Smithfield’s Early Schools

Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine, September, 2017.

Smithfield’s Early Schools

By Jim Ignasher

     Everyone’s heard the old story about the father who tells his children how hard life was when he was young; “When I was a kid, we had to walk to school barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways!” We laugh at it today, but there was a time when such a statement wasn’t that far removed from fact. In the days of the iconic “one-room school house”, youths of all ages walked to school, or if they were lucky, rode a horse. They probably weren’t barefoot unless it was summer, (yes, school was sometimes held in summer.) but it’s likely that some weren’t adequately clothed for harsh weather. It was a time before electric lighting, central heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing. The classroom was lit with oil lamps, heat came from a pot-bellied stove, AC consisted of open windows, and the outhouse was just a short hop, skip, and a jump through the schoolyard. Perhaps that’s why the father who first uttered those words began with, “Kids today have it too easy!”      

     It’s September, the month that signals the end of summer and the start of a new school year, so an article about early schools in Smithfield seemed appropriate. In the archives of the Smith-Appleby House Museum is a lengthily research paper written by a former Smithfield teacher, Thomas B. Davis in 1933 titled “District Schools of Smithfield, R. I. Before 1871”. Part of the information in this article was derived from his research, and some from other sources.

     From 1730 to 1871 the town of Smithfield included the present-day municipalities of Central Falls, Lincoln, North Smithfield, and Woonsocket south of the Blackstone River, and by 1871 Smithfield had no less than thirty-six separate school districts. (The boundaries of each district can be seen on the Beers 1871 map of Smithfield, found in the Beers Atlas, at the Greenville Library.) Space does not permit mentioning all of them, so this article will only focus on those seven districts that were within the boundaries of present-day Smithfield.  

     As a point of fact, the “one-room school house” commonly depicted in art and literature didn’t become a common part of the American landscape until the early 1800s. Before then, school was generally held in comparatively informal settings such as homes or businesses.   And although many tend to picture a “little red school house”, photographic evidence from the 19th century indicates schools were just as likely to be painted white, and in some cases, made of brick.

     District 13 was the “Evans District”, and included Evans Road and Mann School Road. Between 1806 and 1826, Daniel Mann taught school in his home, (Hence the name of the road.), before a proper school house was erected in the vicinity of Mann School Road and Burlingame Road. That school house was later replaced by a new building in 1853.  

     Greenville was District 14. According to Mr. Davis, the first school in this area consisted of a room in the Greenville Tavern, a.k.a. the Waterman Tavern, sometime around 1750. This seems laughable when one considers that no establishment that serves alcohol can be located within 200 feet of a school in Smithfield today.

     The first school house in Greenville was constructed sometime later in the vicinity of the present-day Greenville Post Office. In 1804 it was replaced by a two-story structure known as the Greenville Academy, which was later relocated on Smith Avenue and converted to housing. In 1874, another two-story school was built on the site of the former academy and remained in use until the William Winsor School was completed in 1930.

     In 1939, the former school was acquired by the Greenville Grange and utilized as a meeting hall until it was demolished to make way for new development in the 1980s.

   The Village of Stillwater was District 15. As with other early districts the first “school” was taught in a private home – in this case the home of John Smith Appleby, which everyone knows today as the Smith-Appleby House Museum. Stillwater’s first school house wasn’t built until 1828, but its exact location is unclear. In 1856, (Some sources state 1869), a new school was erected just to the north of the intersection of Stillwater Road and Hanton City Trail.

     Georgiaville was District 16. Up until 1820, school was held in the home of John S. Farnum before classes were conducted in a building owned by the textile mill. The first school house was erected on Railroad Street in 1850. It was originally a one-story structure, but a second floor was added in 1873.

     From 1924 to 1942 the building was utilized as a fire station by the Georgiaville Fire Company before the present station was built. It later served as a DPW garage before being burned for training by the fire department in 1962.

     Esmond (formerly known as Allenville and Enfield) was District 17. The first school was erected in 1820 on Maple Street, but was replaced in 1849 by a new building on Esmond Street. Another school was later built on Chamberlain Street and is today a private residence.

     West Greenville, District 20, was one of the smallest districts in town. Its school stood on Route 44, just before West Greenville Road. The building reportedly began its existence as a grist mill, but was moved to that site by Captain Elisha Steere to serve as a school.

   The first school house in Spragueville, (District 28), was constructed next to the Spragueville Dam in 1808, and stood until 1920.   

     Mr. Davis also noted that Smithfield had a school house that wasn’t designated its own district. He wrote in part, “Levi Barnes built a small school house at his own expense on Wolf Hill about 1825.” Levi had nine children, and hired a teacher to educate them, as well as any of his neighbor’s children who wanted to attend. The building was later converted to a home, and was still standing as of 1933.  

     Today, Smithfield has six public schools which are all under one school district, and although school buses have replaced horses, the story of trudging to school barefoot in the snow endures.

1848 Smithfield, R. I. Tax Receipt


    1848 Smithfield, Rhode Island Tax Receipt for Smith A. Ballou  

Click on image to enlarge.

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.  


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.


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

Murdered for Thirteen Dollars

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – January, 2010

The grave of Mary Eddy rests on a quite hillside in Glocester’s Acotes Cemetery.  Her murder sparked what one newspaper termed, “a reign of terror” in Smithfield.

The grave of Mary Eddy rests on a quiet hillside in Glocester’s Acotes Cemetery. Her murder sparked what one newspaper termed, “a reign of terror” in Smithfield.

It was described as a “brutal murder”, and a “horrific act of violence”, not that one would ever use gentle adjectives in such a case.  After all, the skull of the young woman had been crushed; hit from behind by an unknown perpetrator using a blunt object; murdered for her measly paycheck of thirteen dollars; money she needed to help support her parents.   

