200604ind History

Columnist G.T. Cranston calls this property on 115 Main St. in Wickford his “favorite Main Street” home and with good reason. Not only is it a bright and colorful shade of blue but its history dates back to the early 1800s.

I lost a friend last week, and it’s gotten me into a reflective mood. I really did not know Philip Dyer well enough to suit me and that is truly my loss. What I know of him informs me that he was a fine and gifted soul possessed of an inquisitive mind, a kind nature and joy for living. He loved his family, stood by his friends, and cared deeply about his adopted home of Wickford. One of our first interactions occurred back in 2012 when he moved into 115 Main St. and I informed him how jealous I was; he was moving into my favorite Main Street home. As I learned bits and pieces about Capt. Richard Barney, we would touch base and I’d share what I learned with him. A friendship of sorts developed around a shared passion for a home; timber and nail, as it were, brought two people together. And now, he’s gone. I could say he fought the good fight of late, but I do not expect that’s what he’d want me to say. Thinking about Phil, I’m going to go with, “He lived an exceptional life.” I also know he’d want me to share the story of his home. So here it is.

Capt. Richard Barney was a Newport master mariner who came here right around the very beginning of the 1800s to not only ply his trade, but also to serve as the principal celestial navigation instructor at the newly opened Washington Academy on what is now Phillips Street. Barney knew of the village through his business and maritime relationships with the Eldred, Hammond, Slocum, and Heffernan families and their shared ownership in the Sloop Betsey and the Schooner Abigail in the 1790s.  In 1803, he became a Wickford resident when he purchased a plot of land on the Grand Highway (now Main Street) from George Tennant and had his fine home constructed.  While living there, he and his business partners traded up to the larger schooners Dolly and Ocean which they used primarily for trading up and down the eastern seaboard, with Barney sharing captain’s duty with Ebenezer Slocum, and Stephen Heffernan among others.  In 1812, Capt. Barney sold his home to one of his business partners, Joseph Slocum, a merchant and trader, as well as the father of Capt. Ebenezer Slocum.

Slocum lived in the home for more than a decade, with Barney holding the note on the property for much of that time. In March of 1822, he sold it to one of the West Bay’s most prominent sea captains, William Baker Sr. and his wife Hannah (Carpenter) Baker.  This branch of the large locally prominent Baker clan would own the home for the next 63 years with ownership passing through three of William Sr.’s children; first sons and fellow sea captains Benjamin C. and William Baker Jr., and then their youngest sister;  the spinster dressmaker, Rhoda Ann Baker.

Rhoda Ann lived in the home for all of those 63 years, and more. She kept house for her father as a child and then continued in that capacity for her two brothers during the time that they owned the home. One person who certainly “came a-calling” here was James Hammond, who was truly one of Wickford’s more colorful and eccentric characters. He was known not only for his penchant for preaching where ever and whenever he could; from Jamestown to Warwick to the deep woods of western South County and beyond, but also for his additional spiritual calling, that being the courting of Rhoda Ann Baker. Elder Hammond, who also owned Fox Island, a place he would often retreat to for days at a time for solitude and prayer, claimed that God sent him a vision while there, which revealed to him that it was his destiny to marry Rhody (her preferred name) Baker.  Unfortunately for Hammond, Rhody would have none of it, no matter what he said or what particular visions he claimed to have. Captain Jimmy, as he was commonly known, pined away for Rhody for the remainder of his days and in response to Rhoda Ann’s rebuffs renamed his Wickford catboat Rhody Wouldn’t.

James Hammond sold his nearby home on Washington Street in 1858 and moved full time to Fox Island. He died in 1873 after a fatal fall in Davisville from a moving wagon, into the waters of the Hunt’s River. All folks at the time assumed that his last thoughts were of Rhoda Ann.

William Jr. actually left the home in his will to his little sister Rhody in gratitude to the care that she had taken of him in his last years. After his death she lived by herself for a time in the house until the widow Phebe Cozzens, a younger woman, moved in with her in the early 1880s. In May of 1885, Rhoda Ann struck an unusual bargain with her friend Phebe when she sold the house to her for $1 along with the caveats that Phebe care for her in her remaining years in the house, assume the financial responsibilities of the home, pay for her funeral and burial next to her beloved brother William Jr. and buy her a headstone that matched William’s. Phebe cared for Rhoda Ann for five years after this unique legally binding arrangement was set up and upon Rhoda’s death in 1890, became sole owner of the home. Phebe too was a dressmaker and presumably ran her dressmaker’s shop out of the home.

In May of 1918, a now elderly Phebe Cozzens sold the house to local real estate tycoon Charles B. Reynolds, who turned it into a two family home and rented it out. Upon his death in 1923, the house was left to James Reynolds, who quickly gifted it to Charles S. and Nellie Reynolds. They in turn left the home to Elizabeth (Reynolds) Tabor.  The beautiful old home was owned by and cared for by a member of this same family for nearly a century, until it was sold in 2012 to Philip Dyer. Fair winds and following seas to you Phil, now and forever.

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

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