201231ind History

While legend has it this home located at 60 Elam St. in Wickford was once known as “the batty house,” its purpose has shifted over the years as a variety of notable local residents have called it home since its construction in 1806.

The home located at 60 Elam St. in Wickford was constructed in 1806 for successful Boston Post Road farmer Westgate Watson and his wife Dorcas on land he purchased in 1805 from John and Hannah (Boone) Franklin. Watson left his farm to his son Benjamin to run, and moved to Wickford to tend to numerous investments he had here in the village including an ownership share in the ship building and wharfing operation at the Point Wharf at the end of what is now Pleasant Street.  Additionally, longstanding oral tradition identifies the Watson house as the location for North Kingstown’s first town poor farm known by village residents as “the batty house,” a reference to the numerous residents with dementia and alcohol related problems. Due to the condition of North Kingstown’s early probate and town council records, this story has not yet been verified. In 1843 as Westgate and Dorcas were getting on in their years, they sold the house and moved back to their original farm, still operated by their children and grandchildren, lived out the remainder of their lives and were eventually buried there. The house was purchased by second generation local grocer George T. Nichols.

George Thomas Nichols, son of grocer George Nichols who ran a store in the Thomas/Dawson house on Main Street in the early 1800s, ran a successful grocery store of his own in the village for many years. He was also an active member in the Washington County Militia, rising eventually to the rank of Major in charge of the 3rd Brigade.  George and his wife Amy Ann (Thomas) only lived here for three years, selling the house in October of 1846 to house carpenter William Potter and his wife Lydia, daughter of Daniel and Mary Eldred.

William Potter, son of Anthony and Mercy Potter, had been born and raised in Cranston and came here to the village after marrying local resident Lydia G. Eldred. They raised two children in the house, Anthony and Sarah, and when Anthony, who worked as a carpenter alongside his father, married, they relocated a small 18th century home to the property and added it as an el on the house and reconfigured it into a two family home. Anthony and his wife Sarah (Salisbury) and their children and his parents lived in one portion of the house and the other was rented out. According to census records, renters in the house at various times included Capt Sam Baker and his wife Harriet and their children and fisherman Joseph Spink and his family. William and Lydia Potter and their descendants owned this home, through three generations, for 99 years and six months, with the last generation to live there being unmarried brother and sister William A. “Billy” Potter and his sister Lydia H. Potter, both children of Anthony and Sarah.  Billy Potter was a boat carpenter and worked for much of his life at the Albert Saunders shipyard located at the end of what is now Reynolds Street. Billy Potter was also a founding member and longstanding secretary of the Wickford camp of the fraternal organization The Woodmen of the World, and also served as the sexton of St. Paul’s Church for some time.  After Billy Potter died in late 1945, the house, which had fallen into disrepair, was purchased by Joseph Warren Greene Jr.

Joseph Warren Greene Jr., whose family had owned and operated the Hamilton Web textile mill for generations, lived just across the cove from this house in a fine West Main Street home. He purchased the house with the intent to restore it to its former splendor. After an initial restoration, he began to rent the house out and eventually sold it to someone who was, like himself, actively involved in the preservation and restoration of the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace, Ann MacLeod.

Anne MacLeod married Nathaniel Gifford shortly after purchasing the home in January of 1948 and together they continued the restoration begun by Joseph Greene.  After the restoration was complete, Anne and Nat Gifford primarily utilized the house as a rental property, although they may have used it as a summer get away from their Providence home for a time before they had their children. Unfortunately, Anne Gifford passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in 1960 and the house was sold from her estate to Edward Ekman Jr.  Ed Ekman, a prominent architect who specializes in designing banking facilities, lived in the house with his family from 1960 to 1972. At that time the Ekman’s moved to a home on Pojac Point and they sold this house to John and Althea McAleer.

John McAleer was a distinguished retired engineer with a lifetime of service to the US Army Corp of Engineers when he purchased this, his retirement home.  He served as the senior engineer for NY-New England Division from 1951-55, was then chief of the Hurricane protection Unit from 1955-64 and chief design engineer for the design and installation of the Fox Point Hurricane barrier, and then went on to become Chief of Engineers in Washington DC where he was instrumental in the National Shoreline Study.  In addition, he worked with his marine architect brother Roger in the design of the Raven class of racing sailboats. His wife Althea, the retired head librarian of the Fairfax County Virginia Central Library, will be forever remembered for her genealogical work locally and for writing both the landmark book The Historic Graveyards of North Kingstown and the monumental tome, Elm Grove Cemetery Inscriptions, in addition to her countless hours of volunteer time at the NK Free Library and elsewhere. John McAleer succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease in 1998 and Althea McAleer, after a long and rewarding life died just recently. The house, now known locally as “Althea’s House” is still owned by the family.

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

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