The “Hot Potato” School

This school house, built in Smithfield in 1850, was once commonly known as the “Hot Potato School.”

This school house, built in Smithfield in 1850, was once commonly known as the “Hot Potato School.”

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – April, 2012

By Jim Ignasher

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
Readin’ and writin’ and ‘rithmatic,
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick.
Music by Gus Edwards; Lyrics by Will D. Cobb, 1907.

If one follows Whipple Road eastward away from Douglas Pike into the Town of Lincoln, they will come to the intersection of Angell Road where one of Smithfield’s (now Lincoln’s) earliest one-room schoolhouses remains standing.  Although the building has seen better days, it can still evoke images of a simpler time when teachers called students to class by ringing a bell, and when lessons for all grades were taught in the same classroom.  

This was the Pullen’s Corner School, and prior to the division of the Town of Smithfield in 1871, it was located in what was once the heart of Smithfield’s School District No. 19.   Few former schools of this type have withstood the ravages of time, most having succumbed to neglect and the wrecking ball.  The Pullen’s Corner School is therefore special for having survived in its original condition, and at its original location for more than 160 years.  

Not only has the school survived, but so has a rare hand-written ledger which contains the minutes of school committee meetings held in the building between 1859 and 1888.  The ledger, presently in the possession of the Historical Society of Smithfield, recounts teacher appointments, contracts, operating expenses, and other business concerning the building itself.    

The first school districts in Rhode Island were established in 1800 with the passage of the Free School Act, which allowed for the free public education of children. It is said that Smithfield was one of the first towns in the state to adopt school districts.  Each district was initially administered to by an elected board of neighborhood taxpayers who had the same authority and responsibilities as a town-wide school committee does today.  Each district committee consisted of a clerk, a trustee, a treasurer, and a tax collector. Elections were generally held every spring, and one had to be a “qualified” voter of the district to have any say in matters pertaining to the school.  To be “qualified” likely meant owning property and paying taxes on it.

The district school committees hired teachers, saw to necessary repairs of the school, and levied taxes to pay for such things.  Town-wide school committees didn’t come into being until after 1840.

By 1870, Smithfield had thirty-six school districts.  This was a time when the Town of Smithfield included the present-day municipalities of North Smithfield, Lincoln, Central Falls, and a portion of Woonsocket.  As the population grew, so did the number of school districts. Exactly how the district lines were drawn is unclear, but one could surmise that population density had something to do with it.  In a day before school busses, schools, it seems, had to be within a reasonable walking distance.

One-room school houses as we think of them today didn’t become part of the landscape until the mid-1800s. Prior to that, classes were usually held in a rented room of a private residence.  If a home was unavailable, there was always the back room of a business.  In Greenville, for example, school was once taught in the famed Waterman Tavern.

The Pullen’s Corner School was built in 1850 and closed in 1922.  Therefore, it can be assumed that the previously mentioned hand-written ledger was the second in a series of ledgers, but it is the only one known to have survived. 

Page one defines the boundaries of the district much like a land deed would describe the parameters of a large piece of property.  The district was irregular in shape, but the western boundary ran parallel to Douglas Pike between the pike and Ridge Road all the way to the North Providence line, while the northern boundary extended north of Jenckes Hill Road, and took in land presently owned by the Community College of Rhode Island. 

At a meeting held on April 23, 1859, the following people were elected to the district school committee for the term of one year: Lyman Arnold, Clerk; George A. Angell, Trustee; Ethan E. Angell, Treasurer; Alphonse A. Draper, Collector. The records also show that each man took an oath of office swearing to uphold the Constitution of the Untied States and the laws of Rhode Island.  

An entry dated October 15, 1859, indicates that the committee certified Edmund A. Angell as qualified to teach grammar school for the District adding, 

“This Certificate will remain valid for said purpose for one year from its date unless previously annulled by proper authority. (signed) John J. Richardson in behalf of the Examining Committee”

The next entry titled, “Contract With Teacher” outlined Mr. Angell’s compensation for his services, which was to be $30 per month.  The contract reads in part, that Mr. Angell agreed to teach, “for the term of four months and one half, commencing on the 14th day of November 1859, ending the 18th day of March 1860.”

It should be noted that district school committees set the parameters for the “school year” based on several factors, one of which being the needs of local farmers who required their children to help with spring planting and the autumn harvest.  It made no sense to schedule classes when parents would only keep their children home due to economic necessity. 

To make up for the short winter sessions, many schools also ran classes during the summer.  The carefree days of summer enjoyed by today’s youth were not so carefree back then.  Children would rise with the sun to do chores before heading off to school, only to return late in the day to do more chores. 

An entry for May 14, 1860, reveals that Miss Jane Smith was appointed to teach from May 14, to September 21, 1860, her salary set at fifteen dollars per month. 

Judging by the ledger, teacher compensation appears to have been arbitrary, with only one hard and fast rule; that male teachers made more than their female counterparts. Pay for male teachers ranged from $27 to $35 per month, while female teachers generally received about half as much.  Even when hired on a weekly basis, a female teacher could only expect to receive between four to six dollars per week.  While some teachers did receive pay raises, the raise was usually small for both sexes.

An entry from 1870 listed expenses incurred by the district for that year: one clock, two dollars; one dictionary, five dollars; brush and duster, eighty cents; stove pipe, thirty-five cents; one map, two dollars and seventy-five cents; broom and chalk, one dollar and four cents; wood for building fires, six dollars; one pail, twenty-five cents. 

Missing from this list of items is any mention of money expended on building maintenance, yet paging through the ledger it would appear that keeping the school house in good repair was an ongoing battle.  One might also draw the conclusion that allocating money for necessary repairs wasn’t a priority for some.

An entry dated December 21, 1863 under “Notice of Special School Meeting”, cites that the meeting was, “for the purpose of voting a tax on the said ratable property of said district for the purpose of repairing the school house.”  The actual meeting was held four days later, on Christmas, with nine qualified voters present.  A vote was passed to levy a tax of $150 to repair the school. 

This tax levy also had to be approved by the town school committee, which it was, on January 12, 1864.