The incident happened in Greenville, on January 3, 1908, and Smithfield’s Chief of Police, Jencks Smith, was faced with solving it.  Forensic technology as we know it today did not exist in 1908.  In those days, investigators had to rely on common sense, instinct, and a bit of luck.  

On the last day of her life, Mary Eddy arrived for work at 6 a.m. at her job at the Greenville Woolen Mill across from West Greenville Road.  It was Friday; pay day. She had only been working at the mill for three weeks at a tedious job in the winding room, but she was used to hard work, having grown up on her parent’s farm in Glocester.  She knew mill life too, having worked several years at a cotton mill in Centerdale before finding work as a maid. She liked domestic work better than mill work, but when her employer had to let her go, she came to Greenville and moved in with her sister on Mapleville Road.   

At the end of her twelve-hour workday, Mary stood in line to collect her pay of $13.13.  For a sixty-hour work–week, this came to about 22 cents per hour.    

It was already dark when she set out for her sister’s house. She turned off Putnam Pike and started up Mapleville Road.  (This portion of Mapleville Road no longer exists.  As late as the 1980s, it ran between Putnam Pike and Austin Avenue, and was also referred to as “Pig Road”.)  As she walked along the frozen ground, Mary likely felt a certain comfort in seeing the lights of her sister’s house come into view, and eagerly looked forward to her supper and warming before the fire.  Of course, this is only speculation, for within sight of her sister’s house, someone came out of the darkness and struck her from behind.    

As she lay on the ground, her attacker rifled through her clothing until he found her money. Satisfied, he then left her for dead.  It’s uncertain how long she lay there.  A bloody trail indicated she tried to crawl home.  When discovered, she was taken to her sister’s house where she died before morning.

Chief Smith, notified of the crime, began his investigation. The murder weapon left at the scene was determined to be a dye stick from the mill where Mary worked.

Word spread fast leading to wild speculation.  Some said hobos or bandits were responsible, while others theorized it was someone from the mill.  Someone remembered that Doctor Eddy, a relative of Mary’s, had been beaten and robbed several years earlier in almost the exact same spot.  He too had been left for dead, but recovered.  Could the two crimes be connected?

In 1908, it was not unusual for small town police chiefs to request help in murder investigations from agencies that had experienced detectives in such matters.  Therefore, Chief Smith wisely asked for assistance from the Providence police who sent Inspector John T. Haran. 

Inspector Haran discounted the theory that the assault on Dr. Eddy and Mary were connected, and also ruled out the possibility that a tramp or a hobo had committed the crime. He theorized that the killer knew the victim, and had lain in wait behind a stone wall knowing she would be passing that particular spot.

After several false leads in the investigation, suspicion fell on a local 19 year-old mill hand named Earl Jacques, partly because he was said to have had “plenty of money” on the day following the murder, and partly because he reportedly borrowed a bottle of benzene from a neighbor to clean what were thought to be blood stains from his clothes.

Earl was arrested at the mill on January 9.  When Chief Smith and Inspector Haran got into the chief’s buggy with their prisoner, the carriage collapsed under their combined weight, much to everyone’s embarrassment.   With their transportation out of commission, they were forced to walk the suspect down Putnam Pike to Chief Smith’s home on Smith Avenue.  A growing crowed followed them the entire way. Once at the chief’s home, the officers locked the doors and wouldn’t let anyone inside.  Under questioning, Earl denied any knowledge of the murder, claiming he was with a woman at the time.  The woman in question supported his story, and even though investigators still had their doubts, they were forced to release Earl.  

The following night, a Georgiaville mill worker was severely beaten and robbed in the same manner as Miss Eddy.  One newspaper dubbed it a “reign of terror” and mentioned that local residents were keeping firearms at the ready.  Reports of other robberies in nearby towns began to appear in the press; a dozen in all, but there was nothing to indicate that they were all related.

The attacks revived the passing hobo theory among the populace, but investigators weren’t convinced. Admittedly, the murder investigation was at a standstill, but Earl was still their prime suspect.  Unfortunately, sometimes knowing something and proving it can be two different matters.  All they could do was watch and wait, hoping Earl would slip up. 

Earl finally made his mistake when he gave a local girl a ten dollar bill to exchange for him at a Greenville store. For her trouble she received fifty-cents. The girl mentioned the incident to her father who in turn notified police. Earl was arrested again, but this time he was taken to the Providence police station.  There he told investigators the whole story.

In his statement, Earl related how the idea for the robbery came to him about four o’clock the day of the murder when he passed a pile of sticks used in the dye room. He hid one until quitting time.  After running across some fields behind the mill, he hid behind a stone wall on Mapleville Road and waited for the first person to come along which happened to be Mary.  After hitting her from behind with the stick, he proceeded to search her until he found the pay envelope, and then made his way home.

He also confided to investigators that he had been about to confess when they had questioned him at Chief Smith’s home, when they suddenly let him go. Thinking he had gotten away with the crime, he later spent $4.13 of the money, and put three cents in the church collection basket!

At the trial, there were some, including Earl’s mother, who said he wasn’t “right in the head”, and claimed he didn’t understand the gravity of the charges against him.  Whether this was true or not, Earl’s arrest and subsequent confession brought to a close one of Smithfield’s most sensational murder cases.


     The attached file is a letter written by Earl Jacques in 1924 while he was still serving time in prison for the murder of Mary Eddy.  It was submitted to the Historical Society of Smithfield by Smithfield resident Katie Law who found it on Ebay. 

EV JACQUES 9 28 1924 prison mail

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