The History of the Cranston Historical Society
By Sandra Moyer
Cranston incorporated as a town in 1754 after 116 years of being part of Providence. In 1910, Cranston, then boasting a population of 21,171, became a city. But as it approached its bicentennial year in the mid 20th century, the city still did not have a historical society. Then a small group of like minded citizens got together in 1949 and formed the Cranston Historical Society. The articles of incorporation stated “The purpose of the Society shall be to revive and maintain a lively interest in the history of Cranston; to collect, store and on occasion exhibit books, papers, photographs and other incunabula relative to early Cranston; to foster in minds and heart of Cranston residents an appreciation and respect for the founds of the City in which they live and to work for the establishment of a museum in which those objects may be stored.”
At first, the society met in private homes and churches. Its goal of having a museum had to be put aside until it owned a building, but the group did engage the public with the city’s history through a series of columns named Echoes of Cranston which were published in the local newspaper. In these columns, several Society members took turns in sharing their knowledge of their community’s history. The most prolific author was Gladys Brayton, whose original research still forms the backbone of the society’s archival records. By the time of the bicentennial in 1954, the society was more than ready to contribute to the celebration and its commemorative booklet.
Then in 1959, an opportunity arose for the Cranston Historical Society to purchase the Joy Homestead on Scituate Avenue. For most of its history, this circa 1770 farm house had belonged to the Joy family of which several generations had augmented their farming with manufacturing. First it was shoes, handmade by Job Joy by stretching leather over the wooden forms made in varying sizes to resemble people’s feet. Then his son Samuel Joy, who worked as a currier and tanner as well as a shoemaker, obtained the water rights of the stream across the street for a mill that, over the years, produced textiles, felt hats, yarn, cider, and an alcohol infused ‘energy drink’ called Vigorine. The last of the Joy family left the homestead in 1901 and then two families, including one that produced a Cranston mayor, in turn occupied the building but did little to modernize the home. This made the building ideal for converting into a ‘living’ museum of late 18th century life as well as the meeting place for the society.
For over three decades, the Joy Homestead has been welcoming Cranston students to participate in the crafts of the Colonial period such as cooking in a fireplace, making yarn on a spinning wheel, and weaving cloth and rugs. It is also known for being on the federally designated Washington-Rochambeau-Revolutionary Route (W3R) that marks the trail that Rochambeau and his 5,000 French troops followed on their way to join General Washington on the march to Yorktown, the last decisive battle of the Revolution.
Another opportunity came about in 1966 for the Cranston Historical Society to both save an important historic building and create another museum. For many years, the Governor Sprague Mansion on Cranston Street had been maintained by the Cranston Print Works as the home for its general manager. Now the company decided to sell the mansion which had been built in 1790 and added to in 1864. Unfortunately, the only prospective buyers planned to raze the 28 room home and use the land for parking or senior citizen housing.
The members of the Cranston Historical Society felt compelled to save this building which was the birthplace of two RI governors and senators as well as four generations of entrepreneurs who by the mid 19th century owned the largest textile printing company in the country. A campaign began to raise the $100,000 needed to purchase the building. Prominent citizens were encouraged to join the Board, businesses and citizens were approached to donate money, and some Cranston school children were asked to make sugar cube replicas of the mansion to publicize the effort to “Save the Sprague Mansion”. The society managed to buy the empty mansion and then proceeded to solicit donations of furniture and furnishings from Sprague descendants, Cranston residents and the RI Historical Society.
The magnificently appointed mansion, with its large ballroom and extensive grounds, became the setting for many social events including the society’s annual Christmas open house on the first Sunday of each December. Over the years, harvest balls, craft shows, yard sales, antique appraisals, Halloween ghost parties, Civil War reenactments, antique car shows, Victorian Teas, and other such events have been held here by the Cranston Historical Society. Three successive couples have served as resident managers to oversee both the maintenance of the house as well as the rental of the facilities to organizations, businesses, and individuals. Generations of citizens hold fond memories of attending weddings, showers, birthday parties and other festive events within these walls.
Information on the society’s two historical properties, can be found on the website at cranstonhistoricalsociety.org. Other resources for researching Cranston’s history are located at the organization’s headquarters in the Sprague Mansion, located at 1351 Cranston Street in Cranston, Rhode Island. This building is also available to rent for events and meetings by calling 401 944-9226 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. It is open for tours from 1 pm to 4 pm every Thursday from April to November or by appointment.