In 1871, the Town of Lincoln was set apart from Smithfield, and District 19 of Smithfield became District 12 of Lincoln.  Records indicate that the transition was relatively smooth.  The first meeting for District 12 in the new Town of Lincoln took place at the school on June 24, 1871.

The matter of repairing the school was revisited in1876, but with much debate and controversy.  Some wanted to repair the present building which was barely twenty-six years old, while others wanted to build an entirely new school house at another location.   The argument dragged on for three years until it was voted four to eight to build a new school, the cost of which was not to exceed one-thousand dollars.  The old school was to be sold at auction.

It appeared that the matter had finally been settled, however it was not.  Another vote was taken two weeks later on June 27th, where five voted to build a new school, but eight voted to repair the old one.  The vote might have been tied had all eight of those who voted to build a new school at the previous meeting had attended this one. 

Those wanting a new school vowed to fight on, and two days later yet another meeting on the matter was held.  The vote from the 27th was rescinded, and once again it was voted to build a new school.   However, that vote was declared null and void at yet another meeting held on the 29th, where it was once again decided that the old school should be repaired and not abandoned.

Despite the back and fourth in-fighting, it appears that no immediate action was taken either way, for there is no further mention of repairs until a meeting held on June 24, 1882, but it was written in the ledger that no vote was taken for lack of attendance. 

History shows that the Pullen’s Corner School was eventually repaired as it remained in operation until 1922. 

There is a charming legend connected to the school concerning how it earned the nickname as the “Hot Potato School”.  The story goes that a teacher, presumed to be a Miss Estelle Collier, donated a stove on which she would bake and boil potatoes donated by local farmers so that the children could receive hot lunches.  

The old school is a symbol of a bygone era; a piece of yesteryear Americana that has all but disappeared from the New England landscape.  For this reason there are those who feel it is worth preserving.  To that end, two Lincoln residents, Richard A. Di Mase, and David Sale, have formed a two-man preservation committee dedicated to saving the building.  Over the last sixteen years they have raised funds through the sales of special Christmas ornaments depicting the old school.  Each year, a Lincoln company known as Chem Art has produced a different customized ornament to help the cause.  According to Mr. Di Mase, the long term goal is to have the building moved from its present location to the grounds of the new Lincoln Middle School where it can be restored to its former glory, and once again used for educational purposes.

If Walls Could Talk

A chance discovery in 1985 revealed the walls of an old school had been keeping a long forgotten secret. (Photo from author’s collection.)

A chance discovery in 1985 revealed the walls of an old school had been keeping a long forgotten secret. (Photo from author’s collection.)

First published in Your Smithfield Magazine – January, 2012

By Jim Ignasher

Nothing to do Nellie darling,
Nothing to do you say,
Let’s take a trip on memory’s ship
Back to the bygone days.Sail to the old village schoolhouse,
Anchor outside the school door.
Look in and see,
There’s you and me,
A couple of kids once more.
Lines from the song, School Days, by Gus Edwards and Will D. Cobb, 1907.

It’s been said that if the walls of old buildings could talk, imagine the tales they could tell. The East Smithfield Library is a case in point.  Originally built as an elementary school in 1908, the sturdy brick building once known as the Dorothy T.P. Dame School has stood silent witness to more than a century of change.  If they could talk, the walls of that vintage building might recount many a child’s first crush; the enthusiasm of a playground adventure, or even a time when students brought apples for their teachers. They might also relate the sentimental farewells bade by generations of children moving on to the next phase of their lives.

In later years the old school served as a community center, and by the 1980s it was a library.  It was during its conversion to a library that someone discovered the building had been keeping a charming secret, for hidden behind some old blackboards, were some even older blackboards, on which was a message from the past; a hail to the future from a long ago teacher.   

Most elementary school teachers in 1931 were women, so I will refer to this unknown educator as such.  Perhaps she had an interest in history, or was someone who thought about the future in terms of the past.  Unfortunately, we will never know, for her name was not recorded, nor was her motivation.  Maybe she did it just for the fun of it, or as a way to say “hello” to some future generation of students yet to be born.  In any case, she carefully covered the slate chalkboards of her classroom with artwork of her own doing that included, among other things, flowers, musical notes, and rabbits.  More importantly were the names of her students, each carefully written, and what was perhaps a phrase she used to instill confidence in her pupils, “Not I Can’t, But I Will Try!”  After that she wrote, “Class of 1931”.  

Even though eighty years have passed since her words were written, there are certain things that can be deduced.  It was likely the end of the school year, for otherwise what she wrote would have been lost to the following day’s lessons.   

When the last bell rang signaling the freedom of summer, the class of 1931 filed out.  Although the warm weather no doubt beckoned, the parting was likely bitter-sweet, for the class of ‘31 would not be returning in the autumn to the school they had come to know for the last six years of their young lives. Instead they would all attend another school to begin the 7th grade.

The original chalkboards of 1908 were set into the plaster of the walls when the school was built. Not long after the 1931 school year ended, they were covered by new ones.  Those doing the work had either been requested to leave the old ones as they were, or saw no reason to expend the effort to erase them.  In either case, that un-named teacher’s work became a time capsule of sorts that lay hidden and forgotten. 

Generations of children came and went afterwards, sitting in the very same seats, or at least the same classroom, as the Class of ’31.  In January of 1985, as renovations for the library were underway, workmen discovered the long forgotten treasure.  Although decades old, it was reported that the chalk lettering looked like it had been scrawled just the day before.

Writer Doug Hadden recorded some of the names in an article he wrote soon after the discovery: Winetha Pechie, Nellie Green, Veronica Tobin, Doris Schenck, Rose La Tour, Dora Provost, Donal Joya, Albert Hudson, Odelon Jolly, Angelina Moffit, Leo Monfits, Russell Chalmiers, Leo Fortin, Emilio Morselli, and Casare Bruno.  Unfortunately, the rest are lost to history, at least for the time being.

The Class of ’31 would have been born about 1919 or 1920. They entered elementary school at a time when Prohibition was the law of the land, and left at the start of the Great Depression.  Coming of age during the Depression would have made them used to sacrifice and doing without.

It was a simpler time when teachers focused on basic learning. There were no televisions or computers in the classrooms, and sending mail meant writing with pencil and paper.  The class of ’31 could not have conceived of the luxuries afforded the students of today.    

