221013ind history

While it may have its footprint firmly planted in Narragansett these days, South County Museum was founded in large part due to a love of local history from a group of North Kingstown residents in 1933.

Boy, I’ve got to say, the South County Museum situated at Canonchet Farm in nearby Narragansett, sure is something special. It’s location is just as special and most folks might think it’s been there forever. The truth though, is quite a bit different.

The real roots of the South County Museum reach back to 1933 when a group of largely North Kingstown residents got together to “lament that the knowledge of the early New England industries, trades, and handcrafts were already nearly lost, obscured by time and smothered by the clatter and clash of this mechanized era.”  

Those folks took this sad reality as their mission statement and began to collate and collect the very implements and reminders of these industries, trades, and handcrafts in order to preserve and display them in some fashion. They also searched for a place to set up a museum of sorts; they were finally successful in this venture when Kate Hidden, the cousin of recently deceased spinster sisters, Lucy and Abby Reynolds, decided that the Reynolds sister’s property on Boston Neck Road with its barn and outbuildings made perfect sense as a museum location.

Kate had inherited the property a year prior when Lucy passed on, and as the Reynolds sisters were ardent “antiquarians” she knew they would have approved whole-heartedly. Financed by the Hidden family and the beneficence of C. Prescott Knight, a Quidnessett resident who owned a little textile company known now as “Fruit of the Loom”, the museum opened with lots of local fanfare in the summer of 1934.

True to its original mission statement, the museums principle founders stood proudly in the door of the Reynold’s Sisters barn on opening day surrounded by the very implements of the past they were determined to showcase and protect. Three years later, after numerous fundraisers, including some the first “historic House Tours” held in the village of Wickford, the museum, swelled by the additional donation of quite a few more important artifacts of the past, relocated to more spacious digs at the Gardiner-Arnold Farm in Scrabbletown, purchased by C. P. Knight, in part for this very purpose.

They would stay there for decades.

From 1937 to 1977, the Gardiner-Arnold farm property in the ancient little farming village of Scrabbletown was the home of the South County Museum.

It was during this timeframe that I, as a young boy, became acquainted with all “the cool stuff” at the Museum. I was luckier than most boys in that I, like the young lads in the accompanying 1934 opening season photo, had a behind-the-scenes experience there.  You see my grandfather Paul St. Pierre and his buddy John Ward, a newswriter at the Providence Journal, were involved with the museum and I went with them every chance I could.

In 1976, after a whole bunch more fundraising and artifact acquisition, the Museum moved into a new, much more exhibit-friendly space right on the South County Trail, just south of the Stony Lane intersection. At that time, folks involved thought that they were set for another decade or two in this modern barn-like exhibit space. But then along came the dreaded Route 4 extension and after much hemming and hawing, and jockeying and wheeler-dealing over the final path of the highway, it was decided that it would have to go basically right through the backyard of the South County Museum. The new building, not yet a decade old, was taken by eminent domain and the Museum folks were told to pack it up and get out.

As you can imagine these were tough times for all who cared for the South County Museum. The museum leadership’s first stop, hat and RIDOT check in hand, was to the folks over at Smith’s Castle.   There they talked about partnerships and shared advertising and all sorts of things that in hindsight seem to make perfect sense.

Sadly though, the leadership at Smith’s Castle looked at South County Museum not as a valuable future partner but as “the competition” and in a decision that can only be described as parochial, sent them packing.

Their next stop was Canonchet Farm and the Town of Narragansett, and before you could say “hey wait just a durned minute!” a museum begun in North Kingstown, largely by folks from North Kingstown, filled with artifacts and implements that for the most part have their roots in North Kingstown, was relocated to a plot of land in Narragansett named after ironically enough, the extraordinary Chief Sachem of the Narragansett Tribe who, while he was alive, lived in, you guessed it, North Kingstown.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but good things to say about the South County Museum. It’s run now by wonderful people who care deeply about that original mission statement and its setting — the grounds of Canonchet — are extraordinary.

I encourage everyone from our fair town to go there, see what they have to offer and support this important institution. Stroll the grounds like I do; secretly proud to know that all this would have never happened if it weren’t for the concern of a bunch of North Kingstown folks more than three quarters of a century ago.

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

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