COVENTRY — A phonograph, a white feather fan and a black top hat sit among several other artifacts in a glass case at the Coventry Public Library, offering a window to the past and a taste of the objects on display at the Paine House Museum.
“The museum itself is a treasure in Coventry, and very few people realize what we have,” said Ed Blamires, director of The Paine House Museum.
Arranged by Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society volunteer Jennifer Wheeler, the objects at the library, on display through the month of January, are meant to serve as a reminder of that.
Built by Samuel Bennett circa 1691, the Paine House played a significant role in Coventry’s formation. After being inherited by Bennett’s son, the house in 1741 hosted the first town meeting and election. It was sold the following year to Francis Brayton, who built an addition and operated a tavern out of it.
The house was sold again in 1866 to Phebe Paine and Mary Mathewson, and remained in their family until its donation in 1953 to the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society.
In the society’s early years, Wheeler said, members of the community would gather at the house for big events to celebrate the area’s rich history.
“People would get together for this big social gathering, and there would literally be hundreds of people,” she said.
But as distractions like television and computers became common, celebrations of the local history that the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society has striven for decades to honor began to dwindle. And these days, Wheeler said, it’s not uncommon to hear neighbors admit to never having heard of the Paine House.
“The museum is so important. You have to remember the history,” Wheeler said. “We really want to get ourselves out there, and the library is a great location within the community to get a reminder out that we’re still here — come and see us.”
Located at 7 Station Street in the village of Washington, the Paine House is open each Friday from May through September. Around the colonial home, exhibits similar to the one in the library show collections related to various historical pastimes and interests.
“We’ve got railroad artifacts, we’ve got Civil War artifacts, we’ve got toys,” Wheeler said.
As for the items in the display case at the library, an Edison Victrola provides a glimpse into how music was enjoyed more than a century ago.
“That was one of the first record players,” Wheeler said. “You would wind it up, put on the cylinder and listen to music, and you have to think about, at the time, how amazing that would have been — to be able to bring music into your home.”
Because the Victrola would likely have been played while guests were over, a silver tea set in the display case helps to paint a portrait of a social gathering that may once have occurred at the Paine House.
“Back then, it was a big deal [to have company over],” Wheeler said. “You’d get dressed up and it would be an event.”
The Paine House Museum will reopen for the season in May. In addition to its regular hours, the museum throughout the season hosts various free events, like heritage day and quilt and textile day.
“People can come, listen to the bands, take a tour of the house,” Wheeler said. “We love that.”
And in the meantime, Blamires said he hopes to attract more people to volunteer with the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society so the museum can expand its hours.
“I’m hoping to build up a cadre of volunteers so we can open to the public more,” he said. “It really is a treasure.”