By 1942 the Dame School Class of ‘31 was doing their part to help win World War II, and went on to become what famous newsman Tom Brokaw has dubbed, “The Greatest Generation”.  It’s likely that many of the boys names found on those blackboards can also be found on local war memorials. 

At the end of the war, the same Class of ’31 settled down to jobs and careers, married their sweethearts, bought homes, and started families.  Some probably remained in Smithfield throughout their lives while others moved away traveling far and wide.  Fate would bring each to fulfill his or her own destiny.  Their generation witnessed the greatest advances in technology of any that had come before them: the advent of television, personal computers, jet aircraft, and even space travel, just to name a few.

By 1985 they were in their mid-sixties, getting ready to retire and start enjoying their grandchildren. Today, those who remain would be entering their nineties, and possibly enjoying great-grandchildren.

“Not I can’t, but I will try!”  Hopefully, they carried those words with them as they went through life, for that long ago teacher was trying to instill a valuable lesson; it is better to try, than to never try at all for fear of failure.  She knew that even if her students didn’t succeed in everything they did, they could one day look back on their lives with the satisfaction of knowing they had made the attempt, instead of wondering, what if?

The year 1985 was not so long ago in the scheme of things, but time enough for another generation to be born, go to school, grow up, and now be at an age where they are ready to make their mark on the world.  Each will walk a different path through life, and the journey will be easier for some than for others, but the words of that long ago teacher can still apply.

As to the East Smithfield Library, the hallways that once echoed with the shouts and laughter of school children are now comparatively silent, as any library should be.  The long forgotten blackboards still exist, although they now lay hidden beneath a layer of drywall that was carefully applied by workmen when the old classroom was converted to office space.  The chalk words and drawings are likely still as clear as the day they were written, waiting for a time when future renovations will once again bring them to light.

A Place to Call Home

Among the forgotten tales connected to the former St. Aloysius Home in Greenville is the story behind these stone ruins.(L to R, Fran Luminello (Payette), Denise Howard, Joshua Howard.)

Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine – August, 2011.

By Jim Ignasher

Mater Ecclesiae College on Austin Avenue in Greenville occupies the former St. Aloysius Home and St. Peter’s School once owned and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Providence.  For over fifty years, St. Al’s, (as it was sometimes affectionately called) was a place of refuge and safe haven for parentless children and youngsters who found themselves in dire circumstances.

For some it was a merely a way-station; for others, it was the only home they knew.   

The origin of St. Aloysius Home dates back to 1858, when the Providence Diocese opened St. Aloysius Orphanage on Prairie Avenue in Providence.  By the 1930s their building had become obsolete, and Bishop Francis P. Keough began looking for another location to build anew; one away from the confines of the city which would allow room for expansion. Such a place was found in Smithfield on property owned by a Catholic Charities organization known as the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Ground breaking ceremonies for the new building were held on October 23, 1939, and the event was well attended by church officials, politicians, and local dignitaries.  The shovel used for the occasion was later placed in the cornerstone of the main building at the dedication ceremony held about a year later.  (That shovel and other artifacts remain there to this day.)  

“There is no finer place in New England for such an orphanage development.”  Bishop Keough announced to those present.

The location was perfect for what the Bishop had in mind.  At that time Greenville was the heart of Apple Valley, and fruitful orchards lined both sides of Austin Avenue.  There was also a lake for swimming and skating, and room for gardens and athletic fields.

Brick construction was chosen for its fire-proof capabilities, for the dorms were designed to house two-hundred children and thirty-six nuns. Besides dormitories and classrooms, a beautiful chapel was erected with stained glass windows worthy of a magnificent cathedral. 

(Saint) Aloysius Gonzaga was born to a well-to-do Italian family in 1568.

Deciding at an early age to devote his life to God, he entered a Jesuit order where he took religious vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

 In 1590 he was visited by the Archangel Gabriel who told him he would die within a year.  A few months later he became ill with plague, and it was during this time he had another vision where he was told he would die on June 21, 1591, the feast of Corpus Christi.   He recovered from the plague, but died just as the angel had predicted at the age of 23.  He was beautified as a saint in 1605.   

St. Aloysius is known as the patron saint of young students and Christian youth.  Perhaps this is why his name was chosen for the institution.

Within a year after the new St. Aloysius Home opened, the United States found itself embroiled in World War II.  Not long afterward, the famous ocean liner, Queen Mary, was pressed into service as a troop carrier.  The ship was well known for its luxurious accommodations; however, with a war on, certain amenities needed to be scaled back, such as the fancy bed linens normally found in the liner’s staterooms.  This led to an unexpected windfall for the children at St. Aloysius, who received the richly appointed bed linens through a donation in October of 1942.

In addition to the linens, the home also received some fine wooden tables with matching leather upholstered chairs that had once graced the French Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. 

To help in the war effort, the children of St. Al’s planted a large “victory garden” on the property to grow their own food.  Mother Superior, Sister Mary Mark, felt working in the garden built character, and the children of St. Al’s continued to maintain the garden well after the war.

The population of the home varied, rising at one point to 224 children.  The Sisters of Mercy, the order of nuns who served as surrogate mothers, tried their best to create a home-like atmosphere rather than one of an institution.  When asked about runaway children, one sister remarked to a Providence Journal reporter, “We don’t have trouble with children running away,” and then went on to relate how one young man who had worked in the kitchen, graduated from St. Al’s to make his way in the world, only to return two years later to ask for his job back; for it was there he felt at home.

Besides a home, the Diocese also provided an education through St. Peter’s School located on the grounds.  However, enrollment at St. Peter’s wasn’t limited to those residing at St. Aloysius.  It included area children as well, as attested to by Fran (Payette) Luminello of Greenville, who graduated from St. Peter’s in 1961.  When asked to relate some of her memories, Fran recalled the clothing worn by the sisters.  “The nuns wore habits in those days, and it hid their hair and made them look older.  It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized that nuns actually had hair!”  

The nuns taught school, and Fran remembered two that she was fond of: Sister Pious, and Sister Bernarda.  Sister Pious taught first grade and was much admired by the children. 

