SOUTH COUNTY STATE OF MIND
BY TOM SHEVILIN, ILLUSTRATIONS BY ALLI COATE�
Early one Friday morning in a café just off Route 1, a barely school-aged boy looks up at his mother waiting on her double iced chai and asks when they can go to the beach. She smiles, tussles his hair and responds with a smile, �How about now?� The exchange is brief and uninspiring, except to say that it offers a glimpse into a typical day in South County.
In the most densely populated state in the union, this low-lying, rolling swath of land stretching from Westerly to Warwick has remained caught up in its surroundings � utterly defined by its natural beauty and fostering a lifestyle that few places in the Northeast can match.
South County is more a state of mind that it is a construction of the state. You won't find it on any map and if you plug it into your GPS system, you'll come up empty. But ask any Rhode Islander and they can tell you: it's where the beaches are; what the old Swamp Yankees still call home; and all you really have to do is head south to find it. Once you get there, you'll know.
They say you can just tell � like a mother's intuition or a pet's sixth sense. There's just something different about the air, the light, the soil. It's where urbanized Rhode Island ends and South County begins.
�It's a state of mind,� says Myrna George, executive director of the South County Tourism Council. She continues, waxing ever more poetically, �South County-ites are infused with a great deal of pride, are fiercely independent, with a love of community, the soil and the sea embedded in their souls.�
But what really makes South County so different? What is it, to go back to Ms. George's assertion, that creates that South County mindset? To find the answer to such questions, its usually wise to look back.
Sculpted by the receding glaciers of the last ice age, these flat, plowable lands served for eons as the home to the Narragansett Indians. When the colonists first arrived here, it was known simply as Narragansett Country. However, by the mid-17th century, much of what we know today as South County was subject to land claims from both the north and the south, with both the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies laying claims to the area. (Some would say that during the summer season, not much has changed.)
By the late 1600s, Rhode Island had obtained its charter and secured its own claim to the area, renamed Kings Country. Only after the revolution would it become known as Washington County. But no matter how long it's been legally recognized as such, to locals, it's simply South County. But is it so unusual that we blur the lines of our geography, cast aside labels and choose to self identify? Not really. South County is more than just a political boundary. Why should we be content to be confined by the lines on a map? Barely 15 minutes outside of Providence, South County may as well be a world away.
�Once I hit Route 4, I'm thinking South County,� says Deb Kelso of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce. Driving down from Warwick as a child, she remembers her mother packing a lunch for the ride. �I used to get to the tower and put my hand out of the car and what a good feeling that was. You could feel the temperature drop and you knew you were in South County.�
More precisely, South County is commonly accepted to comprise about a dozen or so communities located south of Division Street in Warwick, stretching east and west to the Rhode Island-Connecticut line. Unsurprisingly, Westerly is its southernmost town. A bastion of independence, happily bereft of the trials of the northern part of the state (which, if you live in Westerly, is in fact everywhere), it is one of South County's anchor communities. Wakefield, meanwhile, might just be the year-round capitol of the south. Easy to get to and with an eclectic offering of year-round businesses, it's an everyday stop for locals from Peacedale to Kingston, which of course is home to the state's premier research university.
Richmond, Exeter, West Greenwich and Hopkinton, meanwhile, are beyond picturesque. Their coniferous forests and backcountry roads make for a scene straight out of a Sierra Club brochure. North and South Kingstown, with their school rivalries and quaint seaside enclaves like Wickford and Saunderstown, are some of the state's most sought after communities. And then there are the summer boom towns of Charlestown, Misquamicut and of course, Narragansett, offering some of New England's best beaches and breathtaking vistas.
East Greenwich is a new addition to the South County fold. �We sort of forced our way into the picture,� says Jerry Meyer, executive director of the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce. Relatively new to Lil� Rhody, Meyer took a look around and at the state with fresh eyes, not yet clouded by our provincialism. Immediately he saw East Greenwich fitting more in line with its neighbors to the south than it did with its big brothers to the north.
�There's a lot of history here,� he says. �I think that might have a lot to do with the mindset. We have the Methodist church where the constitution of Rhode Island was signed, the Varnum Armory and one of the state's former capitol buildings. John Paul Jones sailed out of Greenwich Bay.�
That its connection to history is one of the area's defining qualities is of little doubt. Anywhere that you still find grist mills churning out Johnny Cake mix and family homesteads that trace their roots by the generation or the century, chances are you'll find an appreciation for the past embedded in the cultural fabric.
But more than that, as Narragansett's Deb Kelso points out, South County is synonymous with summer. �It was all farming communities down here,� she says, �And now, it's just �The Beach.� There's a lot that goes along with that. It's an attitude; it's a mindset.� And it cuts both ways.
�Success,� Myrna George adds, �is part of the challenge.� The surge of the summer and ebb of the winter months is part of what makes South County residents so self-identifying. Simply put, beaches can be a lonely place in the winter. �The minute the day after Labor Day comes, the gate has closed. It's like someone has locked the gate to South County,� says Kelso.
But for the people who live here year-round, South County isn't just a home or an escape, or even a series of communities. "It's really a state of mind," says Rudi Hempe, the longtime editor of the Standard Times. There really is no such thing as South County. But it took on its own mindset when people moved down here year round.
And as Ms. Kelso, originally from Warwick, can attest, it's a mindset that is completely adoptable. "It's mental, it's spiritual, it's physical. It's all those things," she says. �After a while, it's just in the blood.� SO