190212ind History

The home at 56 Main St., Wickford, is where Elisha Smith Thomas was born in 1834. Thomas studied divinity, and eventually became a reverend in th Episcopal Church, which took him out west to the Kansas Territory.

A pair of stained glass windows, crafted a century ago by the world-famous artisans of the Heaton, Butler & Bayne Studio of London, England, are tangible evidence of the thread that ties Wickford, Ye Olde Quaint & Historic, to the fabled American West of the late 1800s. One of these extraordinary windows can be found in St. Paul’s Church on Main Street here in the village, and it depicts an image of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. It is dedicated to Georgina (Brown) Thomas, local lass, and one time organist at the church.

The other half of this memorial masterpiece depicts an image of St. Aiden of Lindisfarne appropriately giving his fine horse, a personal gift to Aiden from the ruler of England at the time, King Oswin, to a beggar who stands there awestruck by the countenance of Aiden and the magnificence of the horse all bedecked in its royal trappings. This beautiful window can be seen in Laramie, Wyoming, in the Episcopal Cathedral there. It is dedicated to Georgina’s husband, also born and raised here in Wickford, Rev. Elisha Thomas, the second bishop of the Kansas Territory. Both windows, one in Wickford and one in Wyoming, were commissioned by the son of these two fine people, Rev. Nathaniel Thomas, the second bishop of the Wyoming Territory. This thread, which extends from Wyoming through Kansas and Minnesota on its way to Wickford, begins in the fine home just across the street from St. Paul’s Church, the Allen Mason Thomas Homestead at 56 Main St.

That house was purchased by Allen Thomas from James Bullock, whose second wife declined to live in the house built for her predecessor (Bullock built another fine home on Brown St for that wife; it is now occupied by an advertising firm). Allen Thomas, who eventually had eight children, expanded the Bullock house greatly, adding the large addition to the back of the original structure.  His move into that home with his wife Charlotte (Smith) was a short one. Allen was born and raised next door in his father’s enormous double house/store. It was there that Allen Mason Thomas learned his trade as a merchant, under his father Richard’s tutelage, who was also the local Justice of the Peace for more than four decades.

Allen Thomas was very active at St. Paul’s Church as a warden and the church’s clerk for more than 50 years, as was his wife Charlotte, and its no surprise that their eldest son Elisha Smith Thomas felt so at home in the church that he decided to answer his personal call and become a member of the clergy. Allen Mason Thomas’ life ended tragically, when he, in the throes of what we now know as Alzheimer’s disease, began to act strangely, making decisions that threatened the stability of his sizable financial empire. His family was therefore forced to take him to court and the probate records of North Kingstown during that time frame are full of references to “the madman Allen Mason Thomas.” It was a sad end to a vital and successful man’s life and had to have been difficult for his family.

His son Elisha was born here in Wickford in 1834 and after an education in the public schools of North Kingstown attended Yale and then the Berkeley Divinity School in 1861. His first position was at the Louisiana School for the Deaf where he mastered sign language. This was followed by a three-year assignment at a church in New Haven Conn., and then five years as a professor at Seabury Institute teaching Biblical Studies.  After that he served at Episcopal churches in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Finally in 1887 he was elected assistant bishop of Kansas and then in 1889 bishop of the Kansas Territory. His dramatic life in the Kansas Territories and the image of a bishop saddled up and riding the western ranges furnished the basis for a number of stories about western life profiled in magazines of the time and the books of western writer Cyrus Townsend Brady. Along the way, Elisha Thomas founded numerous churches and missions along with a number of schools; chief among them St John’s Military Academy in Salina Kansas. His unexpected death in 1895 rocked the entire western territory, the well-known bishop was mourned by all and his loss was best expressed by the Diocese of Kansas’ official proclamation, which said in part, “Words are too poor to express our loss. We are in no mood for formal resolutions. We only cry, God pity us and raise up another whose qualifications may reach to some degree those of the late universally loved bishop of Kansas now numbered with thy Saints”. After a service in Kansas, Elisha Smith Thomas came home to Wickford and was buried within sight of his parent’s graves.

Accompanying his father’s body on the long train trip from Kansas to Wickford was his son Rev. Nathaniel Thomas. Elisha was not only his father, he was also his boss, as Nathaniel served the Diocese of Kansas at Fort Leavenworth were he not only ministered to the community there, but also to the outlaws, rustlers, murderers, and general bad men incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth’s Federal Penitentiary.  Every legendary outlaw of the old west who wasn’t killed outright ended up with his soul in the hands of the good Reverend Thomas.  His friend, Leavenworth saddle manufacturer Charlie Ackenhausen, used to say that the Daltons, Doolins, Youngers, James, and Cooks thought highly of their priest calling him “the best ‘sky pilot’ (priest) out there, a good fellow who mixed well with all at the prison.” By 1909, the good reverend, who had nearly obtained the same legendary “old west” status that his father held before him, was elected Bishop of a Territory even wilder than Kansas; Nathaniel Thomas was the bishop of the Wyoming Territory. He reigned from the saddle just as his father had, tallying up trips of 1000’s of miles across Wyoming from Jackson to Laramie to Yellowstone and everywhere in between along the way he opened up missions, churches, hospitals and schools for white men and Indian alike.  He was respected by all he met along the way. The Minnesota born son of a Wickford boy returned here to the village as well and cemented the end of that thread which tied it all together when he had the memorial window to his mother installed at St Paul’s Church adjacent to the main pulpit, constructed by Gorham in Providence and dedicated to the memory of his father. He died in 1937 and is buried in his retirement home of Santa Barbara, California.

You know, there’s one more tangible solid memorial that secures the ties that bind Wickford to the Old West.  Out in Elm Grove, standing there tall and proud is a pink granite intricately carved Ionic Cross dedicated to the memory of Bishop Elisha Thomas. It was paid for by the people who loved him here in Wickford and out there in Kansas and dedicated by a Minnesota boy bound for glory in Wyoming.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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