When speaking of Sister Bernarda, Fran recalled her “magic pocket”.  Sister Bernarda had a hidden pocket sewn under her robes from which she would “magically” produce things like candy, erasers, pencils, etc. and pass them out to children who committed acts of kindness.  On the other hand, children who misbehaved were told they might be put into the magic pocket.

“Nobody knew how deep the magic pocket was’, said Fran, ‘and as little kids, we thought it was entirely possible to hide a child under those robes!”

Another who stood out in Fran’s mind was Father Rene Guertin, the administrator of the home.  She recalled how Father Guertin was always getting tickets to things like hockey games, the circus, or the Ice Capades.  Unfortunately, the home only owned one bus, which Father Guertin often drove, but it wasn’t big enough to take all of the children at once. To remedy this, the priest would contact a St. Peter’s School organization known as the “Mother’s Club”, of which Fran’s mother, Anita Payette, was a member. 

“We had a big family, so we had a station wagon.”  Fran related.  “Sometimes we would take up to four or five kids from the home with us to see the circus, or the Ice Capades.”

The residents of St. Aloysius had a communal pet bulldog named Queenie.  How the snub-nosed canine came to be a resident of the home is not clear, but a newspaper account from 1947 relates that the dog was a great comfort to the children.

It seems that Queenie wasn’t the only pet to reside there.  At one point the property also had a small barn which housed two horses that the children could ride.  

St. Aloysius had its own Boy Scout troop that built a campsite and shrine in the woods about three quarters of a mile to the west of the school.  Remnants of this site can still be found today in what is now the Cascade Brook Conservation Area.  The ruins of what was once a fireplace on one side, and a grotto on the other, can still be seen, along with what once served as an altar and table.  The date, May 4, 1942, can still be seen etched in the concrete. 

On a recent trek to the site, Fran recalled seeing it while a student at St. Peter’s, and later as a young mother when she brought her children there for picnics. She remembered that a religious statue once stood in the grotto side facing the altar.  Sadly, that statue is long gone as the site has suffered considerable vandalism over the years.

One mystery of the site is a nearby boulder with the words “Let It Be” carved into it.  Is this a reference to the famous Beatles song, or does it have another meaning?  Who took the time to carve it, and why?

In 1949 the Scouts of St. Al’s took on a more ambitious project by constructing a beach on the shore of Oak Swamp Reservoir in Johnston, on property owned by the Providence Diocese.  The boys worked hard clearing trees, brush, and boulders before hauling in beach sand to create 114 feet of clear sandy shoreline.  They also built two floating platforms, a small shelter, and a stone fireplace.  When they had finished, Mother Superior Mary Mark commented that the beach would be a tremendous timesaver when it came to bathing the children.   

In May of 1962, six girls, aged nine through thirteen, arrived at St. Aloysius Home with a story to tell.  They were Cuban nationals who had been smuggled out of Cuba to escape the oppressive regime of Fidel Castro.  Newspapers only identified the girls by their first names to protect their families still trapped in Cuba.   

One can only imagine how difficult it was for the girls.  They spoke little English, and the nuns didn’t speak Spanish, but after awhile communication became easier for all concerned. It was stated in the Providence Journal that the girls might stay at St. Aloysius for as long as two years.  What became of them is not known, but one hopes they were one day re-united with their families.

In the 1950s and 60s, St. Aloysius would hold a Harvest Supper every October followed by a Casino night in the school gymnasium to raise extra funds.  Fran Luminello recalled how eighth grade girls were allowed to be servers at the supper, and would often receive tips. 

Although he didn’t attend St. Peter’s School, another who helped was Michael Cavanagh of Georgiaville, whose aunt was Sister Mary Alexine, the principal of St. Peters School at the time.  “They usually had me selling cokes at the game tables.” he remembered.

In 1971, St. Aloysius was able to boast the largest outdoor skating rink in Rhode Island.  Covering nearly a half-acre, the rink was built over a layer of asphalt that could be utilized as tennis or basketball courts in warm weather.  Construction was done by volunteers from Local 37 of the Iron Workers Union as a Christmas present to St. Al’s residents.  Martin Byrne of Local 37 related that the idea came about while planning a Christmas party for the children.  The Union had planned to give all St. Aloysius residents a new pair of ice skates for Christmas, and then took the idea a step further by deciding to build a rink too. 

In addition to the rink, an outdoor fireplace was built so skaters could enjoy a warm fire and hot chocolate.  Total cost of the project would have been about $50,000 had labor and materials not been provided for free.

By the 1970s, the population of St. Aloysius had dropped to less than seventy-five wards and twelve nuns.  Times had changed, but the mission of providing a safe-haven had not.  By the early 1990s St. Aloysius was forced to close for a variety of reasons, ending more than 130 years of service.  For awhile, the future of the old campus seemed uncertain until Mater Ecclesiae College acquired it and moved there in 1998. Thus began a new chapter in Smithfield’s history which continues to this day.

Protecting Smithfield in a Simpler Time

Retired Smithfield police officers, Ray Trombley, (Left), and Jim McVey, (Right), recall what it was like to serve and protect in a time before modern police technology.

Retired Smithfield police officers, Ray Trombley, (Left), and Jim McVey, (Right), recall what it was like to serve and protect in a time before modern police technology.

Originally published In Your Smithfield Magazine – September, 2014

By Jim Ignasher

The pitch and wail of police sirens echoed in the night as a caravan of cruisers snaked through the streets of Providence in hot pursuit of a stolen Cadillac.  Blue lights reflected off storefront windows as tires screeched and cars careened around corners.  The Cadillac made its way onto Route 95 towards East Providence driving the wrong way against highway traffic at speeds topping 90 miles-per-hour!  The cruisers followed.  Leading the procession were Smithfield Officers Raymond Trombley and Joseph Parenteau who had initiated the chase.  When they reached the Washington Bridge the Cadillac and cruisers crossed into the eastbound lane.  In the distance ahead Trombley saw a police roadblock and as the Cadillac barreled forward the sound of gunshots rang out.  

In a recent interview Ray commented, “I said to Joe, I hope they don’t miss and hit us!”

It was the late 1960s, and even though nearly fifty years have passed since that incident, Ray can still recall the license plate on that Cadillac – GX-222.

