210715ind history

The John Powell Burdick House, which can be seen from the Hussey Bridge in North Kingstown, is a fascinating building with several unique ties to the past. Among them, thanks to conditions originally written out by former owner Bryon Matteson in 1925, are still-binding rules prohibiting tall fences, outhouses and the production and sale of alcohol.

Whether it be as a backdrop for the historic fishing vessel the “O.K.” or all on its own, the magnificent circa 1932 John P. Burdick House cuts quite a figure for itself there on the edge of Wickford Harbor, just east of the Hussey Bridge. An interesting home, constructed on land that has its own intriguing story, this is a house with a tale to tell.

The land that it occupies was, at one time, part of “Oaklands” an estate owned first by businessman and local jewelry factory owner James Eldred, and then mill owner W. B. Chapin. The estate, along with the Chapin “Waterside Mill” just across the harbor in Wickford was purchased from Chapin, by the prominent mill owner Syria Vaughan and given to his daughter and son-in-law Mr. & Mrs. William Gregory. Gregory later went on to become North Kingstown’s only Governor of Rhode Island. With Bill Gregory’s sudden death at the very start of the 20th century, ownership of the land was transferred to his wife Harriet and son Albert. Upon Harriet’s death 10 years after her husband’s, the Oaklands Estate was subdivided, with a parcel of the land staying with the fine three story mansion house, and ownership of the remainder being transferred to St Paul’s Episcopal Church on Main Street. For many years, St Paul’s retained ownership of the land and utilized it as the site of numerous summertime picnics and events, until the early 1920’s when the Church Vestry chose, against the wishes of the Gregory family, to sell the land. It was purchased by local ship’s engineer Byron Matteson.

Now Bryon Matteson, he had for himself one colorful life! As a teen he left the area and headed west. Eventually he took a job as a cowhand on the famous King Ranch of Texas; a cattle ranch whose owners often boasted was bigger than the State of Rhode Island. He returned to Wickford after a time and began a career as an engineer in steamships o the Colonial Line, a steamship company that ran daily runs between Providence and New York City. He worked his way through the ranks in the not noisy environment of a steamship’s engine room, eventually becoming the Chief Engineer on the line’s largest vessels. He served as a Chief Machinist Mate for the US Navy during WWI, and rode out the Great Hurricane of 1938 on the tugboat “Gaspee” out of Quonset. Byron Matteson had some stories to tell for sure. His purchase of this land appeared to be for investment purposes, as he had it subdivided and platted in 1925; naming one street after the Oaklands itself, one after the Gregory family, and one Matteson Street after his own clan. Soon after dividing the land, he sold a number of the small lots to John Powell Burdick, a local lad who had been recently hired as the advertising manager for Providence toolmaker Brown and Sharpe. Matteson sold the land with a number of peculiar caveats attached; one being that no intoxicating liquors could be made or sold on the property. Additionally, no fences more than four feet tall can be erected and no outhouses will be tolerated. And finally no camping in tents on this land can be allowed. These prohibitions were apparently acceptable to Burdick and his wife Hope (Mason) as they signed off to them as a part of the purchase.

In 1932, the Burdicks had their fine brick home constructed on their portion of the old Oaklands Estate. They lived there until 1957 and John was actively involved throughout the years in the town’s volunteer fire dept. John Burdick is, in fact, credited with refurbishing the old hand-pumper Defiance in the 1920’s. He sold his home to Donald Collier who fairly quickly resold it to Gilbert H. Kingsley, another local lad.

Kingsley began his adult life running his family’s Slocum Potato Farm, but later got involved in investments and commodities trading. He was such a success that the erstwhile potato farmer eventually bought himself a winter home in Smyrna Beach, Florida, and spent his time between the two houses. In 1978 Kingsley sold the brick Burdick house and moved full time to Florida. He passed away suddenly in 1982 at the age of 62.

Since 1978, a number of folks have owned and cared for the home, with its present owners installing a handsome and appropriate addition in recent years. I must add though, that after a careful search of the land evidence records, I find that Byron Matteson’s restrictions are still binding. So I sure hope there are no moonshine stills or outhouses hiding behind tall fences or in big tents on the property. You don’t want to raise the ire of the spirit of the old seafarer now do you?

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

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