission of the 5th Air Force was to support allied ground troops and attack Japanese supply ships re-enforcing enemy positions. The initial strategy had been to use high altitude bombers to bomb enemy ships, but bombing from high altitudes allowed targets ample time to scatter and avoid being hit. The obvious answer was to conduct the bombing at lower altitudes, but this carried higher risks for the aircrews, and early in the war the United States didn’t have the airplanes to spare.  

William Benn, who by this time had been promoted to Major, pondered the problem and came up with the idea to attack the enemy ships from the side rather than from above. In August of 1942, he went to General Kenney with an idea he called “skip bombing”.  Benn proposed using conventional bombs which could be “skipped” across the water like a stone across a pond into the side of a ship. The bombs would be equipped with delayed fuses to give them a few seconds to sink below the hull waterline before exploding, thereby producing maximum damage.   

The plan of attack was to send in two groups of high-level bombers as a diversion to attract enemy anti-aircraft fire, while a third group would come in low, about 300 feet above the water’s surface, and release their bombs.

The idea was simple enough in theory, and Kenney was intrigued with its possibilities.  Benn was given command of the 43rd Bombing Group with authorization to develop and perfect the technique. Testing began at Port Moresby, Australia, in September of 1942, where B-25 Mitchell bombers made trial runs at the hulk of an old barge.  (The B-25 was a twin-engine light bomber used by the allies throughout the war.)

B-25 Mitchell bomber. U.S. Air Force Museum photo.

B-25 Mitchell bomber.
U.S. Air Force Museum photo.

One obstacle to overcome was the fact that conventional bombsights were designed for dropping bombs from high altitudes, not low-level attack runs.

Benn solved this problem by making cross hairs out of electrical tape on the Plexiglass nose of the aircraft where the bombardier sat, thus using the plane itself to aim the bomb. 

By the autumn of 1942, Benn’s squadron was ready to try his skip bombing technique in actual combat.  On October 22nd, Benn led a night mission against Japanese ships at Rabual with limited success.  Although some vessels were hit, none were actually sunk.  A second raid was conducted on October 30th with similar results.  

Even though initial success was limited, Major Benn had proven the idea had merit and set the course for others to follow.  Major Paul Gunn later expanded on Benn’s idea by using modified B-25s equipped with forward firing guns with good results.

Prior to the implementation of skip bombing, the allied success rate for bombing enemy shipping in the Pacific was less than five percent, but with skip bombing the success rate rose to over seventy percent.  This no doubt changed the course of battles, saved American lives, and helped shorten the war. For his efforts Major Benn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, an award second only to the Medal of Honor.   

Benn’s success attracted the attention of Time Magazine, which featured him in an article about skip bombing that appeared in the January 18, 1943 issue.  The article mentioned that Benn’s skip bombing technique was now the standard mode of attack used by General Kenney’s 5th Air Force.  Unfortunately, Benn never saw the article, for on the day the magazine hit the newsstands, he took off from Jackson’s Drome airstrip on what was to be a routine reconnaissance mission and disappeared.

The aircraft he was piloting was a B-25 Mitchell bomber with tail number 41-12485.  There were six others aboard the lone aircraft when it vanished; Major Donn Young, Lt. Col. Dan Searcy, Sgt. Wilfred Coyer, Sgt. Herman Elsner, Cpl. LaVerne Van Dyke, and S/Sgt. Michael Ewas.

No distress calls were ever received, and it was surmised that whatever happened had been sudden and quick.  Search planes flew along the missing B-25’s estimated route, but found nothing.  Speculation as to what happened was brief.  There was a war on, and planes and men were lost everyday.

Back in Smithfield, John and Marjorie Emin wondered why their friend Bill had stopped writing, and hoped it was because he was too busy. Then the day came when a newspaper clipping arrived in the mail stating that Benn was missing. Naturally they prayed for the best, but they never learned anything more.

