In honor of the recent Mother’s Day holiday, this week’s column concerns mothers who have made a significant impact on local history.
If you were to pick a woman as the “matriarch” of North Kingstown, that honor would have to belong to Abigail Phenix. Abigail was born in the middle 1600s in Springfield, Mass., to the family of Thomas Sewall. She married Alexander Phenix and they moved to the Quidnessett section of North Kingstown soon after. Unfortunately for Abigail (but typical for the times), Alexander left her a widow sometime around 1687. Eventually she sold her husband’s holdings in Quidnessett and moved in with her daughter and son-in-law Beriah Brown, who was one of the “founding fathers” of the town. In 1709 she took the proceeds from the sale of her Quidnessett holdings and purchased 163 acres of land which extended form Wickford Junction all the way down Ten Rod Road to the land of Samuel Phillips and then extended south to the Annaquatucket River. Abigail lived there with her grandson until her death in 1719. She is buried in an unmarked grave in the Phenix-Brown-Hendrick burial ground, which is now located in the lower parking lot of “The Meadows” office complex. Abigail was the first major female landowner in North Kingstown, beating the more famous Updike sister by almost 30 years. This alone is enough to make her the historical matriarch of North Kingstown.
One of the great things about being a writer of a column like this is that you, my readers, have to occasionally indulge me in the privilege of rambling on about my ancestors. This brings me to our next Mother’s Day honoree, Margaret Cranston. Margaret was born in 1881 in North Adams, Mass., to the family of Daniel Blanchard. The Blanchards were a very religious family and included many ordained ministers and missionaries. In 1899, at the age of 18, she married George Cyrus Cranston, the son of local politician, shopkeeper, mortician, and war hero George T. Cranston. She probably thought that her future was bright but, fate played its hand and in 1914 she became a widow with four children and a thriving family business with no one to run it; her eldest son being only nine years old at the time. A lesser person might have just given up faced with these odds, but she had a family and her children’s future to protect. So Margaret, six years before she would even be given the right to vote, and many decades before the advent of the women’s liberation movement, entered the male-dominated world of business and was extraordinarily successful. But, in her eyes, she did nothing out of the ordinary. She was only doing what any mother would do; taking care of her children. When she was reunited with her husband in 1955 she went, knowing she had done her job, her family was safe and their business successful. That business, “The Cranstons of Wickford,” now Cranston-Murphy Funeral Home, the oldest operating business in North Kingstown, is a testimony to a mother’s devotion.