200924ind history

For 59 years, this property at 2549 Boston Neck Road in Saunderstown served a special role in the village as it housed both a community hall for dances, suppers and events as well as a lower floor that was home to the Saunderstown Fire Association.

As irrational as it sounds, it just seemed to me like Irving Sheldon would always be here. He was just about the first local history expert to reach out to me about a quarter of a century ago when I began my personal journey through the history of our fair town. Then, and always, he was kind and generous with his time. He loved Saunderstown as if it were a person, a member of his family, and he enjoyed chatting about it, reminiscing about it, immensely. His knowledge was always spot on. His stories were always a treat. Irving Sheldon was gentleman in the classic sense, and he was possessed of a wry sense of humor. We have talked from time to time over the years, in person and over the phone; we have exchanged letters and information, we have been friends, and I will miss him. It was not forever, but 99 years well lived is quite remarkable. This one is for you Irving ...

Although Saunders and Willett are the names that history seems most to associate with the village of Saunderstown, it’s the Carpenter clan that really shaped the village during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, much of what we now identify as Saunderstown (and no, I’m not talking about Saunderstown the zip code, I’m talking about Saunderstown the actual village) was once a Carpenter family farm. Equally important, behind just about every early twentieth century effort towards the betterment of the Saunderstown village public good, whether it be a library, a church, or a local community organization, was a modest and teetotaling member of the Carpenter family. Most often it was the “Carpenter sisters,” Laura and Mary, spinster daughters of James Helme Carpenter who once owned huge swathes of what became Saunderstown.   

Fire fighting in the village was no exception to this premise; in November of 1905, Laura and Mary gifted a parcel of land on Boston Neck Road to the fledgling Saunderstown Fire Association, they then very quietly, and very typically, helped fund the construction of the Saunderstown Fire Barn. The hall-like building did double duty as well; the second floor was designed and constructed specifically to be the Saunderstown village community hall, a place for dances and shows, meetings, suppers, and strawberry socials. A pool table was eventually installed here as well and the second floor was utilized for years by the Saunderstown Boys Club.

Downstairs it was all about fire fighting. The all-volunteer Saunderstown Fire Association equipped and manned the place as well as any village in the region. Indeed, they went the extra mile around 1910, when these volunteers, led by fire chief and ferry pilot Archie Arnold, deputy chief Howard Briggs, Harold Eaton and others, took a 1909 Oldsmobile chassis and converted it into South County’s very first motorized fire apparatus. This fire barn later housed an old Ford Fire engine as well as an open top LaFrance engine. Members of the Rose, Wendelschafer, Champlin, Gardiner, Logan, Caswell, Turner, Cahoon, and Artist clans served the community as “call men” over the years.

That all ended in May of 1965, when the Saunderstown area was folded in to the Town-wide fire department and a new station just a mile north was opened up. The old fire barn continued on as a town owned building for a time, but was later sold to the private sector. For many years, the old fire station has been home to a popular furniture refinisher which has had more than one owner. But for 59 years this building, built through the beneficence of those Carpenter sisters, stood at the ready to protect the homes of Saunderstown folks.    

To learn even more about Saunderstown, search out the book “Saunderstown” written by Irving and illustrated by his wife Shirley. Fair winds and following seas forever my friend.

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

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