If you live in Warwick, you have been down West Shore Road and if you’ve ever paid attention, you’ve seen a modest sign that says “Cole Farm.” It’s not as likely that you know the story of Cole Farm and that has been lamentable because that small section of Warwick holds a disproportionately large amount of Warwick’s history.
Fortunately, for history buffs, Henry A.L. Brown grew up on the other side of Occupastuxet Cove and spent many happy hours with Mary Phoebe Webb, his near constant playmate.
“There was a foot bridge across the meadow,” said Brown, who grew up on Spring Green. “It was a couple of planks wide and led to another bridge a little higher that went over the creek and then to the footbridge again. Then a walk through the woods and I was there. We had the best times there. Her mother used to sing sometimes. There was such an innocence to those times.”
Mary Phoebe was the child of George and Iris McCue Webb, who moved back to Cole Farm after the stock market crash made it impossible to live in New York anymore. But that is getting ahead of the story. Brown’s latest book, “From Occupastuxet to Red Bank: A History of Cole’s Farm” is much more than a childhood memoir. Brown has delved into the records and documents for Cole Farm to produce a history that parallels that of the rest of the state and the country.
Brown traces the ownership of the farm back to 1642, when a surgeon named John Greene bought a tract of land from the Narragansett Tribe and later joined Samuel Gorton and nine other incorporators to make the famous Shawomet Purchase that encompassed much of Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry.
Greene’s heirs sold a portion of the land known as “Pastuxet” to the Cole family in 1784. In fact, much of Brown’s book is adapted from a talk he delivered to the Camp Cole Community Association in 1989 but much enriched with archival material and some rare but fascinating photographs chronicling the evolution of Cole Farm from a summer resort to a suburban neighborhood.
The second owner of the land, also named John Greene, was a deputy governor of the colony and built a home for his son Job in 1659 and that home was burned down with all the other houses in Warwick during King Philip’s War in 1676.
“After the Indians withdrew, family tradition states that the Greenes ‘commenced rebuilding on the site while the ashes were still warm,’” wrote Brown.
Brown also gives a good account of Christopher Greene. Job Greene left the property to Judge Philip Greene, a reputedly gracious and generous social entertainer famous for parties and visitors like Benjamin Franklin, who famously made a pass at the judge’s daughter Betty, who refused to be alone with that particular founding father henceforth: “Don’t you ever ask me to ride with that old fool again,” is what she insisted to her father.
Another of Philip’s children was Christopher Greene, the cousin of General Nathaniel Greene, who became famous in his own right as the “Hero of Red Bank” who fought with distinction in the Revolution as a colonel and held off a company of Hessians to protect Washington’s army at Philadelphia from being outflanked. Then Greene came back to Rhode Island and commanded the “Black Regiment” in the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. He died at the hands of loyalist troops who surprised him in his quarters and cut him up and left him in the woods to die near the Croton River in New York in 1781.
Future historians and genealogists will love the back portion of the book, devoted to bibliography and transcriptions of documents and letters that offer details to the many anecdotes and stories in the book.
After the Coles took over the property, it evolved into one of a number of resorts along Narragansett Bay, in the manner of Rocky Point, Oakland Beach and Buttonwoods. Cole’s Farm was especially popular with a group of elite Providence men who used it for lavish seashore getaways.
“There were Governor’s Bakes, Drummer’s Bakes, Mason’s Bakes, bakes galore in those days,” wrote the Providence Journal around 1900.
But Cole’s Farm eventually became less elitist and actually rented campsites to less affluent people who wanted some time on the bay for themselves and their families. Eventually seasonal cottages went up and a communal wharf offered mooring for campers on boats. In a special address to the Cole Camp Association in 1969, Mrs. Harold Nuttall gave her audience a taste of life at Cole’s Station for a young girl around 1913:
“In the evening we would all sit on our porches, or just inside the tent openings, and somebody would start to sing some old time melody, or maybe a hymn, and everybody would join in and we would all sing together. It sounded lovely on the quiet night air…Some of the older men, who had wonderful bass voices, seemed to prefer the hymns and their voices carried quite a distance-and the people who were living in their boats in the cove, as they often did in those days, would join in with the singing and it sounded lovely coming over the water. But if one of the girls started playing her ukulele, the singers would change to something like ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ or ‘Oh, I went into a Restaurant to Get a Bite to Eat’ or ‘Ol’ Hocum’s Goat,’ etc.”
Eventually, the owners of Cole Farm and the people who rented there realized that the future of Cole Farm was going to be a year-round affair and they decided to put it on a more permanent footing. The Cole Farm Association, with 88 members and a share each, began in 1971 to buy the property and made the last payment for the 32.7-acre parcel in 1981.
Brown says his reasons for wring the book were motivated by his own desire to save part of his childhood but, more importantly, preserve a piece of history before it passed out of living memory.
“It’s amazing that 300 years of history can be found in one little piece of Warwick,” he said.
For information about getting a copy of ‘From Occupastuxet to Red Bank,’ contact Henry A.L. Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.