Smithfield Exchange Bank Interior

Smithfield Exchange Bank Interior

Greenville, Rhode Island

Photos courtesy of the Smithfield Historic Preservation Society.  The date of the photos is unknown.

Click on images to enlarge.

Early Banks Of Smithfield

     Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine, September, 2019.

Early Banks Of Smithfield

By Jim Ignasher

     An historical treasure has recently surfaced in the form of a five dollar banknote from the former Smithfield Exchange Bank in Greenville. The note, dated July 4, 1859, depicts illustrations of Zachary Taylor, our nation’s 12th president, and Katherine “Bonnie Kate” Sevier, wife of Revolutionary War hero John Sevier, who later became Governor of Tennessee. It’s unclear as to why their images were chosen to be depicted on a Greenville, Rhode Island, banknote as neither was from New England, and at the time the bill was printed, Taylor wasn’t the sitting president.

     Legend has it that John Sevier saved Katherine’s life when she was accidentally locked outside Tennessee’s Fort Watauga during a surprise Indian raid in the summer of 1776, and later married her.

   The banknote harkens back to an era between the late1700s to the early 1860s when individual banks actually issued their own currency. 

     The history of paper money in America is long and varied, but to put it briefly, except for certain Treasury notes, general circulation paper money as we know it today wasn’t officially issued by the U. S. Government until 1861. Prior to then individual banks were authorized to issue their own currency in order to keep local economies running.

     Most banknotes were issued in one, two, three, five, ten, and one-hundred dollar denominations, but some were issued as fractional currency, either less than a dollar, or somewhere between one and two dollars.

     There were however drawbacks to this system, for there were no standardization requirements, and each bank designed and distributed its own style of currency which often caused problems with merchants and creditors especially from one state to another. Sometimes monetary designs were changed without notice, and as the number of banks grew so did the variations of notes in circulation, thus making it fairly easy for counterfeiters and con-men to ply their trade.

    Ironically, some banks went out of business because they issued too many banknotes, and their face value exceeded the amount that the bank could actually cover in the event all of them were to be cashed in at the same time.  

     The type of paper used to print the banknotes was often similar to writing paper, which is one reason so few examples have survived to modern times. Another reason is that at some point after the Civil War, like Confederate money issued by the Confederacy, the notes became worthless, so few bothered to save them.    

     The first bank in Rhode Island was The Providence Bank, established in 1791.  

A 1930s postcard view of the former Smithfield Union Bank

       The first bank in Smithfield was the Smithfield Union Bank, so named because it was originally located in Smithfield’s “Union Village”, which prior to 1871 was still part of Smithfield, but is today Woonsocket. The bank was chartered in 1804 and opened for business the following year. In the basement was large a granite vault with iron doors and two locks which required keys twelve inches long to open.

     The bank later relocated to Slatersville in present-day North Smithfield, and the building it occupied survives today as a private home.      

     Besides being the first bank established in Smithfield, it may also have been the first to be robbed. On October 27, 1838, the lone cashier on duty locked the door and left the bank to conduct some business. While he was away, someone entered a vacant apartment above the bank, and after cutting a hole through the floor, casually made off with $3,400 which had been left in the cash-drawer. The culprit was arrested two weeks later in Boston, and was discovered to be the same man who’d been imprisoned for attempting to rob the Weybosset Bank in Providence.

     Ironically, he’d been released just five months earlier with the stipulation that he leave the state and never come back!    

     Literally dozens of banks came and went in Rhode Island during the first several decades of the 19th century, the names of which have long been forgotten. Some in proximity to Smithfield included The Farmers Bank of Glocester, established in 1804; The Burrillville Agricultural Bank, 1815; The New England Pacific Bank of Smithfield/North Providence, 1818, The Rhode Island Agricultural Bank of Johnston, 1823; the Globe Bank of Providence, (1831), originally located in Globe Village, which was once part of Smithfield, but is now part of Woonsocket; and The Scituate Bank in North Scituate, 1836; to cite but a few examples.  