On March 2, 1943, what became known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea began in the Pacific.  The Japanese had sent sixteen warships to reinforce their troops in New Guinea, and the 5th Air Force was charged with stopping them. The battle raged for two days, during which the Allies used Benn’s skip bombing technique against enemy ships.   When it was over the Japanese were the clear losers, and as a result, this was the last time they attempted to use large vessels to reinforce their positions.  Even though he wasn’t there to see it, Major Benn’s skip bombing technique was credited for the American victory.   

World War II ended in August of 1945, and the troops went home to resume their lives.  Those who had been lost faded into the recesses of history, remembered primarily by those they left behind.  John and Marjorie Emin passed away without ever learning the fate of William Benn. 

Benn’s aircraft was just one of thousands declared “missing” during the war, however the mystery of what happened to him was solved in 1957 when an Australian survey team happened upon the wreckage of a World War II aircraft in a wooded valley in New Guinea.  The tail numbers matched those of Major Benn’s long lost B-25.  U.S. authorities were notified, and the remains of the servicemen were recovered. 

Investigators determined that the aircraft had not gone down due to hostile action, but had most likely entered fog when it flew into the valley, and the crew never saw the mountain looming ahead.  Death had been instantaneous. 

One has to wonder if history would be different if John Emin hadn’t built his airport.  Would Bill Benn have made it to Woonsocket?  If he hadn’t survived, would someone else have developed the skip bombing technique?  The world will never know, but it can be argued that because Bill Benn found safe haven that long ago Christmas many allied troops survived the war and were able to go home to live out the rest of their lives in peace.

A View Heretofore Reserved For Birds And Gods

First published in Your Smithfield Magazine, August – 2013.

By Jim Ignasher 

ballooningOn the afternoon of October 29, 1978, a hot-air-balloon made an unscheduled landing on Stillwater Road in the vicinity of Route 295.  Nobody was hurt, and the event was soon forgotten.  However, another balloon landing more than sixty years earlier created a little more excitement, but more on that later. 

Most tend to regard air travel as beginning with the Wright Brothers in 1903, and would be surprised to learn that man has actually been navigating the sky since 1783, when two Frenchman became the first humans to soar aloft in a balloon over Paris, France.  The first balloon flight in America occurred ten years later.  The advent of manned balloon flight gave rise – pun intended – to a new term used to describe those brave enough to conquer the wild blue: “aeronaut”.

 Aeronauts faced constant danger.  Early balloons used lighter-than-air gasses that were both toxic and flammable, which sometimes led to disastrous accidents.  Once aloft the aeronaut was at the mercy of prevailing winds and surprise electrical storms.  Ground fog was another hazard, for aeronauts navigated by line-of-sight with nothing but an altimeter and compass.  Without the ability to see the ground they could easily become lost and landing in fog was risky.  Their worst nightmare was to be blown out to sea, for it meant almost certain death as weight considerations didn’t allow for rescue rafts.  Yet despite the hazards, the call of the sky was irresistible to those who bravely set forth to establish world aviation records, and to be one of the few humans to witness a view heretofore reserved for birds and gods.

It is unknown who made the first balloon flight in Rhode Island, or when, but it might have been a member of the famous Allen family of Barrington, known throughout New England for their aeronautical exploits. 

The patriarch was James A. Allen, born in 1824.   Allen made headlines when he took off in a balloon from Exchange Place in Providence on July 4, 1857, on what was his first solo flight.  He went on to complete more than four-hundred more balloon flights during his lifetime.

When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, Allen enlisted in the Union Army where he served as a “balloonist”, acting as an artillery spotter.  Although he survived the war without a scratch, he suffered several injuries while “ballooning” in subsequent years.  One time in 1866 he crashed in Dedham, Massachusetts, injuring himself and others, among them his 8-year-old son, James K. Allen. 

Despite his misadventure, James K. followed in his father’s footsteps, and made his first solo flight five years later.  James K., often referred to as “Professor Allen” in press clippings, enjoyed thrilling onlookers by jumping from balloons from an altitude of 3,000 feet using a parachute of his own design.  

