Draft Green Hill History 2/27/2020
Green Hill has become a summer destination for some and year-round home, for others. It was not always so. Trying to fill in the gaps of its history is no easy task. We decided to begin with the Narragansett Indians who peacefully occupied the area of southern Rhode Island taking advantage of rich soil and ample water. They cultivated corn, squash, beans, berries, tobacco and other crops. Their rivals to the west, the Pequots, were war-like and often raided their settlements and was perhaps the reason for why so much of the land had been cleared in order to help alert and protect against attack.
In 1658 four settlers from Rhode Island and one merchant from Massachusetts purchased a considerable tract of land consisting of what is now South Kingstown, Narragansett, a portion of North Kingstown and Exeter. Known as the Pettaquamscut Purchase, they met at Pettaquamscut Rock, a place Narragansett sachems used to conduct treaties. The rock overlooks Narragansett Bay and the Narrow River and is now part of South Kingstown Park off Middlebridge Road. The price was 151 Pounds and was modelled after the Roger Williams purchase some twenty years earlier for land for his trading post and community in Wickford (then called Cocumscussoc). It is doubtful that the Narragansetts thought of it as a real estate transaction! The Narragansetts occupied land west of the purchase; King Philip’s War (of the Wampanoag tribe) in the 1670’s changed the relationship among Narragansetts, other tribes and the colonies.
The land itself was not exactly governed by any entity. For years the colonies in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts disputed jurisdiction. The Narragansett planters held large tracts to start plantations much like those of the Southern colonies using slaves, indebted servants to work the land. In addition to raising crops, much of the land was used to raise dairy, cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry. On one plantation alone the number of sheep was inventoried at over 600. The corn they inherited from the Narragansetts became the basis for Johnny Cakes. These planters also raised a popular horse known as the Narragansett Pacer whose gait was smooth and helpful for travel since They also sold land parcels to others. The booming plantation era peaked in the mid 18th century.
By then the number of slaves who worked in the plantations had grown to 625 before slavery was abolished around the time of the revolutionary war. Land was subsequently traded over the ensuing years. Wool and prize-winning cheese, cider and wheat were also well known. In the 19th century Green Hill was occupied by dairy farms, sheep herds, orchards, and hay fields. In the 1800’s the farms ranged in size from 50 to 199 acres. Roads were essentially paths from one farm to another. It might take passing though eleven gates to go the Perryville Baptist Church. Potato farms made an appearance in the 1930’s but later encouraged by the government to stop growing potatoes in the late 1950’s to maintain market prices. Gradually the fields turned to housing development and turf fields for lawns.
South Kingstown was established 1729 and was divided later into districts of which Green Hill was one. It included Green Hill pond to the west and Ward’s Pasture to the east (bordering the Perryville district) and as far north as the hills above the post road bordering Tuckertown. There were two mills to make wool cloth in the area. The early version was a one- story building perched on a hill above the dam that caught the currents from the Factory Pond Brook run off that empties into Green Hill Pond. Started by a Browning in the 1820’s but burned down in 1837. Three years later the Green Hill Mill, begun by Congdon and Miller, was erected on the same location and functioned from 1840 to 1908 but burned down in 1930. In the last twenty years, it was owned and operated by William Barney, the former manager, who lived next door in the Browning Long House. It produced wool cloth and employed locals who built houses along the old post road within walking distance to the mill. This mill was powered by steam from a wood burning stove. Yet another mill, the Seine Mill, was located closer to Factory Pond south of present day Route 1 but at the time accessed by the road from Green Hill Beach Road that now leads to the county water management area. It made the twine for fish netting woven by women for the fishermen. The Samuel Perry corn stone grist mill along Moonstone Beach Road began in 1703, bought by Wanton Carpenter in 1874 until the Robinson family bought in 1964 and now preserved by the South Kingston Land Trust. Another woolen mill, known as Holburtons’ also existed for a time located across the street from where Daddy’s Bread now operates. This mill made socks for the Civil War Union soldiers.
Green Hill itself had an area west of Green Hill Beach Road and to the east of Charlestown that was known as Burnside named after the Civil War General Ambrose Burnside who is said to have a house where he often stayed. He was later to serve as Governor and Senator of Rhode island. Just west of Green Hill Beach Road along Matunuck School House Road was once Green Hill’s first and only Post Office (known as the Burnside Post Office) with attached small store from 1883 to 1903. Thereafter it became a boarding house known as the Finn Camp run by the Johanson’s that catered to Scandinavians. Across the street they built a sauna that was often the object of several generations of teenagers who hid in the reeds as they watched the naked participants plunge into the pond to cool off.
