Smithfield woman wrapped up in blanket hobby collection

By Glenn Laxton

“My hobby collecting antique blankets has given me something positive to do.”

It is a lifestyle Sandra Achille of Smithfield, has cultivated since she had to give up working three years ago.

“I was a cook at Meritage (a restaurant in East Greenwich) and Chardonnay’s (Seekonk) for 10 years and worked at Fatima Hospital until I got ill.”

Sandra was diagnosed with Arnold Pre-Chiari malformation when she was born. Chiari is a malformation in which the bony space that surrounds the lower part of a person’s brain is too small, causing the tonsils to push through the skull and into the spinal canal. The symptoms usually appear in late childhood although Sandra says she was born with it. It causes severe headaches, neck pain, numbness and sleep problems. She dealt with it for most of her life but she eventually had to retire in her late thirties.

Newly re-married to Bill Achille, a barber in town, and the mother of three young boys, Sandra has been able to focus on her love for vintage Beacon and Esmond Mills Camp Blankets. They fill the living room of her Whipple Road home draped over her couch and chairs.

The blankets were designed in the late 1800’s and copied from the Navajo Indian tribes. The only two companies that made them were practically next door to each other in town and were the only blanket makers in the country. The Beacon Manufacturing Company and Esmond Mills, both long out of business, especially Esmond Mills, which closed its doors in 1948. Beacon hung on until the 1960’s.

“I find that very odd. The only two in the country and they’re six miles apart,” she explained.

Thanks to a collector named Frank Bennett, who once lived in town and who found out about Sandra through her eBay collecting, she has amassed more than just blankets.

“I bought something from him on eBay and he then actually gave me a pile of ads and postcards and an old manual of Smithfield.”

Most of Sandra’s collection of blankets and pictures are of Esmond, where she has lived for many years. Among her artifacts are several Skookum Dolls. A woman from Montana who had them mass-produced created these Native American theme dolls. They were originally called carved apple head dolls, which became so popular that the manufacturer, Arrow Novelty Company of New York City, began making them with plastic heads. These dolls didn’t have any arms and were always wrapped in Navajo blankets. The expression Skookum originated with Midwestern fur traders in the 19th century, and means good or strong. Production of the Skookum Dolls ended in 1962 and today they are highly collectible.

In her enthusiasm for the collection, Sandra displayed her blankets at the Old County Road School in April during museum night.

The Chiari is under control and her love for the Indian artifacts continues. Soon she will rearrange her living room and continue her search for blankets in her unique hobby of keeping a piece of history alive in Esmond.