Tracing the roots of a Smithfield treasure.

220 Stillwater Road, Smithfield
(401) 231-7363
www.smithapplebyhouse.org

Rhode Island isn't just about Providence and Newport. While those cities often take center stage due to the number of historical properties within their borders, Little Rhody's more rural communities should not be neglected by the heritage-minded traveler. Smithfield, for instance, offers the Smith-Appleby House Museum, a restored twelve-room farmhouse situated on the northwestern shore of Georgiaville Pond.

Smith-Appleby House began as a one-room stone ender with a loft above, built by Elisha Smith around 1700, in an area then thought of as the "outlands." Elisha was the grandson of John Smith, known as "the Miller," one of the original six proprietors, along with Roger Williams, of Providence. Forty acres along the Woonasquatucket River granted to John's son, John, by Williams were passed down to Elisha, who, in his lifetime, enlarged the property to 721 acres.

Elisha had ten children and each of his sons, when he came of age, built his own homestead and mill. "There used to be five Smith homesteads along the Woonasquatucket River," F. Daniel Russell, former Smith-Appleby House restoration chairman, once said. "One in Spragueville, one in Greenville, etcetera. We feel that Smithfield was named for these Smiths."

With so many children coming up in the family, Elisha's stone-ender was soon outgrown. A lean-to (which today contains the borning room and buttery) was added between 1707 and 1710. Then between 1731 (when the town of Smithfield was incorporated) and 1734 Elisha brought another one-room house from Johnston and attached it to his own. This house, known as the Clement house, was also a stone ender. Two more rooms (the parlor and the stencil room) were added between 1775 and 1780, and a kitchen ell was added sometime around 1830.

Waite Smith, Elisha's great-granddaughter, inherited the house upon her father's (yet another John Smith) death in 1807. She had married Thomas Appleby in 1784, so from then on the house was occupied by Appleby descendants.

The last Appleby descendant to own and live in the house was Maria "Myra" Appleby. Myra was an independent and energetic woman. Upon the death of her father, Sydney Appleby, in 1929, Myra took over sole management of the property, part of which she turned into a six-hole golf course called the Stillwater Country Club. She was helped in her endeavors by her friend and lifelong companion, Abbie Sargeant, who also lived at the house.

Myra and Abbie had begun work on the course around 1927, transforming meadows (that had for centuries supplied hay for the family cattle) and part of an orchard into expanses of manicured turf. By 1933 the club had a membership of twenty-five and Myra was kept busy from dawn to dusk maintaining and improving the course.

Owning and running a golf course was a rare occupation for a woman in those days, but for all her progressiveness in the realm of sport and business she still lived, to some extent, in the nineteenth century. A 1933 Providence Journal article noted that "At night she sleeps in a colonial, hand-carved, four-post bedstead in a room that still has the stenciled paper colored in natural colonial dyes. To go upstairs, she climbs a Jacobean staircase. Old clocks give her the time. She can serve tea or dinner from her set of Lowestoft. Old pewter and lustre fill the tiny arched cupboards above the fireplaces. In chests in the attic are furbelowed skirts of her great-grandmother's day, the day when her set of six chairs, delicately designed by a colonial craftsman, made a wedding present for her ancestor." Although electricity was installed sometime in the 1930s, Myra never saw fit to fully modernize the house, preferring instead to pump water from a well, cook on a woodstove, and answer the call of nature in an outdoor privy.

Myra sold Stillwater in early 1959. It's unclear if the new owner ever got much use out of it, though, because in August 1962 it was announced that the proposed path of Route 295 lay right through the course.

When she died in November 1959 at the age of 71, Myra left the remainder of her property to a local church, with the stipulation that Abbie could live out the rest of her days in the house. It may be, however, that health issues forced a move to a nursing home; Abbie passed away in December 1963 and her death notice in the Journal notes her residence as "formerly Stillwater Road." Meanwhile, wasting no time, the church organization sold the house and its contents at auction on June 12, 1962. The contents of the house, an amazing time capsule of two-and-a-half centuries of continuous habitation, were thus unfortunately scattered. The house itself passed through the hands of a succession of owners and fell into a state of disrepair before finally being acquired by the Historical Society of Smithfield in 1974 for $28,000. (Myra Appleby had been among the forty-nine charter members of the society when it was founded in 1932, and meetings were often held at the house during her lifetime).

