NORTH SMITHFIELD – In the garden of a farmhouse built in 1712, owner Irene Nebiker, 90, is taking a break from her busy life.
On this October day it’s quiet outdoors. Ordinarily Nebiker’s three-acre Mistwood Farm is inhabited by sheep used for wool or sold to market. Today, they are away for breeding, and she is discussing the past.
Around 1900, long before Nebiker moved in, the owners of the property kept sheep, cows, calves, oxen and horses for the use by the family. They had about 3,500 acres, spanning the current Bryant University property to the Blackstone River. Then, in 1900 or so, part of the property had a new owner, a French-Canadian mill worker who longed for his Quebec farm. By mid-century, the property was deserted. The abandoned property included a barn blown-down by the disastrous 1938 hurricane.
In the 1960s, motor bikes were riding over or jumping the fallen structure.The house was apparently used for BB gun practice shooting, and the door was a knife-throwing target, Nebiker said.
She purchased the property in 1967, rescuing and renovating it. Her daughter wanted to raise sheep, and the farm was established. The property’s historic status particularly appealed its new owner.
“I enjoy that,” said Nebiker, a history buff.
Compared with her friends of the same age, two natives of North Smithfield, she is a newcomer, only living in the town for 50 years, the friendly farm owner says smiling.
Her family hails from Sweden on one side; they came to Cambridge Town – now Cambridge, Mass. – in the 1880s. The other side of her family is Scotch-Irish and emigrated to Philadelphia in the 1700s.
Nebiker grew up in Bergen County, NJ. One of her memories is of her elementary school years. She was a Girl Scout and she wrote reports for the Ramsey Journal newspaper.
Writing is a talent that runs in the family. Nebiker’s mother, Ruth Giorleff, wrote one-act plays such as “Jazz and Minuet,” and performed, a musical theater actress in shows such as Gilbert and Sullivan productions. In the 1910s, her mother studied writing at Columbia. It seems at least one of her plays was published in a Samuel French company 1926 book of plays, and Giorleff was an early member of the Theater Guild. Her plays were performed at 41-42 Cherry Lane repertory theater in Greenwich Village, NYC and the Paper Mill Playhouse in Maplewood, NJ.
The nonagenarian’s father, G.A. Giorleff, managed her uncle’s electrical manufacturing company, C.B. Backer Company Ltd. on Aberdeen Street in Ottawa, “before Hot Point and Westinghouse.” The father built heating elements for the camera used for Arctic exploration after World War II. Also, he worked on Lancaster bomber planes during the war, making casing for torpedo tubes.
Her father and uncle had also worked at Montreal Locomotive Works in 1910. During World War I, her father repaired vehicles used, “up and down the Rhine to get materials.”
Nebiker’s grandfather was an artist in plaster, making Rococo scenes on ceilings and creating church art. He made cherubs at the edge of a balcony for a house with one door in Vermont, and another in Canada in Derby Line, Vt., where the main street belongs to both Derby Line and Stanstead, Quebec.
From 1936, when Nebiker was six, until 1963, she spent summers with her family in Britania Bay, Canada, where they lived by the Ottawa River.
“I loved it up there,” she said.
The place they resided was, “just a little summer village. People lived in the city in winter.”
The family had a summer cottage. They had a stove for cold weekends. Life was rustic, without modern conveniences.
“We cooked on kerosene and had kerosene lamps…I brought wash water up from the river,” Nebiker said.
This was logging country.
She said they shot logs “down the river to the paper companies in Ottawa about 30 miles from the dam, to the rapids that are about a half mile across and some three-quarter mile long, or vice versa. From stranded logs, my sister and I put together rafts to float on the canal on the Ontario on the English speaking side.”
Those early adventures are vivid in her memory.
“That’s where I got love for history and the outside,” Nebiker said.
Back in the states, Nebiker studied at New Jersey College for Women, now Douglass Residential College, and part of Rutgers. The geography department at NJ College for Women was established in her junior year. She studied geography, calling it, the “best choice I ever made,” with a love for the subject evident in her tone.
Nebiker became a teacher, teaching fifth grade for seven years at Bushee School, and three years at Halliwell. She taught geography and history for 17 years at North Smithfield High School, retiring in 1966. She subbed for another seven years, and has never quit teaching, because she is still sharing knowledge.
The teacher has two daughters and a son, six grandchildren, and four great grandchildren. She was married in the early 1950s, and later divorced.
She recalls North Smithfield as a quiet town when she moved in 1967.
“There were eight houses on Grange Road to Providence Pike,” she said.
These days she keeps sheep, and she does work for the 4-H, the North Smithfield Heritage Association and the Land Trust.
Yesteryear and today are far apart and not just by time. Since she was a girl, “the world as a whole has become very complicated, less pleasant, less civil, less trusting,” Nebiker said. She finds the “large solar developments,” in town disconcerting.
“I can feel the vibrations every time they blast,” she said.
The computer, she says, is “confusing,” yet “useful,” allowing her to keep in touch with her grand-kids and great grandchildren.
Next year is her 70th high school reunion, and she plans to attend if “the good Lord,” allows.
To the younger generation, she says, “You’re part of a continuum.”
“There’s a before and an after, and you’re in-between holding a place. You’re going to link what came before,” she said.
Still, she adds, “there are very, very caring people.”
Life continues. She says one of her grand-kids retired from, and still works for, the Air Force, and one of the great grand kids wants to be a geologist.
Irene Nebiker hopes people who come after her will, “take care of the Earth,” and enjoy it, and also, “enjoy people as they are.”
Meanwhile, she continues to share her joy for living, history, geography – and farm life.