When pondering 19th century farming in South County, it’s a sure bet that the seaside village of Wickford is not the first locale that comes to mind. The fact of the matter is though, that there were indeed two fairly large and very successful agricultural enterprises within the confines of this quaint little port town.
The farm of George and Elizabeth Merithew wrapped around the north side of the village and was located behind the fine homes that ran along that side of Main and West Main Streets from Church Lane in the east all the way up to Post Road in the west and included all of what is now Wilson Park. The Merrithews ran a traditional farm and sold their fruits, vegetables, eggs, and dairy products to many of the local markets in the region. One of their oldest and best customers was Michael Ryan and his son EJ who ran a fine little market right in the village. George and Elizabeth were assisted by their two daughters Annie and Lizzie both of whom spent their entire lives in Wickford; Annie working as a librarian and Lizzie as a bank teller. The center of the Merithews world was their farmhouse and barn complex known today as the Wickford Gourmet buildings on West Main Street and now occupied by Wickford Gourmet Kitchen & Table. The Merithew farm was around in the 19th century and operated into the early 20th century.
Located just across West Main Street from George Merithew’s big cornfields and pastures at what is now Wilson Park, was the farmhouse of Alfred Chadsey, which now houses the Cranston/Murphy Funeral Home. North Kingstown-born and raised, Alfred Chadsey was a man trained as a scientist and blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit unlike anyone in his day. He took over the farm of his father Jeremiah in 1852, which occupied all the lands between West Main Street and Phillip Street, and set about to transform it into an “agri-business” unlike anything ever imagined in South County. Rather than farming in the traditional manner, Chadsey raised his crops specifically for seed production. This was a new way to farm and not without risk. In order to stack the deck in his favor, he decided to experiment with a relatively new advance in farming, chemical fertilizers.
He had great success with them but found them to be too expensive. Ever the scientist, he set out to concoct inexpensive alternative fertilizer compounds, and after some trial and error, was successful. Rather than keep his findings secret, he used his position as a member of the executive committees of both the state and county agricultural societies to share his findings with his peers. Back on the farm, Alfred was harvesting record crops of seeds; his onion, beet, carrot, and turnip seeds were harvested by the ton, no small accomplishment if you have ever seen the size of one of these seeds and sold them to wholesalers across New England. Alfred Chadsey had a hand in changing the very face of American agriculture from his West Main Street farm.
I am excited to be able to report that an effort is underway to reclaim a bit of this history for us. The Land Conservancy of North Kingstown is working hard to raise funds to rebuild the former cart trail bridge over the ancient marsh that once separated George Merithew from his farm fields. The 2.5-acre Bush Hill Preserve, now owned by the Land Conservancy of North Kingstown, bordering Wickford Village represents a great portion of that old Merithew Farm. The former cart trail once used by George to take his cattle up to what is now Wilson Park meanders through the woods which border Mill Cove marsh and Main Street. The village’s agricultural and economic history met here along the path. A HistWick historical marker located at a rise in the path describes how Native American tribes once tended fields in the area. The Colonial farmers who succeeded them built an earthen causeway and bridge over the marsh. It allowed them to their herd animals to pastures west of town where. The path was also used by loggers to transport lumber to Wickford’s waterfront shipyards. In the 20th century local people remember the bridge as a popular short-cut for neighbors along Tower Hill Road. But time and tides took their toll and the bridge collapsed about 20 years ago.
A new bridge here will reconnect walking paths in the Bush Hill Preserve with Wilson’s Park, the State boat launch and the communities to the west of the village. Rebuilding the Mill Cove Footbridge will reconnect the past and present by making this beautiful setting accessible, again. Stark in the winter, green in the spring, shaded in the summer and brilliant in the autumn – it’s a wonderful place to get a little exercise, bird-watch or just find a few peaceful moments. The Land Conservancy of North Kingstown has received grants and donations which have them more than halfway to their goal. To help “bridge” that funding gap, they have a wonderful fundraiser planned for Oct. 3 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the big tent behind the Oak Hill Tavern on Tower Hill Road. For a donation of $40 you can enjoy a wonderful wine tasting sponsored by the Oak Hill Tavern, the Wickford Package Store, and the good folks at Historic Wickford Inc and The Land Conservancy of North Kingstown. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time through the Land Conservancy website. Help finish the job to rebuild the bridge…
So, should you happen to find yourself strolling down the picturesque streets of Wickford on a fine spring day, don’t forget to include these intriguing farmers in your ruminations of days gone by in South County.