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Our History

The South County Museum not only houses and educates visitors on the history of South County- it also has a rich history as well.  

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Museum Locations

Museum History

The South County Museum has been in operation since 1933 - our rich history of the land where the current museum sits is outlined in the timeline below. 

1000AD

Site utilized by the Narragansett people for agriculture, hunting, and fishing

1741

Land passes to William Robinson - Deputy Governor of the Rhode Island colony

1864

Gov. Sprague and his wife Kate Chase purchase the land, name it “Canonchet” after the 

famous Narragansett sachem

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1882

The Spragues divorce, William keeps the mansion. He remarries the next year to Inez 

Weed Calvert of Virginia

1909

The Sprague mansion burns to the ground, the Spragues move to Paris

1937

The museum moves to Scrabbletown Road in North Kingstown

1985

The museum moves to Canonchet Farm here in Narragansett

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1658

Land now home to Canonchet Farm purchased by Thomas Mumford in the Pettaquamscutt Purchase

1852

John Thompson purchases the land from Attmore Robinson

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1866

Construction begins on a 64-room mansion. This task would ultimately take six years and 

cost $1,000,000 to build and furnish - $14,000,000 today

1900

Construction begins on a new two-story stable at the cost of $100,000

1933

Founding of the South County Museum in Wickford

1975

The museum

moves to
Quaker Lane

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1996

Carpentry & Blacksmithing shops open to the public

Present Day

The South County Museum operates annually from April to October dedicated to sharing the rich history and culture of Rhode Island.  Consider donating to the museum to help keep our rich history alive. 

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The Original Barn Museum, Wickford RI, 1933—1936

The Barn Museum, Wickford, RI.

In 1933, Rhode Island, as well as the rest of the United States, was in the throes of the Great Depression. During the 1920s and early 1930s, many technological changes had taken place: automobiles and tractors were rapidly replacing horses and oxen, electric lights and appliances were replacing candles, kerosene lamps, and older manual, labor-intensive devices. A group of businessmen and prominent state residents were concerned that the state was losing its traditional rural, industrial, and maritime heritage. Among them was Albert E. Lownes (pronounced loans) (1899-1978). Lownes was President and then later Chairman of the Board of the American Silk Spinning Co., Providence, RI, and a lecturer in the history of science at Brown University. Lownes’ primary interest was the collection of rare books, although the collection and preservation of local 18th and 19th century artifacts reflecting rural Rhode Island life was also of major interest. He consequently hosted a meeting of his friends and acquaintances on September 29, 1933 at his home, Aquapaug Lodge, then located at Tuckertown Four Corners opposite the Perryville Grange Hall in Tuckertown (a village within South Kingstown). The purpose was to discuss the establishment of a “South County Barn Museum” or “South County Farm Museum” to preserve artifacts of this regional way of life. The purpose of the museum was:

"…to collect the tools and implements connected with the many farm, home, and village industries of old-time South County and to provide a place where they may be properly preserved and shown."

The meeting attendees included Albert Lownes, J. Earle Bacon, T.G. Hazard, Jr., Clinton Prescott Knight, Jr., George L. Miner, Mr. and Mrs. E.S. Moulton, Mrs. E.K. Hall, Walter Rodman, George Stevens, and J. (James) Earle Clauson, a veteran newspaperman and columnist for the Providence Evening Bulletin (now The Providence Journal). Among the Founders not attending the meeting was George Benjamin Utter.

Two barns on a five-acre tract of land, known as the Lucy Reynolds Estate, located on the west side of Hamilton Ave. (now Boston Neck Rd.) just south of Beach St. in Wickford, RI, were leased for approximately $15/month. This was formerly the great Smith, later Updike estate (aka the Reynolds estate property). And so the South County Museum was established. The official opening date was June 2, 1934. The official purpose of the museum was formally articulated in the Museum by-laws:

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May 27, 1934, several of the founders and contributors pose in one of the Museum’s barns. (Left to right: E D Moulton, J E Clauson, A E Lownes, G L Miner, C L Armstrong, W Rodman, C P Knight, Jr. Young boys, left to right: G Berthold, R W O’Leary.)