    Another early Smithfield bank was The Smithfield Lime Rock Bank, founded in 1823, located on Great Road in the present-day town of Lincoln. The bank moved to Providence in 1847, and went out of business in 1894. The original bank building on Great Road exists today as a private home.

     Various banknotes from this institution featured images of George Washington, Native Americans, and eagles, as well as farming, nautical, and transportation themes,  

   Getting back to the Smithfield Exchange Bank, which was established in June of 1822; the bank’s original location was in the back ell of the former Waterman Tavern in Greenville. Most of the original tavern is gone, but the back ell remains, along with the original vault in which the money was stored. In the 1850s the brick building next to the remaining ell was constructed and became the new home for the bank. It was in this building that the five dollar bank note pictured with this article was first put into circulation in 1859.

     In 1865 The Smithfield Exchange Bank became the National Exchange Bank of Greenville, with a capitol of $150.000 – a humble amount of money by today’s standards.

    In 1928 the bank became known as The Greenville Trust Company, and in 1954 it was acquired by Citizens Savings Bank, which is located in Greenville today.  

   19th century banknotes are highly sought after by collectors, and prices can range from affordable to “Holy cow!” depending on condition and rarity.

     The banknote pictured with this article was donated to the Historical Society of Smithfield in memory of Edwin and Doris Osler of Burrillville. Should you wish to view a high resolution image of the note, please visit the historical society website at Smithapplebyhouse.org.         

 

 

 

The Great Greenville Conflagration of 1924

By Jim Ignasher

 Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – April, 2011

Author’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series of articles.  J.I.  

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Between 1876 and 1924, Greenville’s best defense against fire was this antique hand-pumper affectionately named the “Water Witch”.  It took quite a few men, and a lot of stamina to operate it. (Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt.)

Between 1876 and 1924, Greenville’s best defense against fire was this antique hand-pumper affectionately named the “Water Witch”. It took quite a few men, and a lot of stamina to operate it. (Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt.)

It was an intense blaze that broke out on a cold winter’s night in the very heart of Greenville, at an hour when most citizens were snug in their beds. When it was over, two prominent landmarks had been destroyed, six businesses and the post office were gone, and three families were left homeless. Had it not been for the brave efforts of volunteer firefighters, it could have been much worse.

Try to picture the village of Greenville as it looked in the early years of the 20th Century.  There was the town common, somewhat larger than it is today, crowned by the picturesque Baptist Church, and lined with 19th Century buildings that have since been replaced by parking lots, or newer structures.  A barn once stood where the Greenville fire station is today. The famed Waterman Tavern stood just to the right of it, still looking much as it did the day it was built with its frontal portion still intact. Route 44, known then as the Powder Mill Turnpike, was still an unpaved, two-lane road that was periodically sprayed with oil to keep the dust down.  

The old Smithfield Exchange Bank still stands on Route 44 at the intersection of Smith Avenue.  In 1924, the village fire apparatus, consisting primarily of an ancient hand-pumper, was stored in the basement of this building.

Across the street on the corner of Smith Avenue stood the general store of W. A. Battey & Son, formerly occupied by Oscar Tobey. This building also housed the Greenville Post Office, the village lock-up, an upstairs meeting hall, and three apartments.  (Wood Items & More now occupies this site.) 

Next to Battey’s store stood a large wooden building containing five businesses, one being an automobile repair shop belonging to A. Howard Hopkins. Like most of the structures in Greenville at the time, the building was an old one with dry timbers and oiled floors; perfect fuel to feed the beast. It is there that the fire started. 

Shortly before 4 a.m. on January 23, 1924, William Kelley happened to look from the window of his apartment above the old Smithfield Exchange Bank, and saw flames shooting through a window of Hopkins’ Garage.  He quickly made his way to the basement under the bank and activated the fire siren.  Its lonesome wail droned throughout the village calling volunteers from their warm beds into the frosty night air.  As the men left their homes still groggy from sleep, they could smell the smoky haze that was beginning to hang over the village, and knew their slumber had not been disturbed for nothing.  

