200917ind history

Katherine Wheeler, owner of The Grateful Heart Bookstore in Wickford for 30 years, died last week at the age of 81. This property at 15/17 West Main Street in Wickford is where she called home for many years after purchasing the residential portion of the building in 1987.

As a way of honoring the memory of one of Wickford’s finest, Katherine Wheeler, owner of the Grateful Heart store, let’s take a close look at the place she called home for decades.

This fine home was, throughout the last quarter of the 18th century, the centerpiece of an expansive nine acre farm complex. The house was constructed in 1779 by Samuel and Susan (Cook) Brenton on the site of an earlier home (ca. 1728) constructed by Stephen Cooper. Cooper lived here for 24 years and then sold the property to Silvester Havens, who in turn sold it to the Brentons in early 1779.  It is possible that part, or all, of the smaller 1728 house may be incorporated into the existing home, but certainly the structure we see today is architecturally of a later 18th century style and is a substantial home befitting of the Brentons and their high station in colonial Rhode Island society. Samuel Brenton was a prominent member of Newport society and was descended of colonial Governor William Brenton and, through his mother, Frances Cranston, colonial Govs. John and Samuel Cranston and Jeremiah and Walter Clarke. His father, Jahleel Brenton, was a member of the British Court of Admiralty and his brother, also Jahleel, was a prominent British naval officer. Samuel himself was a founder of and Lieutenant in the local British regiment, the Newport Artilllery Company. The Brentons for generations were loyal British subjects and, right up until the Revolution itself, ardent Tories. Many members of the family fled to Nova Scotia at the onset of hostilities, but Samuel, claiming loyalty to the cause of the Revolution, chose to leave Newport and settle in Wickford. Throughout the conflict, due to his family’s fierce Tory leanings, he was viewed with suspicion here on the West Bay and was suspected to be a closet Tory. Additionally, the Brentons were known as pillars of the Church of England and, as such, were active here at St. Paul’s Old Narragansett Church both before and after the War of the Revolution. Samuel Brenton was thought to be financially independent due to his overall family wealth, but anecdotal evidence suggests he may have been involved in the distillery trade, an industry that figures prominently in this location’s immediate history. The Brenton family is memorialized here in the scratchings upon an upstairs bedroom widow placed there on Sept. 23, 1788, by their young love-struck daughter Abigail, who was engaged to local mariner John Mumford. Soon after etching her name and that of her fiancée, along with the date, into the window glass, Abigail Brenton was married and became Abby Mumford.  Soon after the wedding, the Brenton family sold this home.

The next owners of the property were Bristol businessmen Shearjashub Bourne and Samuel Wardwell. Their company, Bourne & Wardwell, operated as a rum distiller and slave trader and, at its peak, owned and operated 42 sailing vessels in these enterprises. Their acquisition of this property from the Brentons lends credence to both the anecdotal evidence that Samuel Brenton was involved in the distillery trade and the long-standing local tradition that a rum distillery was once located in this vicinity. It is not known exactly how Bourne & Wardwell utilized the property for the four years that they owned it; what is known, though, is that in 1792, Shearjashub Bourne, who was married to his partner’s sister Ruth Wardwell, and Samuel Bourne, married to Sarah Davis, sold the property to Charles Handy Esq. of Newport.

Charles Handy, who was involved in similar business dealings to Bourne & Wardwell, was married to Abigail Brenton, youngest sister of Samuel Brenton, who had constructed the home some 13 years prior. The Handys owned the property only a short while, as Charles died suddenly later that year. Abigail Handy then sold the property to Christopher and Sarah Pearce of Exeter and returned to Newport. Little can be gleaned from the historic record regarding Christopher Pearce, and it is not known whether rum distilling continued on the property during his ownership. In 1794, the Pearces sold the property to local farmer and Revolutionary War veteran Capt. Oliver Spink.

Oliver Spink moved into the house with his wife Amey (Pearce) Spink. It is not known whether Amey was in any way related to the previous owner Christopher Pearce. Although Oliver Spink’s lineage is unclear, it is thought that he was the son of Benoni Spink and he claimed to have a half-sister named Mary Westcott. His roots were in the Quidnessett area of North Kingstown and, while serving initially in the local militia there during the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he was captured by British forces on a raiding party and held as a Prisoner of War in a Newport garrison. After contracting small pox while imprisoned, he was transferred to a quarantine ship in the harbor. Although this was typically akin to a death sentence, Ensign Oliver Spink amazingly recovered from his illness and was released as a part of a prisoner swap after four months in detention. After a time recuperating from this illness, Oliver Spink reenlisted, serving as a part of the Sullivan Expedition, a campaign largely waged against the Native Americans of New York who had sided with the British at the onset of the War. Ensign Oliver Spink’s service during the Revolution ended in late 1780. He received his Captain’s commission after the War while serving in the newly formed Rhode Island State Militia. After the War’s completion he lived in Exeter for a short time, but moved here to Wickford in 1794. Once here, he increased his landholdings and became a prominent local citizen; he was involved in the planning for and founding of the Washington Academy and, indeed, the very first meeting of the Trustees of the Washington Academy was held in this house on March 10, 1800.  A decade later Oliver Spink, along with his neighbor across the street, Daniel E. Updike, were instrumental in working toward providing better access into Wickford proper and then across the cove into the newly platted Elamsville section of the village. A small hill directly between their two houses was removed and the resulting soil used as fill, to not only raise the roadbed just to the west as it crossed the area once known as Lodowick’s Ford where the high tides often made Wickford into a true island, but also as fill to narrow the channel so that Wickford might be connected to Elamsville by a bridge along what we now call Brown Street.  In the process, Oliver Spink’s brick foundation was exposed such that it required shoring up and reinforcing. Evidence of this can be seen in the form of larger 19th century bricks underlying the smaller 18th century bricks used when the home was constructed. An additional bonus of this work was that the building now had a street level space suitable for commercial use. In February 1826, Oliver Spink’s wife, Amey, passed away unexpectedly. A few years later, he married again, this time to Avis Ann Smith; a remarkable woman by any measure in any era. Oliver Spink passed away in November 1846 at the age of 91. As he had no children of his own, control of his large real estate holdings and substantial wealth passed to his wife Avis Ann (Smith) Spink.