"To encourage the study and better understanding of early American life and industry in the home, in the shop, on the farm, and on the sea; and especially to discover, identify, classify, preserve, and exhibit the tools, implements, utensils, instruments, vehicles, appliances and mechanical devices used by craftsmen, farmers, housewives, mariners, professional men and other workers in old-time South County."

The Museum was conceived as a series of small shops in separate buildings, each highlighting specific small crafts, e.g. kitchen, school, general store, ship’s chandlery, textiles, silversmith, old-fashioned garden, fire station, jail, bank, childhood life, and farm with farm equipment. The original collection of donated items rose to approximately 700 articles, mainly due to “attic spring cleaning” efforts by the founding families—Knight, Hazard, Davis, and Lownes. The main barn had three floors, the floor at ground level for plows and wagons. The second barn had two levels. The museum would be open two days a week and the cost of an annual membership was to be one dollar. An admission ticket for non-members would cost 25 cents. Albert Lownes became the Museum’s first President, and J. Earle Bacon, employed by the Manufacturers National Bank and a student of Native American culture, was appointed curator of the Museum’s collection in 1935.

The dream of a series of separate buildings housing individual, small related exhibits was not to be, however. The collection remained consolidated in the two leased barns at the Wickford location.

In 1936, the Museum supplied an exhibit to the Tercentenary Industrial Exposition at the Cranston Street Armory in Providence. This exhibit elicited tremendous publicity and opened a veritable floodgate of donated items, far beyond all expectations. Eventually, the burgeoning collection necessitated expansion into additional buildings and resulted in a move to a new location at Spring Brook Farm in 1936-37.

Spring Brook Farm Scrabbletown 1937—1975

Scrabbletown, RI

During the winter of 1936-37, the Museum was moved to a large dairy barn on Scrabbletown Rd., a short distance from Stony Lane in North Kingstown. The 87 acre property was known as Spring Brook Farm at that time, built in the mid-nineteenth century and originally known as the Gardiner-Arnold Farm. The barn consisted of a two story main building and a large ell. The location and buildings were donated rent-free by the owner, Clinton Prescott Knight, Jr. (1891-1970), one of the Museum’s founders. C. P. Knight Jr. was Director of the National Bank of Commerce, People’s Savings Bank, and the Union Mutual Fire Insurance Company, all in Providence, RI.

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Sketch of the Barn Museum at Spring Brook Farm on Scrabbletown Rd., North Kingstown, RI.

J. Earle Bacon continued as curator. At moving time, the collection numbered greater than 4000 items. Objects not on display were stored in various outbuildings located on the farm. As the collection continued to grow, a substantial wing needed to be added to the original dairy barn to house the ever-expanding assortment of artifacts. The planners still had their original grand idea — to construct a “colonial village” containing a number of small shops rather than a single museum. The shops were to be: metalworking (blacksmith), leatherworking (cobbler, harness maker), woodworking (carpenter), cooper, turner, wheelwright, general store, textile mill, fire-engine house, printer’s shop, one-room schoolhouse, cider mill, and “near the waterfront,” the latter being comprised of boat yard, ship’s chandler, and possibly a rope walk. By 1939, new walking paths had been constructed on the property, one leading to a model sawmill, the other to a picnic spot by a wading pool.

In 1940, the Museum held a very successful open house featuring old-time life re-enacted with “colonial” costumed interpreters using the Museum’s artifacts.

The tenure of the museum was to be interrupted by World War II, and the Museum was closed to the public shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Essential activities to preserve the collection continued during this period. Fragile articles were packed away and other artifacts were covered and made as safe as possible for the duration. Membership dues were not collected during this time, although some very loyal members continued to donate anyway to keep the Museum afloat.

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The collection continued to grow throughout WWII, although acquisitions were limited by rubber and gasoline rationing (motor cars were needed to get to the museum) and museum personnel were needed on farms and in factories to support the war effort. Artifacts were still loaned to other museums during this time; however, an exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art containing a number of South County Museum’s artifacts was written up in Life Magazine (Jan. 15, 1945, pp. 8-10).

