COVENTRY — As it continues its mission of preserving the past, the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society, which runs the Paine House Museum, is looking with excitement to the future. 

Built circa 1691 by Samuel Bennett, the Paine House has served many purposes over the centuries. In 1741, after it was inherited by Bennett’s son, the first town meeting and election took place there. It was sold the following year to Francis Brayton, who built an addition and opened a tavern out of it. 

The house was bought by the Paine family in 1866. It remained in the family until 1953, when it was willed to the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society by Zilpha Foster, who was the family’s last living member. 

The organization has maintained the property since, filling the colonial home with all kinds of items highlighting western Rhode Island history. And thanks to recent grants from the Champlin Foundation, the 1772 Foundation and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, as well as donations from various local businesses and individuals, its volunteers over the last year have been able to follow through on several new projects. 

“With this grant money, we’ve made use of the past year by reorganizing a lot of the displays and doing a lot of repair work,” Brenda Jacob, president of The Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society, said last week.  

New windows have been installed in the barn, the well pump is now working, and fresh paint has been applied both inside and outside the historic building. A new sign will also soon be put up at the property.

But while its preservation work at 7 Station Street continues, the nonprofit also has its sights set on the Stanley J. Mruk Fire Alarm Building next door. 

The Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society was one of two bidders to respond last fall to a request for proposals on the property at 1111 Main Street. 

Located just in front of the Paine House, the building housed the town’s fire dispatchers for years, until they relocated to the new police complex on Wood Street. The organization hopes to fill the building, named for the late Coventry fire chief, with the fire-related artifacts it's acquired over the years. 

“We have a lot of local fire apparatus,” Jacob said, “and we feel like it would be a benefit to the community to do a fire museum.”

In addition to providing a place to display items like vintage uniforms, antique equipment and fire pumps that date back to the 1800s, Jacob said, the building could be used as a meeting space where programs on fire safety can be held and where school groups can learn about restoration and preservation.

“It would just open up a lot more possibilities for us to give back to the community,” she said, adding it would also be a way to “honor all the good work that the fire department does for the town.”

By preserving the old building and offering a space to display additional collections, Jacob added, establishing the fire museum could also help to define Coventry as a historic destination. 

The organization will present its proposal to bring a fire museum to Coventry during an upcoming Town Council meeting.

After a year of closed doors and canceled events, members of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society are excited about what’s to come, and about the possibility of expanding their space. 

“We’re trying new things, we have new exhibits,” Jacob said. “We’ve reorganized the house, so it showcases things that haven’t been out in a while.”

Annual events — the Flag Day ceremony, held in conjunction with local veterans, and Textile Day and Heritage Day events, for example — will come back this year after being called off in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. And beginning in May, a farmers market at the site will give people an opportunity on the first Saturday of each month to peruse a variety of goods from local vendors. 

“We are very excited about this upcoming year,” Jacob continued. 

The Western Rhode Island Historical Society is looking for volunteers to help with things like cataloging, restoration projects, gardening and house-keeping, as well as for vendors for the monthly farmers markets. Those who are interested can send an email to info@westernrihistory.org

kgravelle@ricentral.com

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