Kelley and others pulled the antique fire engine from under the bank and maneuvered it across the street. Greenville had no fire hydrants then, and the most obvious source of water, Hopkins Pond directly behind the burning auto garage, was frozen over.  As men swung axes to break through the ice, others dragged a suction hose to the shore.  While the firemen worked furiously to gain access to water, the flames spread to the Wheelwright shop next door, and then to Thornton’s Ice Cream shop, likely traveling unchecked through the building’s common loft.  By the time water was brought to bear the fire was out of control, and the primitive fire apparatus lacked the capability to halt its progress.   

92-year-old Ralph Battey of Greenville recently recalled his memories of the blaze as he watched from his bedroom window.  “My grandfather (Walter A. Battey) called the Providence fire department for help, but they wouldn’t come unless he promised to give them one-hundred dollars!” 

His grandfather agreed to pay, for what choice did he have?  It was clear the fire was going to spread unless more help arrived.  One engine from Johnston came on the scene and took up a position beside the Greenville men. Shortly afterwards, the heat of the flames broke the overhead power lines causing them to fall across Route 44 near the intersection of Pleasant View Avenue.  According to Mr. Battey, when volunteers from Centerdale arrived they refused to go any further due to the downed power lines.  An engine from Providence arrived a short time later, but stopped when they encountered the Centerdale crew.  Radio communications for fire departments were non-existent in that era, and when the telephone lines went down any more calls for assistance became impossible. 

Newspaper accounts relate that firemen did their best to attack the flames and stem their progress, but fire breathes and consumes like a living being, and despite their best efforts the flames broke past all barriers.  Before long the entire building was ablaze, with flames now consuming C. E. Walcott’s blacksmith shop and Keach’s paint shop.  

The flames then jumped to Battey’s general store, igniting the clapboards, and racing across the wood-shingled roof. Before long it too was beyond saving. Those who had been evacuated from the apartments above the store took refuge in St. Thomas Church across the street, but the wind pushed flames and embers towards the church’s roof and bell tower threatening to destroy that building too.

About a thousand feet away on Austin Avenue stood a woolen mill now occupied by Cortland Place assisted living.  The mill had its own fire hydrants, and steam-pressure fire-fighting system.  Hose was laid from the mill to the fire scene where volunteers took up a defensive position on Smith Avenue between the church and general store spraying down the church roof and that of the parsonage behind it to halt the fire’s progress.  Meanwhile, other firefighters continued to attack the flames in what was now a “surround and drown” operation. The fire burned so hot that the icy pond water turned to steam as it hit the flames, sending out tiny water droplets that hung in the air and formed icicles on the firemen’s leather helmets and mustaches. 

 The aftermath of the Greenville fire of January 23, 1924.(Smithfield Fire Dept. Photo)


The aftermath of the Greenville fire of January 23, 1924.(Smithfield Fire Dept. Photo)

It took two more hours to bring the conflagration under control.  When it was over, both buildings were a total loss, but fortunately nobody had been hurt, and St. Thomas Church, although scorched, remained intact. The cause of the fire was never determined.

Fortunately much of the loss was covered by insurance, and new buildings were constructed on the old sites.  Had the fire taken place just two months earlier, Smithfield would have lost more than just buildings, it would have lost a good portion of its history, for up until November of 1923, all of the town’s records, including land deeds, birth, marriage, and death records, had been stored in the general store.

The devastating fire also proved to the citizens of Greenville that it was time to establish a modern fire department.  The old “Water Witch” fire engine dated to the 1860s, and was obsolete even when it was purchased from the City of Pawtucket in 1876.  The following year, a 1924 Reo fire engine was obtained, giving Greenville its first motorized fire apparatus.

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Next in the trilogy: The Rift That Nearly Divided the Town – Again 

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