The Museum reopened in the spring of 1946 under a new supervisor/curator, Harold J. Friend. The collection was estimated at 15,000 separate items at this time. There was an urgent need for increased storage capacity to accommodate the large number of items not on display but of academic interest.

 

By 1947, the Museum was receiving visitors both nationally and internationally. The administration realized that the Museum’s wooden buildings were highly susceptible to fire and that the collection was, therefore, being stored in a very risky location. This perilous situation remained until the Museum moved to its Quaker Lane location in the winter of 1974-1975.

In 1970, C.P. Knight died leaving the 87-acre Spring Brook Farm to his wife. In 1971, a year after C.P. Knight’s passing, Mrs. Knight also passed away, generously bequeathing the entire Spring Brook Farm property to the South County Museum. After much discussion, it was decided to sell 67 acres of the property and with the proceeds build a new building on the remaining 18 acres near the corner of Route 2 (Quaker Lane) and Stony Lane, in North Kingstown. An additional two acres including the original Knight Barn Museum building were also retained by the Museum. John Ward was appointed President of the museum and the innovative and energetic Peter Crolius was appointed the Museum’s first official director in 1973. The Trustees wanted something more than a tourist attraction. They wanted an educational institution with classes available for both children and adults.

Quaker Lane 1975—1984

North Kingstown, RI

The new museum building was built on the west side of Quaker Lane, near the intersection of Quaker Lane (Route 2) and Stony Lane, by Grinnell Phillips, contractors, under the direction of John Ward, Museum President. The cost of the new building was $63,000 (about $299,000 in today’s dollars). It was opened to the public in May of 1975. The building design was patterned after the Charlestown Gift Barn, Charlestown, RI (still in existence and located just west of Route 1 in Charlestown). The exterior lettering was hand-made using a sixteenth-century Bookman typeface. The ground floor of the new building was constructed largely of cement block, making it more fireproof, with a second-floor loft made of timber. The building was topped with a gambrel roof.

 

The ground floor housed the heavier artifacts: transportation, blacksmithing, farming, and other “manly pursuits” while the upper level housed dresses, weaving and sewing apparatus, children’s toys, and furniture. Admission in 1975: adults, one dollar, children, fifty cents. “Touch, try, feel!” was the mantra put forward by Director Peter Crolius. Crolius’ vision was for a “…museum not only as a center of historical interest for Rhode Island, but also as an important contributor in the fields of entertainment, recreation, and education.” During Crolius’ tenure, a large variety of Historical Skills Workshops were offered, sometimes with content diverging from the original South County Museum mission of preserving and teaching crafts from RI history. A sampling of offerings included: Forgotten Rhode Island (lost aspects of early RI culture, tours of “forgotten South County historical sites''); authentic miniature houses—dollhouse construction; all-season backpacking; how to start and operate an antique shop; scrimshaw; chair reseating; beginning letterpress printing; leather craft; spinning and dyeing; whittling and carving; doll and soft toy making; quilting; rug braiding; silver jewelry; jewelry from found objects; basketry; Taaniko jewelry; four-harness weaving; dulcimer-making; stained glass; calligraphy; furniture refinishing; and furniture restoration.

In the mid-1970s, the Museum Trustees decided to sell the remaining two-acre Scrabbletown property containing the farmhouse and surrounding outbuildings that had been retained by the Museum after moving to their new location on Quaker Lane. It was also decided that the Museum’s collection contained a number of surplus items. Surplus artifacts were first offered to other historical organizations. The remaining surplus was to be offered at auction, including several carriages, vehicle parts, and a two-seated sleigh. The Museum did not have adequate or appropriate space to store books, and these were given away as a goodwill gesture. Other items would be given away for public relations purposes.

In 1976, a pole barn for outdoor events and activities (aka the “Barn-on-the-Hill”) was built on an adjoining five-acre field near the main museum building. Agway, Inc. was the contractor. Not only was the pole barn used for Museum events, but it was also rented to the public for community events, providing an additional much-needed source of revenue.

