Editor’s Note: Tim Cranston is off this week. This column originally appeared in the Nov. 20, 2014 edition of The Independent.
No matter whether you call this very visible and familiar large brick building in Wickford the Gregory Mill, or the Chapin Mill, or the Ring Building, or even the Kayak Center place, it makes no difference. You see, the fact of the matter is that this place, this slice of land upon which this 154-year-old structure sits upon, is perhaps the most historically important in all of our fair town. So much has gone on here over the last 330 years or so, beginning with its connection to the fabled Ten Rod Road, that I can scarcely begin to cover it all. But, I’m going to try anyway.
From the late 17th century through 1727, this parcel along with all the land for miles around was the property of the Updike family and a part of their approximately 27 square-mile Narragansett planter society plantation Cocumscussoc. Although there is sadly scant historic information detailing the construction and operation of the livestock drover’s turnpike the Ten Rod Road, named for its ten rod wide (165 feet) right-of-way used as pasturage during the livestock’s journey from farm to the village, it is known that it was authorized by the colony in 1703, a timeframe that places its beginnings unquestionably within the Updike ownership period. Lodowick Updike, and later his son Daniel may have had a role in this operation whereby livestock of all varieties was driven from eastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island into Wickford for eventually transportation elsewhere via sailing vessels. The official identified end of the Ten Rod Road was “the wattering place,” also known locally as Musquash (the Narragansett word for muskrat) Pond, filled in some years ago for the construction of the North Kingstown Free Library driveway. This pond was the final fresh water source available to water livestock before they approached the wharves where they would be loaded on sailing vessels for shipment to other locations within the colonies here in the Americas and Caribbean or in some cases back to England and Europe. In 1727, Daniel Updike sold this parcel along with all the rest of the land that would become Elamsville to Samuel Boone. Nothing is known specifically regarding how he utilized this valuable waterfront property beyond the fact that it was left upon his death to his son Samuel Boone Jr. He in turn, upon his death in 1795 divided up his holdings among his daughters and their husbands. This parcel passed down in Anna (Boone) and her husband Nicholas, who in turn transferred ownership of it to their sons, shipyard operators Christopher (Kit) and Boone Spink.
This particular parcel actually represents only about a quarter of the entire piece of property then owned by Kit and Boone Spink and used for their overall business enterprise of which the shipyard was the centerpiece. This property then included all the land to the east of Brown Street from Phillips Street on the south all the way north to a jog in the harbor’s edge just north of the Franklin Street intersection, excluding the parcel upon which “Old Doc” Shaw had his house constructed by Daniel Spink, brother to these two shipbuilders. Not only did Kit and Boone Spink run the largest and busiest shipyard in the region here in Elamsville, they also operated a well-stocked general store here as well, a store where employees ran an account and were also able to get either goods or cash as needed based upon the hours worked for the Spink brothers. This same business model was copied, a half a century later, by many of the large textile mills that sprang up across New England. A wonderful and very specific window into the workings of the C & B Spink shipyard is offered by the extant detailed daybook of ship carpenter Russell Smith who not only worked in this shipyard, but also in the nearby shipyard of the Holloways during the 1820s and ‘30s. Russell Smith kept meticulous records of not only the work he did, the pay he received, and the goods he took out of the Spink general store as payment, but also the names of some of sailing vessels he helped craft. Among these are the Grecian, the Lion, the Atlantic, and the Baltic, ships and schooners of more than 400 tons and as long as 120 feet.
Operation of the shipyard continued after the death of Christopher in 1832, with Boone Spink signing an agreement after that transferring Christopher’s half share of all of the brothers shared properties, including their fine double-house on West Main Street (destroyed by fire and formerly located where the new Wickford Veterinary is now) which was located next door to their parents home, to his wife the widow Hannah Spink. In 1838, it would appear that operation of the shipyard ceased and the two half shares were eventually acquired by merchant and trader George T. Nichols.
Nichols purchased the parcel primarily for the Spink general store which he ran for a time, additionally he used the dock and wharf space to support his trading operations. In 1845 George Nichols sold the parcel to retired mariner John C. Gould. Gould eventually lost the property to foreclosure and in 1857; the North Kingstown Bank sold it to lumber dealer Stephen D. Reynolds.
