Fifty Years Ago - Some celebrated, some lamented opening of Nate Whipple Highway

Fifty Years Ago - Some celebrated, some lamented opening of Nate Whipple Highway

It is certainly not for a lack of anniversaries this year. For those following the Civil War (150th), I think we are up to the Gettysburg Address. And it's hard to believe that this will be 50 years for the March on Washington and the anniversary of the JFK assassination.

But there was a significant event in our local history 50 years ago which I believe might be worthy of some mention, if perhaps not huge celebration.

It was 50 years ago this month when a ceremony was performed by the side of a newly constructed highway in North Cumberland. Standing in the cold that November day was the 83-year-old fire chief, businessman, miller, stalwart Republican, and, some would say, unofficial "mayor" of the village of Arnold Mills, Nathan W. Whipple, known to all simply as "Nate."

Prior to 1960, the village of Arnold Mills, long recognized for its idyllic charms, and carefully protected by custodians appreciative of such, was a space seemingly frozen in time, not yet intruded on by too much of the 20th century. At its center, working off the falling waters of the Abbott Run, were ancient grist mills, still very much in function. Extending west up the hill to the 1827 meetinghouse and along the winding road to the east resided a collection of equally ancient residences and barns, woods and meadows.

So by the early 1960s, local residents were understandably concerned over the news of a proposed "upgrade" of the old Sneech Pond Road, which, up until then, had wound its way across North Cumberland, around the old farms and ancient structures, and for years had somehow managed to negotiate the precarious bend of "main street" Arnold Mills to rattle over the 1888 pony truss bridge straddling the Abbott Run. As time would soon tell, concerns over this proposal and its impact on the village were well founded.

As late as January of 1962, a Pawtucket Times report stated, "There is no place in Rhode Island that has kept its quiet charm and tranquil beauty as Arnold Mills has." As if to cue the assault, by mid-summer, no one in their right mind would be using the term "tranquil."

Though it certainly made sense from an engineering perspective to bypass the narrow main street of the village with a straight line across the cow meadow, this plan soon spelled misfortune for Simeon Derry's c.1875 carriage repository, a huge wooden barn from the heyday of the village as a center of carriage sales, painting and repair. It doubled on occasion as theater for local productions, most notably, a production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the big hit with abolitionists. Once filled with all kinds of horse-drawn vehicles imaginable (my favorite, a huge wooden barrel on equally huge wooden wheels. Purpose? Never knew.), this structure was soon to go by summer. The flames of its destruction threatened the paint on nearby houses. The owners, daughters of the village blacksmith (yes, we had a village blacksmith,) custodians of this and other structures, parked their car at a distance and watched silently.

The straight line pushed east toward the Massachusetts border. Unfortunately, at this end of the village stood the 1732 Deacon Bishop homestead, a wonderful configuration of low-beamed rooms and fireplaces. This property had the added distinction of serving as meeting place for itinerant preachers during a time in the late 18th century called an "awakening." But this structure, too, determined by state authorities to be "unmovable," (which was nonsense, of course, even to a 12 year old) was soon submitted to the same fate of destruction by fire, its heartbroken owners salvaging what they could and forced to build anew nearby.

And so it proceeded, trees, hills, stone walls, ancient artifacts, simply removed, destroyed, or buried beneath the newly created landscape, their only fault to find themselves in the way of the "progress." So it did not make for too much notice when only a few in the village were awakened one night to the sound of cracking wood and a loud crash somewhere down by the bridge. It was not until morning when neighbors found the waters of the Abbott Run below the falls piled high with the splintered remains of the 1746 Arnold grist mill. As if to add insult to the injury of losing so much of this historic neighborhood, vandals in the night had started up some road equipment and managed to push this landmark of Arnold Mills, the original Arnold Mill itself, off of its stone foundation and into the drink.

In time, the people of Arnold Mills adjusted as best they could to the changes coming at them all too rapidly. Some found themselves with more front yard than before, while others now had highway right at their doorsteps. The 1828 schoolhouse, no longer of use to the fire company, and next in line for demolition, was rescued by local benefactors and pulled out of harm's way. The triangle patch of green that it once sat on, the village "common" and home to many a July 4th "Razzle-Dazzle" (think carnival games and cotton candy), is now the main traffic intersection of the neighborhood.

