By Paul Lonardo
They say that it was love that launched a thousand ships and began the Trojan War, and that love was the reason the Taj Mahal was built, so the construction of a 2½ story mansion made of fieldstone in Lincoln, RI may not seem all that impressive. Right?
The love story behind Hearthside House, like other legendary stories of love, feature romanticized elements that no one really questions. The stories are accepted as fact. People just seem to enjoy a good love story, especially around Valentine’s Day, a “holiday” whose own history is bound in myth.
While St. Valentine himself has become canonized as the official patron saint of lovers, this third century ladies’ man was actually a Roman priest who performed Christian weddings for soldiers during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. This Roman ruler persecuted the church and issued an edict prohibiting the marriage of young people. His decree was based on the belief that unmarried soldiers fought better because they did not have families to worry about.
Though forbidden to conduct marriage ceremonies, St. Valentine did so anyway and he was eventually imprisoned for his actions. According to the legend, during his imprisonment, he healed the blind daughter of his jailer. An embellishment to this story states that before his execution he wrote her a letter and signed it, “Your Valentine.” However, no one can be certain of these accounts or deem them historically accurate, but it no longer seems to matter as chocolates, flowers, and especially Valentine’s cards, continue to be exchanged in many countries around the world on February 14th each year.
The apocryphal story about how Hearthside House came to be has all the elements of any other fable of love and lore, according to Kathy Hartley, founder and president of Friends of Hearthside. Kathy’s knowledge of local history is quite extensive, though she admits that not everything about this love story can be substantiated.
The popular folktale surrounding Hearthside begins with its construction in the early 1800’s, when Stephen Hopkins Smith, a Rhode Islander in his 20’s, was courting a young woman of means from Providence. Smith did not see their difference in social status as an obstacle. He was a member of a noted Lincoln family that made its living in the local agricultural industry, and although he was a Quaker, living a simple lifestyle, he often traveled in affluent circles, which was how he met the woman that he had set his heart on marrying.
Kathy asserts that no one even knows the woman’s name or much about her.
It is believed, however, that she was more than a little cautious about any future with Smith, and told him this directly. Accordingly, she revealed that she enjoyed spending time with him, but in a suitor she was looking for someone of substantial wealth who could provide her with the lifestyle she was accustomed to.
The Smith family lived a comfortable life, but they were far from wealthy. Then one day, as if in answer to his prayers, Smith won a lottery, which by the early 1800’s had become very popular. Smith netted an estimated jackpot of $40,000, the equivalent of about $9 million in today’s money.
Keeping his winnings a secret from his love, Smith schemed to build a breathtaking home to sweep “Miss Prominent” off her feet. What is not in dispute is that construction on Hearthside got underway in 1810, and was completed in 1814. The stately mansion was considered to be one of the finest examples of early 19th century federal-style architecture in the state, unique with its curved roofline and totally stone construction, which was rare in dwellings at this time. The design included a gable roof with impressive ogee curves above circular attic windows, four front entrance wooden pillars supporting a top floor balcony, and each of the ten rooms in the mansion boasting its own fireplace, hence the name by which it would come to be known; Hearthside House. Though some fittingly would refer to it as, The House that Love Built.
The magnificent home was located in an area of farm land in Lincoln on pastoral Great Road, the first traversable tract through the wilderness between Providence and Mendon, Massachusetts, and one of the oldest thoroughfares in America.
Smith continued his courtship of the woman through the four years of construction, never letting on what he was building so that it would be a surprise sufficient to capture her heart. When the home was finally complete, he took a horse and buggy out to Providence and asked his sweetheart to come along with him for a ride. He was excited as they approached the bend of Great Road, and upon seeing the mansion come into view, the woman he hoped to marry clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “What a beautiful house! But who would ever want to live way out in the wilderness.”
Smith was heartbroken. It is believed that he drove her back to Providence that day and never called on her again. At least, that is the story that has been told through the years. Intermediate facts have been difficult to come by, though Kathy Hartley hopes to uncover more factual evidence in the near future to support this local myth.
With no bride to occupy the country manor, Stephen Smith invited his brother George to move in with him. Stephen resided on the west side of the house while George and his family lived on the east side.
Soon tiring of the commotion of family life, Stephen Smith moved into another house that he owned down the road. Having failed at romance, he put all his effort and energy into his work and career. He built a mill made of stone, similar in appearance and directly across from Hearthside. The manufacturing business he started there, however, was not successful, and in 1826 he served as a commissioner of the Blackstone Canal, an important waterway that provided easy transportation of goods between Narragansett Bay in Providence and Massachusetts.
Smith became an ardent botanist, importing exotic trees and shrubs from China, which he planted all around on land called “Quinsnicket,” an Indian name meaning “large stone houses.” Today, the area is part of the 458-acre parcel of land that makes up Lincoln Woods. One plant that he was especially proud of, English ivy, grew up the east end of Hearthside for many decades. Two very rare tulip trees still adorn the front walkway to the mansion.
Smith was also connected to Stephen Hopkins, Governor of Rhode Island and signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1755, Smith’s grandmother, Anne Smith, married Governor Hopkins, making the Governor his step-grandfather.
Stephen Smith died in 1857, a relatively old man for that time, having never married. He was buried in a cemetery a mile from the home he built for a love that never was, though the story continues to live on in local lore.
To learn more about Hearthside and its long and storied history, visit the Friends of Hearthside website http://www.hearthsidehouse.org/history/