Johnny Northup’s house on the eastern end of West Allenton Road appears deceptively ancient. Why it looks like it’s been sitting there quietly, determinedly, for two centuries or so, but it hasn’t. The small two-story square-plan federal-style house is an anachronism, a true chronological inconsistency built in 1946, modeled after a Brown Street home. I could even go further and call this extraordinary handcrafted home, “an anachronism constructed by an anachronism,” as its builder, John C. Northup Jr., although most certainly a man of the 20th century, was firmly rooted in a different era. Born in 1910, the son of a third-generation blacksmith, John Northup Jr. belonged to a different time.
Johnny Northup’s early years were taken up with working in his father’s blacksmith shop and getting an education in the public schools of North Kingstown. He married a local gal, Marion Gardiner and they began a family together. Unfortunately by then the blacksmith’s trade was falling by the wayside and could not support another local “smithy”; anyway, Johnny’s passion was not smithing, but woodworking, and besides, he had a family to support. So he took a factory job at Bostitch, a job you could count on, he probably thought. He hated every second of it.
Throughout it all, those years at Bostitch, Johnny kept his hand in what he loved, working with wood, creating new furniture, repairing old pieces, even firing up the blacksmith’s forge from time to time. True, those long days at the factory followed by long evenings at his woodworking shop, located just adjacent to his father’s blacksmith shop just a ways down West Allenton Road, took their toll on him. But John’s passion for the feel of a fine piece of wood in his hands kept him at it. He got his break when he met up with antique dealer Emmy Standish and her husband Myles Standish, owner of the Providence-based company Standish Johnson. Emmy knew an artisan when she saw one and she and her husband guaranteed Johnny sufficient work as long as he made woodworking, cabinetmaking actually, his full time vocation. Johnny took that leap of faith and quit the life of a factory worker. He replaced that job with an apprenticeship at the cabinetmakers shop of Henry Cockrell and Burt Rhodes in the little village of Chipiwanoxet in Warwick. He never looked back and never regretted the choice. After a successful apprenticeship, Johnny Northup, son of a blacksmith, became a full-fledged practitioner of another ancient craft, cabinetmaking.
John Northup absorbed all he could from his teachers in Chipiwanoxet, as well as from his father the blacksmith, and for that matter, his uncle, one of North Kingstown’s last wheelwrights. This extraordinary skill-set, along with another fateful meeting with someone who would help move his career forward, set the stage for what was to come in Johnny Northup’s life. You see, legendary antique dealer and Newport “antiquarian” Ralph Carpenter, who was tasked by the Preservation Society of Newport with overseeing the restoration of Hunter House, that group’s first big restoration, knew of Johnny’s furniture restoration and cabinetmaker’s skills. Ralph also knew he needed a “jack-of-all- trades” on the job at Hunter House, and John Northup was that guy. Ultimately, the restoration of Hunter House was a triumph, a feather in the cap for not only Ralph Carpenter, but John Northup as well. So now Johnny Northup cabinetmaker and furniture restoration expert had another moniker, John Northup restoration carpenter. Interestingly enough, most of the best restoration carpenters in the region were all North Kingstown lads, and John Northup joined the Bullocks of Pleasant Street in Wickford and Howard Gardiner Sr., who lived just outside the village, as the go-to guys when it came to restoration work. John Northup worked with these fellows, as well as renowned restoration architects with names like Cady and Isham, on the rebuilding of places like Gilbert Stuart’s Birthplace, Smith’s Castle, Whitehall in Newport, and the Douglas House on Gilbert Stuart Road along with countless other Newport and Providence houses. Working with fellow carpenter Macy Webster, Johnny was intimately responsible for the reconstruction of the Jamestown Windmill as well. It was something he was truly proud of, the keystone of an extraordinary arc of restoration projects.
Throughout all this, Johnny continued to work in his shop, repairing ancient furniture pieces and creating new masterworks. He even “paid it forward” when he took on a very young Timothy Philbrick as his an apprentice. Tim Philbrick, based out of Narragansett, is now a nationally renowned cabinetmaker and credits his time working with John as a critical part of his education. He also had as an apprentice a grandson, Jim O’Neil, who now works with the restoration firm “The Architectural Preservation Group.”
A visit to Johnny Northup’s shop back in the day was an experience unto itself. Johnny was “an old Swamper” — a Swamp Yankee, and proud of it. His numerous Swamp Yankee friends would often come calling and work would stop for a spell while John held court with fellows like Old Ken Mumford or newspaperman John Ward. These men loved to talk, braggadocio and swamper “one-up-manship” was always part of the flavor of every conversation. Indeed, Johnny was known to have told folks that he cut off one of his fingers with a saw one day and stuck it back on with a wad of chewing tobacco and it somehow took root. Other versions of the same story had him throwing the finger out in the trash and then later upon his wife’s insistence, digging it out of the rubbish and hauling it down to South County Hospital where they stuck it back on for him. Old Ken Mumford, the only “man of few words” in the bunch, would tell and retell the tale of his last day of driving after being pulled over by a rookie cop. The officer asked him for his license and Ken replied simply “Ain’t got one!” When asked why, Ken, who could only see with the aid of a large magnifying glass, replied simply, “Cause I can’t see, that’s why!!” From that day forward Ken Mumford got around town on his horse-drawn wagon. Customers as well might stop by to inquire about a piece of furniture they left with him for repair, a month ago or even a year ago or more. One Wickfordite I know dropped off an old bed for restoration to be eventually used by his young daughter once she was old enough to leave her crib behind. Johnny must not have been in the frame of mind to work on beds for quite a spell, as it was not finished until the toddler was a 12 years old. Why did they leave it there that long? Because there was no one else that they could imagine working on their precious family heirloom; simple as that. If you were to stop by around the holiday season, no matter what year it was, you would catch Johnny at the lathe working on his “bread and butter” items, the three-legged candlestand table. He made them throughout his life, by the hundreds, and sold most of them at Christmas time. Fellow cabinetmaker Ray Matteson, a master craftsman in his own right, remembers seeing Johnny Northup standing at the lathe knee deep in wood curlings, churning out candlestand table parts for hours without ceasing. These beautiful accent pieces can be found in homes all across South County along with countless other wonderful tables, grand chest of drawers, and exquisitely detailed wall mirrors.
Johnny Northup passed away in the summer of 1995 at the age of 85. He worked nearly right up to his last day and had family and friends at his side when he joined those blacksmith and wheelwright ancestors in heaven. His legacy is all around us; he lives on every time the gristmill waterwheel turns at Gilbert Stuart’s Birthplace or the windmill turns in Jamestown. His spirit, along with his handiwork, inhabits nearly every fine Colonial-era home and house museum for miles. And for those of us who knew him, just the thought of him brings a smile; and I expect he’s more proud of that than anything else.
The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.