You could say that South County, Rhode Island is full of history, but that would be an understatement. The notable houses and museums in each town tell a unique and fascinating story about Southern Rhode Island. It is here where you can find the Homestead of General Nathanael Greene; arguably George Washington’s youngest, most loyal and trusted general during the Revolutionary War. Travel to East Greenwich to check out the New England Wireless & Steam Museum which includes exhibits containing early radio and television equipment as well as stationary steam, hot air, gas, and oil engines. The Varnum Armory on Main Street or the Varnum House on Peirce Street was built by James Mitchell Varnum, one of the founders of the Kentish Guards back in the early 1700’s while the armory, which serves as headquarters to the Varnum Continentals, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
North Kingstown, a few miles away from East Greenwich, is no different when it comes to important sites to see. Anyone with a special interest in aviation should check out the Quonset Air Museum which has airplanes such as the Russian MIG-17, the TBM Avenger and the A-4 Skyhawk. The Seabee Museum & Memorial Park is also nearby and explains the story of the naval construction force while exhibiting the famous Seabee statue and memorial to the Fallen Seabees of the Gulf Wars. Head to the village of Wickford and explore Smith’s Castle. Originally constructed in 1638 as a trading post by Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams, the building was burned down and eventually restored as an Updyke plantation. Travel west to Exeter and get a deeper appreciation of and understanding for the original inhabitants of Rhode Island at the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum; the only museum operated by and for the Narragansett Indian Tribe.
The Hale House in the village of Matunuck was home to the famous American author Edward Everett Hale whom lived here in the summer with his family from 1873 to 1910. The house has been restored and offers period rooms, gallery space and cultural programs from June to October. Be sure to visit the Museum of Primitive Art and Culture located in Peace Dale is the oldest museum in South County and contains over 15,000 archaeological and ethnological objects from all over the world. Just a few minutes down the road you can go to jail! Not because you’re in trouble, but because you want to visit the Old Washington County Jail in Kingston. One of Rhode Island’s oldest surviving jails serves as headquarters for the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society and contains period rooms and cells, historical exhibits, and a genealogy library. Hop a train and travel into the Historic Kingston Railroad Station. Located in West Kingston, this railroad station is on the Register of Historic Places and is serviced by Amtrak from New York, Boston, and Providence.
The South County Museum, established in 1933, exhibits blacksmiths, carpentry and a Living History Farm with a purebred flock of Rhode Island Reds – the state bird. Casey Farm, located on Boston Neck Road in Saunderstown, is one of the original plantation farms of the Colonial era that produced food for local and foreign markets. The Farmer’s Markets held on Saturdays during the warmer months is a great experience. The Gilbert Stuart Museum was the birthplace to one of the most famous and skilled painters from Rhode Island, Gilbert Stuart. The site boasts an authentically restored and furnished 18th century working man’s home, site of the first snuff mill in America and herring reserve.
The Charlestown Historical Society, on Old Post Road, is a well preserved one room school house that has been restored in a 19th century style. The Babcock-Smith House, located in Westerly, was built for Dr. Joshua Babcock who was Westerly’s first physician, postmaster, and Chief Justice of Rhode Island. Besides the many hats listed, Dr. Babcock was also a member of the General Assembly when Rhode Island declared its independence from England. The Westerly Armory and Museum was declared an American Treasure by Congress in 2003 and is available for events and receptions as well as tours of the military artifacts.
Whether you are a major history buff or merely interested in Rhode Island’s remarkable past, South County is host to a multitude of fascinating museums and homes. When it rains, our 18 extraordinary museums shine.