Trombley and Parenteau had been patrolling Douglas Pike on the midnight shift when they noticed the Cadillac with two youths inside.  They activated the cruiser lights, but the driver refused to stop and fled in the direction of North Providence.   In the vicinity of Twin River Road the officers tried to force the Cadillac to the side of the road by pulling abreast of it, but the driver swerved at the cruiser trying to ram it.  As the pursuit entered North Providence, and then Providence, cruisers from those jurisdictions joined in.  The Cadillac was finally cornered in the town of Warren where it was discovered that the two occupants were escapees from the Rhode Island Training School.    

Back in Smithfield the two officers received high praise from the Town Council however, the chief saw things differently. “The chief wasn’t happy with us.” Trombley recalled.  “We blew the motor in the car as a result of the chase.” 

Such multi-jurisdictional high-speed pursuits involving gunfire are rare today, but there was a time when such things weren’t uncommon; when officers could chase a vehicle for virtually any reason and “warning shots” were allowed.  Police work has changed drastically since then, and recently Smithfield’s two longest retired police officers, James McVey, and Raymond Trombley, got together to recall what it was like to be a town policeman in those bygone days.    

Prior to the completion of Route 295 in the mid 1970s, Smithfield’s population was roughly several thousand people, so the officer on the beat knew most everybody, and they knew him.  In many ways Smithfield was still a small town.

Jim McVey was appointed to the force as a special officer in 1950, and recalled that when he joined the department there were only three full-time officers.  The rest of the department consisted of part-time “specials”, later called “reserves”.  Jim was appointed full-time on June 8, 1955.  Shortly afterwards, he was the first Smithfield officer to attend an eight week training academy run by the State Police at URI.  This was a very important step for the department for beforehand new officers received minimal formal training.  “I believe I was one of the first police officers in the state with a college degree to enter law enforcement,’  said Jim, ‘which makes me feel good today to see how changes have evolved from when no education at all was required to be an officer, compared to today when many police agencies require some form of college degree.”    

In the 1950s the department only had one cruiser which was equipped with a one-way police radio that could receive, but not transmit.  Therefore, officers always carried a quantity of dimes to use in payphones in case they needed to call the station, which in those days was located in the Town Hall.  The station, by the way, wasn’t manned 24 hours like it is today.

Dispatching in those days could be described as “hit or miss”.  The police station had a dispatch radio, as did the Chief’s house.  The station was “Station A”, and the Chief’s house was “Station B”, and sometimes calls were dispatched from either location.  The chief’s house also had an extension phone from the Town Hall, so that if nobody was in the station, the chief or his wife would pick up and take the call.  Unfortunately, the radio at the chief’s house had limited transmission capabilities – only 14 watts. 

On other occasions a call might come through from the State Police barracks in Scituate.  They would put out a broadcast such as “Attention Smithfield Police, respond to…”  The message would be repeated three times.  Since an officer couldn’t acknowledge via radio, the State Police never knew for sure if the call had been received, and sometimes they weren’t.  Such a system might seem archaic today, but even a one-way radio was a vast improvement over the days of no radios.

Jim recalled one night where he was on patrol with Deputy Chief Charles Young on a midnight tour. “There was a terrific storm raging that night, with thunder and lightning everywhere.  We drove from the station over to Greenville and checked the businesses there, and then over to Esmond, and up Whipple Hill onto Douglas Pike down towards Twin Rivers.  All of a sudden we came upon a bunch of cars and fire trucks all over the road in front of Bell Farms, (Today known as Twelve Acres.) with the Chief standing out directing traffic.”  

At that time the farm had on its property a small professional fireworks factory.  Unbeknownst to Young and McVey, lightning had struck the building setting off an explosion.  Due to storm related problems, Young and McVey never received a radio call of the incident.

When Ray Trombley joined the department on December 13, 1964, the roster consisted of thirteen full-time officers and a cadre of “reserves”.  “I was the thirteenth officer.” he recalled.  By then the fleet of cruisers had grown to three – Cars 193, 194, and 195, as designated by the police license plates, and each was equipped with two-way radios – a significant improvement.  The day and second shifts used two patrol cars, each patrolling one-half of the town, but the midnight shift used only one car with two officers patrolling the entire town.  This was done for safety reasons, which is why he and Joe Parenteau were riding together the night of the chase.  And with only three cars for the entire department, one might understand why the chief was upset over the blown motor.

Both Jim and Ray enjoyed two-man patrol cars for it gave them someone to talk to when things were slow – “Unless the other guy was a smoker”, Ray said with a laugh.

Ray recalled that all he had to do before going on patrol for the first time was qualify with his department issued pistol – a World War II vintage .38 caliber revolver.  Going to the academy would come later.  

As to police cars, Jim remembered that early cruisers had manual-shift transmissions which were difficult to operate at low speeds while creeping around buildings at night.  “Trying to shift, steer, and operate the hand-held spotlight all at the same time was difficult.” He said.  Luxuries such as automatic-transmissions, and air conditioning for Smithfield’s police cars didn’t come until much later.  

Those early patrol cars also lacked protective cages to separate an arrestee from the officer.  That situation was rectified after a patrolman was involved in an accident while transporting a prisoner. 

While speaking of accidents, one may be surprised to learn that Smithfield’s roadways have borne witness of many horrific car wrecks over the years.

“The very first accident I ever handled was a fatal in front of the Greenville Baptist Church” said Jim.  Unfortunately it would not be the last.  Ray also saw his share, “Especially at Seven and One-sixteen” he said. “Before they put a light up there, there were a lot of bad accidents.”   

Police work has always been inherently dangerous, and even simpler times weren’t necessarily gentler.  A case in point involved a time in 1952 when Jim stopped a car with Connecticut plates on Washington Highway.  He only intended to give the juvenile driver a warning until he learned the car was stolen.  The youth was transported to the State Police barracks in Lincoln where it was further learned that he was wanted for shooting at a Norwich police officer!  When a Connecticut trooper and Norwich officer arrived to take custody of the prisoner, the Norwich officer asked where the gun was.

“I tossed it out at the state line” was the reply.

“Tell the Smithfield officer what you would have done with the gun if you still had it” the officer ordered.

