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Three townspeople collaborate on collection of rare scenes
By Dick Martin   - 02/01/2008

Your Smithfield Magazine

Ever wonder what it would be like to go back in time? Perhaps be transported back to Smithfield in the late 1800s, early 1900s, when dairy farms and apple orchards filled the landscape, when men in bib overalls and women with fluffy sleeved blouses posed on the front lawn for the family photo album, the Greenville Finishing Mill was rolling, and the red bricked Smithfield Exchange Bank was the center of commerce at the intersection of Routes 44 and 116.

The time machine is not quite ready, but a glimpse into Smithfield’s stored past certainly is via Images of America Smithfield, and Impressive photographic history of the town compiled by residents Ken Brown SR. Jim Ignasher and Bill Pilkington. The book was scheduled to h hit the bookshelves at the end of January.

“It’s a really rich history,” say Pilkington. “I think history is important for any community. I think its important to see where you came from in order to see where you are going.”

The trio started out with the idea of just gathering historic photo to fill the walls of Smithfield Town Hall in order to not only provide some meaningful information, but some interesting historical decoration. Brown had served 48 years with the Smithfield Fire Department; Ignasher, a former police officer and a member of the Smithfield Historical Society, had an interest in history; and Pilkington, a former 23 year member of the Smithfield Police Department is the town’s information technology director.

All like history and love Smithfield. They decided it would be a good idea if people knew more about Smithfield’s history. Then it occurred to them that other surrounding towns, such as Scituate and Gloucester, had books published by Arcadia Publishing with photos and information about their respective town’s past. Why shouldn’t Smithfield have a book like that?

“Basically, we said, ‘Why not us?’” recalls Ignasher.

They already had some photos which Brown, a lifelong resident, had stockpiled over the years. Those included scrapbooks he had compiled of the fire department, as well as other photos he had either taken himself or been given by other po9eple he know he would preserve them.

“I’ve been collecting since I was a kid,” he recalls.

When word started to get around that the trio was looking for more photos for the book, more photos started to come their way, albeit reluctantly in some casa. Some, says Brown, simply did not want to let their carefully preserved photos of days gone by out of their sight, for fear of losing them. So, Brown met them at Town Hall, where he simply mad copies of them while they waited. Some of their “finds” were true eye openers.

“Many of the photos had never been seen before,” Ignasher explains. “
They ere photos people had taken over the years and kept in albums for to themselves.”

Pilkington notes that one of the photos was of a trolley which used to serve Smithfield on Waterman Avenue.

“I remember when the train and trolley used to come here,” recalls Brown.

The trio also discovered one person who had the original photos used by photographer Oscar Tobey in the early 1900s to create what are now historical postcards of the area. Other major contributions also came from the Smithfield Historical Society. The pile started to grow.

The hardest part of putting the book together might have been simply choosing which photos to use in the end. Publishing restrictions by Arcadia require about 230 photos and a limited text of 18,000 words. Each page had to have a t least one photo, all of which had to be sharp enough and of high enough quality to be reproduced well. If there were more than one photo of the same thing, the trio had to make a choice as to which one would be best.

“We had several images to choose from for the late 1800s to the early 1900s,” Ignasher mentions. “We could only use one.”

“It was hard to decide sometimes, “adds Pilkington. “ We had a lot of meetings.”

They also had to cut back on the original amount of text they had generated about the history of the town. Arcadia made it clear that this was a photo book, not a history book. The captions, the three men decided, would have to serve as the written history.

It was important, they all agreed, to offer as much as possible in a well rounded history of the town, including a fair representation of the various originations, and departments which have exited over the years. They also chose to use many of the older photos, as opposed to more recent photos that people might have seen before.

“We tried to go back further than most people would have remembered,” Pilkington adds.

“That’s the most valuable stuff, the photos that had been tucked away in people’s albums or draws.”

In doing so, the book offers sections devoted to the mills and mill villages, stagecoaches, taverns, early schools, churches, fire and police departments and various other scenes unique to the town, many of which have never been on public display. Previous landmarks, such as the Greenville Grange Building on Austin Avenue, Greenville’s fist fire engine in 1870 standing in from of a picket fenced brick bank, the Stillwater Worsted Mill in 1901 in full operation, horse and wagon making its way up a graveled Esmond Street with picket fences, and the Greenville Cornet Band of 1890 in full regalia leave the reader wondering what happened to what was once, in some cases such a quant village atmosphere.

Though a few photos of notable individual grace the book’s pages, in most cases the books’ creators stuck to teams, classes and collections of people, like the 1948 Georgiaville Baseball Club champions, in order to offer as much as possible.

“This is a way of preserving the past and the photos, “Ignasher adds. “ This way, future residents of the town can enjoy the pictures too.”

Smithfield joins a long list of other towns with similar books. Lynn Ruggieri, Marketing Coordinator for Arcadia Publishing, Inc, which started the books in 1993, said that the company has published over 4,000 books across the U.S. so far. Of that number over 60 are about various towns and special organizations in Rhode Island. She added that finding the right people in each town is a key ingredient for success.

We look at demographics, the market, and specifically the author. We really try to have the right author(s) for the book. They make the book successful, along with the content, since it is local.”

It is also worthy to note that some towns, including Pawtucket, Narragansett and Woonsocket have three town editions, while a number of others have two.

It’s going to be up to Arcadia whether or not we print another one,” says Ignasher.

“We’ve got the photos,” says Brown.

The determining factor will be the number of copies of the first books sold. If it sells enough in the first year, a second edition with all new photos could be printed after a minimum one year waiting period. Meanwhile, the authors may have succeeded in gathering the best view of Smithfield, a view which will most likely be preserved on a town website in the future so that future generations will indeed be able to go back in time.

“We’re building a database of historical images,” observes Ignasher. “This could be the single biggest collection of photos of the town.”

The men wanted to add a big thanks to those who took the time and effort to provide photos and leads to rare photos for the book.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” praises Brown.

All profits form the book will go to the Smithfield Historical Society, which is responsible for the Smith Appleby House and museum.

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