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By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
This is the eighth article in an occasional series about Smithfield locations that have either been forgotten by time or are no longer remembered for what they once represented. The locations are selected from a list compiled by former Smithfield Building Official Al Bruno. Now 86, Mr. Bruno was originally featured in the January, 2017 edition of The Smithfield Times, and the first installment of this series ran in February..
From 1857 to 1906 Smithfield residents of the Baptist faith worshiped in a rustic stone structure located on the shore of Georgiaville Pond.
According to Images of America, Smithfield, a photo history of the town compiled in 2008 by local residents Ken Brown Sr., Jim Ignasher, and Bill Pilkington, “it is said that baptisms took place” in the pond.
Memories of the area for Al Bruno, 86, begin long after the old church was replaced in 1907 by the current building on Farnum Pike.
“My early recollections of that original spot are when I was in the Boy Scouts. We always called the area, ‘the belts.’ I don’t know exactly why they called it that. Everybody did, though.”
According to Ken Brown Sr. there was a dam gate for the water supply to the nearby Georgia Cotton Manufacturing Company (c 1813, later known as Georgiaville Mill and Homestead Mill, among other names). The gate was located in proximity to the church, and it was controlled by an apparatus which became widely known among villagers as “the belts.”
The old church was situated on a neck of land that is now part of the parking lot for Georgiaville Beach behind the boat ramp there.
“My first personal experience in the area was when I was just a little kid,” Mr. Bruno mentions. “I had gone to church at the old St. Michael’s, and after mass I walked down to the pond. I was dressed in my little suit and tie. I sat down facing the water, and I was just watching what was going on, when an older kid came along.
“He said, ‘Hey Bruno, do you know how to swim yet?’ I didn’t know what he was getting at, and I told him, ‘no, I don’t.’ I was still sitting with my back to him. So he pushed me into the pond, clothes and all and told me, ‘Well it’s time you learned.’”
His other most vivid memory of the location was much more sobering. He was a young adult and a member of the volunteer fire company. A drowning had occurred, a tragedy which has recurred with disheartening frequency through the years, and Mr. Bruno arrived at the scene after the swimmer’s body had been recovered. There were two men attending it. They asked Mr. Bruno if he would stay with it until the medical examiner arrived, and then they left.
“Soon, the medical examiner arrived and began asking me questions about what happened. I couldn’t tell him much more than the fact the poor man had drowned. So, he thanked me and took him away. The image of that moment has stayed with me ever since.”
Today, mostly unaware of the history, thousands of beach goers tread over the same ground where that happened and where the gothic stone Baptist church building originally erected before the Civil War by the Georgiaville Evangelical Society stood for almost 50 years.
(Old photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Smithfield. Current photo by Albert Tavakalov/The Smithfield Times. References include Images of America, Smithfield, published by Arcadia Publishing in 2008, and Historic and Architectural Resources of Smithfield, Rhode Island compiled and published by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission in 1992.)