SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — It’s a labor of love and historic preservation that is the impetus for renovations, repairs and restoration recently done at the Samuel E. Perry Grist Mill, owned by the South Kingstown Land Trust (SKLT).
Located at 364 Moonstone Beach Road in the Perryville section of South Kingstown, the mill built in 1703 was gifted to the land trust in 2012 by the late owners Diana and Bob Smith. Critical repairs to the landmark property included the mill building, sluice-way, and weir.
“The ‘value’ of the mill is the critical role it played (in this) community for those many decades. SKLT is committed to preserving that history,” said Julia Landstreet, executive director of the land trust.
An anonymous donor contributed to the cost of the materials, which were offered at a discounted rate by Liberty Cedar of West Kingston, according to land trust officials. Joining that donor was a group of supporters interested in historic preservation of the mill, which is still operational and grinds flint corn for jonnycakes.
This pancake-like breakfast food is made from cornmeal and prepared on a griddle. Often it comes with butter and syrup on the side. The recipe is said to have been passed down to Rhode Island’s first colonists by the Narragansett Indian tribe.
Other products include Rhode Island Yellow Corn Meal and Rhode Island Clam Cake and Fritter Mix.
Yankee Magazine once said about the mill and its products, “With more than three centuries of continuous grinding history, the mill (renamed the Perry Grist Mill, for the original owner) is the last in the state to use water power to produce stone-ground jonnycake meal, made from native Rhode Island–grown whitecap flint corn.”
“It’s notoriously difficult to grow, but has a wonderfully nutty flavor that many folks feel tastes best as a platter of jonnycakes, hot off the griddle,” the magazine wrote.
Coming to help preserve this location and tradition was Jeff Sweenor, owner of Wakefield-based Sweenor Builders, Inc.
He knows more than a thing or two about historic sites and keeping them going. His business has been featured in several preservation-renovation projects appearing in the television series “This Old House.”
For this project he provided labor, staging, and general contracting services to re-shingle the sides, repaired and re-shingled the roof and replaced the floor of the mill.
He said in an interview that the anonymous donor was a client and offered to provide materials if he would provide the labor for the restoration effort. Sweenor said he also reached out to Landscape Creations in Saunderstown for assistance with the project.
“We’re glad to give back to the community to one of the greatest historical properties in the area, if not Rhode Island. It is well worth preserving for another 300 years,” Sweenor said.
The sluice-way, which runs between a pond and the mill, had become overgrown with damaging vegetation and crumbled after fierce storms over the past few years.
Jon Zeyl, co-owner, with his wife, Rochelle, of Landscape Creations in Saunderstown, gave repair materials and labor to complete restoration of the sluice-way and weir.
“My wife and I enjoy the history and heritage that is so much a part of South County,” he said.
“We enjoy hiking on (land trust) trails and outdoor spaces. When Jeff Sweenor presented the opportunity to assist in the repair and preservation of the grist mill, we felt it was an opportunity to demonstrate our appreciation and dedication to the community and the work of SKLT,” he said.
“The work our crews did will enable the grist mill to function as it once did and enable SKLT to invite the community in to enjoy this part of our local history,” Zeyl added.
Roland Fiore of South County Sand and Gravel, located in South Kingstown, donated gravel for the weir and sluice-way restoration.
“I consider this to be a worthwhile preservation project for the community that provides valuable insight to our past ways of life,” said Fiore, company president and owner.
One worker at the site, Matt Belke of Sweenor Builders and resident of South Kingstown, said he always knew about the mill, but until recently was unaware it still operated.
While on the job, he said, he was amazed at how much interest people have shown in the project, many stopping often to ask about the progress.
“It has been an honor to work on the project to keep the mill active in the community,” said Belke.
Keeping the mill as a community treasure was the intention of the late Diana and Bob Smith, said several town residents following historic preservation in the area.
In the 2015 Yankee magazine story, the Smiths talked about what that mill and community interest meant to them.
The Smiths said they felt lucky to live in a community that both values and supports its past, “but you can’t help but feel that the good fortune runs both ways.
Boosted by the Smiths’ efforts over the past three decades and the continued support of the land trust, it’s all but guaranteed that the Perry Grist Mill will keep grinding some of the state’s best jonnycake meal for years to come,” the magazine said.
Bob Smith said at that time, “I’ve been very fortunate in my life, and having the gristmill has been very rewarding and special.” Even more important, however, was his 60-year companion, Diane, with whom he spent the adventures of running a mill and selling its products, the last being the task she took on.
“I wouldn’t have known a thing about gristmills without Bob,” she said in the magazine interview just three years before both of them died within six months of each other. “I listened and learned and grew to really enjoy it. We both did. It’s been just wonderful,” she said.
“Bob and Diana ran the mill practically for 30 years,” said Landstreet in a 2018 interview after the trust took over the mill site. “[He had] a love of history and love of mechanical archaeology. It was really fascinating.”
Son of the late Fred W. Smith Sr. and Elizabeth (Barber) Smith, Bob Smith was the proprietor of long-time South Kingstown Fred W. Smith Inc. car dealership.
Landstreet said that the Smiths “really excelled in building such a community around [the gristmill]. “
“They worked with farmers, they’ve worked with engineers – all the different pieces to grow the corn, harvest the corn, store the corn, grind the corn, cook the corn and tell the story of the johnnycake, historically, in South County,” she said.
“Each one of those areas engages different communities. That’s probably been the most magical part about it, and that’s what the land trust looks forward to continue,” she added.
The trust continues to engage community involvement in the preservation of this property.
South Kingstown Town Manager Robert Zarnetske praised the trust for its efforts and recalled the sentiments of an early traveler, Alexis de Tocqueville, to observe American democracy and community involvement.
“In his 19th-Century treatise “Democracy in America, (he) observed that America had become great because its people were willing to volunteer and contribute to the improvement of their society,” Zarnetske said.
“He noted if ‘America should ever cease to be good, she will cease to be great.’ The volunteerism and community spirit that made America exceptional in de Tocqueville’s day is still alive and well in South Kingstown,” the town manager said.