Avis Ann was apparently a natural-born business woman during a time when females were not usually allowed to be involved in such things. Upon Oliver’s death in 1846, she essentially owned all the land in and around the village that was located north of the Grand Highway (now Main and West Main streets) and west of Church Lane all the way up to the Boston Post Road, with the exception of a handful of small frontage lots.  She was owner and landlord of a number of small commercial buildings, as well as some rental homes. She managed all these properties personally and entered into numerous business contracts with male business and property owners in the region. When a fire devastated her commercial holdings, she partnered with prominent local businessman Allen Mason Thomas and had a new commercial block constructed. When a bank needed a building in town, she had one constructed. She hired farmhands to run her deceased husband’s agricultural concerns and she became a major shareholder in the local financial institutions.  In short, Avis Ann Spink operated as an equal to the prominent men in the community; a remarkable achievement in the middle of the 1800’s. A few years after Oliver’s death, Avis Ann invited her niece, Mary, her husband, Horace Shippee, and their family to move in with her. Horace was a blacksmith and worked in the village.  In her later years, Avis Ann married one of the primary real estate owners in the Elamsville section of the village, William Brown. With that marriage, William and Avis Ann (Smith) Spink Brown owned a substantial portion of the commercial real estate in the village; a 19th century version of a modern power couple.  In another turn of events atypical for the time, Avis Ann eventually divorced William Brown and, as a part of the divorce proceedings, obtained some of his Elamsville real estate holdings. In March 1871, Avis Ann passed away and was laid to rest next to her beloved Oliver. As her final act against the status quo in 19th century New England, she left much of her estate, including this house, to her grand-niece Mary Emma Shippee.

Mary Emma Shippee, daughter of Horace and Mary Shippee, continued managing the property in the same fashion that Avis Ann had. Mary Emma was assisted in these enterprises by her brothers Adoniram J. and Charles H., both of whom had business training, with Adoniram attending the Schofield School and Charles attending both Colby College in Maine and Bryant Commercial College in Providence. Mary Emma also went to college, attending the Oread Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. They all lived in the house together, living off the income from the numerous rental properties and income from a valuable patent obtained by Charles, who was also an inventor for a steam-powered railcar coupling device. Charles, too, like Abby Brenton, scratched his name and date on a bedroom windowpane in April 1876. Adoniram passed away in 1911 and Charles in 1916, both having lived basically their entire lives in the house. Mary Emma followed her brothers in 1939, also having lived out her long life here. She left the house in her will to her friend and housekeeper Cora Park, who later sold it back to a descendant of Avis Ann Spink, Thomas Peirce, and his cousin Mary Agnes Delahanty.

Mary Agnes Delahanty was a former Army-trained nurse who eventually became the head nurse at South County Hospital, where she served for more than thirty years.  Thomas Peirce was the manager of the Wickford Savings Bank on Brown Street. They purchased the property largely as an investment and rented in out until 1960. At that time, Tom and Erma Peirce restored the house and then moved into it with their family. In 1965, the Peirce family moved to a home on Pleasant Street and sold the house to Joseph and Jane Lambert.

The Lamberts, who opened up a popular bookstore in the street level section of the house, continued the restoration begun by the Peirce family. As a part of that process, they decided to convert the former small milking house, located directly behind the main house, into a garden shed. While doing so, they found evidence, in the form of an upstairs sleeping loft with a fold-up rope bed and storage compartments built into the walls, suggesting that the building also served as an early 19th century farmhand house, making it possibly one of the smallest “houses” in the region. In 1970, the Lambert family sold the house to Lloyd C. England, who turned around very quickly and resold it to transplanted New York brothers Carl and Ralph Dworman, who were buying up commercial property in the village of Wickford at a fast clip. The Dwormans rented the residential section of the house to various tenants through the years, but the first floor commercial space was always home to a late 1960s, early 1970s era hippy-themed gift shop called “The Octopus’s Garden” owned and operated by Frank De Mello, known to most village residents as “peace and love Frank,” a reference to the way he invariably signed his name on all documents and all of his print advertising.  This business, which featured an extremely verbal Mynah bird, operated into the 1980’s. In 1987, the Dwormans sold the building to its next owner, Katherine Wheeler, who moved into the residential portion.  The Wheelers also ran a retail establishment, “The Grateful Heart,” in the building as well. This storied home is now owned by Jennifer LeComte.

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

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