The View From Swamptown: Robert Potter’s impeccable work can still be seen in NK today | The View from Swamptown

The View From Swamptown: Robert Potter's impeccable work can still be seen in NK today | The View from Swamptown

This week, as a part of our long-standing effort to examine the story behind each of the wonderful old homes in “Ye Olde Quaint & Historic”, we are going to tarry a spell at 61 Main Street; one of the many colonial era houses in Wickford constructed by Robert Potter.

Robert Potter first shows up in the historic record in the 1760s when he acquired a number of housing lots in the village from Samuel Bissell who had bought them previous to that for strictly speculative reasons. Unlike many of the folks who lived in the village during that very early period we do know what Potter’s trade was due to some clues he left behind. Nearly every time Potter sold off a parcel of his land he used one common landmark to help define the boundaries of the transaction. That landmark was “my joinery shop”. This is the place where Potter and his workers, craftsmen all, would have formed all the mortise and tenon, tongue and groove, and pegged joints utilized to build the fine village homes they were working on.

This evidence, combined with the fact that Potter did not hold on to his properties for too long, allows us to comfortably say that he was one of the master house wrights responsible for some of Wickford’s wonderful center-chimney colonial homes. In fact, Potter began construction of the 61 Main Street home right after wrapping up work on the circa 1768 house at the corner of what is now Fountain and Washington Streets which he had sold to Sylvester Pearce, a mariner.

After completing construction of this Main Street home and selling it to Samuel Eldred, he purchased the existing Bay Street house we now call “Old Yellow” from Thomas Cranston and lived there with his family while he constructed his next project just east of Eldred’s new house; a double house with a tavern room, constructed for his brother David Potter and a fellow officer in the local voluntary colonial militia Timothy Dean.

The circa 1773 Potter/Dean House also known as the Narragansett Tavern House was Robert Potter’s crowning achievement here in Wickford. Potter disappears from the historic record around the time of the Revolution and we can only speculate at this point to his fate; he may have been a Tory and left for England or Canada or perhaps he just moved out of the region. He did leave behind at least three fine homes he constructed and a daughter who had married Nicholas Spink Jr. and stayed in the village.

Samuel Eldred is also somewhat of a mystery man. He did own the home at least until 1800 as it is mentioned in a real estate transaction for an adjacent lot. He was also involved in the maritime trade in some capacity as he is listed as an owner of the sailing vessel Almira. Also during this timeframe he hired an unknown travelling artisan to do some beautiful decorative stenciling in a number of rooms within the house. These hand stenciled designs are still extant today and are featured in the book “American Wall Stenciling” by Anne Eckert Brown. The home was sold out of the Eldred family at some point during the first third of the 1800’s and was owned for short periods of time by members of the Lawton and Brown clans. In 1840, Daniel Brown sold it to local merchant George P. Thomas and his wife Mary (Reynolds) Thomas.

George Thomas was a popular and successful Swamptown transplant who opened up a general store on Brown Street in the village around the middle of the 1800s. He raised a family with his wife Mary in the big house and by the time of the Civil War had turned the house into a two-family home for use by his daughter and her new husband Caleb Allen Chadsey. Chadsey, better known now as C. Allen Chadsey, is remembered for his generosity which funded the founding of the NK Free Library and eventually took over his father-in-law’s store upon Thomas’ retirement. Eventually Chadsey built a fine house for himself adjacent to the store and moved there, Mary then rented the other half of her home to provide herself an income after her husband’s death. In her will, she left half of the house to a relation, Frances Reynolds and the other half to her daughter and son-in-law. C. Allen Chadsey sold his share to another relative of his wife’s mother, Sheffield Reynolds.

Cousins Frances and Sheffield Reynolds were the last “owner-occupiers” of the big house for decades. They sold the place in 1895 to the town’s biggest landlord Charles B. Reynolds who turned around and deeded in to his nephew the famed stained glass artisan Joseph G. Reynolds. Joseph rented both units out until 1937, when he sold it to retired local lad L. Rodman Nichols a man who had been educated in the public schools of North Kingstown and then attended the fledgling architecture program at RI School of Design. He made his mark as a very prominent architect in Schenectady NY and then returned to Wickford where he “retired” to a life as a landlord.   

Nichols sold the house in 1958 and it eventually was restored and returned to its original configuration; a testament to the artistry of the skilled craftsman Robert Potter. 

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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