Back in June 2023, after I visited to Casey Farm in Saunderstown, RI, I crossed the bay on Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge to visit Watson Farm in Jamestown, RI, a mere seven-minute drive away. While Historic New England (HNE) owns both properties with 18th century farmhouses and heritage breed animals, these farms could not be more different. A working family farm on 265 acres, Watson Farm contains a farmhouse, barn, walking trails, pastures, and a beach. The farm manager and family live in the late Georgian style farmhouse, which is not open to the public. Visitors should not go too near the house or look in its windows, as emphasized by frequent signage, the self-guided walking tour booklet, and the onsite HNE employee who greets visitors at the beginning of their tour.
Watson Farm is located on Conanicut Island, which the people of Narragansett Indian Tribe inhabited before 1657. Narragansett people regularly burned the land to clear the island for growing crops. Meanwhile, European settlers in Newport let their cattle graze on the island grass but soon discovered the need for more land. A coalition of ninety-eight Newport farmers bought Conanicut Island from the Narragansett for one hundred pounds’ worth of wampum. I do not know enough about the exchange rate between wampum and 17th century English currency to know if this was a fair trade.
For the next 140 years, landlords controlled the island and employed tenant farmers to grow crops and raise livestock. The Brenton-Sandford-Hutchinson family passed down this farm to multiple generations, often renting out the property to fellow Loyalists to the king of England. A poll from 1767 revealed tenant farmer John Martin kept horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs along with literal tons of hay, grass, and grain to feed them. Five enslaved people with unrecorded names and unknown ancestry worked the grounds during this time. The State of Rhode Island seized the property during the American Revolutionary War in 1780. The state gave the farm as payment to officers in the Rhode Island State Regiment, but the officers promptly sold the land. By 1796, Job Watson purchased the farm formerly rented by John Martin and gave it to his son, Robert Watson. At last, the land acquired its name and farmhouse. The Watson family kept the farm until 1979, when Thomas Carr Watson Jr. bequeathed the property to Historic New England.
Today, the farm manager and his family raise sheep and cows, with their specialty being Red Devon cattle. These are the same breeds raised on the farm in the 17th and 18th centuries. Red Devon cattle arrived in Plymouth Colony in 1623, only three years after the landing of the Mayflower. Sheep wool was a valuable export, and the modern Rhode Island Sheep Cooperative continues to make blankets and provide meat to locals. When the farm is open to the public, the animals graze in pastures accessible by walking trails. A modern windmill-powered pump stands in the middle of a pasture and sends water from an eighty-foot well to a 2,000-gallon wood storage tank, which takes six hours to fill on a windy day. The windmill is crucial for the farm since cows drink up to ten gallons a day! Besides farm animals and cool technology, Watson Farm has its own beach. This was once the site of a ferry landing and later a bridge, which were the easiest ways to reach Conanicut Island before the construction of the first Jamestown Bridge in 1940. Today, the breezy beach is a good break from the hotter pastures.
Tickets for Watson Farm are $25 for the whole family, $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for students and children, and $0 for Jamestown residents and Historic New England members (like me!). The farm is open to visitors from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays from the beginning of June through mid-October and on Tuesdays in July and August. No dogs are permitted on the property, as they could frighten the farm animals. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes; the longest loop trail stretches about two miles and has sections of uneven footing. Unfortunately, this property is not well-suited for users of wheelchairs or strollers. For those who can make the journey around the farm, this quiet getaway is a wonderful place to spend a relaxing afternoon.
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Abigail Epplett leads a dual life as a freelance digital marketing consultant for small humanities-focused organizations and as a customer experience design creative specialist at lab equipment manufacturer Waters Corporation. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, where she researched the history of New England from Plymouth to the Civil War. To learn more about her adventures with museums, visit her current blog at abbyeppletthistorian.blogspot.com.