2011-08-11 / Front Page

Watson Farm reveals a historic stone wall along North Road

BY MARGO SULLIVAN

Imagine driving North Road by Watson Farm and glimpsing a herd of Red Devon cattle grazing in the field.

“That’s the dream,” says Heather Minto. She and husband Don, who manage the property, said they made a start last summer, with help from the community, by removing brush hiding the stone walls.

Up until then, many islanders had never noticed Watson Farm’s dry wall, which dates from 1710.

“Everyone helped,” Don Minto said. The couple cleared the land inside the walls, but they needed machinery to do the exterior, due to a swale, which blocked access to sections of the 2,000-foot-long wall. The community raised $8,000 at a special “Night at Watson Farm.” The Jamestown Chamber of Commerce and the town contributed funds and equipment, and volunteers helped pull away the tangles of overgrowth.

“We’ve opened up the view into the property,” he said. Now walking or driving through the heart of the island, people can look into Watson Farm and into the adjoining farms and enjoy 1,200 acres of green fields.

This summer, they are hoping to team with the farm’s owner, Historic New England, and continue clearing the overgrowth and rebuilding damaged sections. Part of the stone wall has collapsed due to frost heaves and car collisions, they said.

Historic New England has owned Watson Farm since 1979 when Thomas Carr Watson Jr. left the 285 acres to the nonprofit organization, but specified the land must be maintained as a working farm. The Mintos raise sheep and cattle because Watson raised livestock.

He raised Angus cattle, Don Minto said, but he didn’t live at Watson Farm. Tenant farmers worked Watson Farm from 1918 to 1938.

No one had lived in the farmhouse since the 1938 hurricane, Don Minto said.

“He was ahead of his time,” he said.

The couple has managed the property for 32 years, Heather Minto said. When they arrived in 1980, the farm needed work. They accepted the mission to bring the farm back and develop programs and access for the public.

“It’s hard work,” she said, but they enjoy making a meal of food they produced and “sharing it with their neighbors.”

“It’s nice it’s being preserved forever,” she said, so people come in, see the sheep and the border collies, and savor a little of the New England rural flavor. “You get the feeling Jamestown was always like this. It’s like a kite string to the past.”

The stone wall’s origins predate the Colonial times and stretch all the way back to the glaciers. Heather Minto said that the glacier was a mile high here. She added that to work the land, a farmers took the rocks out of the soil and then used the rocks to build the walls.

Don Minto cannot help wondering about the people who built the wall.

New England’s stone walls, which have been immortalized in Robert Frost’s poetry, reveal the “backbone of the land,” Don Minto said, and still hold stories to be told about the region’s rich history and its future. He believes farming is on a comeback, due to interest in locally grown food.

Watson Farm is one of only four Rhode Island properties belonging to Historic New England, which this year is putting a focus on the Ocean State, according to Dan Santos, the organization’s regional site manager. Hours at Clemence-Irons House in Johnston, Arnold House in Lincoln, and Casey Farm in Saunderstown have been expanded. No changes were made to Watson Farm operations, which already were open from June 1 to Oct. 15 three days a week, Santos said, on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

Historic New England owns 36 properties, mostly in Massachusetts; Watson, though, is different, because the other holdings typically include furniture, art and other treasures.

These are all places people need to see, Santos said, and by giving people more exposure to their local history, they’ll better understand they’re connected to the land and the past. Santos said the organization, through its Preservation Maintenance Fund, will continue supporting the stone wall work at Watson Farm this summer.

People can specify they want a contribution to go to the stone wall repair by specifying the Center Corridor Scenic Byway Project, Don Minto said. Historic New England has received a $3 million grant but must raise $600,000 in matching funds. Funds earmarked for Watson Farm will go to “repairing the barn, clearing the landscape and stone walls, improving farm functions and improving long-term sustainability,” according to the nonprofit’s “preservation in progress” statement.

Minto figures he needs $1,200 to $2,000 annually to maintain the wall and about $10,000 to $15,000 to hire a stone mason, a one-time expense.

Once the wall is fixed, he will only need to put in a water system before he can start grazing the cattle by North Road. The well is already in the ground, the couple said.

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