A version of this story by Sandra Moyer is published in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 17. Read more from this issue [here].
Sprague Mansion was a historic site — it had been the home of two Rhode Island governors and U.S. senators, as well as the family that in the mid 1800s owned the largest textile empire in the county. But by 1966, it was slated to be knocked down. The nearby Cranston Print Works, which had used the mansion as the home of a succession of their general managers, decided to sell it and allow its demolition. Plans for a senior citizen high-rise or a surface-level parking lot seemed to be in the future for the property at 1351 Cranston Street, sandwiched between the Arlington and Knightsville sections of the city.
When word of this reached the Cranston Historical Society, a movement began to save this 2 ½ story, 28-room house, built in 1790 and significantly enlarged in 1864. The historical society had been formed in 1949, and ten years later they had acquired their first property, the Joy Homestead. Buying another historic property seemed to be out of the reach of this small group of history lovers, but they couldn’t let this significant part of the city’s history disappear.
A determined group of members, led by Virginia Lynch, was galvanized into action. She was instrumental in publicizing the historical value of the house and raising the money to purchase it. To augment the members of the society, she recruited a group of prominent Cranstonians to join the Board of Managers. Each was chosen for their expertise in an area that would help in the effort to save the mansion and turn it into the historical society’s new headquarters. A banker, an insurance broker, a nursery owner, and a lawyer were among the people who signed on to this project.
Now the drive to raise the money swung into action. At the time, the president of the Cranston Historical Society was Zenas Kevorkian, a high school history teacher. His students were studying U.S. history and had been learning about the Southern plantations prior to the Civil War. He taught them that the Spragues had also owned an almost-self-sustaining community that had relied on local farmhands and immigrant workers to work in their textile mill instead of enslaved people.
Unlike the plantations, these workers came willingly to work in the sprawling A&W Sprague Print Works and appreciated the surrounding community, known as Spragueville, that was established to meet their needs. The Sprague family provided a boarding house for unmarried workers and a series of duplex mill houses to accommodate workers with families. They built a school and a church. A large brick store was erected across the street that extended credit to workers and then deducted the debt directly from their monthly salary. The Spragues owned a trolley line that the community used to get to Providence. They even had a train that took people to points beyond the area, as well as carried raw materials into the factory and brought the finished cloth to market.
Kevorkian’s students made models of the Sprague Mansion out of sugar cubes, which were put in local stores and banks to spur fundraising. Donations began to pour in — anything from pennies from school children to substantial amounts from businesses and local residents. Finally, with the assistance of a mortgage from a local bank, Mrs. Lynch and the members were able to purchase the Sprague Mansion from the Cranston Print Works for $100,000.
Now the task evolved into turning the empty house into an attractive venue to attract people to both tour the home to learn about the Spragues and also rent it for their own events. The historical society wanted it to become a focal point for the community that had helped to save it. Antique furnishings that fit with the Victorian era, when Spragueville was in its heyday, were donated, and other furniture was borrowed from the Rhode Island Historical Society. Tour guides were trained in its history and a resident couple was found to oversee its day-to-day functioning.
Today, the building is as lively as ever. Many community members have used the space to host weddings, parties, and other social events. The Cranston Historical Society has their meetings there, as well as events of their own that range from a formal Harvest Ball to antique car shows and craft fairs. More recently, the historical society has hosted Victorian Teas and Halloween parties, with each event raising money for the upkeep of the historic building as well as enhancing its exposure to the public.
Sandra Moyer has served as President of the Cranston Historical Society since 2011. She is the co-author of two books on Cranston's history: Cranston Revisited and the soon-to-be-published Cranston Through Time.