Grange Road could become new historic district

Grange Road could become new historic district

Cheryl and David Hartley examine the headstone of Martha Steere in a historic cemetery behind 152 Grange Road during a tour of the area on Saturday, April 10. David said they have relatives who are Steeres. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)

NORTH SMITHFIELD – An effort by the North Smithfield Heritage Association and the North Smithfield Historic District Commission could see Grange Road become the town’s newest historic district.

The two groups are currently working with the Rhode Island Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission to secure recognition for the neighborhood as a national historic district. They recently received a grant to help study the possibility and submit an application to the federal government.

Richard Keene, president of the NSHA, described the neighborhood’s historic properties during a recent hike of the Grange Road area. The hike was part of a monthly series the NSHA puts on to highlight the town’s historic treasures.

“This is called Grange Road, but it’s a new name for an old road. The grange wasn’t built until the mid-1800s,” he said.

Grange Road, he explained, was once known as Oxford Turnpike, and it continued north across the Branch River and into Massachusetts before the Slatersville Reservoir existed. It was only later, he said, that it took its name for one of two grange buildings in town.

The neighborhood was previously home to the Mowrys who settled in the area in the 1600s. At one time, Mowry territory incorporated some 1,600 acres stretching from Woonsocket Hill to Greenville, including the land that’s now Bryant University.

Irene Nebiker lives in the first house that drivers see when turning onto Grange Road. Built around 1720, the home is known as the Malavery House and is one of the oldest houses in town. When she purchased it in 1967, she said, it had no insulation and no electricity on the second floor.

“Nobody had any money to do anything. They were just farmers,” she told about a dozen participants during the tour.

Nebiker has made various improvements to the home over the years, but at 91, she said, she still has a lot of work to do on the house. The Malavery House is one of the reasons Keene said the groups began looking into historic district status. Last year, the Town Council passed a tax credit program that will allow homeowners like Nebiker to receive tax credits for improvements to historic homes. The program requires properties to have recognition as part of either a federal or a local historic district.

“Since 1980 when the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission came in and did a survey of all the historic buildings in town, we’ve lost 14 of the historic buildings due to demolition and whatever,” he said. “We’d like to try to do what we can to make sure that that house is preserved since it is so old.”

The groups contacted the RIHPHC about placing the Malavery House on the National Register of Historic Places, but learned their case would be more convincing if the historic district encompassed a larger part of the neighborhood. It wasn’t hard to find additional historic properties. Just down the street at 152 Grange Road, Allan Gardner owns a historic farm that was home to Thomas Sayles and his wife, Esther, in the 1700s.

Gardner explained that his grandparents purchased the farm in 1944 back when it supplied milk to Garelick Farms. His grandparents were dairy farmers, but they soon left the industry for other pursuits.

“They gave up because it wasn’t worth it,” he said.

Today, Gardner receives income through the state’s Farm, Forest and Open Space program for maintaining the property and allows others to graze free-ranging cattle on his land. Items around the yard, including a handmade sled, serve as reminders of the days when he and his father used to operate a sawmill on the property.

In the rear of the house is a walled-in graveyard that Keene said is “fairly typical” of historic cemeteries in the area. Along with Thomas and Esther Sayles, at least a dozen family members are buried in the plot.

If their efforts are successful, Keene said three other historic cemeteries would be included in the new district as well as any other properties whose owners are willing to participate.

“So that’s kind of where we are now. We’re going to be approaching the property owners on Grange Road about their willingness to be included in the National Registry,” he said.

According to Jeff Harris, chairman of the North Smithfield Historic District Commission, property owners are sometimes apprehensive about becoming part of a historic district. That’s because historic district commissions, through vehicles known as local historic districts, have the authority to regulate exterior improvements to some historic homes. In neighborhoods such as Union Village and Slatersville, a homeowner may need to seek permission before changing out exterior features such as windows or siding.

As Harris explained, however, there are two different types of historic district. In the case of Grange Road, he said, the groups are seeking a national designation that comes with similar tax benefits but far fewer regulations for homeowners than a local one. Unlike in Slatersville, the commission would not have the authority to regulate changes to homes.

“We get a lot of property owners who just say leave me alone, I’ll do what I want, and we understand that,” he said.

To further complicate the matter, he said, the commission plans to apply to the Town Council to establish the Malavery House and 152 Grange Road as individual historic districts. The designation, similar to one that exists for the Forestdale Schoolhouse, would offer double protection as both a local and national historic district.

The Valley Breeze is committed to keeping quality news stories like this one free to our readers. You can be a huge part of this local journalism success story by making a one-time or monthly contribution to what we do every week. Thank you as always for reading.

Harris said recognition of Grange Road on the National Register could offer homeowners a new opportunity to preserve their properties.

“There’s not much funding out there for private property owners to help them with their homes,” he said.

The tax credit program is still getting off the ground, but once established, he said, it will offer real incentives for homeowners to fix up their properties. He compared historical preservation in town to a “carrot and stick” situation. In the past, he said, the commission used its authority to enforce historic standards without having a carrot to entice people to follow the rules.

“Now we have a chance to help them in some way and not just be poking them with a stick,” he said.

Irene Nebiker describes the history of her home, the historic Malavery House, during a recent tour of Grange Road. Local groups are hoping to establish the road as a historic district so that homeowners like Nebiker can be eligible for historic preservation tax credits.
Richard Keene, president of the North Smithfield Heritage Association, speaks to participants on a recent “history hike” along Grange Road.