It’s not too hard for Richard Arthur Fenner to imagine how his earliest immigrant ancestors lived – he owns one of their homes. The Major Thomas Fenner House, located off Plainfield Street in Cranston was built in 1677, and Richard Fenner found out about its existence through his genealogical research.
Fenner, who lives in California, is descended from Captain Arthur Fenner (1619 – 1703) who came from England to America in the 1640s. The patriarch built his “house in the woods” about 1655; it was later burned down during King Philip’s War and was rebuilt in 1666. No longer in existence (it had fallen into disrepair and was demolished), it was later known as “Fenner Castle.”
Captain Arthur Fenner, one of the earliest settlers of the area known as Neutaconkanut, built another home less than half a mile away for his son Thomas around the same time of the rebuilding of his own.
Richard Fenner began his research in earnest on the strong foundation of genealogical research completed by his paternal grandmother, Edith (Daniels) Fenner. She had amassed a family tree for her son which included 1200 ancestors – all done before the advent of the Internet.
After a visit to the historic Major Thomas Fenner house in 2001, Fenner contacted the current owner, asking that if ever he ever considered selling the home, to please contact him. The house had been in the hands of descendants until about 1918.
The owners did contact him in 2006, and Fenner, a real estate agent, brought his ancestor’s dwelling back into the family.
“I had to buy it back – unfortunately I bought it on the day Rhode Island real estate market peaked,” he said of the project that has become his passion despite the financial burdens associated with it.
“It was in pretty good shape for a 330-year old home, it was already connected to public water, sewer and underground power lines,” he said. Additional expenses included switching from oil to gas, replacing the roof, insulation, remodeling the kitchen and baths. He also paid to have an archeological excavation done when he was considering developing the three acres with additional 17th Century replica homes.
In May of 2015 he decided to convert the home, which abuts to Stone Pond, to a year round vacation rental in hopes of generating enough income to cover costs. He furnished the home with a mix of modern colonial and antique furniture and it comfortably sleeps eight guests. The home is listed on HomeAway.com, VRBO.com and Airbnb.com under the heading Welcome to the 17th Century. “The first year has been much better than I would have imagined,” he said.
“Most come because they want to stay in a historic home,” he said, adding that visitors come for a variety of reasons, including graduations, family reunions, weddings, foliage, temporary work assignments and youth sporting events.
There were no toilet facilities in the house until the 1920s – there is a three-seater outhouse still on the property. More modern facilities, including a functional kitchen and washer and dryer have since been added, even air conditioning and wi-fi.
This year, Fenner has been working on the grounds. He had considered adding a 1840s post and beam barn to the property, which he had purchased in upstate New York and had shipped in pieces to Rhode Island.
He points out two massive maple trees behind the home. “I had heard that it used to be a New England tradition for two maple trees to be planted as a wedding gift so that the newly married could would have maple syrup for the rest of their lives,” he explained.
“Originally there was a brook, Fenner Brook,” he said noting that a former owner of the estate dammed the brook to enlarge the pond, using it to harvest ice before the advent of refrigeration.
“There was an ice house on the property – it was destroyed in the Hurricane of ’38,” he added.
The two and a half story house is a known as a “stone-ender,” and the original portion, built in 1677, includes a “great room” or a fire room, with a great room sleeping chamber (each measuring 18 and a half feet square) directly above it. The fireplace measures ten feet in width and is more than three feet in depth and more than five feet high, in which is a “beehive oven.”
The 17-inch wide beam over the hearth is estimated to have come from a tree more than 600 years old. It had, at one point, been boarded over, and once uncovered, revealed early 18th century ‘graffiti’ – chalk markings, which have been preserved and are still visible.
Over the years as the family and number of occupants grew, the southern part of the house was added.
“I warn people who rent, there’s some uneven floors, thresholds of various heights, and some low ceilings,” Fenner said.
The house has alterations and additions that date from about 1835, and a dormer was added in 1939.
The building has a stone foundation cellar, and its large chimney takes up most of the exterior north wall. The floors are of wide planks of hard pine, and most are assumed to be original, according to a study conducted in the 1990s.
In the attic space can be seen clues to the house’s construction; the roof framed of hewn timbers which had been “pit sawn,” are mortised and pegged together – no nails.
The house is listed on the National Registration of Historic Places, the report for which lists the house as “architecturally significant as a very rare surviving example of Colonial post-medieval construction.”
“The original chimney at one time had been plastered over and its crown covered in brick. The restoration of the chimney included rebuilding the crown in field stones, which were lying on the ground below, the restoration based on a photograph of Captain Arthur Fenner’s house taken in the 1880s,” Fenner said. He credits a previous owner for the beautifully restored stone work.
He points out a small window tucked under the eaves of the roof, noting that it is the last of the original window openings. The glass in the home’s original windows would have been triangular in shape, as large panes would have broken on the ship’s passage from England. “There is a section of the triangular glass panes from the Fenner Castle at the Rhode Island Historical Society,” he explained.
A plaque on the house features a DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] emblem.
“His military service was in the King Philip’s War – a number of his descendants were DAR,” Fenner said of Major Thomas Fenner; Fenner also has ties to a Mayflower line that he is researching.
He is a member of a few genealogical organizations, including Descendants of Rhode Island’s Founding Families, Rhode Island Genealogy Network, and is an active contributor to Findagrave.com.
“I started [doing genealogy] with no training – I had thousands of names before I realized I had to list the sources,” he explained. He found sites such as Family Search and Ancestry useful tools in his research, but has learned that there is much misinformation on the Internet that needs to be sorted through.
He uses Family Tree Maker software, and has been adding his research online, at www.fennertree.com
He also has a Facebook page called “Fenner cousins,” which includes 800 direct descendants of their immigrant ancestor – not all having the surname Fenner. (The site includes notable Fenners – many Fenners were active in politics, and two Fenners were governors of Rhode Island.)
The house itself is also featured on its own Facebook page.
Fenner said family reunions have been held in various part of the country, but he’s yet to attend one. It’s been suggested the Fenner homestead would be a perfect place to hold one in the future, which is under consideration.
“I have a lot of stuff in here that relates to Fenners,” he said – he has had portraits of several ancestors reproduced to hang in the house. A multi-volume set of “Early Records of Providence” sits on one of the desks. Fenner recently had most of his books on genealogy shipped to the Fenner House.
The property now includes less than three acres, but was originally hundreds of acres in size. Included in the original tract are several small family cemeteries, including the Major Thomas Fenner Lot, Cranston # 40, where Thomas is buried.
Asked about the house’s future, Fenner, who was born in Connecticut and was raised in Massachusetts but has never lived in Rhode Island, has a 30-year old son, who “he hopes someday will take a greater interest in the family history and the house.”
Fenner has thought about forming a non-profit. “I’ve had people who study stonework come here as well as members of different historical societies,” he explained. He is also considering offering tours to groups. This year his emphasis has been on the grounds which he hopes one day will be suitable for events such as hosting weddings on the property.
an additional anecdote from Richard Fenner:
The brook is part of an interesting story from circa 1682. A Native American maiden came to the door of the Major Thomas Fenner House and asked Mrs. Fenner for a cup of milk. After receiving the milk she went down to the brook and wove a small basket as a thank you. The basket remained in the family until 1832 when it was given to the Rhode Island Historical Society where it still resides.