 Looking at Jim he said, “I’d have shot him!”

In another incident Jim recalled the night of May 19, 1961, when he pursued a stolen Pontiac with two men inside who tried to break into Cole’s TV on Route 44.  The chase continued along Putnam Pike and into Glocester where Jim fired a warning shot from his service revolver blowing out the Pontiac’s rear window.  Speeds were in excess of 100 mph, and as glass from the window blew backwards it peppered the front of the police car causing small leaks in the radiator.  As the cruiser began loosing coolant, the chase roared through Chepachet where a state trooper joined in.   Everything came to an abrupt end at Jackson Schoolhouse Road where the driver of the Pontiac lost control and crashed.  Subsequent investigation revealed that both men were armed, and had broken into several other businesses that night in Johnston and Providence. 

Today’s officers have computers in their cruisers that allow for instant information on vehicle and criminal data, but in the 1950s and 60s such was not the case.  When dealing with suspicious persons or vehicles and officer had to rely more on instinct and judgment.  One tool at their disposal was the state’s “two-hour-hold law” which allowed an officer to arrest a person for two hours while a follow-up investigation was done.  This law has since been repealed, but at one time it was a valuable asset to police work.  

Police officers in the 1950s and 60s made far less than other occupations.  Jim worked nine-hour days, 54 hours per week, all for $42.00 before taxes, and officers didn’t receive overtime. By the 1960s Ray had it a little better working 44 hours a week and taking home about $78.00 gross. To help make ends meet, he took a second job at Cavanaugh Company in Greenville. 

As to time off, a Smithfield patrolman in the 1960s got one-and-a-half days off each week.  Ray said some officers would work out a schedule between themselves filling in for each other on the half-day so one week they would have one day off, but the next they would have two full days off.  Only the most senior ranking officers got weekends off.  Ray’s days off were generally Monday and Tuesday.  

When Jim went on the force an officer had to pay for his own uniforms.  Ray recalled how his first uniform was free, but “used”.  “They gave me a shirt and a pair of pants. The pants had a 34 inch waist, and I was a 29!”   

By the 1970s the department had outgrown its Town Hall accommodations, and both Jim and Ray played a role in making the current police station a reality.  Since then, the department has grown far beyond what anyone could have imagined in the 1950s, and is once again facing a similar situation.

Jim retired as Deputy Chief in 1977, and Ray in 1984 as a Captain.  Sometimes they still miss police work, for the job is like no other, and they loved doing it.  Despite that, having worked in the era that they did, each doubted they would want to go into law enforcement today.  The world has changed, and the way they were trained for the job might not fit today’s way of doing things.  Modern police officers are forced to operate under restrictions and mandates that weren’t a consideration when Jim and Ray wore a badge.   

The Jinx Plane Revisited

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – April, 2010 

pilot

Jim Taglione of Providence

82 year-old Jim Taglione of Providence believes the ill fated airplane mentioned in the February issue of Your Smithfield Magazine was the same one that once belonged to his uncle, Joseph Taglione, before Ralph Wilkins came into possession of it.   

“My uncle cracked up a few airplanes.” said Jim as we sat sipping coffee in a local restaurant pouring over scrapbooks containing vintage photographs.  One photo in particular showed his smiling uncle sitting atop a wrecked airplane. 

Joseph Taglione was a fairly well known aviator in his time.  Born in Italy, he learned to fly in 1921, and in 1928 was honored by the Sons of Italy as the first Italian American flyer in Rhode Island.  It was during the 1920s that Taglione established Rhode Island Airways with $1,500 he borrowed form Jim’s father. On weekends he would offer plane rides, sometimes making as much as $800.

While reading the article about the jinxed airplane, Jim became convinced that it was the same aircraft once owned by his uncle, particularly when he read about the accident where the landing gear had snagged the roof of an automobile.  “How many of those could have happened?” he asked, for not only had his uncle experienced such an accident, he had done so with the same make of airplane. 

If he didn’t reveal his octogenarian status, Jim could easily be taken for a much younger man. Like his late uncle, he too loves to fly and has been doing so since he was sixteen.  Jim also shares a connection to Smithfield for it was at the old Smithfield Airport where he learned to fly in 1943.  The cost was six dollars for a half hour of instruction.  Each week he would take another lesson with his instructor Butch Boucher, who was also the airport manager.  The rules stated that one had to have a minimum of eight hours of instruction before they could fly solo, but Jim soloed after only four hours and twenty-five minutes. 

“After my solo I bought him (Boucher) a case of beer,’ Jim recalled, ‘and I was only sixteen!”

Butch took a liking to Jim and offered him a job patching holes in the airplanes.  Many aircraft of that era had canvas “skins” tightened by aviation “dope” which allowed for good aerodynamics and lighter aircraft weight. The “dope” was a glue/lacquer mix that shrank as it dried.  The first time he set out to make a repair he learned what a messy job it could be if not done right.  The “dope” was kept in a 55 gallon drum which lay on its side.  Not knowing he was supposed to tilt the drum before removing the plug, the dope came gushing out and quickly over-flowed his five gallon bucket. To make matters worse, he accidentally dropped the plug into the bucket during the process.  With the liquid flowing and no way to stop it, he was forced to put his whole arm into the bucket to fish for the plug. 

On another occasion a man who owned a J2 Cub told Jim that if he would polish his plane he would give him a ride.  Jim brought out a step ladder and began polishing the top of a wing and promptly pushed through the rotted canvas!  Jim repaired the damage, but soon discovered that the rot wasn’t contained to just the wing. “That plane had ripped fabric all over it that the owner just kept patching” Jim recalled.

Smithfield’s airport only had one hangar, built by John Emin, Sr., in 1932.  Jim recalled that in order to fit more aircraft inside, some of the airplanes could be tipped forward letting the nose rest atop a five gallon bucket.  However, this could only be accomplished with certain planes such as Piper Cubs or Aeroncas.   

During World War II, the U.S. Government mandated that the civilian aircraft at Smithfield’s Airport had to be taken inland, so one winter’s day Jim flew with a pilot who needed to take his plane to an airport in Palmer, Massachusetts. They left Smithfield with nothing more than a standard road map to guide them, and not surprisingly they got lost. The pilot set down in a field where he asked a farmer for directions.  The farmer pointed towards a large hill and said Palmer was “that way”.  They eventually reached their destination, and Jim remembers freezing all the way back because he was forced to ride in the rumble seat of the car that had met them there to take them home.

