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Smithfield through Al Bruno’s eyes

Former building official remembers what the town used to look like

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

When Al Bruno looks at Smithfield he sees it through different eyes than most of us.

For instance, on Homestead Avenue others see only Georgiaville Manor housing for the elderly, but he remembers what preceded it, the original St. Michael’s Catholic Church where he was baptized, received first communion, and was confirmed.

The church, erected in 1875, was razed roughly a century later after the parish erected a brand new modern edifice on Farnum Pike. Al, was the town’s building and zoning official from 1978 to 1990 (and before that from 1971 was assistant to his predecessor, Fred Austin). Al says it was his “sad duty” to issue the demolition permit for the old St. Michael’s.

He views the demise of the carpenter gothic style church building as a great loss to local history. Sentimental and progressive by turns, Bruno is consistent in one thing, his passionate views when it comes to all things Smithfield.

Born and raised in Esmond and now 85, he is proudly outspoken, willing to play the gadfly when it comes to advocacy regarding matters he considers important to the town’s sense of its own history and development.

For example, as a veteran of the Korean War era, he has been agitating for several years to get the school department or the town to restore the Veterans Memorial designation to the Old County Road School. The phrase was part of the facility’s name when it was constructed in 1955 as the community’s junior high school.

He shared an excerpt from one of the many letters to the editor he has written on the subject. It says, “WHO AUTHORIZED THIS DEGRADING CHANGE AND WHY???” (Emphasis his).

Commenting on his campaign, he says, “I know what the veterans of our town have done for our community. I have no idea what a road has done to earn this designation.”

Aphorisms like that are a regular part of Al’s constant patter. For instance, another of his causes relates to pedestrian safety. Becoming animated he recounts a lesson he learned as a child, eight decades in the past.

“Years ago there were signs along many roads which read ‘Walk to left . . . Face traffic.’ Today these signs seem to have disappeared.” He mentions that in his youth two of his friends were killed walking on the wrong side of the road.

“When we went to school there was a sassy little saying we repeated almost daily that went like this: ‘left is right and right is wrong.’ I have been trying to get this saying back into the schools so kids and adults know where they belong when walking. . . . If you are where you belong when walking . . . . You can at least see what is happening and you have a chance to get out of the way!”

If he becomes convinced of the importance of an idea that he thinks will better the community it takes a lot to squelch him. “I make a lot of noise,” he confesses. “Some people don’t like it and some do.”

One of seven children of Errico and Lucia Corona Bruno, Al notes that his parents came to Esmond in 1920 and 1921 respectively. His father was a weaver for 40 years at the Esmond Mill.

“I could see Esmond Oval from my window,” he recalls. “The mill kept it like Fenway Park.” The Esmond Oval, property of the textile company that was widely known as home of the Esmond Bunny Blankets, was the site of the neighborhood’s baseball diamond, a magnet to the baseball loving Bruno.

The villages of Smithfield – Greenville, Georgiaville, Esmond, Stillwater, and Spragueville – were colorful hamlets in Al’s formative years. Preserving their names in local memory and lore is another objective he pursues. He has lobbied the Fire Department to restore the village names to the fire stations in those environs, but says he has met with silence.

He had better luck, he believes, with a mission outside of the town. On a visit to the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter he observed several people walking their dogs among the grave sites. Some of the canines, as might be expected, answered the call of nature during their time among the resting places of the veterans. It offended Al.

He makes a motion with both hands, as though pounding on a keyboard. “I went home and got out the old typewriter,” he reports. “You’ve got to (complain), you’ve got to (complain). That’s all there is to it.”

This time it seemed to have had the desired effect. Upon returning to the Veterans Cemetery some weeks later, he noticed that signs prohibiting dogs in the park had been prominently posted.

Returning to his memories of growing up in Smithfield he regales a listener with a recollection of going off to kindergarten on Esmond Street one day after eating some chocolate pudding. It didn’t agree with him. So, he lay down in the middle of the road nursing a stomach ache. A fire truck came along with its siren blaring. When it got to Al, he explains that he didn’t move. So, the truck drove around him. Apparently, it’s a pretty good metaphor for how he emerged as an adult — an immoveable object when circumstances dictate.

He alludes to several stands he took as the building official, including facing down a corporation that wanted to locate a jail in Smithfield even though, he claims, the zoning ordinances prohibited it and the backers were attempting to describe the facility as something else. He provided a similar anecdote regarding a propane company that had experienced an explosion in another community and was attempting to relocate to this town. He resisted, and the business went elsewhere, he recalls.

He relished his work, he says. “I always had the feeling I wanted to work for the town. I never got up one morning and said damn it I’ve got to go to work this morning. I really enjoyed what I did.”

Likewise he enjoyed growing up here. “I wouldn’t change a day of my childhood or trade it with anyone. I had the greatest childhood. Nobody had a better one.”

He speaks fondly of his late brother Jim Bruno, who had a career as a well-known reporter for The Providence Journal. Al launches into a story about the time Jim climbed the water tower at the old Esmond Mill, going all the way to the top of the tank. A 60 pound ball decorated the very apex of the conical cover of the water reservoir. Jim carved his initials in it to signify his conquest of the pinnacle.

Decades later when the tower came down and Al was the building official, he was there to see it. He went to it and, sure enough, he found his brother’s mark still visible after many years.

Eight years older than Al, Jim had a profound affect on him, opening the world of music to him at age eight, all but forcing Al to learn the guitar.

“There were days when all I wanted to do was go out to the oval and play baseball. I could see the field from where I sat, but he made me stay and play the guitar. Today, I’m so glad he did. I played baseball too, but I’m still making music.”

In his 44th year of playing with the Old Fiddlers Club of Rhode Island, he also was a member of the Providence Orchestra of Senior Citizens for 22 years. “I have played all over Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut,” he remarks.

When he retired from his position in town he was invited to become the building official in Cumberland, and he held that post for six years before retiring for good. For a number of years he lived in nearby Connecticut, but he says his heart was always in Smithfield. He returned several years ago and now resides in Greenville.

Since then he has been compiling an ever-expanding list of landmarks in the community that are no longer in existence or are radically changed from what he remembers from his youth. The roster is approaching 150 structures and sites and in a few cases mobile novelties like Lloyd Bushee’s traveling market, a food store on an old school bus.

Among the places on his dossier are such ghost locations as: Sebeille’s Pond Ice House, the former Stillwater Golf Course, the Route 44 Drive-in Theater, Scuncio Chevrolet, Rocco’s Tavern, Walsh’s Skate Land (roller rink), Shea’s Corner Store, the original Esmond Post Office, and the Smithfield Airport.

From time to time in the months to come The Smithfield Times hopes to run photos and texts describing some of Mr. Bruno’s remembered landmarks.

Full disclosure: Mr. Bruno taught the writer how to throw a curveball when he was playing Babe Ruth League baseball at the Esmond Oval.