Antique home reveals its past one shoe, or hoe or bowl at a time

Antique home reveals its past one shoe, or hoe or bowl at a time

GLOCESTER - The Glocester Heritage Society is in no special hurry to finish renovation of the 1747 Pettingell/Mason House at 1111 Putnam Pike because the work in progress, in and of itself, offers such rare insight into historic home construction and how life was lived in the 1700s and 1800s.

"The house has told us a lot," said Edna Kent, town historian and one of two overseers of the Mason home restoration project. "That's the beauty of doing this house slowly, it's finding the stories," she added, piecing together from odds and ends tales of the Revolutionary War and Rhode Island's own Dorr Rebellion in 1842.

This is a house full of history. Literally.

Uncovered between the walls and under the floorboards have been such artifacts as a baby's shoe stuffed with herbs, which Kent said was a good-luck piece or "house blessing" commonly built into colonial homes, and an ornate hoe head from a 1700s garden utensil, significant because "tools were very precious then," Kent pointed out. Pottery shards under the kitchen floor have been pieced together into old-English-style bowls.

The heritage society has a one-dollar 99-year lease for the house from the Chepachet Cemetery Association, which also owns the adjacent Acotes Hill historic burial ground. The rundown house was about two weeks away from being razed back around 2002, recalled Robert Leach, an architect and Mason co-overseer with Kent, when the heritage society stepped in to save it.

The demolition contract was in place, Mason's barn was already gone. It was a close call. "It looked so bad, nobody thought it had any value," Leach said. "The value was hidden in plain sight. Historians can always see the value." "So, it's a miracle, what we have," adds Kent.

The main body of the house was built before the American Revolution by Joseph Pettingell, a tailor, as what he called his "homestead farm." Dr. Reuben Mason acquired it around 1774 and it was here that he practiced medicine including surgery during the Revolution. Add-ons to the house came in the 1820s and 1830s. Another owner of interest was a stagecoach driver George Cutting, who lived there in the 1880s to 1910 or so.

Location is a key reason for the house's historic significance. Standing at the gateway to Chepachet, a hotbed of Dorr sympathy in 1842, the Mason house was at the forefront of what has to be the only genuine rebellion in state history, when citizens fought their own governor and legislature to expand voting rights (and lost).

In the Rebellion, the house was used as a field hospital by state troops, coming to arrest Thomas W. Dorr and his followers. Right up Acotes Hill, behind the house, the final act played out when the rebellion collapsed, Dorr fled and 130 of his supporters ("the rebels") were taken prisoner to a Providence jail. A contemporary drawing of the arrests, done by local artist Henry Lord who was among those arrested, will hang in the finished home, above a fireplace.

Today, freshly painted a dark mustard color, the house comprises 2¬? stories with about 13 rooms, a full attic and basement, and a central chimney piece that opens into three separate fireplaces in each of three rooms on the first floor. The fireplaces are large and blackened, the practical type people used to cook meals, fronted by slabs of fieldstone. No original bathrooms, nor closets.

On a recent day, Kent and Leach were interviewed as they were working to prepare the homestead for the grand opening - just two days away - of the University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners' garden behind the Mason house, planted with medicinal herbs of the type Dr. Mason would have used in the 1700s. The garden is surrounded with a picturesque white picket fence and has fieldstone walkways, established with the help of business neighbor Navigant Credit Union.

The two steering committee members are virtually covered in dust, and so is everything else. Work progresses, but is far from done.

Holes are in the blackened ceilings, walls have been stripped bare with here and there swatches of old-time wallpaper, and the floors are wide wooden boards, devoid of any finish except more of the ubiquitous dust.

Kent and Leach seem to enjoy the mess, and they take pride in all that's been done during the six or so years the work has been ongoing. Both decline to estimate how much money has been spent - and Kent makes no secret of the fact that donations are most welcome - but Leach said it has to be in the "hundreds of thousands." A new coat of paint and a fully restored infrastructure are the main improvements to date.

In the future, plans call for a museum displaying, among other things: Dr. Mason's desk; depictions of the surgical instruments he would have used; a cozy space for widow Hannah Mason with chair, table, candle and Bible; and a period pantry. The house now is open to the public twice a year, Kent said, once in spring and once in fall and has been since the restoration work started, "right from the beginning."

"The idea is to show the progress," Kent said, "because many people have old houses and they want to see how it's done. If you see the bare bones (of the work), you can see why it's taking so long." And just how long will it take? "It depends," Kent replies with a smile, "on our energy and lots of donations."