The success of the new South County Museum continued at this location until the Rhode Island State Department of Transportation extended Route 4 through North Kingstown. The Route 4 extension would pass through a corner of the Museum property and would directly affect the Museum building. It was originally thought that the Museum building could be moved to a better location, but, unfortunately, because the first floor was constructed of cement block and concrete, it proved impossible to move. Several new sites were considered: Canonchet Farm in Narragansett, Smith’s Castle in North Kingstown, Casey Farm in North Kingstown, Charlestown Gift Barn in Charlestown, and Paul Lischio’s proposed South County Village, near the corners of Routes 4 and 102 in North Kingstown. Ultimately, it was decided that Canonchet Farm should be the Museum’s new location. The Museum’s collection of approximately 10,000 artifacts was relocated to Canonchet in 1984 and the Stony Lane building was condemned and demolished.

Christmas craft fair at the South
County Museum, 1975.

Canonchet Farm 1985—Present

Narragansett, RI

The Canonchet Farm property, previously the William Robinson farm, was purchased by Governor, and then later Senator, William Sprague in 1850. In 1863, Sprague and his wife, Kate, built a 64 room, four-story Victorian mansion, dubbed “Canonchet,” on the property. (The property was originally the summer campsite of Canonchet, the legendary Narragansett Sachem and leader of Native American warriors during the Great Swamp Fight (1675) and King Philip’s War (1675-1676).)

The mansion stood for almost 50 years until two o’clock in the morning of October 11, 1909, when sparks from a defective fireplace flue ignited the building.

Over the next several hours, the magnificent Victorian-era structure burned to the ground despite the best efforts of firefighters and fire equipment from Narragansett, Wakefield, and Peace Dale.

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October 11, 1909, the Canonchet Mansion burns to the ground in a spectacular fire.

The mansion was a total loss. Today, the property consists of 174 acres, approximately eight of which are leased to the South County Museum by the Town of Narragansett.

Initially, it was thought that the museum could occupy the Canonchet estate’s 75 foot by 40 foot stone stable, still in existence after the 1909 fire that destroyed the mansion. Further inspection, however, revealed that a subsequent fire in the stable itself in 1950 had rendered the building unusable. (The ruins of the stable are located opposite the entrance to the Museum Press building.)

The South County Museum was reopened to the public at its new location in October 1985. Nancy and John Marzilli, a husband and wife team from Barrington, were the designer-builders for the new museum buildings and exhibits. Buildings consisted of a new three story main building and the Museum Press building, both built over approximately a five month period in 1984.The main building was designed to emulate a Town Hall, the center of a typical Victorian New England village. The architect William Warner was contracted to prepare a long-range plan to formally designate additional future buildings.

The late 1980s and early to mid-1990s were banner years for the museum. Under Karen Asher, part-time Museum Director from 1986-1989, and then Peter Gardiner, 1990-1999, the Museum expanded the number and scope of exhibits, activities, and events resulting in a surge in attendance. The very talented Peg Cluck, exhibits coordinator, created many new exhibits with help from a cadre of volunteers. The Museum regularly experienced national and international attendance of 5,000 or more visitors per year.

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The Museum’s main exhibit building was renamed the Metz Exhibit Hall in 1990.

In 1990, Dr. William DeWitt Metz, first a member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, then President of the Museum for 13 years from 1977 to 1990, stepped down as President in order to spend more time writing grants and increasing the Museum’s endowment fund. Metz had been an historian and faculty member for 45 years in the History Department at the University of Rhode Island, retiring from the University in 1982. In appreciation of Dr. Metz’s many years of leadership service to the Museum, it was decided to dedicate the main building (Town Hall) to Dr. Metz. The building was renamed the Metz Building (Metz Exhibit Hall), and a commemorative plaque was installed.

Metz retired from the Museum in 1995 and was further honored by being named President Emeritus. Metz passed away in 2013 at the age of 98, having made a tremendous contribution to the continued success of the Museum.

