History Notes

Elder Ira Williams House

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History Notes is a biweekly entry in the Sun Rise that features a passage from the Johnston Historical Society. This week’s story comes from January 2002.

One of the fine plaque houses in town stands in the village of Graniteville at 44 Dean Ave.

It is a crisp and neat Greek Revival-style structure known as the Elder Ira Williams House. The Angell family had owned the land on which the house stands since the late 17th century.

A William Angell owned a 140-acre farm, which straddled both sides of present-day Dean Avenue, stretching from the Smithfield line to Putnam Pike.

After his death in 1815, the homestead was divided amongst the heirs. One of these heirs was his daughter Abigail Angell, wife of Benjamin Sweet. On March 25, 1841, they sold a piece of the old Angell estate to Ira Williams (Johnston Deed Book 11/215]. The deed reads in part, “… One lot or parcel of land being and lying in the north part of the town of Johnston … On the old road leading from Olney Angell’s to the town of Smithfield … Containing about 3/4 of an acre of land …”

The sale price was only $50 and there is no mention of any structure on the parcel, thus it can be assumed that it was an empty lot. More than likely, Ira Williams soon began to build his house on the lot, and this is confirmed by a mortgage deed executed by Ira Williams on Oct. 6, 1843 [J 11/278] for $200 to Asa Steere and the deed reads, “… One certain lot of land together with the dwelling house thereon standing … And contains 3/4 acre of land … It is the same lot of land which I purchased of Benjamin Sweet by deed dated March 25, 1841 …”

This shows that the house was built by October of 1843, and it is most likely that it was completed sometime in 1841, when the property was first purchased.

Census records indicated that Ira Williams was born in Johnston around 1809, the daughter of Olney and Persis Manton. It is not known for sure when they married, but it may have been around 1825, since their first child was born a year later. They had six children: Sarah, Ira, Parris, Abbey, Charles and Olney. Ira Williams was listed as a Johnston resident in the 1840 Census, but deed records indicate that he did not become a landowner until he bought the property on Dean Avenue in 1841.

It seems that he became an Elder of the Baptist Church during his time in Graniteville. The census records indicate that he was a stonecutter, a common occupation in the village. It must be noted that the Free Baptist Church at the time did not have trained or paid clergymen, the elders were usually chosen from among the congregation. It was not a full-time position.

It is not known what brought Ira Williams to Johnston in the first place, or if he came here with the intention of eventually preaching.

Elder Williams’ tenure with the Church was somewhat associated with the house that he had built. Mr. Lou McGowan kindly provided me with records of the Baptist Church in Graniteville. It is not known how thorough or complete these records are, but they do shed some light on Elder Williams.

The first mention of him in the records came on Sept. 15, 1841, or about six months after he bought the land on Dean Avenue. Of great interest, meetings were held in Elder Williams’ house on Feb. 13 and March 5 of 1842. Those entries in the meeting records are further proof that the house had to have been completed by the end of 1841. Note should be taken that meetings were also held in Greystone and Manton and in such places as schools and private homes.

A public place of worship in Graniteville would have to wait until 1859, when the present church was built. Elder Williams must have been held in high regard, for on April 21, 1842, he was voted Pastor, and on Sept. 6, he was chosen as one of three to represent the congregation at the yearly Baptist Conference. The last mention of Elder Williams that can be found came on May 2, 1847, just one month before he sold the house.

An inference can be made that his tenure with the Church was somehow tied up with his ownership of the house, but this cannot be proven. Why did he sell the house? There may have been financial difficulties. He was only about to pay off the $200 mortgage he had taken out in 1843 when he sold the house in 1847. In fact, the sale of the house and the discharge of the mortgage occurred on the same day. With one exception, his only deed activity in the town was associated with 44 Dean Ave.

Previous and subsequent to his time at that address, he and his family probably rented or boarded with other families. His last deed transaction came on May 9, 1853, when he bought a burial plot in the large cemetery at the corner of George Waterman Road and Putnam Avenue. His wife Ann Eliza (died 1858) and son Charles (died 1852) are buried there.

One June 4, 1847, Ira Williams sold the house for $900 to Olney Colwell [J 13/236]. On March 20, 1855, Colwell sold the house to George Mowry of Smithfield [J 16/245]. Less than one year later, Mowry sold the house to his son-in-law Larned Dean [J 16/381]. In the years after this purchase, Larned Dean acquired even more land in the area, amassing an estate of over 40 acres with several houses on the property. After his death in 1894, the estate (which included 44 Dean Ave.) passed to his wife Susan.

When Susan died in 1906, she passed the estate on to her daughter Diana, the child of a previous marriage. Larned and Susan Dean had no children together. Diana married Oliver Sherman, and they had two children, Howard D. Sherman and Susan M. Sherman. In 1939, Howard and Susan sold the house out of the family. Since that time there have been a succession of owners. Presently, the house is in the able hands of Society member Mr. Edmund Cornwell, who has done a wonderful job restoring and preserving this gem on Dean Ave.

Postscript: Ira Williams remained in town for a time after he sold the house. The 1850 Census listed him with his wife and six children in Johnston. Since his only other land transaction after he sold the house was the purchase of the burial plot, it can be assumed that he was now renting.

The 1860 Census finds him living in North Providence in much changed circumstances. By this time, his wife and son Charles had died and his remaining children had moved off on their own. The census lists him as living in the house of Edwin W. Irons, along with his youngest child, Olney D. Williams (now age 21). On the 1870 Beers & Co. Map an Ira Williams is shown as residing in the Greystone section of North Providence. Any further details about his subsequent years are unknown at this time.

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