History buffs and beach aficionados are both perfectly at home in South County. The history of Rhode Island begins with Roger Williams who staked his claim in North Kingstown with Richard Smith and Edward Wilcox after fleeing the Massachusetts colony.
Smith’s Castle marks the location of his original 1638 trading post and celebrates reenactments, food, dress and architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries. (www.smithscastle.org)
South County historical sites memorialize facets of life from farming, the railroads, the military, the arts and literature, to radio, telegraph and early engines, notes the South County Tourism Council. Most of these sites are operated by dedicated volunteer staff and open during the spring, summer and fall months. Call ahead for hours, they are worth the effort to discover and visit.
Several sites were homes to the historical figures and bring the history to a personal level, featuring period furniture, family memorabilia and even the state bird, The Rhode Island Red.
The South County Museum in Narragansett raises a flock of the birds, observing a chick hatching each spring. The museum highlights rural and agricultural village life in coastal Rhode Island, from blacksmithing, carpentry and textiles to printing. (www.southcountymuseum.org)
The General Nathanael Greene homestead in Coventry dates to 1770. Open April through October, the home is furnished with Greene family memorabilia and period furnishings.
The Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter is dedicated to telling the story of the state’s original inhabitants. (www.tomaquagmuseum.com)
Wickford, home of the annual art festival, is home to the largest concentration of original colonial houses in New England.
Rhode Island’s artistic roots run deep. Painter Gilbert Stuart, of George Washington portrait fame, was born and raised in North Kingstown. The homestead and former snuff mill are has been authentically restored and includes several reproductions of Stuart’s work. (www.gilbertstuartmuseum.com).
The Hale House in Matunuck was the summer home of renowned American author Edward Everett Hale from 1873 to 1910. His family hosted authors and artists each summer in the Matunuck arts colony. The home was painstakingly restored by the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society, which also owns the Old Washington County Jail in Kingston. The jail is one of oldest surviving jails in the state. (www.washingtoncountyhistory.org)
Stone walls throughout the area speak of the agricultural history, and Route 1 largely follows the path of the original Boston Post Road, a trade route from Florida to Maine.
The Babcock-Smith House in Westerly, a Georgian-styled mansion, was built by Dr. Joshua Babcock, Westerly’s first physician and postmaster. He served as Chief Justice of Rhode Island and was a member of the RI General Assembly. The house was later home to Orlando Smith, discoverer of Westerly granite in 1846.
The Varnum Continentals lay claim to both the Varnum Armory and the Varnum House in East Greenwich, home to James Mitchell Varnum, a founder of the Kentish Guards. The Armory is the Varnum Continentals headquarters and contains an extensive Military and Naval Museum. (www.varnumcontinentals.org)
While many sites date back to the beginning days of the colony, others highlight more recent historical events, notes the South County Tourism Council. The Quonset Air Museum and the Seabee Museum and Memorial Park in North Kingstown promote military history circa World War II and after. (www.thequam.org) The New England Wireless and Steam Museum in East Greenwich exhibits early radios, telegraph and television equipment as well as the building blocks of industry: steam, hot air and gas & oil engines. (www.newsm.org)
The Historic Kingston Railroad Station and Museum melds history with present day, displaying artifacts from the beginning of the railroads through New England and serving as the starting point for the South County Bike Path which follows the path of the former Seaview Railroad to Narragansett. It is also a bustling Amtrak station for South County visitors and commuters. (www.kingstonstation.org)
Centuries of artifacts, architecture and stories can be found in South County. And after perusing the past, visit present-day restaurants, beaches and attractions for a well-rounded visit to South County.