Jim’s mother Margaret Taglione, and his other uncle Gene, ran a small luncheonette at the Smithfield Airport that sold spaghetti and meatballs as well as different types of sandwiches.  The photographs belonging to Jim indicate it was a small establishment, but then how big did it have to be to service the tiny airport?

Although he never knew it at the time, the airplane that had once belonged to his uncle Joseph had crashed at the very airport where Jim learned to fly.  In fact he never even knew of the accident until reading about in the magazine. The only accident Jim remembered hearing about was the time another plane damaged its landing gear when it hit a gofer hole on the field.  

In December 1945, Jim enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but although he was a licensed pilot, he lacked the college credits to be a naval aviator so he was relegated to the ground working around aircraft he would never be able to fly.  

After his stint in the navy, he returned to Rhode Island and resumed flying.  In 1978 he purchased a Cessna 172M, an aircraft he still owns and keeps at North Central Airport.  Since taking his first flying lesson in 1943, Jim has logged over 4,000 hours of air time, some of which he has done with his dog Snickers, a small mixed breed that routinely accompanies him wherever he goes. 

As far as any jinx is concerned, Jim doesn’t believe in them.

Jumping To a Conclusion

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October, 2009

Smithfield’s once famous “Suicide Bridge” was the last stop for those who wanted to cross into the great beyond.

Smithfield’s once famous “Suicide Bridge” was the last stop for those who wanted to cross into the great beyond.

It was just before Christmas in 1920.  As snow flurries blew about, a man stood atop a bridge on Farnum Pike contemplating his next move.  Hours of quiet desperation had all come down to this.  The dark water of the Woonasquatucket River mocked him as it swirled below, almost daring him to jump.  Others had occupied the same spot where he was standing, and for the same purpose, just waiting for the right moment. Then, almost without thinking, he leaped from the bridge and into eternity.  The following morning when police recovered his body, word spread quickly that the Suicide Bridge had claimed yet another victim.   

This is the story of Smithfield’s infamous “Suicide Bridge”, a wrought iron structure that once spanned the Woonasquatucket River connecting Georgiaville to Esmond.  Its ominous reputation was so well known that even newspapers and town death records referred to it by that name.  By all appearances it was no different from other bridges around the state, and hardly seemed like the type of structure to inspire myth and legends.  Long-time area residents will tell you that the bridge’s name came about due to the many suicides that occurred there; sometimes, they say, at the rate of once a month!  However, official town death records show those numbers to be much lower, thereby indicating that once a month is more myth than reality. Like many legends, the story of the bridge has grown with each re-telling. 

Looking down from the present-day bridge that spans the Woonasquatucket, one may find it hard to believe that it was even possible to end one’s life by jumping, but apparently it was.  At one time the Esmond Dam kept the water level higher and therefore deeper.  The old bridge sat at a higher elevation and the road went up to meet it.  One man who grew up in the area recalled how the wide open areas on either side of the bridge allowed for ample swimming in summer, and hockey games in winter.  Today, with the water level kept lower, these areas are choked with brush and weeds.    

 

The structure that later became known as the Suicide Bridge was built in 1890 to replace an earlier one that stood at the same location.  The old bridge was unsafe, and was dismantled after a horrible accident involving a horse and buggy had occurred there.  The new bridge was “state of the art” for its day.  The iron trusses allowed for flexibility and the even distribution of weight.  The anchor bolts holding fast to the massive granite stones on either shore ensured it could withstand just about anything Mother Nature could throw at it.  The only design flaw was that it was too narrow because it was built before the invention of the automobile, when traffic moved at a leisurely 3 to 5 miles-per-hour.  The early “horseless carriages” came into use about 1905 and puttered along with tiny engines. They weren’t much larger than a typical buggy, and didn’t take up much of the highway. However, as the Twentieth Century moved forward, larger and faster vehicles took to the road, and it became apparent just how narrow the bridge was. This fact made for some hair-raising experiences when two autos came to meet at the bridge.  Common sense dictated that one driver stop and wait for the other to cross first, but good sense and pride don’t always go together, and over the years numerous games of “chicken” ended badly.  

Exactly how many deaths occurred at the bridge is unknown as town death records don’t list locations until the early 1900s, but as near as can be determined, the first suicide occurred at the bridge on May 31, 1914, when a 54 year-old woman leapt into the water. Two years later, a middle-aged man followed suit in what was described as a “fit of insanity”.  Four more deaths occurred at the bridge in 1917, and yet another in May of 1918. 

Not every death connected to the bridge was a suicide; some were accidental drownings.  In the days before backyard swimming pools and easy transportation to the state’s beaches, people swam in local lakes and rivers. Drownings occurred in virtually every body of water throughout Smithfield, but when one occurred at the bridge, people took special notice.

With each death reported, the bridge’s reputation grew.  Some said the bridge was cursed, or somehow had a dark force connected to it that inspired people to jump. Teenagers told ghost stories of the bridge being haunted by the tormented souls of those who had died there.  Whether one believes in such things or not, there were those who avoided the bridge at night – just in case.   

After a man drowned himself at the bridge just before Thanksgiving in 1921, things seemed to quiet down, and no further suicides were reported there for the rest of the decade.  Some no doubt felt that the jinx had been broken, but it was only lying dormant. 

It was an accident that brought about the construction of the Suicide Bridge, and it was another accident that caused it to be dismantled.  In the early morning hours of January 20, 1932, a car carrying two young men crashed through a guardrail at the bridge and tumbled into the icy water. One man managed to free himself, but the other drowned.  Afterwards, plans were begun to replace the bridge. 

The last known death to occur at the bridge happened on February 20, 1933, when a man was struck and killed by a passing automobile. 

The new bridge was completed in 1934 and is still in use today.  Hundreds of motorists cross it daily, never realizing the dark past of its predecessor.   Since its completion, there have been no reported suicides at that location.

