200123ind History

This house at 300 Tower Hill Road in North Kingstown has a storied history. It was in the Gardiner family for over 130 years before being sold and converted to business use. Today, it is owned by RI Therapy Services.

This house was constructed some time around 1831, as the second home located on a large parcel of land Nichols purchased in April of 1830 from his commanding officer in the RI State Militia, General Peter B. Phillips and his wife, Phebe Phillips. Nichols probably lived in the original smaller home, located on what is now Phillips Street for a time, but with his growing family, he most certainly moved into this larger home as soon as it was completed. George Nichols located his home here adjacent to the intersection of the old Ten Rod and Boston Post Roads purposefully, as he planned to continue in the tradition of his father, George Nichols of Wickford, in operating a general store in the commercial building that already existed here at this corner fronting today’s Phillips Street. When he moved here in 1831 or thereabouts, he and his wife Amy Ann (Thomas) already had three children; sons George and Walter and daughter Amy. They had three more children while living here, two more daughters Lucinda and Josephine and another son Thomas. This location had an additional benefit for Amy Ann as it was basically across the street from a number of her Thomas family relations, including her parents, George and Phebe Thomas. The Nichols family stayed here in this house operating the General Store until 1846, when George then purchased the extant C & B Spink General store building located on Brown Street and relocated his operation there. He sold this large parcel, which included the two homes, the store building, a barn, additional outbuildings and associated farmland, to Exeter farmer John Phillips, a relation to its earlier owner Peter B. Phillips.

It appears that John Phillips purchased the property as an investment, as immediately after he acquired it, he rented the house and store building out to local blacksmith and War of 1812 veteran Samuel Gardiner, who along with 18-year-old son Absalom, opened up a full service blacksmith shop here. John Phillips died somewhat unexpectedly in 1848 and this income-producing property was left to his son John J. Phillips, who also resided permanently in Exeter. John J., who went on to become a cavalry captain during the Civil War, commanding Company E of the 12th RI Regiment, handled the property exactly as his father had, renting it throughout to Samuel and later Absalom Gardiner who continued to live and work here. Finally, in October of 1858, John J. Phillips, sold the entire parcel, which now included two houses, a store, a blacksmith shop, a barn and outbuildings, along with farmland to Absalom Gardiner.

When he purchased this property, Absalom Gardiner, had every intention of continuing on in the blacksmith’s trade which he had learned at his father’s side. He moved with his wife Phebe (Carr) and son Walter into the older house on the parcel down on Phillips Street and had his parents; Samuel and Ann (Sherman) live in a portion of this house adjacent to the store and blacksmith’s shop. Tragically, shortly after acquiring the parcel, Absalom was involved in a farming-related accident involving one of his cows which left his left arm so damaged that it eventually required amputation. As described in his obituary, this tragic accident “rendered his former trade useless and…changed the course of his life”. Absalom and his father closed up the blacksmith’s shop and opened up a general store in the building in which George Nichols had ran one prior. Additionally, he and his father purchased the parcel on the southeast corner of this intersection and had a number of one and two family houses constructed there. In a couple of years, the father-and-son team that had for decades operated as blacksmiths, transformed themselves into shop keepers and landlords. In the end this strategy was successful — his rental properties and the general store business allowed him to provide for his family well. In 1876, tragedy struck twice, with the death of his father Samuel, followed by a fire that destroyed his store, which was later determined to be the work of an arsonist. Absalom Gardiner did not rebuild the shop on his own; he instead sold the small parcel of land it had stood upon to Lafayette-based general store owner George T. Cranston, who rebuilt on the site and opened up his new general store which he called “The Farmer’s Exchange and General Variety Store.” Cranston moved in to this house with his family shortly after opening the store, renting it out from Absalom Gardiner, who continued to keep his widowed mother Ann in this house in a small apartment he created within it. George T. and Patience (Gardiner) Cranston lived here in the house until the middle of the 1880s, when he purchased his own home at the intersection of Old Baptist and Scrabbletown Roads. Cranston operated his popular general store here utilizing numerous innovations for the day. Particularly popular in the numerous small villages in North Kingstown and Exeter were his route drivers, who went from village to village with essentially a catalog of what was available at the store and took orders from families. The next week, the route driver would deliver the orders to customers. Cranston also allowed farmers and housewives to purchase items in the store on a barter basis, trading, for instance, two dozen eggs or a handmade shawl for credit at the store, Cranston in turn would resell these items to other customers. He also operated a program whereby he would sell staple items such as molasses, flour, cornmeal, etc., to customers at a slight mark up above his bulk rate purchase price as long as customers initially purchased a refillable salt glazed stoneware crock or jug from him that he would refill whenever needed. These stoneware containers were all stamped with his store name and could be refilled indefinitely. Numerous quart and gallon molasses jugs and various sized cornmeal, flour and pickle crocks can be found in local homes and antiques stores to this day. Cranston also branched out into other trades utilizing his store and large home as a base. He sold hay and then coal at the store which would be delivered by his route men and teamsters, and also opened up an undertaker business in the store to fulfill this important community need. That portion of his extensive business empire still exists in the form of the Cranston/Murphy Funeral Home on West Main Street.

Two tragic deaths in the middle of the 1890s brought great change to this location. In 1894, George T. Cranston succumbed to a blood clot which traveled from his leg up into his heart and killed him. A handful of months later, the 65-year-old one-armed former blacksmith Absalom Gardiner perished, also suffering a heart attack after a long period of failing health. The small parcel with the general store was inherited by George T. Cranston’s son, George Cyrus Cranston, and ownership of the larger parcel which wrapped around it and still included the house, barn, and farm fields, was at first transferred to the widow Phebe Gardiner, who turned around and gifted it to her grandson, Walter Cleaveland Gardiner; as her and Absalom’s only surviving son, house carpenter Walter Gardiner had inherited the large rental properties parcel on the opposite corner of the intersection. Cyrus Cranston downsized his father’s business, saving only the coal delivery and undertaking aspects of it. He sold the general store building soon after his father’s death and a number of small businesses ran in it for a time. In the early 20th century, the state of Rhode Island condemned the land and demolished the store to widen the intersection for automobile traffic. The portion of the small lot that remained was absorbed back into the original parcel, at that time, still owned by Walter Cleaveland Gardiner.

Cleave Gardiner, as he was known, was for most of his life a traveling salesman and lived here in the house with his wife Neva (Sisson) Gardiner and their children. Neva was a schoolteacher who taught over time at the East Greenwich Academy and at the Swamptown Schoolhouse in North Kingstown. In 1932, they, like their neighbors the Geislers,  sold all their attached, but now unused, farmland to the Town of North Kingstown for the construction of the new Jr. –Sr. High School. Upon Cleave Gardiner’s death in 1948, the house, now with a much smaller lot, became the property of the widow Neva Gardiner. Neva, who died many years later, left the house to her son Darrell S. Gardiner. In 1978, after 132 years of Gardiner family ownership or involvement of the property, Darrell Gardiner sold the house to Richard Parker. Shortly after it was converted to commercial use and among other things housed a popular “country crafts store.” In 1999, it was purchased by its present owner, RI Therapy Services.

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

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