Mount Hope Farm's History of Thanks

On the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing, Bristol's Mount Hope Farm is a touchstone of the Thanksgiving spirit

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Four hundred years ago, the Mayflower arrived in the New World.

The ship’s passage across the Atlantic was calamitous: endless delays, cramped quarters, poor navigation, and naive preparations. The Mayflower didn’t reach Virginia, as the Pilgrims had hoped. Their first winter in Massachusetts was a deadly mix of famine and disease. They would never have survived were it not for the Native Americans they encountered.

“The Pokanoket people reached out to the Pilgrims and invited them to learn how to grow corn,” says Sheri St. Germain, executive director of Mount Hope Farm. “They could have turned away. But they held out a hand. The spirit of Thanksgiving is about helping one another. And that is what we have here.”

By “here,” she means Mount Hope, which played a pivotal role in Pokanoket life. Plymouth may have become the Pilgrims’ colony, and Thanksgiving may always be synonymous with that coastal town in Massachusetts – but Mount Hope Farm was once a village known as Montaup, the nexus of Pokanoket life. The seaside estate is drenched in history, from centuries before the Puritans’ arrival and up to the present day. To Mount Hope staff, Thanksgiving is as rooted here as in Massachusetts.

“The rumor is that [the first Thanksgiving] was actually here,” said Gina MacDonald, Hope Farm’s former managing director, during a private tour last year. “Primary sources indicate that there was a gathering in Plymouth. We don’t argue with that. But there was a harvest gathering here, and that has been well documented. So, the question is, when did Thanksgiving become Thanksgiving? We say that the harvest gathering here was probably the first.”

As the new managing director, St. Germain makes a subtler claim: She feels that “the spirit of Thanksgiving” was cultivated here and extended to Plymouth. In the following years, Colonists came to Montaup to confer with Pokanoket leaders. Whatever the exact timeline, one thing is certain: Mount Hope is an essential piece of that early history, and its relevance has been felt ever since. In every stage of American life, Mount Hope has reflected the zeitgeist of the time. Not only is Mount Hope enmeshed in our most revered national holiday; it’s a microcosm of the American experience.

And yes, that includes 2020 – in all its pandemic glory.

 

From  King  Philip's  Seat to  the  Mount  Hope  Bridge

King Philip’s Seat is set back in the woods, and the land controversially belongs to Brown University. But if you are lucky enough to visit there, you’ll see why the place was so revered: A bleached cliff rises out of the sod. The texture of the quartz is layered and rough. The ledge is high enough to serve as a lookout point, and Pokanoket sentries could monitor the bay from its apex. At the bottom is an indentation; it looks like a geologic chair, placed there by a divine hand. This is the Seat, where the Pokanoket sachem – or “great leader” – would govern his nation.

“It’s almost spiritual, when you go there,” said Susan Maloney, a Mount Hope board member, during our visit last year. “It’s very quiet. You can see how this would be sacred ground for the Pokanokets.”

This place is also the site of profound tragedy: King Philip – known to the Pokanoket as Metacom – fought back against the English colonists, and a 14-month conflict ensued. This is part of the dark epilogue to our Thanksgiving tradition, the story increasingly taught in schools: War and disease decimated the Pokanoket people, and Metacom himself was killed on these grounds, in the aptly named Misery Swamp.

What’s striking about Mount Hope is that, even today, the place retains its sacred atmosphere. The land was never paved over or squandered, like so many pre-Colombian landmarks. In the wake of Metacom’s death, four Boston merchants purchased the property and turned it into farmland. During the American Revolution, George Washington visited, and during a normal season, you can stay in the same room where the first president (literally) slept. The prolific doctor and statesman William Bradford bought the farm and retired here, until his death in 1808.

The turning point came in 1916, when industrialist Rudolf F. Haffenreffer II purchased the ailing farm and added some radical personal touches. Haffenreffer was a complex character; among his many pursuits, he owned Narragansett Brewery for three decades. Haffenreffer had a strong interest in anthropology, and he developed a relationship with the Pokanoket people, which was extremely unusual for the time. The entrepreneur amassed a large collection of Indigenous artifacts, which would eventually become part of the Haffenreffer Museum, now operated by Brown University.