The society's new possession presented numerous restoration challenges. Crumbling masonry, warped siding, sloping floors, patchwork repairs, and odd angles contributed to the difficulties. But the house had good bones, and the society wasn't lacking in dedicated individuals willing to lend their physical or financial assistance. One member, Arthur Dyer, bequeathed his house to the society upon his death and proceeds from its sale went toward saving the Smith-Appleby house. Additional funds came from contributions, federal grants, flea markets, and even bake sales.

In addition to bringing the house back to something akin to its original condition, the society was faced with the daunting task of replacing all of its goods and furnishings. This was accomplished through the generous donations of society members and other interested individuals who gave period and reproduction furniture, tools, china, pewter pieces, kitchen utensils, old family portraits, prints, and paintings. Some members even hooked and braided rugs which are still in use today. To cap it off, many of the people who had purchased items at the Appleby auction donated them back to the society, so there are quite a few objects that visitors can see today that were an original part of the daily life of the house.

Take a tour

On days when the house is open for tours, knowledgeable costumed docents are on hand to give a thorough look into the lives of three centuries of Smiths and Applebys.

The first room you see is the original one-room cabin, dominated on one wall by a massive stone fireplace, the largest of eight throughout the house. Facing the hearth, you'll notice the opening for the beehive oven on the right, and a fowler's shotgun over the mantelpiece. Above this room there used to be a half-story sleeping loft where Elisha and his wife, Experience (Oh, those wacky Colonial names!), slept; it was originally accessed via a corkscrew staircase to the left of the fireplace, where a doorway is now. The first floor was used by the family for all their daily living activities—food preparation, dining, mending, other chores—and for children's sleeping quarters. An earthen cellar below was used for cold storage.

To the right are the birthing (or borning) room and the buttery. By that time, Elisha and Experience had six children and the added space was much needed for sleeping quarters, childbirth, and as a sick room. A patchwork quilt was hung on the wall to cut down on drafts. Another object you might notice in this room is a child-sized wooden yoke, used by the boys of the family to fetch water.

The buttery is a sort of pantry. It was used at one point as a storefront, where the family sold vegetables. The shelves include some very old redware and stoneware dishes. There is a butter churn on the floor, but the word "buttery" has more to do with beer or wine than with butter, being derived from the medieval English and French words for bottle or cask.

The parlor and the next room were added next between 1775 and 1780, during the revolutionary war period, by Elisha's son Philip. In front of the fireplace is a small tapestry screen, used to shield the face of a person sitting nearby from the heat of the fire. In the fireplace itself is a soapstone block that was heated and used as a foot warmer. Before modern heating the average temperature inside the house was fifty-eight degrees in the winter, so a warm brick was a very pleasant thing to have in your bed. The parlor also contains a vintage organ that still works.

After the parlor comes the stencil room. The designs here were recreated by Deana Guertin in 1996, following the exact stencil pattern done by James Gleason in 1808. A portion of the wall behind the door was left as it was discovered during the restoration work. Although wallpaper was available, it was expensive, and finish work on interior walls had to cure at least six months before wallpaper could be hung, so stencil artists made their living by traveling from town to town, providing this craft. In addition to the cost and immediate gratification factors, stenciling was promoted as being cleaner, because bugs could get behind wallpaper. The stencil artists were able to copy the patterns from wallpaper that was available at that time, so people could have the newest look without the expense. Some years ago a wallpaper company copied a pattern of yellow and green weeping willows from the walls of Smith-Appleby House and marketed it under the appropriate name of "Smithfield," bringing the concept full circle. Notice the Shaker pegs on the walls. There were few closets at that time, and the pegs were a way to get things off the floor.

When you enter the next room—the best parlor—you're stepping into the first floor of the former Clement house. To the left of the hearth in the best parlor is a Parson's cupboard. In the early days of Rhode Island the parson went from house to house, either because there was no church building, or because the nearest one was too far for people to travel. The Parson's cupboard contained a Bible and a decanter of spirits to inspire the parson along the way. A piece of French wallpaper framed on the wall was found in this room during the restoration. Note also the painted faux marble floor (which was done around 1809 when a new bride came to the house), and the beautiful built-in cabinet with exquisite wavy glass. By the door, a stereoscope (a device for viewing 3-D images) rests on top of a melodeon (a single-pedal organ). Both were used for entertainment. The legs of the melodeon fold to allow the instrument to be carried from one house to another.

