200730ind History

Even though Ken Mumford died nearly 30 years ago, he is still remembered today as one of North Kingstown’s most colorful characters. Mumford was a landscaper for most of his life and provided one of the most iconic images of life in 20th century Wickford as he took to the streets with his horse-drawn wagon.

This was Ken Mumford’s time of the year. After a long winter of caring for his dogs and horses, tuning up and sharpening his mowers, and tending to his wagon, hitch, harnesses, and bridles; spring, and then summer, would be upon him and Ken would mosey into action. Harness ‘em up, hook ‘em up, load the wagon, there’s lawns to be mowed, gardens to be tended to, appointments to be made and kept. Long, long before landscapers were a dime a dozen, Ken Mumford was the only game in town. As a matter of fact, old Ken Mumford was more than a landscaper, he was a part of the landscape; one facet of the kaleidoscope of images that defined our fair town throughout the last half of the 20th century.

Ken Mumford was born on April 24, 1914, the third child of Freeman and Eliza Bessie (Knowlton) Mumford, in Scituate. Freeman and Eliza operated a farm on Plainfield Pike, and were assisted by Ken and his older brother and sister Arthur and Amelia. In June of 1926, Eliza and Freeman left Scituate and signed a long-term lease on the 140-acre Ebenezer Slocum Farm in the Slocumville section of town. The farm, leased from William Crandall for $350 a year, was already stocked with all the equipment necessary to run a diary operation. The Mumfords worked the Ebenezer Slocum Farm for some time and when possible, Ken and his siblings made extra for the family working at one of the nearby textile mills. All the while Freeman and Eliza Bessie bought portions of the nearby Hathaway Farm on Railroad Avenue until finally in the 1940s, they purchased the last parcel and then were the owners of their own farm, just slightly larger than the one they had leased.

Ken eventually took a position as a maintenance man at the nearby Ladd Center just across the line in Exeter, married and had a family of his own. A character in nearly every facet of his life, Ken Mumford decided he ought to name two of his three sons Ken Mumford Jr., although he did give them different middle names though so as not to be too confusing. Even though he worked many years at the Ladd Center, it was as a landscaper that he will always be remembered. And one of the reasons he remains fresh in all of the memories of those who knew him was a by-product of a practical Swamp Yankee solution to a vexing problem. As Ken got older, his eyesight slowly failed. This man, who once operated trucks, tractors, and other farm equipment, eventually lost his driver’s license. Ken Mumford, “a man of few words” would tell and retell the tale of his last day of driving after being pulled over by a rookie cop. The officer asked him for his license and Ken replied simply “Ain’t got one!” When asked why Ken, who could only see with the aid of a large magnifying glass, replied simply, “Cause I can’t see, that’s why!” Ken planned on continuing working though, so he had to come up with a solution. From that point on Ken Mumford became an anachronism; a horse-drawn man in a gasoline engine powered world.

And so it was, until one late spring day in May of 1992. The day began as it always did for Ken – early. The 78-year-old man hitched up his horses, loaded up his wagon, called for his favorite dog and set off on his way to tend to the lawns and gardens of his regular customers. He stopped along the way, while still on Railroad Avenue, to adjust a hitch or harness and there right next to his horses with his dog by his side, Ken’s heart stopped. I expect he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Ken Mumford was buried in the graveyard of the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church alongside his brother Arthur, who had run the family farm for more than four decades. Ken is still with us in a fashion though; his image was captured countless times by numerous photographers, amateur and professional alike. The image that accompanies this piece, for instance, was taken by Wickford Art Association member Ann Hoyle. Ken’s spirit was also captured by writer Michael de Guzman, who used Ken as the model for a character in his novel and the subsequent movie screenplay he crafted, “Strangers – the Story of a Mother and Daughter,” and Ken lives on in the memories of all of us who saw him as he and his horse-drawn wagon clip-clopped along the highways and byways of our fair town.

To learn more about Ken Mumford and his remarkable life, please check out the 1990 interview with him done by my good friend, and founding member of HistWick, Robin Porter. HistWick, working with Tom Frawley at the North Kingstown Free Library, have made this video gem available on the NK Library website. Mike de Guzman’s novel, which was recently re-issued, can also be found there. Enjoy!

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

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