In the 1895 census there were 100 persons living in the Green Hill area with seven cottages along the beach. The 1900’s marked the beginning of summer residences along the Rhode Island shoreline. Don Spencer, who was born in 1905, reminisced about his family’s habit of spending long summers at Green Hill before he was born. They rented the Babcock House in Ward’s Pasture. It was a remote place then. Wakefield was a half day trip by horse and buggy to buy staples. All meats, fish, vegetables and dairy were supplied by the Brownings. And electricity was not available. The few summer cottages then located along the shore line were wiped out by the 1938 Hurricane.
The bulk of the land area was occupied by farmers who raised cows and sheep, hay and corn. Potatoes were only grown for personal consumption. Right-of-ways to the beaches were scattered along the area so that farmers could bring their ox drawn carts to pick up seaweed to fertilize their crops. One such pathway off Browning Rd exists just south at Ward’s Pasture. Many of the farms were owned by Browning descendants over nine generations beginning in the early 1700’s. One of the farms was located just west of Green Hill Beach Road on which the Browning Mansion still stands, although no longer as large as it once was. The artist Troy West now lives there but the potato fields were sold to a developer. Other families included Healey, Babcock and Foster. All were Quakers originally; their burial ground is set aside along old post road north of Route 1 but the meeting house is no longer standing. It also is the start of the DuVal Trail, maintained by the South Kingstown Land Trust; it is known for wild blueberries, laurel and ocean views a top the terminal moraine.
Some of the farmers made their living by fishing in Trustom Pond, Green Hill Pond and Ninigret Pond. The fish, oysters and clams were plentiful. One of the Brownings recalls catching two or three barrels of mostly perch to sell to schooners and others. A barrel held 250 pounds. It was a community effort to keep Trustom Pond with the proper salinity so volunteers dug three-foot wide trenches in April and October to keep a breach-way open. By the 1970’s pollution halted the health of Green Hill and Trustom Ponds.
A number of ship wrecks washed up along the Green Hill and Charlestown Beaches. One, in particular, occurred in 1893 when a four masted schooner in-route from Maine to New York City washed ashore on a stormy February night. They were rescued by a near-by Life Saving -Service. The US Life Saving Service was established by Congress in the 1878 out of a number of local volunteer and state groups and became the forerunner of the US Coast Guard in 1915. Because of the number of boating mishaps and flourishing shipping trade along across Block Island Sound government built eighteen Life Saving Stations along the New England coast. One was established at Green Hill in 1912 but was
not active after 1934 probably due to the end of prohibition. Don Spencer recalls when it was built: the building materials were brought by horse drawn wagon from Matunuck School House Road through the Browning farm land, through Ward’s Pasture and then down to the building site. The building was located in the west side of the Beale’s lot next to the Green Hill Association parking lot. It survived the 1938 hurricane and was sold for $1 when a resident moved it across the dirt road. It consisted of a three-story building of which the top floor was a look-out tower. a boat, a coastal weather tower, rescue equipment and a live- in staff of about ten. One of the duties consisted of four hour shifts standing (no sitting) look out duties in the tower during the day and beach patrol at night to look for vessels in distress. An additional duty fell to the coast guard; during prohibition (1920-1933) they were on the lookout for bootleggers who, when the threat of boarding was imminent, they threw the contraband into the sea. It was not uncommon for residents to find bottles of liquor washed ashore. The Charlestown Rathskeller was a speakeasy in those years.
Two events in the 20th century impacted Green Hill: The Hurricane of 1938 and World War II. Because the hurricane that effected all of Rhode Island was unanticipated the destruction it wrought was devastating. It certainly changed the Green Hill landscape; most of the existing cottages were destroyed. The warnings from the Weather Bureau came just a few hours before it hit landfall that afternoon on September 21. The tidal surges from the hurricane were lethal—augmented by full moon high tides and the effects of the autumnal equinox. One hundred eighty -five cottages along Charlestown Beach were swept away. Downtown Providence was as much as thirteen feet underwater. Telephone lines were down and trees were unearthed. Winds clocked at 125 miles per hour with gusts as close to 200 miles per hour. Recovery was slow. There was twenty-five-year moratorium on constructing any new building along she shoreline. (Hurricane Carol struck in 1954 with less damage.)
