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By Joe Siegel
Mowry House, named in honor of its late owner, Mary Mowry, has been a vital part of Smithfield for many years.
Mary Mowry, who died in 2008, was a member of the Smithfield Historical Society. She provided 84 acres of land to the town through the Land Trust, which is now part of the Wolf Hill Preserve. Mary also donated the land where the Smithfield Police Station resides.
Mary willed 23 acres of property, including 18 acres of protected farmland and another 5 acres which includes the home, which housed five generations of the Mowry family, to the Land Trust in 2009. In 2012, the Land Trust was encouraged by one of Revive the Roots founding members, Zachary Murdoch, to reach out to Preserve Rhode Island, a non-profit which is dedicated to saving historic properties in the state. The decision was made to not sell the run-down home out of fear of demolition in a shaky real estate market.
The house was built in 1750 and sits on 5 acres of land. The property is being rehabilitated by Revive the Roots, in conjunction with Preserve RI.
Preserve Rhode Island managed $100,000 from the Land Trust in 2013, which was drawn from an account left by Mary Mowry for the maintenance of her former properties, to make the property habitable after 15 years of vacancy. Work included plumbing, electrical, heat, roof flashing, and septic installation. Revive the Roots was selected as the craftsmen-in-residence through a public application process managed by PRI. The scope of work includes interior preparation and painting of select unfinished rooms, window restoration, exterior paint removal, trim repair and repainting, general property maintenance, and fundraising for roof replacement and restoration of a two-story Victorian-era porch.
The group also shares portions of the adjacent 18 acre agricultural property they began leasing in 2011 with Artists’ Exchange, which houses sheep in a therapy program for people with special needs.
The house was originally known as the John Appleby house. The Mowrys and the Applebys were Quakers from Massachusetts who moved to Smithfield to escape religious persecution, according to Brad Allard of Revive the Roots.
“Burt Mowry, (Mary’s husband) bred rabbits for military testing during the Cold War,” Allard said, noting some of the rabbits were sold as meat to local residents.
“Historical preservation was one of (Mary Mowry’s) personal interests,” said Hannah Martin of Revive the Roots. “I know she had a lot of love for that house and she didn’t want to move out of it.”
The house was in dilapidated condition when Revive the Roots first began leasing the adjacent 18 acre property in 2011. Allard believes the organization’s work rehabilitating the house saved it from destruction.
“It was boarded up, all the systems were shut down,” Allard recalled. “The house lot was appraised for tear down value. If (the house) had been sold, it would have been torn down.”
Martin concurred, noting it was “hard to watch this house which had an obvious beauty and charm to it, just sort of decay.”
At the time, Revive the Roots members had no place to go for meetings.
“We were literally meeting at Panera Bread once a week,” Allard noted. “Being able to use the house, we got the garage, all of our equipment’s there, we have (electricity) so all the farm maintenance we can do on site which is huge.”
Martin notes the Mowry house “has been so much of an asset to what we’re trying to do.”
“It’s exciting to watch it come to life,” Allard said. “When we first moved in, (the house) was cold and dark and dusty and kind of uninhabitable.”
Revive the Roots are not living in the house for free. They contribute to the cost of materials used for repairs and upgrades. Currently, the front porch is being restored to its 1800s design.
“I think sometimes people get the wrong idea and think we’re not paying into it. We’re paying into it with both our work and our money,” Martin said. “It’s nice living there and we all feel happy to be able to contribute to it in the ways that we do.”
Although the Mary Mowry House is a private residence, Revive the Roots manages walking trails and community gardens on the adjacent 18 acre property “Mowry Commons” which are open to the public from dawn to dusk daily. Parking for Mowry Commons is located at 374 Farnum Pike and across from the Mowry Conservation Area on Old Forge road. Revive the Roots holds various community events, such as baking bread in a Cobb oven and plant sales, throughout the year. For more information, visit www.revivetheroots.org.