November 23, 2014
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‘Fulling Mills – was there ever a place to be compared to it?’
Then and Now
Terry D'Amato Spencer

One of the young boys who most likely played on or around the cannon that had been acquired by the Kentish Artillery not long after the organization was founded was Oliver Cromwell Wilbur. During his youth, it is most probable that everyone in the village of Apponaug was aware of the origins of the cannon. Unfortunately, while Wilbur gave us a wonderful picture of the village in the early 19th century, he does not mention the cannon.

Wilbur wrote the letter circa 1846 and it covers his early boyhood in Apponaug in the early 1800s. The letter was first made public in 1882. In that year, Henry L. Greene sent a letter to the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner that had been written by Wilbur. The author was born in Apponaug and had an excellent memory of his boyhood days when the village was still commonly referred to as “Fulling Mills.” Wilbur’s letter was written to his brother and, as Greene noted, “As a picture of Apponaug and its vicinity eighty years ago, it seems to me to be exquisitely delineated.”

In 1889, not long after Wilbur’s letter was published, Robert Grieve, writing in “Picturesque Narragansett,” noted that Apponaug was “one of the quaintest and most ancient looking places in the state.” Wilbur’s letter makes that clear and takes us back to the Apponaug that existed 200 years ago.

Oliver Wilbur’s father owned a store near Apponaug Cove, “close to the stone docks where schooners and sloops tied in to load and unload cargo.” The store dealt mostly in “dry and West India goods” and Oliver says, “I can remember the store well.…” He tells us: the molasses hogsheads on the skids in the cellar entry, a row of casks at the north end, a pile of codfish, some salt. some crockery, a few milk pans and coarse ware with the usual assortment of groceries. On the south side of the store were dry goods and cases of cutlery and jewelry. Upstairs, was the dwelling of our family.”

Much of Wilbur’s letter recalled the bucolic atmosphere of Apponaug in the early 19th century as he says, “Look, I can see Ambrose Taylor and two or three of us boys with fishing poles and a dish of worms, our trousers rolled up. Oh, the great trout that was caught near the thatch....”

Apponaug Cove during the early 19th century, Wilbur tells us, was filled with fish of all sizes. He mentions crabs, clams, quahogs, scallops, bass, menhaden, squiteague and tautog in his long list of the types of marine life that abounded in the cove. He especially talks of a “quahog tide” that attracted people to the cove to gather the seafood. He tells us that these poor people came in ox-drawn carts with some hay and some rough boards for seats. Wilbur describes them vividly as he writes, “Wives, daughters and little ones well stored thus, men and half grown boys followed barefooted. Their coarse homespun clothing being often outgrown were, especially the trousers, often wanting in length. “

The letter says that the parties who came to gather the quahogs were usually led by one or two men “dressed in...frocks and trousers, a leather apron and broad rough shoes, and supplied with a walnut stick cut by the roadside with a leather string tied to one end.” He goes on to say that they would stop in the middle of the road until all the parties gathered and then they would move for the shore to begin their harvesting of the shellfish.

His colorful description tells us, “As soon as the tide was down they would go into the water as deep as their necks. You could see hundreds with their heads just out of the water digging and scraping with hands, hoes and rakes for a long time.” The work was not limited to men, as Wilbur tells us, “Ladies joined in with no concern for their frocks or bonnets, which were probably the same ones that had been worn by their ancestors. “

Wilbur truly loved his village. He commented, “Fulling Mills – was there ever a place to be compared to it?…My village – its fine houses, its streets, its people.” He spoke in glowing terms about some of the inhabitants and especially remembered people such as “...old Mat, the black woman with her barrel of root beer who was always on hand for celebrations, especially the fourth of July.” On that day, Wilbur tells us, everyone came into Apponaug. He recalled the military came with “their shrill fife and drum corps and their dusty uniforms.” A crowd of boys of all sizes followed the soldiers who pulled two brass cannon in the parade. He tells us “All the taverns would be filled to over-flowing…Old Prince with his fiddle would set people to dancing while the rum flowed freely.”