Soon after World War II was declared the army came to Green Hill. The barracks built to resemble a farm house were constructed along the north side of Hilltop Avenue along with three look out towers. As Barbara Drew recalls, “Every night a truck came from Camp Burlingame loaded with vicious attack dogs. The men that were trained to take care of the dogs patrolled the beach from Moonstone to Charlestown…” Beaches were closed to civilians after 5 PM when patrols started. German U-boats were often spotted along the sound and there was fear of a land invasion. Every night was a black out night with a civilian warden who made sure there was civilian compliance or an arrest might be made. Nearby in what is now Ninigret Park, the navy had an airbase to help train pilots to land on aircraft carriers. Two of those pilots were George H. W. Bush and Joe Young. The latter became intrigued with the landscape he flew over on Green Hill and Trustom Pond. After the war, he bought acreage from farmers of which three developments were called Land and Sea. Jeremiah Browning sold him his 42-acre farm bordering Matunuck School House Road for $1,000; he developed 34 acres and sold the remainder for over one million dollars to the U.S government in what was to become part of the Trustom Pond Wildlife Refuge.
In the late 1920’s John B. Carpenter bought a parcel of land then owned by Samuel Davis that had remained fairly intact from Matunuck School House Rd, from the east of Ward’s Pasture to the west by Green Hill Pond. The land was originally owned in the early 1800’s by Othniel Foster, a school teacher and farmer from the Worden Pond area, who wanted to be closer to the ocean for the seaweed rather than cart it to his original farm near Warden’s Pond. It passed through a generation and was known as the Collins Farm when Mary Foster Collins died in 1901. There was no town road established to the ocean until 1936. Even though it was originally ordered by the town in 1890 it had not been extended beyond where the town park now stands. The Collins House located at the corner of Matunuck School House Road and Green Hill Beach Road was later owned by the Lampheres; their barn and dairy farm were across the road. None of those structures exist today.
Ward’s Pasture maintained its own identity where the original 1788 farmhouse known as the Babcock House still stands along with the subsequent corn crib and barn. Interestingly the milk was kept in the well in a part of the pantry to keep it cold. The property was sold to Sam Ward in 1829 and kept in the family. In the 1800’s the land was connected by an oxen cart path to one of the Browning’s farm. A story about a helper of one of the Brownings who was visiting Ward Pasture gives a flavor of the openness of the land. He was attacked by a bull then dragged on the ground between the horns for a distance before he took hold of the bull’s forward legs and threw him to escape. Julia Ward, his great-granddaughter, sold the property in the mid-60’s to the Holdens. Neighbors bought a portion of the property and donated it to the South Kingstown Land Trust.
The property that Mr. Carpenter bought in 1928 was mostly pasture land that he divided roughly into parcels: 1) The Hill at Green Hill from Border Ave North to Matunuck School House Rd; 2) a parcel from Ward’s Pasture to Green Hill Pond; 3) a strip of land from the Brogie motel along Browning Street to the ocean. The Coast Guard had buildings on what is now Coast Guard Avenue. Mr. Carpenter was a well-respected realtor and real estate appraiser in Rhode Island and the New England area. His family roots were in Rehobeth, a village north of Seakonk, where his father was a country doctor. He insisted that each home built on the property not be over two stories high and that he have final approval of the house plan submitted. To serve the new residents he formed the Green Hill Water Company in 1948. It was run by the Lamphere family who had a farm on land that stretched from Matunuck School House Road to the northeast corner of Carpenter Drive. There they raised chickens, boarded horses and ran a large dairy farm serviced by milk trucks that regularly took the milk to market. Some residents dug wells on their own but many relied on the water service operated by the Lampheres. The water company had a well at the bottom of The Hill near the farm on Carpenter Drive. The water was piped to a holding tank on the top of the hill. It was with a sigh of relief when the Town of South Kingstown brought water into the area in 1968. While the Lampheres operated the wells Mr. Carpenter received the complaints that regularly came. Many residents left the beach around 4 PM to catch a shower before the water level had yielded but a trickle. The Lampheres owned or leased the land when Mr. Carpenter bought the parcel from the Davis family. The Lampheres are listed as owners of the land and the water facility on South County tax books in the 40’s. In 1948 the Green Hill Water company was listed as owner of the equipment. The property on the hill became the home of their son George Lamphere, known as eccentric. When Judy and Fred Becker bought the property after his death, they tore the house down, they noted that poison ivy was growing into the interior of the fireplace!
