Clouds Hill: Tools from our farming heritage find a home
On Oct. 12, the Victorian mansion house at Clouds Hill will hold a Harvest Dinner to serve as a premiere of the new Henry A. L. Brown Agriculture Collection at Clouds Hill.
The well-known Warwick historian has always taken an active interest in preserving history and has been generously donating items to Clouds Hill for many years.
“I think it’s a wonderful place to keep these objects and a great way to educate Rhode Islanders about the rich agricultural history of the state,” said Brown. “Many people are familiar with Rhode Island’s history of fishing and the sea but do not know as much about its history of agriculture that was just as important.”
As Anne Holst, the last of the line of women to own Clouds Hill, is quick to point out, the estate was once 500 acres and took up a good portion of that land in agricultural pursuits.
“The dairy farm was the largest in Warwick and it encompassed Love Lane and part of what is now Route 95,” said Holst. “The farm was sold at auction in 1928.”
The owners of Clouds Hill were not gentlemen farmers who kept cows for the romance of the thing. Holst said they used their own dairy products and sold milk to other dairies. Cows need to be fed and the farm supplied grass and silage for the herd. Producing such necessities required tools and the Clouds Hill collection has accumulated a number of tools that would keep a visitor all day guessing what its use was. There are saws and cutters and incubators and huskers and crushers and just about every so-called laborsaving device that was available to farmers in the 1800s.
On a recent visit, Holst laid out two serious looking blades beside the kitchen sink. Brown donated them and they mutely challenged the visitor to guess their function. The visitor was smart enough to see that they were used to cut grass.
“Actually, this one was used to cut the cornstalks close to the ground after the corn was picked,” said Holst. “They took the stalks and stored them in silos for winter feed for cattle.”
The next blade, with the roughly serrated edge, looked too dull to cut wood, which was not a problem because after the visitor gave up, Holst explained that it was used to carve out clumps of hay from a haystack.
The tools and machines out in the sheds behind the main house are a lot more difficult to guess at first but did make sense once you were told what they were used for. For instance, a box with an almost cabinet quality finish turned out to be an incubator from the early part of the last century, an electric egg warmer that Brown donated.
One wooden gizmo in the shed was obviously fed something to be processed but no amount of looking would reveal what it processed.
“That’s a shell crusher,” said Holst. “If you keep chickens, you know they need a lot of calcium to make eggs. This machine crushed clam and oyster shells for feed.”
Holst and the board of directors for Clouds Hill, which is now incorporated as an educational non-profit, want to use the property as a living laboratory for the study of agriculture as it once was practiced. This time of the year, Holst is gathering nuts from the variety of trees that are found on the property. Black oak, hickory, butternut and chestnuts are gathered.
The chestnuts, which produce small but unmistakably edible and delicious nuts, are from trees planted by Holst’s grandfather. They were from an experiment in Connecticut to produce chestnut trees that were immune to the blight that devastated the chestnut tree in America.
“My grandfather bought six strains of a hybrid developed to try to bring back the American chestnut,” said Holst. “They were crossed with Chinese chestnuts that were unaffected by the blight.”
Uppermost on Holst’s hopes for Clouds Hill is to make it a permanent component of education in the state, not just for preservation’s sake but to give purpose to what was once a proud Victorian homestead and the home of people who made a difference in the way the country developed.
The house at Clouds Hill was built as a wedding gift for Elizabeth Ives Slater on her marriage to Alfred Augustus Reed Jr. The home passed from Elizabeth to her daughter, Helen, on to Elizabeth’s granddaughter, Anne, and finally to her great-granddaughter, Anne Holst. A few of the notables in the family line include Roger Williams, Zachariah Allen, Samuel Slater, and Anne Nancy Allen Holst, first female fire chief in the world.
Alfred Reed Jr. is perhaps most responsible for the oriental motifs in the house. He was a Dorchester, Mass. native who went to work for a Dutch company with offices in Boston. He rose in the company and was eventually sent to Java as U.S. Consul from 1850 to 1856. He was a personal friend of the King of Siam and, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired the committee that drafted the Land Grant college legislation that allowed the founding of state colleges and universities across the nation.
The colleges were supposed to focus on mechanics and agriculture to train people for those fields before they expanded to include all fields of study, which makes Holst’s efforts to develop Clouds Hill into a living laboratory for the study of Rhode Island agriculture particularly appropriate.
But, we suspect that people will continue to take tours of a remarkably well-preserved Victorian estate and be made aware of the collections it houses only if they are lucky enough to have Anne Holst as their tour guide and are smart enough to ask her what else the house holds.
She may start with textiles; with family articles dating back to the 1870s; porcelain, including the dinner set used by Elizabeth and her family; carriages, including a gypsy wagon from the mid-1800s; Nancy Allen’s fire truck and much more. They will also learn that the property on which the house sits has been referred to as the West Bay arboretum, among other things.
Well just refer to it as a hidden treasure overlooking Narragansett Bay, a Victorian secret, so to speak.
For more information, contact the Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum at 884-9490 or visit www.cloudshill.org.