A Lost Artifact Of Smithfield’s Past Comes Home

Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine – January, 2019.

A Lost Artifact Of Smithfield’s Past Comes Home

By Jim Ignasher   

 

Katie Law and Robert Leach holding a valued piece of Smithfield history.

     Sometimes rare items of historic interest relating to a particular town can unexpectedly turn up hundreds of miles from their point of origin. A case in point is a large walnut and sterling silver award-plaque which had once been presented to Thomas K. Winsor of Greenville that recently turned up in Florida. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Leach and Katie Law of the Smithfield Historical Preservation Commission, it has been brought home to Smithfield after more than a century-long hiatus.

     The historical significance of the plaque is its connection to Smithfield’s early apple growing industry which earned our town the nickname of “Apple Valley”. Furthermore, it’s a unique, one-of-a-kind item that was commissioned by Rhode Island’s (then) Governor Aram J. Pothier, who served as the state’s 51st and 55th governor until his death in 1928.

     Thomas K. Winsor, (1871 – 1949), was known throughout New England as the undisputed “apple king” among those in the apple growing industry, building a business that distributed apples all across the United States and Europe. His former home, which dates to the 1700s, still stands at 85 Austin Avenue, but the vast orchards that once covered the land behind it are long gone, replaced by private homes. Mr. Winsor is buried in the family cemetery, a picturesque plot located at the corner of Peach Blossom Lane and Macintosh Drive.    

The Governor Pothier Prize awarded to T. K. Winsor in 1911.

     When she gets the opportunity, Katie Law peruses the Internet searching for items relating to town history. Once she found a lottery ticket for the former Greenville Academy dated February, 1812. On another occasion she came across a large box of Smithfield related documents dating to the early 1800s, which included papers relating to slavery. She usually finds such items on auction sites, and is sometimes the highest bidder – other times, unfortunately, she’s not, and a piece of our town’s history goes elsewhere. As a mother of four, her funds are limited. When she buys these items, she’s doing so as a private citizen, and not in her capacity as a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, and therefore uses her own money to do so. No expense is borne by the town.

     So it was when she found the Winsor award-plaque offered for sale by a man in Florida for the sum of $477.00. The price was steep, and definitely out of her price range, but Katie’s not one to give up easily. She contacted Robert Leach about the find. He, like Katie, has a strong interest in preserving local history, and as owner of Leach Orchards, located just up the road from Thomas Winsor’s former residence and orchard, Robert had a special interest in bringing this item back to Smithfield.

     After talking it over with Robert, Katie e-mailed the seller and made an offer which was accepted. The two of them split the cost, and the plaque was returned to Rhode Island. Katie subsequently learned that Mr. Winsor had a winter home in Florida, and that the seller had purchased it at an estate auction.  

     As a point of fact, the seller had attended college in Rhode Island and was therefore somewhat familiar with the Smithfield area, and told Katie that he’d hoped it would somehow make its way back to where it came from.  

     The story behind the plaque dates to 1911, when the New England Fruit Growers Association held a trade exhibition show at the Horticultural Hall in Boston from October 24-29. Part of the show included apple growers throughout New England competing for prizes, one of which was Thomas K. Winsor. Competitors were advised to, “Grow the best fruit you possibly can, pick it carefully, grade it uniformly as to color and size, and pack it attractively. Cleanliness, neatness, and uniformity are factors of prime importance. The finest fruit only is fit for exhibition, and only the best can win premiums.”      

     Some of the once common apple verities entered by growers in the competition won’t be found in supermarkets today. These include: Bellflower, Bethel, Ben Davis, Fallawater, Famuse, Hubbardton, McMahon White, Northern Spy, Pewaukee, Red Canada, Scott Winter, Spitzenburg, Sutton, Tolman Sweet, and Westfield.

     Winsor actually won awards for two categories at the 1911 exhibition. One was a silver cup for the best display of Baldwin apples, presented by Governor Eugene Foss of Massachusetts, and the “Governor Pothier Prize” for the best display of Rhode Island Green, a.k.a. “Greening” apples – a variety first cultivated in Rhode Island in the 1650s, and one not to be confused with the well-known “Granny Smith” apples one sees in stores today.   The present location of the Foss silver cup, by the way, is unknown.  

   The plaque awarded by Governor Pothier has sterling silver custom-cast raised lettering, a state seal, as well as a hand-crafted apple tree which dominates the center. An engraved silver plate under the tree reads, “Awarded to Thomas K. Winsor for the best display of R. I. Green apples at the New England Fruit Show held in Boston, October, 1911.”  

     It was reported that an average of six-thousand visitors went the exhibition each day, making for a well attended show.

     At present, the plaque is in need of a professional cleaning to bring the sterling silver back to its original shinny luster. This has to be done carefully so as not to loose any fine details of the engraving. Once this is done, both Katie and Robert hope to be able to put the plaque on public display.

     Meanwhile, Katie continues to search on line and elsewhere for more “lost” history of Smithfield.    

 

 

 

Apple Lore And Fruits Of The Harvest

Originally published in The Smithfield Times, September, 2018.

