The Oaklawn Village Historic District comprises some 35 buildings clustered along Wilbur Avenue from its intersection with Natick to the railroad bridge that separates the village from Oaklawn Avenue. The center of the village is defined by two public buildings: the Oaklawn Baptist Church and the former Proprietor's School (now the Oaklawn Library). This essentially residential district is unified by building material, scale and set-back. Building types are a mix of eighteenth-century, rural Greek Revival, Queen Anne, and simplified Shingle style. Most of the houses are modest, one-and-a-half stories high, faced with either clapboards or shingles, and once had picket fences and elm trees lining the road.
Archaeologists have determined that, from about 1500 to 1800 B.C., the area near Furnace Hill Brook was inhabited by Native Americans who fashioned bowls, pipes and other tools from soapstone mined from a nearby quarry. Pottery-making and the growing of maize, beans and squash were major changes introduced in the area from about 500 B.C. to the colonial period. By the time the first European settlers arrived, the Narragansett Indians had at least six villages in Cranston, although none has been found within the Oaklawn district.
On June 17, 1662, the General Assembly granted the petition of Thomas Ralph, William Burton, Roger Burlingame, John Harrod and "divers" other Warwick men to "purchase of the natives that are the true owners, a tract not exceeding fower thousand acres . . . always provided it bee such land as not already granted." This grant, known at the Meschanticut Purchase, opened the Oaklawn area for settlement.
The oldest house in Oaklawn was built by Edward Searle, son-in-law of Thomas Ralph. He acquired the land in 1671. During the conflict between the Indians and English known as King Philip's War, most of the buildings west of Narragansett Bay were destroyed; all but one in Cranston were burned to the ground. Searle rebuilt in 1677, and his one-and-a-half story gable-roofed "stone ender" still stands as part of the house at 109 Wilbur Avenue. This area was known as Searle's Corner at the time.
Another colonial house was the Rose Cottage of Squire William Burton, built on Wilbur Avenue in 1720. The first Cranston town meeting was held on June 25, 1754, in the meadow behind Rose Cottage. Cranston's population was then 1,460. Squire Burton's house was destroyed in the building of Route 295. The Thomas Brayton house, at the intersection of Natick Road and Wilbur Avenue, was built in 1767.
The first church in Cranston, built by Quakers who had been meeting in the homes of members since 1705, was erected in 1729 near Moshantatuck Brook on the present site of the Oaklawn Community Baptist Church. They also built a small schoolhouse nearby.
Although farming was the major industry, a nearby industrial site was on Furnace Brook Road. The land was settled by John Harrod in 1662, and a grist mill, fulling mill, dye house, and furnace all have had their day at that location. Only one two-story wall of the old furnace remains.
Because of its proximity to the rail lines, Oaklawn was one of the first villages to take on the character of a residential suburb. In 1872, when Cranston's population was about 5,000, Oaklawn was still known as Searle's Corner, a farm hamlet composed of a church and eight houses. The village's name was changed to "Oak Lawn" as part of the development efforts of Job Wilbur--whose house stands (much altered) at 104 Wilbur Avenue--and Francis Turner--who had bought the Searle farm in 1849. Both men platted their land in 1872. Wilbur called his plat on the south side of Wilbur Avenue "Oak Lawn," a name he was able to convince officials of the Providence-to-Hartford Railroad to give to the train stop and, hence, the village. The following advertisement announcing the opening of the plat conveyed its attraction for commuters:
Oaklawn in Cranston is centrally located on the Hartford Railroad, sixteen to eighteen minutes ride from the [Providence city] depot. It can be reached quickly by steam cars and the communication [commute] or quarterly fares for residents are very low, being about the same as horse car fares. The tract of land is high pleasant table land about fifteen feet above the railroad, is almost level, and its soil is excellent.
The area grew into a small suburban village, expanding along Wilbur Avenue from the railroad station at Exchange Street to the cluster of three eighteenth-century gambrel houses at the intersection of Natick Road. The community was soon able to support a new church housing the Oak Lawn Benevolent Society. This group had acquired the old Quaker meetinghouse in 1864 following the decline of the Quakers. To support the new congregation and their plans for a new building, Roby Wilbur, Job's wife, originated the May Breakfast in 1868, another Oaklawn "first." This tradition has since been adopted across Rhode Island and other parts of the country. Each year, hundreds of people journey to Oaklawn to participate in this traditional springtime event. The new church was built in 1879 on the original site of the Quaker meetinghouse. The Quaker meetinghouse was moved behind the new church.
Around 1840, a one-story Greek Revival structure--about ten years old, located near the intersection of present-day Routes 2 and 5--was cut in half and moved to its present location. It served as the village schoolhouse until 1896. At that time, the library, which had been formed in 1889 by Rev. William Briggs and 14 others and was housed in the old Quaker Meeting House, moved to its present quarters. The Oak Lawn Free Library Association opened on May 23, 1896 with 72 members and 850 books.
The village continued to grow in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, becoming a small tree-lined suburban hamlet with attractive Late Victorian houses standing behind picket fences. Many of these houses were built by a local carpenter, Henry Pratt, whose workshop still stands at the corner of Vinton and Searle Avenues. Despite the loss of its elm trees and many of the white picket fences, Oaklawn today retains much of the history and charm it had in the late nineteenth century.