A story to tell: Henry Brown named City Historian
Henry Brown always has a story to tell.
On a warm day earlier this month, Brown was outside his home on the private stretch of Spring Green Drive watering his garden. He was setting up a sprinkler for the vegetation growing alongside his Governor Francis Farms home.
With a friendly wave, he beckoned.
“I used to have a Franklinia tree here,” he said, launching into a story of the 25-year-old tree that failed to survive.
The Franklinia, he explained, was brought north by Philadelphia botanists and was named after Benjamin Franklin.
Brown immediately launched into fascinating accounts of people, places and things. His knowledge is vast.
The front doors of Brown’s home open to a bookcase packed with leather-bound volumes, trinkets, photo albums and newer paperbacks.
He pulled out books and showed their covers, briefly detailing the contents of each. He then made his way to the wall abutting the shelves.
“This is Scherenschnitte,” he said, pulling a framed black and white piece of art off the wall. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent the tiny figures in the picture were cut out paper. Brown explained this technique was done with small scissors and a precise hand. He collected the Scherenschnitte now, both new and old works, and displayed them here.
“Everything has a story,” he said.
A short journey down the hall to a sitting room revealed a picturesque view of Occupastuxet Cove, the stretch of Narragansett Bay that weaves its way into the rear section of the Governor Francis Farms neighborhood. On the facing wall was another grand bookcase, this one loaded with even more volumes of books. Brown took a seat to face the water and launched into his stories from his childhood.
Brown, now 81, has lived in Governor Francis Farms for the entirety of his life, and is well versed in the history of the neighborhood. He has authored several books.
Surgeon John Greene purchased the 660 acres of land in 1642; it was the first recorded deed in the town of Warwick.
Nearly 150 years later, John Brown paid $3,000 in silver for the farm, a price Brown called “unheard of” at the time. Then the land also included Greene Island, which boasted 14 acres of land. Now, explained Brown, as he pointed out the window toward the water, the island is no more than a small sandbar.
Brown’s grandmother, Alice Francis Brown, was the adopted daughter of Elizabeth and Sally Francis, John Brown Francis’ daughters. She inherited the land from her ancestors, and by 1928, she bowed to town pressure and laid out a plot of land called Spring Green Acres to be developed. The plat officially opened on May 30 of 1931, with 7,000-square foot lots selling for a minimum of $175. Brown hauled a volume down from one of the packed shelves, opening it to a clipping from the Providence Journal. It was from May 30, 1931, and promoted the opening of the new neighborhood.
“What a place it will be for the children!” said the couple depicted in the ad.
But the timing was poor, and by the time Spring Green Acres officially launched, the Great Depression was getting underway.
“All building ceased,” said Brown. “Everything laid dormant.”
Building didn’t resume until 1937, when Brown’s father started construction on several homes. In 1939, landscape architects E.M. Prellwitz and J.D. Graham, who trained under Frederick Law Olmstead of Central Park fame, took the reigns and began creating the neighborhood we know today.
Brown’s grandmother, Alice, named the streets in the forward section of the farms, Dahlia, Aster, Canna and Baslam, for the favorite flowers of her caregivers, Elizabeth and Sally. The Native American names of some of the streets were homage to the native tribes (the land was originally purchased from Chief Miantonomo), but Mashuena, said Brown, was not a Native American name.
“It was supposed to be Nashawena,” said Brown, explaining it was to be named after a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. But the word was transcribed incorrectly, and the street forever became known as Mashuena.
It was the same section of the farms that now houses Mashuena, the stretch along Pocahontas Drive that was one of the last areas of the Farms to be developed. Governor Francis Farms was officially established in 1938, but by 1947, the Pocahontas Drive area of today was still a cattle pasture.
Brown recounted his journeys to this area when he was a young boy. He remembers climbing a large tree with his brother in the pasture, and stumbling upon a crow’s nest. The boys took a baby crow home and nursed it with an eyedropper. The crow, which they named “Blackey,” grew into a mischievous adult bird, and was known for its bouts of kleptomania.
Brown said Blackey once stole a shiny, gold-plated penknife from his grandfather one afternoon when he was cutting flowers. Twenty-five years later, when chopping down trees to make room for new developments, the Browns discovered the knife and dozens of other trinkets in a nest.
Brown also remembers when the railroad ran through the Farms. Up until 1935, Lansdowne Road was a railroad track. Brown remembers them burning the railroad ties in the winter of 1937.
As a member of one of Warwick’s most prolific families, Brown easily embodies his newly acquired title of City Historian. For his lifetime, Brown has been immersed in the rich history of Warwick, both through his firsthand experiences and extensive genealogical research.
Perhaps this is why Mayor Scott Avedisian named him the City Historian earlier this month. Brown takes over the position from his old friend, the late Don D’Amato.
“There was never an unkind word thought,” he said of his relationship with D’Amato, another expert on the rich history of the city; he had visited D’Amato just weeks before his death.
What will Brown do as City Historian?
“I have no idea,” he said jovially. “But I’m very happy about it. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Brown said former Mayor Charles Donovan asked him to be the City Historian in the early ’90s, but he declined. It was D’Amato’s position, and Brown didn’t want to take it from him.
Brown said his passion for history was kindled in the class of Hannah Barton at Wyman Elementary School circa 1939. Barton was a descendent of General William Barton, a Revolutionary War Continental Army Officer. Her passion for history meant that students in the classroom often pored over texts and pictures from days of yore. Brown particularly remembered the book, “Episodes in Warwick History.”
“That really got me going,” he said, remembering how he had to draw and research historic Warwick homes.
But Brown’s life as a historian was always only a hobby. He started the Governor Francis Nursery, and spent two years stationed in Germany at the end of the Korean War. When he returned from duty, Brown’s hobby really took off, and he began squirreling away documents about his own lineage, the city of Warwick and the history of the state. But while Brown has it all now, he doesn’t plan to hold on to it forever.
“What’s the use of having it if you can’t share it?” he said.
Despite not knowing exactly what his duties are, it’s likely that as the newest City Historian, Brown will be sharing his wealth of knowledge and resources with the residents for many years to come.