Like his father, Professor Allen had his share of adventures and narrow escapes from death.  On one occasion in 1886, the good professor ascended from Providence carrying a newlywed couple married aboard the balloon only moments before.  The couple; Edward J. Davis and Margaret Buckley, are perhaps the first people ever to be married in a balloon, and then carried aloft to their honeymoon destination.   

Just when it seemed the day couldn’t get any more exciting, the balloon ran into trouble over Easton, Massachusetts, and came down in a swamp.  The occupants had to hang on for dear life as heavy winds dragged the conveyance through the water.  Fortunately, all were safely rescued, but the newlyweds decided to continue on to their honeymoon destination by train.

Perhaps Allen’s most memorable adventure occurred on July 4, 1906, when he nearly drowned in his balloon.  After lifting off from Providence an unforeseen weather front quickly carried him out over the ocean, and the Professor was helpless to do anything.  Around midnight the basket hit the sea and began to sink, but Allen quickly released some of the weighted ballast bags and the balloon rose enough to pull him out of the water.  He repeated this process once more during the night.  By morning a passing steamer came within a mile of him, yet for some reason the lookout failed to see the massive balloon on the open water and the ship sailed on.  Salvation came later in the day when he managed to throw a line to a passing fishing boat. 

As to the other unscheduled balloon landing in Smithfield mentioned earlier, it occurred on the evening of November 22, 1914, when the large craft descended on the Latham Farm located near Present-day Log and Burlingame roads.

The balloon was the famous Boston which belonged to the Aero Club of New England, a Massachusetts based organization that still exists today.  The Boston had departed from Worcester about ninety-minutes earlier in view of fifteen-hundred spectators who cheered loudly as the balloon shot up to 3,000 feet and began drifting in a southerly direction.  The intended destination was Providence, and an automobile was sent ahead to meet the balloon when it landed. 

Aboard the Boston was its’ pilot J. Walter Flagg, and two passengers.  As the balloon gradually climbed to an altitude of 5,400 feet, its occupants were treated to a magnificent view of five New England states, a rare sight indeed for that generation.  Such views were not for the squeamish, for the occupants stood in a small wicker gondola suspended beneath the balloon that didn’t contain safety belts! 

Somewhere near Uxbridge the Boston began loosing altitude as a temperature inversion quickly cooled the hot gas in the balloon.  Flagg had to jettison several ballast bags in order to slow the decent and prevent a hard landing, or worse.  Yet by this point the Boston had lost 1,800 feet of altitude and continued to gradually do so as it continued southward across the Blackstone Valley, Woonsocket, and finally, Smithfield. 

By the time they were over Smithfield the Boston was but 300 feet in the air, and Flagg began looking for a place to set down.  The Smithfield of 1914 was not as wooded or developed as the Smithfield of today, and looking below, Flagg saw open farmland belonging to H. J. Mowry and dropped a “drag rope” and called for assistance.  Three men, J. H. Schlemner, James Murphy, and Robert Quinn, gave chase attempting to grab the rope, but were unsuccessful.  The balloon then passed over some apple trees and continued on to the adjacent farm of D.W. Latham, where Albert Latham and seven of his ten children caught hold of the rope and helped bring the Boston down for a safe landing.  After securing the balloon, the Latham’s invited the aeronauts into their home for dinner and some rest. 

Incidentally, this was not the Boston’s first visit to the area. Just over five years earlier, on June 29, 1909, she passed over northern Rhode Island and landed on a farm in Pascoag.  This event received extensive media coverage, perhaps due to the famous pilot, Charles J. Glidden, founder of the Aero Club of New England.

By 1914, the “golden age” of ballooning was all but over having been rapidly eclipsed by the airplane.  The advent of those “daring young men in their flying machines” relegated ballooning to more of a sport rather than a way to thrill crowds and set new aviation records.

Today’s balloons use hot air rather than gas thus making them safer than those flown a century ago, and even though a view from the heavens is more commonplace in 2013, the thrill remains the same.  

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