Canonchet Farm (1985—Present)
The Canonchet Farm property, previously the William Robinson farm, was purchased by Governor, and then later Senator, William Sprague in 1850. In 1863, Sprague and his wife, Kate, built a 64 room, four story Victorian mansion, dubbed “Canonchet,” on the property. (The property was originally the summer campsite of Canonchet, the legendary Narragansett Sachem and leader of Native American warriors during the Great Swamp Fight (1675) and King Philip’s War (1675-1676).)
Over the next several hours, the magnificent Victorian-era structure burned to the ground despite the best efforts of firefighters and fire equipment from Narragansett, Wakefield, and Peace Dale.
The mansion was a total loss. Today, the property consists of 174 acres, approximately eight of which are leased to the South County Museum by the Town of Narragansett.
Initially, it was thought that the museum could occupy the Canonchet estate’s 75 foot by 40 foot stone stable, still in existence after the 1909 fire that destroyed the mansion. Further inspection, however, revealed that a subsequent fire in the stable itself in 1950 had rendered the building unusable. (The ruins of the stable are located opposite the entrance to the Museum Press building.)
The South County Museum was reopened to the public at its new location in October 1985. Nancy and John Marzilli a husband and wife team from Barrington were the designer-builders for the new museum buildings and exhibits. Buildings consisted of a new three story main building and the Museum Press building, both built over approximately a five month period in 1984.The main building was designed to emulate a Town Hall, the center of a typical Victorian New England village. The architect William Warner was contracted to prepare a long-range plan to formally designate additional future buildings.
The late 1980s and early to mid-1990s were banner years for the museum. Under Karen Asher, part-time Museum Director from 1986-1989, and then Peter Gardiner, 1990-1999, the Museum expanded the number and scope of exhibits, activities, and events resulting in a surge in attendance. The very talented Peg Cluck, exhibits coordinator, created many new exhibits with help from a cadre of volunteers. The Museum regularly experienced national and international attendance of 5,000 or more visitors per year.
In 1990, Dr. William DeWitt Metz, first a member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, then President of the Museum for 13 years from 1977 to 1990, stepped down as President in order to spend more time writing grants and increasing the Museum’s endowment fund. Metz had been an historian and faculty member for 45 years in the History Department at the University of Rhode Island, retiring from the University in 1982. In appreciation of Dr. Metz’s many years of leadership service to the Museum, it was decided to dedicate the main building (Town Hall) to Dr. Metz. The building was renamed the Metz Building (Metz Exhibit Hall), and a commemorative plaque was installed.
Metz retired from the Museum in 1995 and was further honored by being named President Emeritus. Metz passed away in 2013 at the age of 98, having made a tremendous contribution to the continued success of the Museum.
In 1992, the Museum leased the “White House,” located a few yards southwest of the Museum Print Shop. This building would become the Museum’s Visitor and Education Center and is the first building visitors will enter when touring the Museum. The Visitor Center (painted its current green color in 2005) was thought to have originally been the Canonchet Farm ice house, later converted to a residence for farm workers. The house was in disrepair and renovations began during the winter of 1993, largely with funding provided through generous grants from the Rhode Island Foundation and Champlain Foundations as well as smaller sums from private donors, the membership, and the State of Rhode Island.
Renovations were performed by the Historic Preservation Partnership of Newport; the cost of renovations was estimated at $80,000 ($139,000 in today’s dollars). A certificate of occupancy was issued in the fall of 1994.
William Warner’s Long Range Plan for the Museum was eventually completed in 1992 and was accepted by the Museum’s Board of Trustees. The plan envisioned the addition of three 20 by 30 foot display buildings situated behind the Metz Building along with a larger barn building, which would house the Museum’s extensive collection of farm tools and equipment. One of the smaller buildings would be a Blacksmith Shop, the second, a Carpentry Shop, and the third would house various collections as needed. At the time, the last building was envisioned by the Museum as a Wheelwright’s Shop, currently, it’s the Schoolhouse.
Generous grants from the Champlin Foundations and the Rhode Island Foundation would provide money for construction of the new buildings. Additional donations would later come from the New England Blacksmiths Association, the late Clinton Payne, and the membership. The buildings would be simple, barn-type structures typical of a 19th century village where artisans would carry on their craft. The Founder’s dream of a museum consisting of a series of separate buildings housing individual, small related exhibits was finally, after almost 60 years, coming to fruition. The four new buildings, constructed by Vadge Kroll (now President of Sun Systems Inc./Kroll Building Co., Narragansett, RI), were completed late in the summer of 1995 and were officially opened on May 1, 1996.
Nineteen ninety-five was the most successful year to date for the Museum in terms of financial condition, increased membership, number of visitors, and addition of new events. A total of 7,526 people visited the Museum that year from 31 states and 24 foreign countries.
Nineteen ninety-six brought the demise of the venerable Kenyon’s Department Store in Wakefield, RI. The store had been an area institution since 1856. Upon closing, Carol Kenyon Hazlehurst, the great granddaughter of Kenyon’s founder William G. Kenyon, donated all of the department store’s artifacts and memorabilia, including fixtures, counters, mannequins, display racks, a roll-top desk, antique cash register, and photographs to the South County Museum. This represented yet another giant step in completing the Museum’s New England village, for what village doesn’t have a general store? The museum’s collection had continued to expand during the ‘80s and ‘90s—artifacts in the Museum’s collection numbered in excess of 20,000 by the end of the 20th century.
The year 2000 brought with it the construction of the new, and now current, entrance to the Museum. Previously, the Museum entrance had been through the Narragansett Beach parking lot adjoining Boston Neck Road (Route 1A). Visitors would now turn at the Native American Memorial on Kingstown Road (approximately one half mile west of downtown Narragansett) onto Strathmore Street, and ultimately enter the Museum grounds through the Canonchet orchard. The result of this change has been to make the Museum a little more challenging for visitors to find, but hopefully worth the effort!
As the Museum moves into the twenty-first century, its mission has remained true to its roots–to inspire wonder and a better understanding of the agricultural, rural village and coastal life of ‘South County’ Rhode Island before the emergence of suburban communities. Today, the Museum continues to welcome visitors from all over the world and provide classes, programs, and events to the public throughout the year, with its main exhibits open from the beginning of May to the end of September. Blacksmithing classes and the Annual Folk Art Quilt Show continue to be popular, while a chick hatch and lighting exhibit are new additions to the Museum’s programs. The recent addition of a new web site, Facebook and Instagram pages have extended the Museum’s outreach and will provide a forum to further extend the Museum’s mission and purpose.