Jamestown Historical Society

If you are visiting southern New England and want a relaxing and historical day away, look no further than the sites of Jamestown Historical Society. The village of Jamestown completely covers Conanicut Island, the second-largest island in Narragansett Bay and part of the smallest American state, Rhode Island. Although separate from the mainland, visitors can drive onto Conanicut Island via the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge, which also serves as a passage between Historic New England’s Casey Farm and Watson Farm. My favorite sites of Jamestown Historical Society are Jamestown Windmill, Conanicut Friends Meetinghouse, and Jamestown Museum & Town Hall.

Jamestown Windmill
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

The Watson family, who owned the nearby farm, constructed the gray cedar shingled windmill in 1787. This windmill was unique in its grinding ability to grind corn into cornmeal instead of wheat into flour. By 1896, industrial methods of grinding corn outcompeted the traditional method, and the windmill closed. Jamestowners were keen to save their windmill and formed the Jamestown Windmill Association to buy and rehabilitate the structure. A few years later, in 1912, they founded Jamestown Historical Society to preserve the windmill, and the society continuously fundraises for its maintenance to this day. They last renovated the windmill in 2001. I enjoyed exploring the floors of the windmill, going all the way up into the bonnet and looking down the drive shaft to the milling floor. At each level, visitors can read mini exhibits on the history of the windmill. The windmill docent is highly knowledgeable, as she wrote the signage in the mini exhibits. Since the windmill is still in operational condition, Jamestown Historical Society allows it to “sail” during Windmill Day. Held on a single Saturday in late July during odd numbered years, the next Windmill Day will be on July 22, 2023, from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. I hope to celebrate this day in Jamestown, and perhaps I will see some of you there!

Looking down the gear shaft from the top floor inside the bonnet of Jamestown Windmill
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
The corn grinding stone at the Jamestown Windmill
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
The sails of Jamestown Windmill; these cloth panels attached to the lattices of the windmill
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

Down the hill from the windmill, accessible either by a wooden ladder over a stone wall plus soggy walk through a field or by a drier route along the road, is Conanicut Friends Meetinghouse. Constructed in 1786 by members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, this building continues to serve as a place of worship for local members of Providence Friends Meeting during the summer season. The meetinghouse and yard are owned and maintained by the Jamestown Historical Society, while an active Friend currently acts as docent. In addition to fascinating religious history, the property is the final resting place for what local historians believed to be several Hessian soldiers from the American Revolutionary War. The Friends meeting and historical society are interested in exhuming and testing the remains to determine the identity of these veterans and reunite them with their descendants.

The wooden ladder over the stonewall leading to the soggy field between Jamestown Windmill and Conanicut Friends Meeting house.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
The outside of Conanicut Friends Meetinghouse
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
The inside of Conanicut Friends Meetinghouse
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

My final Jamestown Historical Society stop was Jamestown Museum, located across the street from the Town Hall (pictured at top of article). The museum building began its life in 1885 as a one-room schoolhouse. In 1898, the town library took over and served this purpose until 1972, when Jamestown Historical Society began leasing the property. The latest renovation of the building took place in 2008, which included the addition of an American Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant ramp allowing people with all levels of mobility to enjoy the exhibits. At the time of my visit, the museum had just opened a fun retrospective of its past fifty years. Themes included architecture, transportation, military service, town service, daily lives, and remarkable events. A set of vinyl posters displayed information from past exhibits, while a digital touch table allowed visitors to explore the museum’s archives of photographs. For those who love model boats, the backroom of the museum housed an exhibit on the history of steam powered ferries that ran from Jamestown to Newport from 1837 to 1969.

Jamestown Museum, formerly a one-room schoolhouse and a library
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Inside the backroom of the Jamestown Museum
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

Visitors to the Newport area who love history and scenery but need a break from the crowds will enjoy a day in Jamestown. Be aware that sites are only open to the public seasonally on weekends from 12:00 noon to 4:00 p.m. during mid-June through September. The meetinghouse holds Friends meetings or worship services on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. during these months, and they welcome curious guests.

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Abigail Epplett

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.