What’s in a name? Plenty, say fans of Bowen’s Pond

What’s in a name? Plenty, say fans of Bowen’s Pond

Today Rawson Pond gives no hint of the bustling activity here in the 19th century.
In the spot where suburbia – and the name Rawson’s Pond – took over, Abbott Run area natives recall the days of a booming ice industry

CUMBERLAND – Apparently, folks, we’ve all got it wrong.

It’s not called Rawson’s Pond; it’s Bowen’s Pond. And the older folks of Arnold Mills who’ve been reading about Cumberland’s plans to purchase the pond are wincing every time they see it referred to incorrectly.

More than the name, they want to remind today’s residents about the role this 30-acre pond once played in the economy of the Abbott Run district.

While the Cumberland Water Department is buying the pond and surrounding land as insurance against a well running dry – and Newell Drive residents love their scenic backyards – dams on this pond, and nearby Howard’s Pond, once powered thriving 19th-century industries here, including Bowen Ice Company on Rawson Road.

David “Tubby” Cargill’s father and grandfather were employed there.

Earl Schofield grew up playing in its foundation ruins.

And Craig Johnson, a younger friend to Cargill and Schofield, is the archivist of the group, the one who has painstakingly collected original documents that corroborate the others’ stories.

The three got together to share notes about the pond and particularly the ice house that operated there for five decades.

If Cumberland residents are going to own this pond, they said, they might as well understand its 19th- and early 20th-century role in Cumberland.

Looking back 125 years or so, it was a time, they say, when temperatures could be counted on to dip below freezing all winter long.

A time when teams of horses were hitched to wooden pungs and carried across the frozen pond huge blocks of ice cut by the 30 or more workers housed at the Joe’s Lee’s boarding house.

And when the nearby Providence-Franklin railroad branch – where the Algonquin gas line is now buried – carried the harvested ice packed in insulating sawdust to a wide area of households.

Historian Robert Simpson has written that the venture shipped up to four rail-car loads of ice daily.

Early records suggest it was likely blacksmith William Hawkins who first dammed the 10-mile Abbott Run Stream in this area to create the pond and power for his mill operation in the 1830s.

The town’s 1838 Nelson map shows a Hawkins building at a mill privilege to the east of Abbott Run, identified as a cotton manufactory, a cotton mill that Johnson says now was likely similar to the Slater Mill and an historic treasure he wishes were preserved.

The ice operation on the southern end came later in the century, starting around 1880 and lasting until refrigerators were popularized by the 1920s and 1930s.

The ice house provided employment for farm workers in the winter, and Cargill recalls that it was mostly Irish immigrants who lived in the boarding house.

Cargill and Schofield, both in their 80s, were kids when Bowen’s Pond stopped powering local industry here and Abbott Run began slipping into an idyllic countryside that developers wouldn’t discover until the 1960s.

Still, the stories were told and retold.

A 1932 Providence Journal photo suggests the ice operation was contained in a towering structure of several stories that Cargill says was the size of an aircraft hangar. The cotton mill next door had been annexed for added storage. Captured in the photo are Providence-Franklin railroad line tracks, laid in 1877, that allowed the ice operation to flourish.

It was Cargill’s grandfather, D.O. Cargill, who operated the motor that ran a two-story conveyor belt that hauled the blocks of ice up and into the ice house to be packed in sawdust from nearby sawmills for storage and shipment.

An entrepreneur “who invested in anything he could get his hands on,” says his grandson, D.O Cargill was a machinist and steam fitter.

Schofield has never forgotten the stories about it told by the woman he called “Grandma Esther,” who was 103 years old when she died in 1953. She was married to Halsey Rawson, who owned the old mill in the late 1800s then sold it to the Bowen family.

Young Earl Schofield was her guest after school, he recalls, when she provided cookies and milk and quick tales about the old days before shooing him on his way.

Schofield, who says the boarding house was still standing when he was a young boy, recalls an upstairs with eight to 10 rooms opening off a large hallway.

(Earl also vividly recalls the railroad, too, and the day a conductor jumped off in time to rescue him from riding his tricycle straight into the path of an ongoing train.)

This region’s game-changer was the flood, often called the freshet, of 1886 that wiped out bridges up and down the Abbott Stream, took down buildings and moved the river.

By 1893, D.O. Cargill and G.W. A. Howard had split up the area to build again. That’s when Cargill founded the Abbott Run Ice and Grain Company that he sold in 1905 to William Bowen, who owned ice houses all over the Northeast, including Howard’s Pond and Robin Hollow. And that’s when the company was renamed the Bowen Ice Company and the pond assumed the Bowen name.

Johnson’s notes show the enterprise ended by 1928 with Bowen’s death and the stock market crash that triggered an economic depression. In 1932, according to a Providence Journal story, the entire structure – conveyor belt and old mill – were demolished.

Schofield says that remnants of the building remained for years until housing development erased them.

These men aren’t alone in their plea to restore the pond’s name. Writing about his youth, Doug Riggs, a former Providence Journal editor and Arnold Mills resident wrote in 1972 that he missed the Bowen name.

He described childhood memories of large, wriggling earthworms beneath clumps of grass at the water’s edge, and the snarled fishing line that could be salvaged into a fishing handline. Rusty hooks and sinkers were easy to find, too, he said.

Later came the bulldozers and chain saws, he recalled for readers in his “You Really Can’t Go Home Again” piece during the summer of 1972.

He could still use a foot path to reach the southern tip of the pond, he said, but “the pond is so beset by houses and lawns and no trespassing signs that I felt uneasy being there.”

Two conveyor belts hauled blocks of ice - enough to fill a railroad car load a day - from the pond into a storage facility.
This updated photo is believed to be of the train depot on Rawson Road.
More of the ice operation scheduled for demolition in 1932, according to the Providence Journal in August of that year.
Earl Schofield
Shortly before it was demolished in 1932, the ice company operation was featured in several pictures by the Providence Journal. Evident are ceases in the original newspaper owned by Craig Johnson.