However, that’s not the end of this story, for the old Suicide Bridge is still in use today!  Once it was dismantled, it was brought to Harrisville and re-assembled over the Nipmuc River on Sherman Farm Road, and re-named the Shippee Bridge.  The bridge is open to two-way traffic and has a walkway for pedestrians.  Although the occasional car accident still occurs on the bridge, there have been no serious incidents, and no reported suicides.  A modern chain link fence runs along the walkway that prevents people from jumping. 

The Mysterious Skeleton of Putnam Pike

By Jim Ignasher

 Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October 2010

Few things would be more unnerving to the average homeowner than to be digging in one’s own yard and happen upon human remains.  Fortunately such discoveries are rare, but at least one case occurred in Smithfield on the evening of April 11, 1977, when a man digging in his yard literally unearthed a mystery that has yet to be solved.

The man, who will remain anonymous to protect his privacy, had been removing a tree stump in order to widen his driveway when he uncovered a human skull.  Smithfield police were called to the scene, and Patrolman John Whitecross later recorded in his report, “The skull had a full set of teeth and appeared to be that of a human.  It was found approximately 3-4’ down in the ground and 20’ from the west corner of the garage.” 

It was apparent by the skull’s brown coloration that it was old. Of course the obvious questions were, who did it belong to, and how did it get there?  Had the homeowner uncovered an unmarked grave, or were the bones connected to something more sinister?

Smithfield police detectives Brian Burke and Joe Parenteau were assigned the case.  There were no known cemeteries in the area, and further examination of the site showed no evidence of wood fragments, screws, or any other indications that the bones had been buried in a coffin. 

The state Medical Examiner’s Office was contacted, but the detectives were informed that a forensic investigator could not respond to Smithfield until the following day.

The next morning Burke and Parenteau returned to the site, and began to carefully scrape away at the dirt where the skull had been found.  After a few minutes they had uncovered several more bones which led them to believe that an entire skeleton was buried there. The depth at which the bones had been found left no doubt that they had been deliberately buried, and not simply covered by erosion. 

Shortly before noon a forensic investigator arrived, and after examination of the bones, determined they were between 40 to 100 years old.  If the police were dealing with a murder, it was definitely an old one. The investigator said he would send two technicians to conduct a more through excavation.  In modern terminology, this would be known as a “forensic excavation”, where the dirt would be sifted through a screen to be sure that no evidence such as small bone fragments, jewelry, or even a bullet was missed.  However, this procedure was never carried out, for apparently the technicians felt further digging was unnecessary.  According to the official police report, the two technicians arrived at 1:30 p.m. and only wanted to collect the bones that had already been unearthed by the detectives.  The bones were taken to Providence for further examination and testing.    

In the meantime, Smithfield police continued with their investigation.  Town records made no mention of any cemeteries in the area, and research of birth and death records of all previous property owners going back more than one hundred years proved fruitless.  

Detective Burke interviewed long-time residents of the area. One man remembered hearing from his grandfather that a “sick house” had once been located near where the bones were found.  The sick house was where people with communicable diseases such as Small Pox were brought and kept in isolation during the 19th Century to prevent epidemics. Could the bones be that of someone who died at the so-called sick house?

Police interviewed two women in their 80s who had lived in Greenville all their lives, but neither could remember any un-solved murders or missing person cases.

One elderly gentleman recalled a legend about a Native American princess who had supposedly once lived in the area.  Details were hazy, but it seemed she had wandered off sometime in the mid 1800s and was never heard from again; but was it fact, or simply a folktale?

As one might expect, the case attracted the attention of the media, but there wasn’t much to report.  On April 13, 1977, The Evening Bulletin reported that the Medical Examiner’s preliminary findings showed the bones to be of a young woman, buried, “more than 40 years ago, but not longer than 75 years ago.”  It was also reported that investigators were still awaiting other test results.

Two days later, Detective Burke received a brief preliminary report from the Medical Examiner’s office that stated the bones appeared to belong to one person; “…buried for over 50 years with no evidence of foreign material (such as jewelry or bullets, etc.) and no evidence of ante mortem trauma.”  (“Ante mortem” means, before death.)  The report stated additional tests were in progress and could take several weeks.  

 On June 16, 1977, the Providence Journal reported that an orthopedic surgeon and anthropologist would study the remains for additional clues.  It was further stated that the bones, “were buried no more than 50 years ago”, but their exact age was unknown.  The article concluded with one of the investigators explaining that the case was “lagging because more recent deaths were given priority”.

Three days later, a small news item appeared in The Evening Bulletin, under the headline, “Bones May Have Been Teenager”, which stated that according to the chief medical examiner, the bones, “may have been those of a teenage girl who died of tuberculosis 50 to 100 years ago.”  (Discrepancies between the various news reports were never explained.)  

The medical examiner’s autopsy report does not offer much more in the way of clues.  The report stated  it was, “highly probable” the remains belonged to a white female, between 12 and 16 years old, who stood approximately 4’10” inches tall.  The report went on to state that the person was, “probably in good health”, and that x-rays didn’t show any signs of disease, or signs of  injury which would indicate foul play.  Unfortunately, the report does not narrow down the time of death or state a cause.   

 So, who was this young girl, and how did she come to be buried where her remains were found?  The autopsy report would seem to indicate that it’s unlikely she died at the “sick house”.  It also seems unlikely that she was a Native American since the autopsy report also states, “The teeth do not exhibit distinctive racial traits.”, and the race is classified as “Caucasoid”. (White)

The Native American princess legend may have its origins in an actual incident that occurred in the Tarklin section of Burrillville in 1831.  In that case, researched by former Smithfield resident Thomas D’Agostino, a woman named Hannah Frank, who was a Native American, but not a princess, was murdered by her two brothers who were opposed to her upcoming marriage to a Vermont peddler. 

Thus, the simple act of removing a tree stump uncovered a mystery that remains unsolved.  Although no evidence of a crime was discovered, that doesn’t prove one wasn’t committed because a forensic excavation was never conducted.  However, after all these years the question seems moot, for if a murder was committed, those responsible would surely have gone on to their final judgment by now.  

The story of this young girl may never be known.   Who was she?  How did she die?  Perhaps the answers still lie buried with the rest of her bones under a driveway on Putnam Pike.

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