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By Jim Ignasher
Sometimes rare items of historic interest relating to a particular town can unexpectedly turn up hundreds of miles from their point of origin. A case in point is a large walnut and sterling silver award-plaque which had once been presented to Thomas K. Winsor of Greenville that recently turned up in Florida. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Leach and Katie Law of the Smithfield Historical Preservation Commission, it has been brought home to Smithfield after more than a century-long hiatus.
The historical significance of the plaque is its connection to Smithfield’s early apple growing industry which earned our town the nickname of “Apple Valley”. Furthermore, it’s a unique, one-of-a-kind item that was commissioned by Rhode Island’s (then) Governor Aram J. Pothier, who served as the state’s 51st and 55th governor until his death in 1928.
Thomas K. Winsor, (1871 – 1949), was known throughout New England as the undisputed “apple king” among those in the apple growing industry, building a business that distributed apples all across the United States and Europe. His former home, which dates to the 1700s, still stands at 85 Austin Avenue, but the vast orchards that once covered the land behind it are long gone, replaced by private homes. Mr. Winsor is buried in the family cemetery, a picturesque plot located at the corner of Peach Blossom Lane and Macintosh Drive.
When she gets the opportunity, Katie Law peruses the Internet searching for items relating to town history. Once she found a lottery ticket for the former Greenville Academy dated February, 1812. On another occasion she came across a large box of Smithfield related documents dating to the early 1800s, which included papers relating to slavery. She usually finds such items on auction sites, and is sometimes the highest bidder – other times, unfortunately, she’s not, and a piece of our town’s history goes elsewhere. As a mother of four, her funds are limited. When she buys these items, she’s doing so as a private citizen, and not in her capacity as a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, and therefore uses her own money to do so. No expense is borne by the town.
So it was when she found the Winsor award-plaque offered for sale by a man in Florida for the sum of $477.00. The price was steep, and definitely out of her price range, but Katie’s not one to give up easily. She contacted Robert Leach about the find. He, like Katie, has a strong interest in preserving local history, and as owner of Leach Orchards, located just up the road from Thomas Winsor’s former residence and orchard, Robert had a special interest in bringing this item back to Smithfield.
After talking it over with Robert, Katie e-mailed the seller and made an offer which was accepted. The two of them split the cost, and the plaque was returned to Rhode Island. Katie subsequently learned that Mr. Winsor had a winter home in Florida, and that the seller had purchased it at an estate auction.
As a point of fact, the seller had attended college in Rhode Island and was therefore somewhat familiar with the Smithfield area, and told Katie that he’d hoped it would somehow make its way back to where it came from.
The story behind the plaque dates to 1911, when the New England Fruit Growers Association held a trade exhibition show at the Horticultural Hall in Boston from October 24-29. Part of the show included apple growers throughout New England competing for prizes, one of which was Thomas K. Winsor. Competitors were advised to, “Grow the best fruit you possibly can, pick it carefully, grade it uniformly as to color and size, and pack it attractively. Cleanliness, neatness, and uniformity are factors of prime importance. The finest fruit only is fit for exhibition, and only the best can win premiums.”
Some of the once common apple verities entered by growers in the competition won’t be found in supermarkets today. These include: Bellflower, Bethel, Ben Davis, Fallawater, Famuse, Hubbardton, McMahon White, Northern Spy, Pewaukee, Red Canada, Scott Winter, Spitzenburg, Sutton, Tolman Sweet, and Westfield.
Winsor actually won awards for two categories at the 1911 exhibition. One was a silver cup for the best display of Baldwin apples, presented by Governor Eugene Foss of Massachusetts, and the “Governor Pothier Prize” for the best display of Rhode Island Green, a.k.a. “Greening” apples – a variety first cultivated in Rhode Island in the 1650s, and one not to be confused with the well-known “Granny Smith” apples one sees in stores today. The present location of the Foss silver cup, by the way, is unknown.
The plaque awarded by Governor Pothier has sterling silver custom-cast raised lettering, a state seal, as well as a hand-crafted apple tree which dominates the center. An engraved silver plate under the tree reads, “Awarded to Thomas K. Winsor for the best display of R. I. Green apples at the New England Fruit Show held in Boston, October, 1911.”
It was reported that an average of six-thousand visitors went to the exhibition each day, making for a well attended show.
At present, the plaque is in need of a professional cleaning to bring the sterling silver back to its original shiny luster. This has to be done carefully so as not to loose any fine details of the engraving. Once this is done, both Katie and Robert hope to be able to put the plaque on public display.
Meanwhile, Katie continues to search on line and elsewhere for more “lost” history of Smithfield.