The most visible symbol of Haffenreffer’s exploits stands just down the road from the farm: the Mount Hope Bridge. Originally spearheaded by William Henry Vanderbilt III, the troubled project was taken over by Haffenreffer in 1931. The structure was a major feat of engineering: It remained the longest suspension bridge in New England for 40 years.

To St. Germain, the bridge is also a metaphor for Haffenreffer’s cross-cultural spirit.

“There was no bridge before him,” she says. “There was a ferry. Haffenreffer was the one to connect the mainland to Aquidneck Island. It’s about connection.”

Today, like so many scenic estates, Mount Hope Farm has become a civic greenspace and tourist destination. The land is officially private, maintained by the Mount Hope Trust in Bristol, but it’s been a popular spot for bird-watchers and dog-walkers, who often assume the land is fully public. The old farmhouse has been converted into an inn, drawing visitors from all over the world. The antique barn is used for banquets and weddings, and the grounds host a regular farmers market and myriad other events.

Until this year, of course, when everything changed.

The pandemic has wrought havoc in every corner of the planet, and Mount Hope Farm is no exception. The farm closed completely in March in order to weather COVID’s zenith. The grounds, once open from dawn to dusk, now receive visitors between 7am and 2pm, and no pets are permitted. The inn has been closed since the lockdown began, and instead of hosting its usual 80-90 weddings, Mount Hope Farm has hosted fewer than 15 ceremonies all year.

Historically, this is a fitting way to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. Throughout 1620, the would-be colonists starved and suffered, clueless as how to feed and warm themselves in the unforgiving New England winter. It wasn’t until the next year, 1621, that the Pokanoket gave them a crash-course in local agriculture and celebrated with the first Thanksgiving feast.

If Mount Hope Farm has always been a mirror for its times, then that reflection may be clearer than ever in 2020: The estate is finding new ways to flourish in an era of total uncertainty. The farmers market has resumed, and it will continue into the winter in the Mount Hope greenhouse; here, the market will be limited to 15 vendors and customers will be carefully counted to maintain social distancing. They will also host a holiday market, showcasing local artisans, in early December.

“We feel the challenges, as many people feel them,” says St. Germain, who took over as executive director only two months ago. But the farm is now in the midst of a membership drive and donor campaign (see website for details), and St. Germain expects the inn to reopen in 2021, once new safeguards are in place. The organic garden has continued to donate crops to the East Bay Food Bank, a major boon during an economic slump. “There are so many components at Mount Hope Farm. But we’re open every single day. We closed the south gate, so that everyone, for safety, comes through the same area as always. We’re still taking care of our animals – our pygmy goats and our donkeys. We still have some wonderful, wonderful volunteers.”

Indeed, Mount Hope Farm relies on volunteers – and this may be the most vivid connection to that original Thanksgiving spirit. Earlier this year, the farm received a grant from the America the Beautiful Fund, resulting in the planting of 50 new saplings. Thanks to professor and soil scientist Dr. Loren Byrne, six students at Roger Williams University volunteered to dig holes and put the saplings in the soil. This winter, the farm will remove invasive species and start the planting of a Memorial Grove. Here, donors can have a tree planted in someone’s name.

This may not be the Thanksgiving that everyone expected, but when the real quadrennial comes next year, Mount Hope Farm will still be there, its symbolism stronger than ever, and its flora even lusher.

“I find it interesting to understand where we’ve come from,” says St. Germain. “There’s a message about knowing history, and repeating history. I find that there are always repairs to be done with relationships. I feel a duty to try and tell a story, so that people understand history and are respectful of other people.” Then she adds, “And the property’s so beautiful. It’s such a magnificent place, in any season.”

 

The  Quadrennial  that  Could

What’s striking about Mount Hope is that, even today, the place retains its sacred atmosphere. The land was never paved over or squandered, like so many pre-Colombian landmarks. In the wake of Metacom’s death, four Boston merchants purchased the property and turned it into farmland. During the American Revolution, George Washington visited, and during a normal season, you can stay in the same room where the first president (literally) slept. The prolific doctor and statesman William Bradford bought the farm and retired here, until his death in 1808.

