Saving Summit, R.I.

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on April 22, 2001

The gentle hills of western Rhode Islandfacing away from the shores of Narragansett Bay and busy Providenceare largely rural, its towns folded into the landscape like gems. Coventrya town proud of its pastis one of those.

Coventrys population of 32,000 belies its rural flavor, for part of it consists of villages scattered around its center. One village is Summit, whose half-dozen white clapboard houses center around a church, a library, and a store. When one of those fell out of use and another faced abandonment, this former railroad stop was in danger of losing its pastuntil help came from the Coventry Historical Society.

With that help, this rural village of about 900 souls will remain as it is, its history intact.

When its congregation outgrew the 1862 Summit Baptist Church, the building faced vacancy. But with a $100,000 grant from the Champlin Foundation (a nonprofit group working to preserve Rhode Islands past) the historical society will buy the church when its congregation moves this spring.

The society also is urging town councilors to allow it to use the more than 113-year-old library across from the church to house its memorabilia. First a meeting hall, then a grange, Summits former library has stood empty for two years, superceded by more modern libraries in Coventrys center.

Like a family whose offspring have grown, Coventrygeographically Rhode Islands largest townshiphas spawned several distinct villages, communities with names such as Quidnick, Greene, and Harris. Each sprang up around textile mills and rail depots, left behind now by time or converted into warehouses.

Travel Coventry from east to west, and the heavily commercial eastside of auto dealerships and strip malls gives way to older homes and the town buildings of Coventrys center. Continue toward Summit, and the landscape turns rural.

The support being offered Summit is part of Coventrys determination to protect its pasta past that figured in the Revolutionary War and produced Gen. Nathanael Greene, second in command to George Washington.

Coventry is rich in history, says Lillian Thurston, historical society founder and president. You know, around here we say that if anything had happened to Washington, Greene would have been president.

Greenes homestead, in the village of Anthony, is a carefully tended museum. The town still possesses the Test Oath, dated June 1776, signed by residents vowing to heartily assist in the defense of the United Colonies. Among the signers was Greene.

The 250-year-old Waterman Tavern in Potterville hosted a wartime rendezvous between Greene and Washington and two French generals, Marquis de Lafayette and Counte de Rochambeau. Where French troops bivouacked is called the French Camping Grounds, and lore has it that Biscuit Hill Trail was named for pastries dropped by the departing soldiers.

History may be the one common thread that ties the town together, Town Manager Francis Frobel says.

Summit is part of that fabric. A stones throw from the church, the villages history is recorded on faded, sepia-tone photos above the counter of the Summit General Store, which dates to 1888. Operated by the Skaling family for the last 32 years, the store is both gathering place and supplier of everything from hairpins to horsefeed. Owner Paul Skaling is enthusiastic about the societys plans.

Its the only use of those buildings that really makes sense, Skaling says.

Society members want to use the churchs large wood-paneled hall for community and youth-oriented events and for fund-raising dinners. While the interior may undergo renovation, the exterior will remain as it is. The tiny chapel with its wooden pews and wainscotting may be rented for weddings.

Weve already had one couple call us about renewing their vows here, Thurston says.

That tiny Summit is part of Coventrys rich historical tapestry is not lost on the Rev. Robert Auld, 18-year pastor of Summit Baptist Church, or on its parishioners, who have compiled a scrapbook of clippings and photos chronicling more than 80 years of life in the village. Auld notes leaving the old church wasnt taken lightly.

Its sad to see a community change and see buildings and history obliterated, he says. We gave a lot of thought to who would buy the church. Were really glad the historical society wanted it.

Those who live in Summitand who might have lost the villages pastbreathe a hearty amen to that.