Leaving the best parlor you pass through the original front hall of the house. The new faux marble finish on the floor was created during the summer of 2009 by decorative painter Christine Hannon. The original paint job was put down at the same time as that in the best parlor, but years of foot traffic in the foyer had worn it completely away. The "new" Federal-style doorway, added in 1808, around the same time as the stencil work, used to look over the road, which ran along the bank of the Woonasquatucket River. After a severe drought in 1852, the owners of the Bernon Mill downstream from the Smith-Appleby homestead dammed the Woonasquatucket, flooding 133 acres to an average depth of three feet and creating Georgiaville Pond. The road was repositioned on higher ground, making the front yard of the house into the back yard.

To the right of the doorway is a large stoneware jug, found in the pond when the water level was low. In the cane rack is an ebony and ivory cane and a prodding stick.

If you were to open the door and look to the right, you would see where the Woonasquatucket River used to flow into Georgiaville Pond. The foundations of mills can be seen on either side of the backwash. The river was cut off when Route 295 was put through in the early 1970s.

From the front hallway carefully head up the steep and curving stairs and into the room to the right.

You are now on the second floor of the old Clement house, in the loom room, which contains a very large loom donated by Kirk Wright, the son of a historical society member. It dates from 1813 and came from a house in Usquapaug. There are also two spinning wheels in the room; the largest is called a walking wheel.

The blue walls of the loom room are the color of the original milk paint. On the floor are examples of braided rugs, hooked rugs, and tapestry or needlepoint rugs (not all of which are handmade). You may also notice a small supply of raw flax, from which linen is woven. Prior to the Industrial Revolution linen was cheap and cotton was expensive.

Look up and note the beveled edge on the ceiling beams, called chamfering, which was done to help slow the spread of fire.

As you exit the loom room, watch your step. The addition of different structures over time has resulted in many different floor levels, of which the passage into the library is an example.

In the library note the brown desk with the built-in slate. It was donated by the Town of Smithfield, where it was used by the town clerk. A photograph above the desk was taken in Providence, near the train station, and shows soldiers massing in readiness to join the Civil War. Also note the small fireplace, and the burn marks that show where a fire got out of control sometime in the past. The library is built around a donation of 2,000 pounds of books given by Kenneth Pemberton of California, a descendant of Elisha Smith.

The next room is the reading room. On one wall is a World War II era hooked victory rug, and on the table is a drawing of Smithfield's small cemetery plots. The Friends of Smithfield Cemeteries work during the summer months maintaining and restoring headstones, and they are always looking for more volunteers. Examine one of the beams in the reading room and you may be able to make out the name "Hugh Whipple" written faintly in chalk. A friend of the Smith family, he wrote his name on the beam in 1755.

Before you head into the first of the second-floor bedrooms, duck down the hall to the left and check out the smoke room where meat was hung for curing. Vents from the main chimney allowed smoke into the small room.

The room next to the reading room was the bedroom of Myra Appleby's friend, Abbie Sargeant. It's located above the buttery and borning room. If you lift up the various mattresses you'll see that the bed has ropes instead of springs. A wooden "key" was used to tighten the ropes—the origin of the phrase "sleep tight." The bed is also a rolling pin bed; the top of the footboard lifts off so it can be used like a giant rolling pin to smooth the mattresses. The mattresses were usually stuffed with straw for the summer and feathers for the winter.

Myra's bedroom is next. It's located above the original stone ender, and in 1696 would have been Elisha's and Experience's room. Several of the dolls in the room were Myra's. As it is the only room that does not have a fireplace, this room was probably heated with a small woodstove. The handy commode chair would have been much preferred to the privy on cold winter nights.

The next room is the display room, the second floor of the 1830 addition that includes a new kitchen downstairs. The display room features various vintage fashions and textiles, including a wedding dress and several lovely quilts. Things were used up back then because fabric was costly, so when a garment wore out, it was turned into rugs or quilts. Doors at the end of the room lead to tiny his and hers bathrooms installed by the society in the 1970s.

With your tour of the upstairs complete, you can proceed down the steep pie-cut stairs to the "modern" kitchen.

