The Great East Bay History Trail

Before you officially hunker down for winter, grab your tri-corner hat and explore these historic gems

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It’s a sin most New Englanders find themselves committing at one time or another: taking for granted the rich history in our own backyard. This time of year, Mother Nature has some serious swagger, spreading her Insta-envy backdrops around every bewitching stone wall and winding country road, and there’s no bettear place to take it all in than L’il Rhody’s East Bay. We’ve put together a history trail so you can make your own autumn bucket list, reacquainting yourselves with the best of your grade school field trips – only this time you’re paying attention.

 

Start with an authentic 18th-century experience at Coggeshall Farm Museum, where you’ll see that spotty Wi-Fi is a First World problem as you take in the daily exhaustive work of Federalist-era tenant farmers: weeding the garden, frying johnnycakes over the hearth, carpentry, and handling heritage-breed animals. Watch historic interpreters in period dress recreate a day in the life on this 48-acre salt marsh farm on Bristol’s picturesque Poppasquash Neck. Pro tip: keep your new leopard print flats safely at home as you’re likely to get a little dirty down on this “hands-on” farm. Perfect for all ages and interests, but keep an eye out for special events and workshops.

Next, your history lesson swaps farm life for a Federal-style mansion owned by one of the richest families in Colonial America who amassed the bulk of their wealth in the slave trade. Designed by famed architect Russell Warren, Linden Place was built in the heart of Bristol in 1810 for General George DeWolf, for the purpose of entertaining with grandeur. In an act of pure cowardice, General George fled Linden Place in the dead of night less than 15 years later after facing financial ruin. While the regular tour of Linden Place dishes on the mansion and people who called it home through the years, the specialty tours, including The Ladies of Linden Place and Tales of the Slave Trade, take a deeper dive and will mesmerize even a Jeopardy-level history buff.

Both Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum and Mount Hope Farm are Bristol attractions that may just be even more interesting on the outside than the inside. Though Blithewold, the turn-of-the-century summer home of the Van Wickle family, boasts period furnishings and family heirlooms throughout the 45-room mansion, it’s the surrounding 33-acre estate grounds that’ll mesmerize your inner horticulturist. Gardens, plantings, pathways, lawns, and stone structures invite visitors to stay a while. Nearby, Mount Hope Farm is a wooded promontory that was once part of the 7,000 acres owned by Massasoit Ousa Mequin, the great sachem of the Wampanoag Nation. Historians believe these lands hosted the first “Thanksgiving Feast,” not Plymouth Rock. The first battle of King Philip’s War took place nearby in 1675. In the mid-1700s, a stately home was constructed there that was commandeered during the Revolutionary War. Today, you can stay at the Governor Bradford House, dating back to 1745, as a guest (staycation anyone?). Mount Hope Farm can be considered the community cornerstone of Bristol, hosting a popular year-round farmers market, summer camps for kids, and special events ranging from yoga to swanky soirees. (And if you’re walking the trails, keep your eyes peeled for a centuries-old arrowhead.)

A quick drive over the Mount Hope Bridge (marking its 90th birthday this year) and Sakonnet River Bridge will usher you into Tiverton. Head down Route 77 for a bucolic country drive until you reach Tiverton Four Corners, a quaint 18th-century village home to saltbox-style shops, galleries, and studios. Even though the temperatures are dropping, you’d be remiss to not enjoy a scoop of Gray’s homemade ice cream, served every day of the year (forego any faux pumpkin spice elsewhere and indulge in Gray’s maple walnut delight). The Mill Pond Shops are a stone’s throw from Gray’s and you’ll love exploring this little collective of artist studios and galleries, workspaces and retail shops housed in a historic building.

Head over the Sakonnet River to Portsmouth – nestled on the northernmost tip of Aquidneck Island – where you’ll find Patriots Park. No, this is not a tribute to Belichek’s bunch. Instead, this site, which marks the Battle of Rhode Island fought on August 29, 1778, is home to a memorial dedicated to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, better known as the “Black Regimen.” Patriots Park is the first of many locations in the state that will receive a Rhode Island Slave History Medallion, which marks sites that have a historical connection to slavery and enslaved people. Blink too fast and you’ll miss it as the monument is located on the off ramp on Route 114 North (by the Route 24 split). Park in the pull-off immediately on your left and prepare to claim peak Rhode Islander status (because chances are, your friends haven’t ever been).

If you’ve worked up a thirst, head to Greenvale Vineyards on the banks of the Sakonnet. While a wine tasting will introduce you to a myriad of local varieties, the true highlight of this 19th-century summer estate is the tasting room, a former stable that’s been fully restored. Built in 1863, it’s part of the 77-acre farm that has been in the same family for multiple generations and is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Pro tip: Grab that wrap, pack a picnic, and enjoy live jazz every Saturday, 1pm to 4pm, through mid December

Modeled after an authentic Colonial farm, you’d hardly guess Prescott Farm in Middletown is located on busy West Main Road! But its serene environs, including a duck pond, meticulously tended gardens (overseen by the University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners), historic red clapboard buildings, and the 1812 Robert Sherman Windmill will fool you into thinking you’re roaming a pastoral countryside. The farm’s 40 acres (the largest public open space on Aquidneck Island) invite kids to run freely, while monthly “Second Sunday” events for adults allow the opportunity to learn about the history and horticulture of the farm. Photo opp: If you’re looking for a charming Christmas card photo backdrop, the bright red cottages here and windmill are picture perfect.

Boyd’s Mill, also known as Boyd’s Wind Grist Mill or Boyd’s Eight-Vane Wind Grist Mill (depends which historian you ask), is the only eight-vane smock mill ever built and operated in New England and one of the very few remaining in the US. Established in 1810, it was one of more than 20 known wind grist mills across Aquidneck Island that harnessed wind power to grind wheat, corn, and other crops, mostly used for livestock feed. Fun fact: Its oak timbers were cut in Wickford Village and floated across Narragansett Bay to Portsmouth, while other timbers were repurposed from a wrecked schooner. According to the Middletown Historical Society, grain from almost every Aquidneck Island farm passed through the mill from 1840 to 1884. Even though access inside the mill is limited to a seasonal schedule, there are informational signs on site, mill stones, and more. On the same campus you’ll find Paradise School, a one-room schoolhouse house built in 1875. With a bell tower, small brick chimney, original school bell, original blackboards, and period-accurate original yellow exterior punctuated with brown trim and green doors, it’s easy to imagine the children of yesteryear coming to this little place for reading, writing, and arithmetic.