The turning point came in 1916, when industrialist Rudolf F. Haffenreffer II purchased the ailing farm and added some radical personal touches. Haffenreffer was a complex character; among his many pursuits, he owned Narragansett Brewery for three decades. Haffenreffer had a strong interest in anthropology, and he developed a relationship with the Pokanoket people, which was extremely unusual for the time. The entrepreneur amassed a large collection of Indigenous artifacts, which would eventually become part of the Haffenreffer Museum, now operated by Brown University.

The most visible symbol of Haffenreffer’s exploits stands just down the road from the farm: the Mount Hope Bridge. Originally spearheaded by William Henry Vanderbilt III, the troubled project was taken over by Haffenreffer in 1931. The structure was a major feat of engineering: It remained the longest suspension bridge in New England for 40 years.

To St. Germain, the bridge is also a metaphor for Haffenreffer’s cross-cultural spirit.

“There was no bridge before him,” she says. “There was a ferry. Haffenreffer was the one to connect the mainland to Aquidneck Island. It’s about connection.”

Today, like so many scenic estates, Mount Hope Farm has become a civic greenspace and tourist destination. The land is officially private, maintained by the Mount Hope Trust in Bristol, but it’s been a popular spot for bird-watchers and dog-walkers, who often assume the land is fully public. The old farmhouse has been converted into an inn, drawing visitors from all over the world. The antique barn is used for banquets and weddings, and the grounds host a regular farmers market and myriad other events.

Until this year, of course, when everything changed.

The pandemic has wrought havoc in every corner of the planet, and Mount Hope Farm is no exception. The farm closed completely in March in order to weather COVID’s zenith. The grounds, once open from dawn to dusk, now receive visitors between 7am and 2pm, and no pets are permitted. The inn has been closed since the lockdown began, and instead of hosting its usual 80-90 weddings, Mount Hope Farm has hosted fewer than 15 ceremonies all year.

Historically, this is a fitting way to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. Throughout 1620, the would-be colonists starved and suffered, clueless as how to feed and warm themselves in the unforgiving New England winter. It wasn’t until the next year, 1621, that the Pokanoket gave them a crash-course in local agriculture and celebrated with the first Thanksgiving feast.

If Mount Hope Farm has always been a mirror for its times, then that reflection may be clearer than ever in 2020: The estate is finding new ways to flourish in an era of total uncertainty. The farmers market has resumed, and it will continue into the winter in the Mount Hope greenhouse; here, the market will be limited to 15 vendors and customers will be carefully counted to maintain social distancing. They will also host a holiday market, showcasing local artisans, in early December.

“We feel the challenges, as many people feel them,” says St. Germain, who took over as executive director only two months ago. But the farm is now in the midst of a membership drive and donor campaign (see website for details), and St. Germain expects the inn to reopen in 2021, once new safeguards are in place. The organic garden has continued to donate crops to the East Bay Food Bank, a major boon during an economic slump. “There are so many components at Mount Hope Farm. But we’re open every single day. We closed the south gate, so that everyone, for safety, comes through the same area as always. We’re still taking care of our animals – our pygmy goats and our donkeys. We still have some wonderful, wonderful volunteers.”

Indeed, Mount Hope Farm relies on volunteers – and this may be the most vivid connection to that original Thanksgiving spirit. Earlier this year, the farm received a grant from the America the Beautiful Fund, resulting in the planting of 50 new saplings. Thanks to professor and soil scientist Dr. Loren Byrne, six students at Roger Williams University volunteered to dig holes and put the saplings in the soil. This winter, the farm will remove invasive species and start the planting of a Memorial Grove. Here, donors can have a tree planted in someone’s name.

This may not be the Thanksgiving that everyone expected, but when the real quadrennial comes next year, Mount Hope Farm will still be there, its symbolism stronger than ever, and its flora even lusher.

“I find it interesting to understand where we’ve come from,” says St. Germain. “There’s a message about knowing history, and repeating history. I find that there are always repairs to be done with relationships. I feel a duty to try and tell a story, so that people understand history and are respectful of other people.” Then she adds, “And the property’s so beautiful. It’s such a magnificent place, in any season.”

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