The weather was pleasant Saturday morning on June 23rd as more than 60 people gathered to welcome the Westerly Land Trust’s 31st property. The property, formerly a small family farm, remains relatively untouched from the way it looked in the depression era 1930s’.
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It’s been 21 years since the Westerly Land Trust purchased the Avondale Farm Preserve, its first property and the beginning of an incredible success story. With the acquisition of the 80-acre Barlow Farm, the land trust now manages almost 1700 acres. The farm has become the Eleanor F. and Edward W. Barlow Nature Preserve. Jennifer Fusco, the land trust’s new director, was on site to greet members of the Barlow family who traveled from Virginia to attend the opening ceremony.
“When we think about this property and how it is different from our other properties, the fact that this is a working farm with a house and
buildings opens up many opportunities,” said Fusco. “Perhaps we can engage with a farmer or farm family, that’s something we’re thinking about. The Westerly Land Trust has a wonderful thriving education program, bringing school kids out onto the land and I think now we have a new component to that education. We can show kids what it means to grow food and a little about what life is like as a farmer. I’m really excited about what might happen here and we’re eager to get going.”
One of the Westerly Land Trust’s primary goals is the preservation of Westerly’s special places and the new Barlow Preserve certainly fits that. The 80 acres that make up the preserve have a diversity of habitat from upland forest to wetlands and it abuts and overlooks the Newton Marsh which is part of the second largest wetland in Rhode Island.
The new director, known to all as Jenn, took me on a tour of the property. The original farm cottage sits across the drive from the main house which was built later. As we entered the original two-room cottage it was as if we stepped back in time. It looked as if the people living here had just stepped out for a moment. A large cast iron stove sat in the right-hand corner of the kitchen with a spatula, spoons, and other utensils hanging next to it on the wall. A box of firewood sat ready to go just outside the door.
I could picture bacon and eggs cooking on the stove next to a big enamel coffee pot. I imagined the sound of cows mooing for their hay in the old barn. Next to the stove a small sink and counter sit under a window, a roll of paper towels still poised to its left. The window looks out over an overgrown garden and to a 10-acre hay field beyond.
The opposite side of the room was empty except for an old rusted gas heater. The space was once probably home to a small kitchen table. At the far end of the kitchen, a door led into the living area. The small room was empty except for an old electric light in the center of the ceiling with a pull chain. I pulled the chain and a dim light turned on. The room had a strong musty odor that awakened memories of old closets and trunks.
The old farm spoke to me about what life had been like in the early days of the 20th century on the hardscrabble farms of southern Rhode Island. The old rusted water pump with its bucket still stood in the yard. Someone asked, “Where’s the bathroom,” and there at the edge of the yard sat the answer, the outhouse.
Just up the hill from the cottage was a small barn. I walked inside as a chipmunk scurried out of the way. The strong smell of age and decay greeted me as I took a few photos of the interior. There were three stalls that once harbored livestock, probably a cow or two for milk, perhaps a horse for haying and getting to town. There was no evidence of any modern farm equipment or a place to keep it.
We toured the main house which had extensive water damage that occurred over the winter. Most of the house had been stripped back to the studs. A taxi pulled up, the Barlow family arrived and was greeted by land trust members. Bob Barlow, Ned’s brother, then made his way to the microphone and spoke about some of his memories.
“This property was the Ferrante family’s longtime residence. They lived in the old house there, this is where Eleanor grew up. Ned and Eleanor built the new house later, about 1985. What I remember most about this property was the tomatoes. Ned had a huge tomato garden. He grew all sorts of tomatoes. He grew every kind that you can think of. I didn’t know they had black tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, green and red tomatoes.
Anyway, Ned and Eleanor would come down here during the summer and they would grow this huge amount of tomatoes. I don’t like tomatoes.” The audience laughed. “Ned would grow them and Eleanor would use the cookhouse over there to put up and can preserves. Then the two of them drove around in their car with sacks of tomatoes. And whether you liked them or not they were yours.”
The old farm held a fascination for me and I did some research online and found that in 1904 William H. Pendleton sold the 80-acre property to Nicolas Nelder. The Nelder family owned the property until 1931 when it was sold to Vincenzo Ferrante.
Vincenzo Ferrante was an Italian laborer, who with his wife Maria, immigrated to this country in 1910 to work as a stone cutter at the Sullivan Quarry. The 1925 census lists him as Vincenzo James Ferranti, the 36-year-old head of household, living at Bradford Road, Westerly with his wife Mary age 26, sons Bartolomeo 7 and Pasquali 4, and his brother-in-law Concezio Ricci. In 1931 Vincenzo was able to borrow $3,000 at 6 percent interest from his brother-in-law Kenyon Ricci to purchase the property.
1931 was only two years after the stock market crash of 1929 and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like with a family of five living in the 400-square foot cottage. There was no electricity until at least 1935 and the old pump and outhouse tell the rest of the tale. But Vincenzo and the family somehow made it work and lived on the farm for almost fifty years.
This property is unique because it’s one of the best examples of what rural life on a small family farm was like in South County 100 years ago. The addition of the new Eleanor F. and Edward W. Barlow Nature Preserve will help the Westerly Land Trust educate and inspire people about the land and preserve much of the property in its current natural state. It will help ensure that Westerly retains its small-town quality of life for future generations.