210415ind History

The Seabee Museum and Memorial Park, whose Fighting Seabee statue in Quonset is shown above, is just one of the many local historic attractions town historian G.T. Cranston recommends visiting this spring. Whether you’re new to the area or a lifelong resident, these locations always have plenty of new things to see and harken back to South County’s past in a way that’s both informative and family-friendly.

So, you’ve had just about enough of this long, COVID-impacted winter and early spring, and you want to get outside and do something. Or maybe you’re just looking for a good place to take the kids or grandkids on a day trip filled with adventure and history. Well, it seemed to me like this might be a good time to restate the obvious: We have some wonderful places here in our fair town and its surrounding communities.

Let’s take a look at some of them this week.

  • Gilbert Stuart’s Birthplace — Here’s the magic of Gilbert Stuart’s Birthplace.

It’s really a multi-media experience of sorts. They offer you history, art, and nature all at one place. The history piece, in my mind, that matters most is the gristmill. It is an important reminder of a vital facet of North Kingstown’s story — and, by the way, it was operated for a time by the able hand of a Cranston miller.

The Art part is a no-brainer, I mean, come on. Take out a dollar bill and study that image of George. That all began here. Gilbert Stuart was a remarkable multifaceted man and they tell his story well. The nature part is the unrealized gem here. The alewives that run in the brook are only a part of that story. You’ve got nature trails and the prettiest, most bucolic pond in all of South County right there waiting for you. Heck, you can even rent a boat and experience it up close and personal. I’ve got to tell you, if you don’t take your children to experience Gilbert Stuart’s Birthplace you’re doing them a disservice.  Learn more about it at www.gilbertstuartmuseum.com

  • Smith’s Castle — No doubt about it, Smith’s Castle is the nub at the center of the onion that is North Kingstown.

When you peel back the layers of history, no matter from what angle or aspect you begin, you’ll always end up at Smith’s Castle. It is that important.

At one time, this place, this plantation, was a central player in the greater Narragansett Planter society that ruled what we now call South County. The inter-related Smith-Updike clan controlled a parcel of land that was nearly 27 square miles in area. They, like the rest of their planter brethren, operated an enormous agri-business empire that depended on slave labor for its success. The Updikes were also politicians, real estate developers (Wickford being their most memorable venture) and, yes, in some cases, scoundrels.

I’m pleased to say that the Cranstons and Updikes are forever linked through the connection that existed between Colonial Governor Samuel Cranston and his Atty. General Daniel Updike; together these two men saved Rhode Island from its neighbors who were determined to “divide and conquer.”

I’m just as pleased to say that my direct ancestor Sam Northup Cranston was the Updike’s “horse whisperer.” The story of Smith’s Castle is a fine parallel to the larger story of colonial southern Rhode Island. The fine folks — volunteers all — who run this place know this story inside and out, and they tell it with the passion and honesty it deserves. Come on down to Smith’s Castle and let them show you how to peel the onion.

The saddest thing about Smith’s Castle is the incorrect assumption by many that if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all. Nothing could be farther from the truth — Smith’s Castle is a dynamic, ever-changing, small house museum that now sports its own series of nature trails. If you haven’t been in awhile, then you haven’t seen Smith’s Castle. Learn more about it at www.smithscastle.org.

  • Casey Farm — Historic Casey Farms is another under-appreciated North Kingstown historic gem.

This site is the best surviving example of another aspect of the long history of agriculture here in South County; the gentleman’s farm, a place where a wealthy Newport clan, in this case the Coggeshall/Casey families, could escape the hustle and bustle of the busy city by the sea.

The main house with its Newport/Bahamas plantation style was a familiar landmark to mariners on the Bay since its construction in 1750, and it still has bullet holes placed there during a Revolutionary War skirmish.

The unique thing about Casey Farm in the 21st century is the fact that it sits appropriately smack dab within the landscape that colors its story. Thomas Lincoln Casey himself, the man most responsible for the Washington Monument in our nation’s capitol, or Lt. Edward Wanton Casey, the final military casualty of the western Indian Wars, would feel comfortable and right at home could they somehow come to life for a moment. There’s all this and an excellent community farming program, to boot.

 Learn more about it at www.historicnewengland.org/historic-properties/homes/casey-farm.

  • The Seabee Museum and Memorial Park — My favorite SeaBee related maxim is their unofficial motto: “The difficult we do at once, the impossible takes a bit longer.”

That line really does reflect SeaBee reality. Whether it be building and fighting their way across the Pacific during WWII or constructing an entire community in the harsh climate of Antarctica, ‘Can Do’ SeaBees get it done. This fine little museum is no different.

Built by SeaBees to honor the SeaBee tradition, history, and heritage; it was done seemingly “at once.”  We here in North Kingstown are proud of the fact that the SeaBees began here nearly seven decades ago; they are a part of the very fabric of this community and we all ought to support and honor the Fighting SeaBees.

Learn more about it at www.seabeesmuseum.com.

Next week, we’ll take a look at a few more great places to visit here in South County. In the meantime, you can’t go wrong starting your spring with any of the four fantastic destinations above.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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