And so it was that on a cold November day in 1963, Nathan W. "Nate" Whipple, longtime fire chief of the volunteer department, miller, proprietor and protector of the neighborhood, was invited by the builders of this new improved highway to stand by its side and survey the changes wrought to the look and character of the quiet New England village that he had called home for so many of his 80-some years. Now, Nate Whipple was, as far as I have been told, and can possibly remember, a rather pragmatic individual, and I certainly cannot claim to know what he might have been thinking that cold November day, but I doubt very much that he would have had too much use for the now greatly over-used term "irony." He lived just a few more years.

The "village" of Arnold Mills, if we can indeed still call it that, is still a nice enough place, I suppose. Its main street, Old Sneech Pond Road, now a suburban cul-de-sac, was recently named by one magazine as one of the best residential streets in the state. Given the options, I would certainly second that assumption. But the changes since 1963 have been dramatic. The farms, fields, woods and meadows gone to housing development. There have been more disasters, large and small. The torching of the 1825 Metcalf Machine Shop in 1988 was a huge loss to not only this community but to the study of early American industry. The destruction of so much of the 1817 Dr. Walcott house in 2008 was a sacrilege. Add to that the removals of original windows, doors, porticos, fences and outbuildings, and that landmark cupola on the MacKenzie carriage barn, and it seems to me we might be getting dangerously close to that bare minimum required to even qualify as a neighborhood of historic integrity.

What is lost of the charm, the character, the architectural importance of the place, is done and gone, and maybe not the concern of those who might still find enough of that charm and character to whet their interests to purchase, to renovate, to inhabit and enjoy these spaces. What I do fear is that in the next 50 years, or the next 10, for that matter, the people of Arnold Mills may well be looking back to see their community as so much "less than." It is easy enough to see the harms on the horizon which could further subtract from this rare collection of history.

As I imagine those future losses to this neighborhood, some arriving sooner than later, I ponder the fact that we willingly sit here unprotected by any form of legislative device which would effectively prevent those losses from happening. Aside from this resident finding the pursuit of that protection enormously frustrating, I must admit that there are times that the consequences of our inactivity terrify me.

Craig Johnson is a lifelong Cumberland resident and conservationist.


I was born and raised in nearby Massachusetts and came to live in Cumberland in 1983. I've traveled Nate Whipple highway thousands of times and never knew much of this wonderful, yet sad story. Thanks you for sharing it and thanks for keeping the history "alive". It is people like you that keep a balance between then and now!

No 2-ways about it, Craig is an absolute treasure....his many letters, comments, etc. over the years lamenting the treasure, and uniqueness, this town ONCE was - especially the Northern part.

Gramted, time must move on. However, it should always be accepted that many of our town's character , traditions, history should be preserved. Unfortunately developers (no names mentioned) and their attorneys (again, now names mentioned) don't always see it that way....the God Almighty Dollar being Supreme!

Speaking of maintaining our town's character and charm.....the now being discussed new Sign Ordinance.

While it has not, yet, been must really be concerned as to how much more adversely our town's character and charm could be further damaged if some of what is being proposed were allowed to be put in place.

One last thing - and I refer to a comment Craig made in his article....and I quote:

"The destruction of so much of the 1817 Dr. Walcott house in 2008 was a sacrilege. Add to that the removals of original windows, doors, porticos, fences and outbuildings, and that landmark cupola on the MacKenzie carriage barn, and it seems to me we might be getting dangerously close to that bare minimum required to even qualify as a neighborhood of historic integrity." should also have mentioned the name of the individual responsible for that atrocity, as it is not the first one he has perpetrated....along with many of his developments (present & past) causing problems everywhere he sets foot.

But, I guess such conduct and behavior takes place when you have contacts and family in the right places and positions?

...but America is a country built on capitalism. If there is $ to be made, then how can it be wrong? Although many times it is sad to think that greed and profit bring an end to the way we remember it, IMHO it would be hypocritical to do it any other way. HAIL TO THE ALMIGHTY DOLLAR!!! But let us never forget what once was.

Thanks for writing this for us, Craig. You may be cranky, but your insights into a time lost forever are so valuable.