Stephen D. Reynolds combined this property with a small lot he inherited from his father Isaac who ran a lumberyard there, and opened up a full scale lumber mill and retail yard on the parcel. He took the shipyard storehouse extant on the parcel when he purchased it and installed a steam turbine which powered a number of large circular saws, planes, lathes and other lumber milling machinery. He continued to utilize the old general store building and constructed two other storehouses on the site as well. This business was known as the Reynolds Saw & Planing Mill and it operated in this manner until 1865. At that time Reynolds consolidated his business onto the northern half of the parcel and leased it to his son-in-law Charles Straight He sold the southern portion of the parcel, including the old shipyard storehouse, now converted into the saw & planing mill to Walter B. Chapin.
Col. Walter Chapin, who had served in the RI State Militia and was at that time the owner and operator of the Shady Lea Woolen Mill, had extraordinarily ambitious plans for this parcel. After purchasing it from Reynolds, he immediately took out two mortgages on the property, as well as mortgage on the Shady Lea Mill. He used these funds to construct the large brick mill building that still exists on the site, a “two story building 100 X 40 with a brick addition of the same length” and relocated all of Reynolds lumber milling machinery and the steam turbine and boiler into the new building. He incorporated his new company with the State of RI in May of 1866 as “The American Bobbin Company” a manufacturer of “bobbins, spools, spindles, shuttles, cards, and other mill supplies including all kinds of turners work all business pertaining thereto.” Chapin apparently was almost immediately in financial trouble as within a year he was taking mortgages on his home “The Oaklands” just across the channel, his material goods including his horses and carriages, and an additional mortgage on the Shady Lea Mill. This infusion of cash was apparently to no avail as a few months later Chapin was scrambling to save his business empire and home, a task he achieved in large part with a consolidation mortgage held by his parents Royal & Maria T. Chapin. Finally in 1868, The Chapin Bobbin Mill building itself was purchased at a bank auction by a business associate of his father named Henry Whitman, who then leased the building back to Walter Chapin. This arrangement continued as did operations at the mill under Chapin until 1880, when it was sold to local mill owner, coal dealer and entrepreneur Syria Vaughn.
Syria Vaughn was at that time the owner of the Hamilton Web Company and was additionally beginning to get in on the ground floor of the soon-to-be -lucrative coal distribution business in southern Rhode Island. As more and more textile mills “re-powered” from water to coal Vaughn saw an opportunity to market coal for industry and home usage, and primarily purchased this parcel to utilize the dock and wharf space to bring coal into Wickford. In 1882, he transferred ownership of the Chapin mill building itself to his son-in-law William Gregory.
William Gregory was born into a large family in Westerly and began his textile mill as a 12-year old mill boy working in a large Westerly mill. By the time he was 16 he was the foreman of that same mill and was being noticed by mill managers in southern Rhode Island. What caught their attention were not his foreman skills but his mechanical acumen and his ability to readily retrofit existing looms to be utilized to weave the newest trend in textiles.
Syria Vaughn offered Gregory easily the most enticing deal; his daughter’s hand in marriage and subsequent entry into the closed ranks of the mill owner class. William Gregory and Harriet Vaughn were married and Gregory’s career and meteoric rise, which eventually included the Governorship of the State was only halted by his death from kidney disease in 1901. Gregory’s mill, later run by his son Albert was officially named the Wickford Worsted Mill, but everyone called it the Gregory Mill. The mill was run by Albert Gregory after his father’s death until 1912. In that year Albert sold it to a partnership consisting of Providence businessmen, Daniel C. O’Connor, Samuel Waldman and Allen Anderton. They ran it until 1917 and at that time the textile mill closed after 35 years of operation.
The next owners of the mill were Charles C. Brown and Walter Rose. They remodeled the building breaking it up into smaller units with retail/commercial space on the first floor and office and apartments on the second floor. Local mechanic Max London ran a garage out of the first floor portion facing Phillips Street during this period. In 1926, Brown and Rose sold the building to Clarence Spink who leased the garage space out to mechanic Millard Edwards; a lunchroom opened up in the Brown Street side of the first floor. In 1934, N. Adams Massachusetts transplant Sherwood Baldwin purchased the building, operating Baldwin’s Garage out of the back of the building and leasing the Brown Street first floor space to the Fiesta Restaurant. Later Baldwin gave up much of his space to make room for the North Kingstown Police Department which stayed in the building until it was relocated to its present Post Road location. In 1956, the building was purchased by M. James “Jim” Vieira who after the police vacated, rented the Phillips Street side to a milk store “Dutchland Farms” and the Brown Street side to Mort Curry Insurance Agency. A bait shop operated out of the back of the property during this period. In 1975, ownership of the building passed to O. Yvonne Ring who converted all of the upper space to apartments. In 1986, the building was left to Ms. Ring’s niece Judith Callaghan who owns it presently.