Like the first room on the tour, the modern kitchen includes another beehive oven to the right of the hearth. A fire was built in the oven to heat it, and then the coals would be removed. The things that needed the highest heat and the most time would be put in first in order to take advantage of the changing temperature as the oven cooled. Bread would be first, then pies, then puddings. (Baking duties these days, however, are handled by a modern electric stove, installed by the historical society for that purpose). The hooks in the ceiling were to hold meat while carving. Usually fowl would be eaten in the fall, and larger animals slaughtered in the winter when they would keep longer. A cauldron in the corner may have been used for washing clothes or dyeing textiles.

Return to the stone-end room and your tour of Smith-Appleby House is complete.

Is it Haunted?

Of course it is. How can you doubt it? In fact, an August 2007 investigation by the Pawtucket Paranormal Society found mysterious cold spots, recorded spooky EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), and photographed an orb (a spot of light that some believe to be the manifestation of a spirit). Members of the group also believe they had a conversation with a male spirit that manipulated lights on an EMF (Electromagnetic Field) meter. Among the EVPs were noises that sounded like an "exasperated sigh," a dog barking, and a voice that said, "They charge. I can't believe it." Eerie. The most haunted parts of the house, in case you're wondering, are the loom room and the big stone fireplace in the main room.

The Yard

Of the 721 acres that Elisha Smith accrued during his life, only seven remain, but those seven contain many remnants of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century farm life. Stone walls, the stone foundations of grist and saw mills, and the remains of dams can still be seen. Nothing is left, however, of the Stillwater Country Club, which was destroyed when Route 295 came through in the early 1970s.

The small building standing outside the kitchen ell of the house is the caretaker's cottage. It's thought that it may have been used for washing and baking before the new kitchen was added. A separate building for cooking helped to keep cooking odors away from the house and minimized the risk of a house fire. As the cottage is built into the side of the hill, any water pitched from wash tubs would drain away from the foundation. The location was also convenient to the well and the main house.

The other large structure on the property is the barn, built around the beginning of the twentieth century. While the present building is only one-and-a-half stories tall, the original was a full two stories; in the nineteenth century hired farmhands lived upstairs. Myra's father, Sydney, used the present barn for his dairy business, and today it's where the historical society hosts many of its summer events.

At one edge of the parking lot can be seen what appears to be a tiny train station. Moved to the Smith-Appleby property in the early 1970s, it was once the shelter at a flag stop on Brayton Road. The exterior has been beautifully restored, and although the original plan was to use it as a gift shop, that idea has not so far come to pass.

A small cemetery on a hill northeast of the house contains the final resting places of Elisha and Experience Smith, Thomas, Waite, and Myra Appleby, and Abbie Sargeant. You might also notice a wooden, wing-shaped marker that memorializes a crow found dead on the property by Frank Champeau, a society member. He wanted to give it a decent burial, so he put it in a plastic bag and buried it "with the other old crows" on the hill.

Events

The Historical Society of Smithfield hosts a number of regular events at the Smith-Appleby House Museum throughout the year, including:

  • May: May Breakfast
  • June: Strawberry Social
  • September: Apple Social
  • December: Christmas at Smith-Appleby House

As a sign on the barn says, "Happiness is homemade." For a nominal price, visitors are treated to homemade Johnnycakes, strawberry shortcake, or a selection of apple desserts at these events. Once again, costumed docents are usually on hand to answer questions and lead tours.

In addition, the grounds of the house are available for family functions, corporate outings, and wedding ceremonies, receptions, and photographs. The society can serve dinner for a minimum of twenty and a maximum of twenty-four people. Guided tours are offered by appointment.

The Smith-Appleby House is on the National Register of Historic Places.

We'd like to thank the Historical Society of Smithfield (and especially Vice President Maggie Botelho, who allowed us the use of historic photographs, tour guide notes, and other materials), for their help in putting this article together.

Information

Tours: Tours are offered during events, or by appointment.

Cost: Adults, $5; children and society members, free.

Time required: allow an hour

Hours: during scheduled events or by appointment.

Finding it: From Route 295 take exit 8B to Route 7 North (Douglas Pike). At the first light take a left onto Thurber Boulevard. At the next intersection take a left onto Stillwater Road. Pass under Route 295 and find Smith-Appleby House immediately on the right.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to rights of way or rampaging zombies. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited July 20, 2015

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