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 http://www.smithapplebyhouse.org/calendar 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 contact@smithapplebyhouse.org.

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 https://www.smithapplebyhouse.org or follow on Facebook at http://facebook.com/SmithApplebyHouse and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SmithAppleby.

 

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.

 

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. 

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.  

Forgotten Tales of North Central Airport

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine, March – 2012

By Jim Ignasher 

The Chester M. Spooner Memorial Building at North Central Airport

The Chester M. Spooner Memorial Building at North Central Airport

North Central Airport opened in 1951, but how many know it was actually re-named Peters-Fournier Airport in 1953?  And who, by the way, were Peters and Fournier?  Theirs is but one of the forgotten tales connected to Smithfield’s state-owned airport which lies tucked away in the northeast corner of town.

Just as the invention of the automobile led to the necessity of the parking lot, the airplane created the need for airports.  The earliest “airports” were nothing more than grass fields, but the first airplanes didn’t require much space for take-offs and landings. 

The advent of World War II led to the rapid advancement of aviation technology, for in just five short years the United States went from propeller driven planes to high-powered jets.  By wars end it was clear that small grassy airfields would no longer be adequate to handle modern post-war aircraft.   This led to the genesis of what later became Smithfield’s North Central Airport.

Even before the end of the war, there were those in northern Rhode Island who were preparing for peacetime commerce, and those plans included the construction of a modern state-owned airport that could service the Blackstone Valley region.  In March of 1945, members of the Woonsocket and Pawtucket Chambers of Commerce met to discuss the feasibility of such an undertaking.  At that time, northern Rhode Island already had four airports. There was Smithfield Airport, located where Bryant University stands today; Montgomery Field in North Smithfield; What Cheer Airport in Pawtucket; and Woonsocket Airport.  All were considered for possible expansion, and each was rejected for different reasons.

The proposed airport had to be located within easy access to Providence, Woonsocket, and Pawtucket, with room for future expansion.  A large area of mostly undeveloped land on the Smithfield-Lincoln town line seemed to fit the requirements, and by the summer of 1945 it was officially announced that the site for the present-day airport had been selected.  Understandably, not everyone supported the decision; especially those who stood to have their land taken under eminent domain by the state.  Despite any protests, within a year, 862 acres had been condemned, and the project was set to move forward.  However, due to political infighting, rising cost estimates, and problems with funding, actual clearing of the land didn’t begin until February of 1950.  Construction took another twenty-two months as costs ran higher than original estimates.  An interesting bit of trivia relates to the fact that twelve miles of electrical wire was installed during construction. 

Dedication ceremonies took place on December 15, 1951.  Part of the celebration included a helicopter owned by New England Helicopter Service that carried 1,700 pieces of mail out of the airport to the Saylesville post office in Lincoln.  The mail contained souvenir cachets that received a special cancellation stamp before being mailed out.  Today, due to their rarity, these cachets are sought after by collectors.  

North Central Airport gets its name for being in the northern-central portion of the state.  It couldn’t be called Smithfield Airport because that name was already in use.  Many are probably unaware that the airport actually has another name, although it is seldom if ever used.  In 1953, the airport was re-dedicated as the Peters-Fournier Airport in honor of Cranston native Private First Class George J. Peters, U.S. Army, and Connecticut native, Sergeant William G. Fournier, United States Marine Corps, both World War II Medal of Honor recipients. 

PFC Peters was part of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment that landed in an open field near Fluren, Germany, on March 25, 1945.  Almost immediately an enemy machine gun opened fire on them killing several men.  The rest found themselves pinned down in the open with no place to hide as the gunner methodically swept the field with bullets.  With disregard for his own safety, Peters single-handedly attacked and silenced the machine gun, but was mortally wounded in the process.  His actions undoubtedly saved the lives of others in his unit.  Besides the airport, a school in Cranston is also named for him.  

On June 28, 1943, during heavy fighting on Guadalcanal, Sergeant Fournier’s unit was attacked by overwhelming enemy forces and ordered to withdraw.  Fournier and another Marine, Lewis Hall, sacrificed their lives when they ignored the orders and stuck to their machine gun position to cover the retreat of their comrades.  Their gallantry saved the lives of many Marines who later re-grouped and counter attacked, eventually winning the battle.

On October 19, 1963, an air show sponsored by the Pawtucket Rotary Club was held at North Central which began with a skywriting greeting to the crowd of approximately 15,000 attendees.  Among the attractions were aerial stuntmen who performed wing-walks, precision flying, and daring transfers from moving vehicles to low flying airplanes.  One daredevil jumped from an altitude of two miles wearing a special suit that allowed him to perform a series of loops and whirls while trailing smoke before opening his parachute at a mere 1,500 feet.   

The airport has an administration building that hasn’t changed much since it was built.  In 1977 it was dedicated as the Chester M. Spooner Memorial Building, the name of which can be seen over the main entrance from the parking lot.  Mr. Spooner was a native of Pawtucket, and former publisher of the (Pawtucket) Evening Times who was very influential in helping to make North Central Airport a reality. 

As with any airport, North Central has seen its share of accidents; the total number of which may never be known for accurate record keeping did not exist before the 1960s.

The first known accident occurred several months after the airport opened, on July 19, 1952, when a 29-year-old man was fatally injured when his plane crashed just after take-off in a cow pasture one-hundred feet beyond the runway.

Some accidents were the result of pilot error, such as the one which occurred in November of 1966, when the pilot forgot to lower his aircraft’s wheels before landing; or the piggy-back landing – midair collision that occurred in September of 1968 when two planes tried to land on the same runway at the same time.

Other less notable accidents involved collapsed landing gear, aircraft overshooting the runway and crashing into trees, ground collisions, and the occasional “nose-over”.  

On September 8, 1997, North Central Airport was the scene of one of Rhode Island’s most horrific civil aviation accidents in terms of loss of life, and the worst to ever occur at the airport, or in the town of Smithfield.   On that day, a Cessna 182E carrying a group of skydivers crashed on take-off killing five of the six people aboard.  One of those aboard was a twenty-one year-old Massachusetts woman who was making her first parachute jump.  Her parents and boyfriend had come to support her, one of whom carried a video camera that captured the crash on film.

For some unknown reason there seems to be a bit of confusion, at least for some, as to the exact location of the airport.   It’s hard to believe, but some sources have it listed as being in Pawtucket, while others think it’s in Lincoln, probably due to the Lincoln mailing address of 380 Jenckes Hill Road.  Posters advertising events at the airport in recent years have cited both locations.  To be fair, some of the undeveloped acreage is located in Lincoln, but just to set the record straight, the airport proper is definitely in Smithfield.

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.

Hidden History in Plain Sight

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

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

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – September, 2013

 By Jim Ignasher

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

The Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Statue of St. Michael

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

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

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

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

 

The Old Greenville School Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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