29 May 2022

A 317 Year Old Business, an 85 Year Old Painting, and Three Families Part 1 of 2

Newport, Rhode Island

My maternal grandmother’s family has longstanding roots in the State of Rhode Island. Through her, we descend from a number of the original settlers of Aquidneck Island, which is now made up of the towns of Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport. 

Aquidneck Island is named as a derivation from the Narragansett name for the island, “Aquidnet,” but is actually not its legal name at all. The island itself was officially named “Rhode Island” by the year 1637, with varying origin stories, but all tied to the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes. “Rhode Island” remains its legal name to this day. 

The Inn at Castle Hill with downtown Newport in the distance. Conanicut Island to the left.

The state was officially named the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations when it was created, in part, from “Rhode Island” and the territory on the mainland named “Providence.” It was only in 2020 that the state constitution was amended to shorten its name to simply Rhode Island, sharing the name with the island. You won’t, however, find any locals calling the island that. They refer to it exclusively as Aquidneck Island.

Our family has been in and around Newport, the most famous of the three towns on the island, since it was founded, with descent from several original settlers. Old family names are seen on street signs all over town, Carr, Bowen, Bannister, Clarke, Easton, Greene, etc. My great-grandmother was born in Newport in 1883 and died there at the age of 100 in 1983. I have an aunt who has lived there for most of the past sixty years, and I have a cousin who graduated from Portsmouth Abbey Academy (at the northern tip of the island), settled in Middletown, and has raised her children on the island. I lived and worked in Newport for four years out of college and I visit regularly to see family and friends.

Bowen’s wharf, named for an ancestor, to the right of the Newport Harbor Hotel,
where I was employed in my first management job out of college
(back when it was still called the Treadway Hotel)

In 2012, during a visit with my cousin Bill Kahl, who grew up in Newport, and his wife Mary in Albany, New York, Bill told me about a painting he had given my grandmother, now deceased, and his proposal that the painting be returned to the family of the artist. The artist’s grandson owns and operates a business that is thought to be the oldest running business in the United States, The John Stevens Shop in Newport. Bill told me about the shop and of several interesting connections it has had with our family, as well as how it relates to the painting in question. Bill died in 2021, just short of the age of 100, and his loss still weighs quite heavily on me.

The History

55 Division Street, Newport – built in 1860,
Edwin Burdick’s house,  where Kate grew up, and
where she was married to my great-grandfather,
Edward Rowland, in 1913.
Bill’s great-great-grandparents were Clark and Martha Burdick. Bill’s generation is the same as my mother, who also has Clark and Martha Burdick as great-great-grandparents, but my mother was born 21 years after Bill. The reason for the age difference in the same generation is that Clark and Martha had twelve children! Bill descended from a daughter born in 1825, Susan Church Burdick, and we descend from a son, Edwin “Ned” Spooner Burdick, who was born 20 years later (the youngest of the twelve) in 1845. Ned lived to the age of 87 and served a large part of his life as the president of the Industrial Trust Company bank in Newport.

His daughter, my great-grandmother Kate (the one who lived to be 100 in Newport), and Bill Kahl’s mother, although of different generations, were the same age, and they were also good friends. The families have since remained in touch through multiple subsequent generations, including now, as I am still close to Bill’s wife and their two children, my age, whom I have known since I was ten years old.

The John Stevens Shop

The Burdick family connection with The John Stevens Shop relates to a short period in its history when it was owned by two of those twelve Burdick siblings. The shop was founded in 1705 by John Stevens, a stone carver who created what are among the oldest gravestones and markers in Newport. The shop was passed down in his family from father to son through five generation: John Stevens to John Stevens II, to John Stevens III, and to Phillip Stevens, John III’s son, who renamed the shop “P. Stevens Shop” after he inherited the shop in 1817.

P Stevens & Son ad in Boyd’s Newport City Directory
in 1865 – not clear why the business
establishment date is 1800
When Phillip’s son Lysander entered the business, he renamed the shop again to “P. Stevens and Son.” In 1866, Phillip’s other son, Edwin Stevens, joined his brother Lysander to take over the shop from their father. Lysander Stevens died in 1895 and his brother Edwin maintained the shop until his death in 1902.

Edwin Stevens left the shop to his brother-in-law J. Truman Burdick, one of the twelve Burdick siblings. Edwin had married Mary Catharine Burdick, Truman’s sister and my great-grandmother Kate’s aunt. In fact, Kate was named Catherine Stevens Burdick after her aunt, who died the year before Kate was born.

Truman Burdick died in 1908 and his brother, Ned Burdick, Kate’s father, took it over. The shop was in the Burdick family for a total of 25 years.

According to a history published by Newport’s Salve Regina University, Truman rented the shop out, still as a stone carver’s shop. Then Ned Burdick had control of it until it was purchased by John Howard Benson in 1927. There’s an excellent blog posting about the shop by Richard Pelletier on medium.com in which he indicates that Ned was in charge until the shop was sold to the Benson family, but the extent of his daily involvement, while also running a bank, is not known. Also unknown is when the shop name reverted to its original, The John Stevens Shop.

The John Stevens Shop, 29 Thames Street,
in the original building in which it was first founded in 1705

John Howard Benson’s grandson, Nick Benson, now owns The John Stevens Shop. He’s a world-famous stone carver and Macarthur Fellow whose team has worked on some of the most important carvings of the day, including the MLK and WWII Memorials in Washington, DC. The shop is at 29 Thames Street in Newport.

The John Stevens Shop ownership over 317 years

[to be continued…part 2, “But What About the Painting?”]

Rhode Island and Aquidneck Island naming history:
Two Newport photos: https://www.discovernewport.org/
About The John Stevens Shop:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_John_Stevens_Shop  
Richard Pelletier blog post: https://lucidcontent.medium.com/the-brush-the-mallet-the-chisel-the-letter-79446bf1254c
Boyd’s Newport City Directory 1985: Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.  https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/41199_1220706242_4329-00028
John Stevens Shop image and information: https://www.johnstevensshop.com/
The Stone Carvers Business
, Three Centuries of Craft Tradition at The John Stevens Shop, pamphlet published by Salve Regina University Gallery, 2006

1 comment:

  1. So interesting. Going to forward this to my mom who is doing lots of research about our family.