Rhode island is famous for its rich historical and architectural heritage, kept intact over centuries thanks to the efforts of preservation and historical societies around the state. Some organizations take it a step further, bringing history to life through interactive workshops with actors dressed in aprons and waistcoats, bonnets and tri-cornered hats, demonstrating the customs of the times. Visiting these places is like stepping through a portal to a past era.
You don't need to drive far to experience living history; your next time-traveling jaunt can be found right in the state. Rhode Island is home to Bristol's Coggeshall Farm, Smith's Castle in North Kingstown, the brand new Oliver Hazard Perry floating "teaching ship" harbored in Newport and a wide assortment of historical museum homes and themed neighborhood tours.
The Association for Living History, Farms and Agricultural Museums describes living history as "those who interpret how people lived, those who use living history as a research tool to test theories and explore material culture, and those labeled 'history buffs' who create personas for themselves based on a past person or blend of persons." In 2015, we can only imagine and interpret historical times through the artifacts and knowledge passed down to us, but historical museums and reenactors strive to painstakingly recreate the activities, dress and behaviors of the time. It's like stepping onto the set of a historical movie and getting to interact with the actors in character; it's a unique and memorable experience, and New England is one of the only parts of the country that still boasts beautifully-preserved, multiple centuries-old structures to serve as authentic backdrops. No wonder movies like Amistad (1997) and The Great Gatsby (1974) were filmed here.
Rhode Island's only living history farm, Coggeshall Farm Museum invites students and aspiring historians of all ages to literally “get their hands dirty” on a working farm that operates just as New England farms did during the 1790s – the time period between the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Visitors to the 48-acre museum can assist costumed reenactors with their daily agrarian tasks such as milking cows, harvesting vegetables, cooking, sheep sheering and livestock grooming. Coggeshall Farm showcases processes and activities over artifacts, giving guests a unique taste of the way life was lived in 1799.
Coggeshall Farm Museum is open for visits year-round, and also regularly hosts workshops and events for children and adults including educational programs, candle making, a variety of heirloom cooking classes, strolls, storytimes and herbal remedy/salve-making workshops. 1 Coggeshall Farm Rd, Bristol. 401-253-9062
The land in North Kingstown where Smith’s Castle sits originally served as RI founder Roger Williams' trading post, which he later sold to Richard Smith, a European settler in Narragansett who built a house so heavily fortified it earned the nickname of "Castle." The house was destroyed when Smith's son and heir, Richard Smith Junior, allowed militias from Connecticut and Massachusetts to use the property during King Philip's War (1675-1678). The replacement structure was built in 1678 and still stands to this day, operating as a living history museum and retaining the name "Smith's Castle" (despite a modern lack of fortifications).
Smith's Castle will be open for visitors starting the weekend of May 2 until early December; guests can take guided house tours, view presentations on colonial life and stroll through the 18th Century garden. Smith's Castle also hosts year-round special events, such as a Strawberry Festival in early summer – an "homage to the wild strawberry," offering juicy strawberry shortcake and fun events for children. There is also an Autumn Harvest Festival with costumed reenactors demonstrating food and craft-making, as well as the beloved annual Christmas at the Castle, where you’ll enjoy madrigal singers, bell ringers, dulcimer players and other musical acts, wreath and bake sales, and visits from Santa Claus and Father Christmas. 55 Richard Smith Drive, Wickford. 401-294-3521
Newport is a trove of historical buildings and spaces preserved over time and integrated into modern life. Tourists travel far distances to tour Newport's opulent Gilded-Age mansions, but you would be missing out on the City by the Sea's rich, century-spanning heritage if you didn't step into the Colonial, Revolutionary and Victorian time periods too.
The Newport Historical Society leads an assortment of walking tours and guided site tours to fit all ages and interests, with themes like Colonial Newport, American Revolution, religious diversity, women's history and more. The "Rogues and Scoundrels" tour is sure to lure even the most distracted young minds away from their electronic devices with tales of real-life pirates and criminals who were punished in Newport, earning it the unofficial title of "Rogue's Island." The organization also offers regular workshops and lectures on an assortment of historical topics – check their website calendar for more information. 82 Touro Street, Newport. 401-846-0813
Fans of the paranormal and supernatural won't want to miss the spooky "Olde Town Ghost Walk" of the most haunted houses in the city, given April through November by Ghost Tours of Newport.
The SSV Oliver Hazard Perry is an exciting new nautical addition to the local living history scene. As RI's own tall ship and soon to become "floating classroom," the 200 foot-long, three-mast sailing vessel will serve as the setting for sail training programs at all levels, including secondary, college and pre-professional. The public can enjoy on-ship interpreted historical displays, and the vessel will represent Rhode Island at various national and international ports. 29 Touro Street, Newport. 401-841-0080
For weapons and war reenactment enthusiasts, the Artillery Company of Newport often appears at state and local ceremonies to give historically attired cannon salutes, color guards and honor guards. Although now purely ceremonial, the militia dates back to 1741 when it was chartered by King George II of Great Britain. Be sure to visit the military museum at the Artillery Company's Armory, which houses one of the largest collections of military uniforms and memorabilia in the country. 23 Clarke Street, Newport. 401-846-8488