In 1992, the Museum leased the “White House,” located a few yards southwest of the Museum Print Shop. This building would become the Museum’s Visitor and Education Center and is the first building visitors will enter when touring the Museum. The Visitor Center (painted its current green color in 2005) was thought to have originally been the Canonchet Farm ice house, later converted to a residence for farm workers. The house was in disrepair and renovations began during the winter of 1993, largely with funding provided through generous grants from the Rhode Island Foundation and Champlain Foundations as well as smaller sums from private donors, the membership, and the State of Rhode Island.

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The “White House” is now the Visitor Center.

Renovations were performed by the Historic Preservation Partnership of Newport; the cost of renovations was estimated at $80,000 ($139,000 in today’s dollars). A certificate of occupancy was issued in the fall of 1994.

William Warner’s Long Range Plan for the Museum was eventually completed in 1992 and was accepted by the Museum’s Board of Trustees. The plan envisioned the addition of three 20 by 30 foot display buildings situated behind the Metz Building along with a larger barn building, which would house the Museum’s extensive collection of farm tools and equipment. One of the smaller buildings would be a Blacksmith Shop, the second, a Carpentry Shop, and the third would house various collections as needed. At the time, the last building was envisioned by the Museum as a Wheelwright’s Shop, currently, it’s the Schoolhouse.

Generous grants from the Champlin Foundations and the Rhode Island Foundation would provide money for construction of the new buildings. Additional donations would later come from the New England Blacksmiths Association, the late Clinton Payne, and the membership. The buildings would be simple, barn-type structures typical of a 19th century village where artisans would carry on their craft. The Founder’s dream of a museum consisting of a series of separate buildings housing individual, small related exhibits was finally, after almost 60 years, coming to fruition. The four new buildings, constructed by Vadge Kroll (now President of Sun Systems Inc./Kroll Building Co., Narragansett, RI), were completed late in the summer of 1995 and were officially opened on May 1, 1996.

Nineteen ninety-five was the most successful year to date for the Museum in terms of financial condition, increased membership, number of visitors, and addition of new events. A total of 7,526 people visited the Museum that year from 31 states and 24 foreign countries.

 

Nineteen ninety-six brought the demise of the venerable Kenyon’s Department Store in Wakefield, RI. The store had been an area institution since 1856. Upon closing, Carol Kenyon Hazlehurst, the great granddaughter of Kenyon’s founder William G. Kenyon, donated all of the department store’s artifacts and memorabilia, including fixtures, counters, mannequins, display racks, a roll-top desk, antique cash register, and photographs to the South County Museum. This represented yet another giant step in completing the Museum’s New England village, for what village doesn’t have a general store? The museum’s collection had continued to expand during the ‘80s and ‘90s—artifacts in the Museum’s collection numbered in excess of 20,000 by the end of the 20th century.

The year 2000 brought with it the construction of the new, and now current, entrance to the Museum. Previously, the Museum entrance had been through the Narragansett Beach parking lot adjoining Boston Neck Road (Route 1A). Visitors would now turn at the Native American Memorial on Kingstown Road (approximately one half mile west of downtown Narragansett) onto Strathmore Street, and ultimately enter the Museum grounds through the Canonchet orchard. The result of this change has been to make the Museum a little more challenging for visitors to find, but hopefully worth the effort!

 

As the Museum moves into the twenty-first century, its mission has remained true to its roots–to inspire wonder and a better understanding of the agricultural, rural village and coastal life of ‘South County’ Rhode Island before the emergence of suburban communities. Today, the Museum continues to welcome visitors from all over the world and provide classes, programs, and events to the public throughout the year, with its main exhibits open from the beginning of May to the end of September.  Blacksmithing classes and the Annual Folk Art Quilt Show continue to be popular, while a chick hatch and lighting exhibit are new additions to the Museum’s programs. The recent addition of a new website, Facebook and Instagram pages have extended the Museum’s outreach and will provide a forum to further extend the Museum’s mission and purpose.

This history section will be a work in progress. If we are unsure of something, we will let you know, but we also expect as we delve further into the records this timeline and history may change. We ask for your patience and understanding if we get something wrong. We also hope that if you have images, memories, stories, documents, etc. or knowledge about the history of South County Museum that you will reach out to us. Our hope and expectation is that the History section of this website will grow as our understanding grows.

Thank you for your interest in South County Museum.