The Original Barn Museum, Wickford RI, 1933—1936
In 1933, Rhode Island, as well as the rest of the United States, was in the throes of the Great Depression. During the 1920s and early 1930s, many technological changes had taken place: automobiles and tractors were rapidly replacing horses and oxen, electric lights and appliances were replacing candles, kerosene lamps, and older manual, labor-intensive devices. A group of businessmen and prominent state residents were concerned that the state was losing its traditional rural, industrial, and maritime heritage. Among them was Albert E. Lownes (pronounced loans) (1899-1978). Lownes was President and then later Chairman of the Board of the American Silk Spinning Co., Providence, RI, and a lecturer in the history of science at Brown University. Lownes’ primary interest was the collection of rare books, although the collection and preservation of local 18th and 19th century artifacts reflecting rural Rhode Island life was also of major interest. He consequently hosted a meeting of his friends and acquaintances on September 29, 1933 at his home, Aquapaug Lodge, then located at Tuckertown Four Corners opposite the Perryville Grange Hall in Tuckertown (a village within South Kingstown). The purpose was to discuss the establishment of a “South County Barn Museum” or “South County Farm Museum” to preserve artifacts of this regional way of life. The purpose of the museum was:
…to collect the tools and implements connected with the many farm, home, and village industries of old-time South County and to provide a place where they may be properly preserved and shown.
The meeting attendees included Albert Lownes, J. Earle Bacon, T.G. Hazard, Jr., Clinton Prescott Knight, Jr., George L. Miner, Mr. and Mrs. E.S. Moulton, Mrs. E.K. Hall, Walter Rodman, George Stevens, and J. (James) Earle Clauson, a veteran newspaper man and columnist for the Providence Evening Bulletin (now The Providence Journal). Among the Founders not attending the meeting was George Benjamin Utter.
Two barns on a five-acre tract of land, known as the Lucy Reynolds Estate, located on the west side of Hamilton Ave. (now Boston Neck Rd.) just south of Beach St. in Wickford, RI, were leased for approximately $15/month. This was formerly the great Smith, later Updike estate (aka the Reynolds estate property). And so the South County Museum was established. The official opening date was June 2, 1934. The official purpose of the museum was formally articulated in the Museum by-laws:
To encourage the study and better understanding of early American life and industry in the home, in the shop, on the farm and on the sea; and especially to discover, identify, classify, preserve, and exhibit the tools, implements, utensils, instruments, vehicles, appliances and mechanical devices used by craftsmen, farmers, housewives, mariners, professional men and other workers in old-time South County.
The Museum was conceived as a series of small shops in separate buildings, each highlighting specific small crafts, e.g. kitchen, school, general store, ships chandlery, textiles, silversmith, old-fashioned garden, fire station, jail, bank, childhood life, and farm with farm equipment. The original collection of donated items rose to approximately 700 articles, mainly due to “attic spring cleaning” efforts by the founding families—Knight, Hazard, Davis, and Lownes. The main barn had three floors, the floor at ground level for plows and wagons. The second barn had two levels. The museum would be open two days a week and the cost of an annual membership was to be one dollar. An admission ticket for non-members would cost 25 cents. Albert Lownes became the Museum’s first President, and J. Earle Bacon, employed by the Manufacturers National Bank and a student of Native American culture, was appointed curator of the Museum’s collection in 1935.
The dream of a series of separate buildings housing individual, small related exhibits was not to be, however. The collection remained consolidated in the two leased barns at the Wickford location.
In 1936, the Museum supplied an exhibit to the Tercentenary Industrial Exposition at the Cranston Street Armory in Providence. This exhibit elicited tremendous publicity and opened a veritable floodgate of donated items, far beyond all expectations. Eventually, the burgeoning collection necessitated expansion into additional buildings and resulted in a move to a new location at Spring Brook Farm in 1936-37.