Apple Lore, and fruits of the harvest

By Jim Ignasher

     According to ancient Greek mythology, the god Zeus held a wedding banquet in honor of Peteus and Thetis, and many of the gods and goddesses were invited. However, the goddess Eris was omitted from the guest list, for she was after all, the Goddess of Discord. Not one to be snubbed, she came to the celebration anyway, and brought with her a solid gold apple to be presented to the most beautiful woman in attendance. The goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, immediately stepped forward to claim the prize, and it therefore fell to Zeus to decide who should receive it. Yet Zeus knew when to delegate authority, and passed the decision to a Trojan mortal named Paris.      In what may have been the world’s first (mythical) beauty contest, Paris decided on Aphrodite because she’d promised to use her powers to give him the world’s most beautiful (mortal) woman, Helen of Troy. Aphrodite kept her word, but unfortunately Helen was already married to the Greek king Menelaus, who as one might imagine wasn’t pleased. And thus it was that the Apple of Discord is said to have caused the Trojan War.  

     September marks the beginning of the local apple harvest, and the start of the autumn season. Before long tourists will descend on Apple Valley to take advantage of what the orchards have to offer, yet it’s likely that few have ever considered the historical significance of the humble apple, or its incorporation into folklore, legends, and fairy tales, religious illustrations, music, business logos, and even commonly used expressions.  

     For centuries the apple tree has been depicted by artists in their renderings of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which early on gave the fruit its “forbidden” reputation. The poisoned apple in the German fairy tale of Snow White, first published in 1812, didn’t help the apple’s reputation either. There’s also the lesser known yarn of William Tell, who is arrested for failing to show proper respect to a self-important nobleman. As punishment, he’s forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head from fifty feet using a bow and arrow. Tell is successful, and then kills the nobleman with a second arrow. There are also several versions of a legend about a king’s garden, in the center of which grew a tree that produced golden apples.

     Then there’s the historical figure, Sir Isaac Newton, a real person who lived from 1643 to 1727, who is said to have “discovered” gravity while sitting under an apple tree where a piece of fruit dropped on his head. While the facts of the story may be in question, it’s true that Newton was a mathematical genius known for his “laws of motion”.

     Another man of legend associated with apples was John Chapman, (1774 – 1845), more commonly known as Johnny Appleseed, who roamed the American countryside planting thousands of apple trees. He’s often depicted wearing a pot on his head for a hat, and carrying a bag of apple seeds. There’s even a museum dedicated to him in Urbana, Ohio.

    Songwriters have been putting the apple to music for centuries. Two well known melodies made popular by the Andrews Sisters during WWII are “I’ll be With You In Apple Blossom Time”, and “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me.)”    

     Greenville, R.I., was once home to the undisputed “king” of apple growers, Thomas K. Winsor, whose massive apple orchards once covered the land now occupied by Maplewood Estates off Austin Avenue. T.K.’s business not only sold apples locally, but shipped them cross-country and world wide, which was quite an accomplishment in a time before standard refrigeration.

     And there’s a reason why Smithfield is known as “Apple Valley”, for at one time dozens of orchards covered the local landscape, but today that number has dwindled to a mere handful.

     As a point of fact, most 18th and 19th century farms had apple trees, and our colonial forefathers are known to have drunk copious amounts of hard cider, apple-jack, and apple brandy, for it was usually safer than drinking water, which before the days of modern purification systems often contained a variety of harmful microbes. Thus it might be true that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

     It’s also interesting to note that there are literally thousands of varieties of apples, but not all are as pleasing to the eye, or as sweet tasting, as those grown for commercial sale today.

     There was once a time when apples were routinely given to school teachers as gifts. How this tradition got started is unclear. Some say it dates to a time when teachers in poor rural communities received partial payment in the way of food supplies, while others say it’s because the apple is a symbol of knowledge.

   “As sure as God made little green apples”, we’ve incorporated apple lingo into some common expressions. For example, someone might say you’re “the apple of their eye”, but a person who gives false flattery is said to be an “apple polisher”. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a “bad apple”, or “rotten to the core”. It simply may be a case of “the apple not falling far from the tree.”

     Something can be “as American as apple pie”, and “one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole barrel.”

     A person who “upsets the apple cart”, might hope for a “second bite at the apple”.

     When arguing, one might compare “apples to oranges”, and conclude with “how do you like them apples”?  

      Yet apples aren’t the only fruit connected to common expressions. Some people have been known to “go bananas”, while others have ruled “banana republics”.

     At work, we may get a “plum assignment”, and it’s all “peaches and cream”; but if we don’t, we get “sour grapes”, and are reminded that “life isn’t always a bowl of cherries”.      

     Some get along like “two peas in a pod”, and fog can be as “thick as pea soup.”      

     Someone in trouble is said to be “in a pickle”, but maybe they don’t “give a fig”, and remain “cool as a cucumber”.

     A person can “extend an olive branch”, “dangle a carrot”, be a “couch potato”, or just “full of beans”. And don’t even get me started on meats and dairy.

     Now one final thought. Did you know that there are more apple orchards in Smithfield, than in New York City, a.k.a, “The Big Apple”? Just sayin’.

     Happy harvest.

 

 

 

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