2010-04-08 / News

Conanicut Grange Farm Report

By Bob Sutton
In 1781, near the end of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington crossed over Conanicut Island on his way to meet with the French military commanders in Newport. We have no way of knowing if General Washington took notice of a devastated Jamestown. For whatever reason, the British had taken a particular dislike of Jamestown citizenry and had burned most of the Jamestown houses and shops as early as 1775.

When General Washington made his historic trip across the island, few residents remained. According to author H.L. Watson in his book “History of Jamestown on Conanicut Island,” …“those who remained were farmers and their only hope for a living was to get it out of the ground.”

We do know that one of the individuals who witnessed General Washington crossing Conanicut in April, 1781, was a man named Job Watson and a few years later, around 1794, he acquired land along the West Passage. He built a farm and that land – the Watson Farm – prospered and stayed in the Watson family almost 200 years until April, 1979.

Tom Carr Watson was the last of the direct generational line from Job Watson. He lived in town on Conanicus Avenue; however, the entirety of his life, he meticulously maintained the buildings and land at the 250-acre farm. Although he was a man of significant resources, one of his favorite pastimes was to take his guests bouncing around the farm pastures in his field-battered 1960 green Ford station wagon.

When Tom Carr Watson died in 1979, he left the farm to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities with the express requirement that the Society (now called Historic New England) maintain it as a working farm.

Tom Carr Watson’s donation of land and historic buildings was clearly a valuable and generous gift to Historic New England and to the people of Jamestown. But his wish that it remain a working farm was an incredible act of understanding and intelligence. This requirement ensured that Historic New England was going to have to find a way to keep it a working farm – and they did just that. They went out and found Don and Heather Minto.

This year, Don and Heather are celebrating their 25th year at Watson Farm and by any standard you care to use, they and their three children have created a successful, sustainable working farm. They raise more than 200 head of livestock (sheep and Red Devon cattle), along with chickens, turkeys, ducks, sheepdogs and vegetable gardens.

They use intelligent, sustainable, environmentally positive farming practices that improve the livestock breeds and the farm soils, while at the same time, producing excellent, saleable local farm products. Most importantly, they and Historic New England have been involved in the community and have made Watson Farm and the farm experience available to all of us.

School children, bird watchers, art associations, state and national professional farm groups and the general public all make annual pilgrimages to Watson Farm. Tom Carr Watson knew what he wanted and what would be good for all of us. Don and Heather Minto – and Historic New England – made it happen.

Conanicut Island neighbor and artist Gilbert Stuart – and subsequently, the U.S. Mint – made the image of George Washington familiar to all of us. Through textbooks and school classes, we all understand the unique, invaluable and heroic role President Washington played in the early history of our nation. He was a national hero and for Job Watson to see General Washington in Jamestown must have been a lifetime experience.

An 1875 map of Jamestown labels the very highest point of Watson farm as “Mt. Pleasant.” When you stand at the top of Mt. Pleasant with Job Watson’s 1794 farm house below you and the farm fields and pastures sloping down to the West Passage of Narragansett Bay, it is very easy to imagine General Washington crossing the Bay in 1781 on his way from South Ferry in Saunderstown to Newport.

Because it all remains so unchanged, you can personally feel very close to an important moment in time – and, in a way, share Job’s experience. It is a history lesson much more real and personal than the dusty old portrait of President Washington hanging on the schoolhouse wall. Tom Carr Watson was a very thoughtful man.

Outstanding in the Field

A farmhand was a man who, for a variety of reasons, did not own a farm but for much of his working career, worked on farms. A good farmhand was a skilled individual and always in demand and, during the course of his lifetime, probably worked on all the neighboring farms in a community.

Although “farmhanding” as an occupation essentially disappeared with the farm technological revolution – tractors replacing horses, electric motors/hydraulic pumps replacing human muscle – an excellent farmhand still works the farms of Jamestown.

Bill Brayman grew up in Jamestown in the 1940s and 1950s, raised a family, had a professional career as a heavy equipment operator and a second career as a farmhand. For the last 60 years, Bill has provided skilled farmhand labor to every farm in Jamestown, so that man out standing in the field may just be Bill Brayman

Conanicut Grange meetings are held at 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at Grange Hall at 6 West St.

What’s available in Jamestown

McQuade’s Market: Rhody Fresh milk

Hodgkiss Farm, North Main Road: Horse hay, home knit wool caps, 423-3260

Watson Farm, North Main Road: Grass-fed Red Devon beef, lamb, Conanicut Island and Rhody Warm wool blankets. Hours: Thursday, 3 to 6 p.m.

Windmist Farm, 71Weeden Lane: Grass-fed beef products, fresh eggs. Hours: Friday, 3 to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Farmer’s markets

(www.farmfresh.org)

North Kingstown, 650 Ten Rod Rd.: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Pawtucket, Hope Artiste Village, 1005 Main St.: Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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