211203ind History

The remains of the Scrabbletown Grist Mill, which was built in 1824 and operated for close to a century, can still be seen off Delano Drive in North Kingstown.

If Swamptown were to have a twin sister, it would have to be Scrabbletown: another almost forgotten village located through the tangled swamps and forests, just three miles or so as the crow flies to the north-northwest. The residents of both hamlets were truly kindred spirits who struggled to scratch a living out of the hard-rocky soil of the area. As a matter of fact, Scrabbletown’s colorful name reflects just that sentiment. The story goes that sometime in the early 1800s, “Old Man Mawney,” one of the elder statesmen of the area, realized that the little cluster of homes centered around a grist mill on a tributary of the Hunt’s River was significant enough to warrant a name. Mawney decided, after consulting with a jug of rum, that “Scrabbletown” was just about perfect, as all the people living there had to “scrabble” to make a living. His ruminations were obviously held in high esteem, as the name stuck and is still used to this day. Little remains of Scrabbletown now, which was centered at the present-day intersection of Stony Lane, Scrabbletown Road, and the western section of the bisected Pleasant Valley Road. There are only a handful of homes left standing, although the roadsides and woods are full of the foundations and cellar holes of many others that exist now only in the memory of a few. Perhaps the most visible and remarkable monuments to the village are the remains of the mill, the mill pond dam, and the simple sturdy stone sluiceways which have survived through almost two hundred years.

The grist mill was built in 1824, most likely by someone named Young, as the area around it was referred to as “Young’s Mill” prior to receiving its more colorful moniker. By 1833, the mill was run by Gorton Nichols, who in that year built himself and his family a home nearby. The mill then passed into the Arnold family, when Mercy Nichols married George Arnold. Subsequently, the mill and mill pond area were owned separately by members of the Lawton, Whitford, Gardiner, Cranston, and Rodman families. In all instances, the family that owned the mill pond land was bound by the terms of the deed of transfer to allow the mill owners to access the pond and maintain the dam and sluiceways. As the miller’s house went with the mill pond land, the mill operator always lived at another location nearby. This unique symbiotic arrangement continued on for many years until the eventual demise of the mill sometime around the turn of the century. As is usually the case with a small village such as this, the end of the mill meant the end of the village. With the closing of the Scrabbletown schoolhouse around 1920, the village, which, at its peak, consisted of a school, a tavern, a Baptist meetinghouse, the gristmill, and twelve to fifteen houses and farms, essentially ceased to exist.

Scrabbletown was largely forgotten and stayed out of the limelight for some fifty years, until 1976, when it was nominated as an archetype of the area’s rural past to the National Register of Historic Places. The driving force behind the nomination was the board of trustees of the South County Museum; the museum being, at that time, a longtime resident of the area and the people who called Scrabbletown home. Motivating this coalition of concerned Scrabbletowners was the ominous and onerous shadow of the long-discussed Route 4 extension, which was targeted to barrel right through the heart of Scrabbletown. Thankfully, the wheels of RIDOT turn more slowly than the cogs of the Department of the Interior, as the registration process took nearly nine years. It did, however, achieve its goal, as although the highway came through no matter what (as they often seem to do), it did have to avoid the protected portion of the historic district. The protectors of Scrabbletown, unfortunately, paid a high price for their efforts. The re-routed highway caused the relocation of the museum from its longtime home to Canonchet Farm in Narragansett, and some of the property owners lost their homes to its new path, including the site of the 1833 Gordon Nichols home.

So now, Scrabbletown again shares something with Swamptown to its south. The new Route 4 extension slices through it, and hundreds of thousands of motorists speed by on our way to the Colonel Rodman Highway section of the road, which cuts through the heart of Swamptown with equal abandon. Most of us have no idea of the history which happened to the right and to the left of our cars. But if you’ll just slow down a little right before you cross Stony Lane on your way home from the city and look to your right, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Scrabbletown Brook as it flows over the millpond dam. It harkens back to a time long ago, and I often wonder what “Old Man Mawney” would think about the way we modern folks have to “scrabble” away just to make a living.

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

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Mark Thompson


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