During the early years, there was always something for young boys to do in the old village. Wilbur tells us that when “the snow and ice locked up our cove, we would go out with a small net or old stocking, and catch bait for fishing by cutting holes through the ice.” Arising before dawn the following day, the boys would take their bait to Gorton’s Pond where soon they would “have an opening chopped in the ice to be ready to drop a line as soon as daylight appeared.”

Much of Apponaug’s present day charm can be found in its late 19th century buildings. Many of them are located east of the Four Corners. One of the most handsome is the beautifully restored, three story, Mansard roofed dwelling at 3288 Post Road. During the mid-twentieth century, the building housed the Warwick Office of the Providence Journal and was later owned by the Warwick Beacon. During its stay at the site, the Warwick Beacon developed into one of the state’s finest local publications, a worthy successor to the old Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner, which had provided the area with local news in the 1800s. In 1985, the mansard-roofed building was acquired by the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, which owns it today.

This building is one of the area’s most outstanding and noticeable structures. It had been altered and enlarged in the late 19th century at a period of time when the village was gaining great prominence as Warwick’s economic and political center. This type of building, known as Second Empire Victorian, had become very popular in the 1870s when large, spacious dwellings were in demand. The long roofline, named for the French architect, Francois Mansard, gave a full upper story of space. As a result, many earlier buildings were remodeled in this style.

In the 1990s, the Chamber of Commerce renovated the old building and gave it a bright coat of paint, which would have been compatible with the colors used in the late nineteenth century. Many of the village’s more conservative residents were, at first, awed by the pink tone which dramatically set it off from the predominant grays and whites of its sister buildings. Now, other buildings in Apponaug are often located as being, “across from the pink building” or “next to the pink building.”

The two-story front-gabled structure at 3292 Post Road, next to the Chamber of Commerce building, is another of the village’s early structures that has been adapted to the changing needs of the city. Research by the late Dorothy Mayor, one of Apponaug’s leading activists, indicates that it was built in 1835 and was once part of the old Town House. Like many of the early nineteenth century buildings, it reflected the increased importance of the village. By 1835, Warwick’s municipal and economic center had drifted away from the coast at Shawomet and centered in Apponaug. At that time, the village was still small and, while the Post Road was a main artery of commerce, it was bucolic. Cows were numerous, as were farms. Fences had to be erected to keep the cows from destroying the saplings planted near the then new town buildings. Within a 50-year period it became very obvious that the small buildings were inadequate for the rapidly growing town, which included present day West Warwick.

Apponaug had by this time become a center of highly industrialized textile trade. Mill owners such as Enos Lapham demanded a new Town Hall which would mirror the rising importance of the town. The result was the beautiful present day City Hall. In true conservative fashion, the old Town Hall was not to be wasted. To make room for the large brick edifice built by William Walker & Son, the old building was moved across Post Road to its present location by David Curtis.

During the 20th century, the former town hall had many uses. In the 1980s, it was the Town Pizza Palace; a busy establishment at the time the fast food business was sweeping the area. In the last decade of the century, it was a Recovery Store and later a clothing store. It is now a computer store.

At the present time it is the Rhode Island Commerce Academy operated by the Chamber Education Foundation. This foundation was established in 1987 as a division of the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. According to its literature, “this high-tech training center serves adults who need to improve their skill to qualify for entry-level career opportunities.” One of the most sought after services at the Academy is its General Equivalency Diploma (GED) program. The Academy also offers a Certificate of WorkForce Readiness (CWR) program to help in the search for employment. In much the same way that the old Town Hall served its 19th century residents, the old building is now meeting the needs of the 21st century.

The building at 3296 Post Road, next to the Rhode Island Commerce Academy, is also part of the Chamber Education Foundation. It is the Feinstein Mentor Training Institute. The program that it supports, known as the “Institute without walls,” has been made possible through a gift from the Feinstein Foundation. Their literature indicates that this innovative education program is to train business and community mentors “to work with youngsters who could benefit from a one-to-one relationship with a caring adult.” At a time when the community is becoming more aware of reforms needed in the educational structure, the programs based in Apponaug’s Historic District are making a positive effort in helping to provide a better world for all.

The story of Apponaug and its old buildings will be continued.


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