2010-08-05 / Island History

Jamestown Historical Society News

By Rosemary Enright
Farming plays an important part in Jamestown’s history, and this history has been the focus of JHS activities this summer. During the first two weeks of August, the JHS celebrates two farm-related events. This Saturday, Aug. 7, is Windmill Day, when we raise the cloth sails on the windmill vanes, eat Rhode Island jonnycakes in the windmill field and – this year – learn how to rebuild a Jamestown stone wall. Aug. 12 is our annual meeting, which features a talk about Jamestown’s agrarian past.

Jamestown Windmill Jamestown Windmill Windmill Day

The activities on Saturday, Aug. 7, begin at 11 a.m., when Dick Donnelly sets up his tent and his portable stove and begins cooking jonnycake for all visitors.

Jonnycakes are made from cornmeal – the kind of flour that the millers at the windmill ground from Jamestown-grown white flint corn during the 109 years (1787- 1896) that the mill was in operation. These simple, flat, flourand water (or sometimes milk) pancakes are thought by some today to be useful mostly as a carrier for butter and maple syrup, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were a daily staple in the diet of a large number of people in Rhode Island’s farming communities, including Jamestown.

The cloth sails will be raised on the windmill vanes and the bonnet turned to catch the wind at about noon. The positioning and timing of windmill operation will depend on the prevailing winds. The winds in Jamestown are often fickle in the morning and settle in a southerly direction between 11 a.m. and noon.

No corn will be ground. A wooden casing – called a vat – is needed around the stone to keep the ground meal from escaping into the mill. The vat in our mill has been replaced by a plexiglas cover to give visitors a better view of the grindstone.

Starting at 1 p.m., Mike Minto of Conanicut Stoneworks will demonstrate how to dismantle and rebuild a stone wall. Much of the wall around the windmill field is in disrepair. Mike has taken on the job of fixing it. He will begin his demonstration with a discussion of stone walls in Jamestown – their history, how and when they were built, and their composition. He will then take down part of the wall between the windmill field and the Dutra Farm field to the south, explaining as he does so what one can learn about a wall while dismantling it. Finally, he will rebuild the portion of the wall he has dismantled.

From 11 to 4, the mill will be open for visitors, although access to the area around the mill and to the third floor – inside the bonnet – will be limited while the vanes are turning. The vanes sweep very close to the ground and the wind shaft turns with the vanes, making it dangerous to be too close.

The Conanicut Grange will also offer tours of the Watson and Hodgkiss farms on North Main Road, Windmist on Weeden Lane, and the Community Farm on Eldred Avenue from noon to 4 p.m. You can easily walk to Windmist and the Hodgkiss farm from the windmill. More information about the farms and the activities they offer will be available at the windmill.

Because of all the activity, only cars with handicap tags will be allowed to park in the windmill field. Others are asked to park on Weeden Lane and to walk to the windmill along the paved path on the east side of North Main Road. The state does not allow parking on North Main Road.

Come and enjoy a day of fun at the Jamestown windmill.

JHS annual meeting

The JHS annual meeting will be held on Thursday, Aug. 12, in the meeting room at the Jamestown Philomenian Library. The business meeting will begin at 7 p.m. with the reading of the minutes of the 2009 annual meeting and a report on the goals and accomplishments for the 2009-2010 year. The nominating committee will then present the slate of candidates for the 2010-2011 board. The business meeting should take about a halfhour.

The business meeting will be followed at 7:30 by a presentation by our guest speaker, Don Minto, who manages the Watson Farm on North Main Road. The Watson Farm was owned by the Watson family from 1796, when Job Watson purchased the land from Joseph Martin, until the death of Job’s great-grandson, Thomas Carr Watson Jr., in 1969.

Thomas Carr Watson Jr. bequeathed the farm to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England, with the stipulation that it continue to be operated as a working farm. In April, 1980, after much renovation, Historic New England hired Don and Heather Minto to revive the Watson Farm’s agricultural working landscape.

Don and Heather have managed the 265-acre Watson Farm for the past 30 years. They have introduced modern methods, while continuing the Jamestown tradition of using the land primarily for pasture, raising sheep and Heritage Red Devon cattle. The farm produces 100% grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as wool yarn and blankets.

Don will talk about “Conanicut Island’s Agrarian Heritage,” with special emphasis on changing land use on the island. His talk coordinates with our museum exhibit, “Farm Life in Jamestown: A Look at Our Farms, Past and Present.”

House tour weekend

Mark your calendars for the JHS house tour weekend, Sept. 17 and 18. Our members-only cocktail party and tour at an historic home is Sept. 17; the house tour, featuring Jamestown historic farmhouses, is Sept. 18.

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