Mr. Carpenter’s built his first house on the dunes near the Charlestown line. Like others his home was destroyed during the Hurricane of 1938. At the time of the hurricane he and his family were vacationing in Canada. It along with other dune homes disappeared during the storm. When they returned they watched in distress as a swarm of people were carting away silverware, dishes and other items left behind. They eventually rebuilt a house high on the hill in 1943 where their victory garden during world war II was bountiful; much of the produce was given to the soldiers stationed here. Barbara Carpenter Drew and Ed Drew (deceased in 1960) spent summers with their family and her parents in the same house where John and Sue Drew and family now live. Ed was a well-known big bandleader. His Bands played on boats, at the Biltmore in Providence and at the Ocean House at Watch Hill. Their three children, John (born 1938), Alice (born 1941) and Frosty, who suffered the consequences of polio for whom Barbara built a swimming pool for ease of exercise for him, now filled in. He has since passed on; a Nature Center and Observatory bearing his name was erected in Ninigret Park, near Ninigret Pond.
Barbara Carpenter Drew, known to her family as “Baba”, used to regale the grand children with funny anecdotes about her younger years at Green Hill. One story involved her early foray into the ad biz when she proudly rode her pinto pony, Pete, around the area in the late 1940’s to advertise to the area residents that Groucho Marx was appearing in Theatre by the Sea. The theater was begun 1933 in what was an old barn. Damages from the 1938 Hurricane closed it down until 1947 when it reopened.
At the time of World War II there were but three houses built on the hill. The parcels varied in size from 7500 to 12, 500 square feet. Some bought two lots. Dick Hodges recalls his grandfather bought two adjacent lots on Bayberry Street in 1930 when a lot cost $100. He eventually built a house on the site in 1974. When Betty Kelley bought her lot on Slope Avenue in 1958; hers was the third house to be built on the street. Mr. Carpenter was meticulous about setting restrictions on what was built on the lots he sold. There were restrictions. He insisted on final approval of the proposed house design and no plan house could be built higher than two stories. He was also known for his temper. The Deacon family recalls visiting their grandparents who had a house on the dunes near Charlestown in the 1930s. Their dog got loose and barked and growled at a man on horseback who happened to be Mr. Carpenter. Furious he got off the horse and kicked the car door shut. He was so concerned with being in control that he counted the knives and scissors when he came home each night and could have a melt-down if a light was on at bedtime. Yet he could be generous and fair. When Susan Babcock who was the Drew family babysitter for several years at Green Hill, first married he arranged the mortgage for her so she could buy her grandmother’s farm.
The Hill Association was started in 1958 for those homeowners who live on “The Hill”; membership was confined to homeowners along Carpenter Drive and all roads that connect within the boundaries from the one-time gate (originally a gate for the farm) near Border Avenue to Green Hill Beach Road. The gate was used to keep through traffic out of what was then a Hill private road. On weekends, it had someone attend to its operation. The stone that held the hinged gate still stands. Started at the behest of Wally Henshaw’s father, the Atwoods, Landrigans, Dimeos, and Mr. Carpenter, The Hill Association managed the parking lot which Mr. Carpenter deeded to the Hill Association. More recently, The Hill Association provided a portable toilet in season.
Many old timers recall more social times among the summer residents at the beach. There was a patio platform erected on the dunes. Dances, hot dog roasts, fireworks and bond fires were common. The patio platform existed until the mid 1970’s. Many of the summer people rented house and discovered a community that drew them here to become permanent residents. One man, in particular, Mr. Adams, was often mentioned. He lived in a home that the Kegley family now own. He was famous for his bird baths. Mr. Adams took neighborhood children to the beach to look for suitable rocks that might later be fashioned into bird baths using chisel and hammer. He sold the bird baths to neighbors for $5; many still exist in the yards along Green Hill Avenue. Other neighbors took children fishing.
Over the years the beach has changed as sea levels have risen, sand has shifted and rocks been uncovered. There are some photos that were taken some 50 and 70 years ago that show how the area has change. After the hurricane, there was a 25-year moratorium on building construction near the ocean; it was lifted in 1978. Recently the beaches in the Hill area have experienced a good deal of erosion as sea levels have risen.
Above Green Hill Beach and Trustom Pond 1952. The same view in 1971: the parking lot and pavilion are present.
A view looking toward the houses in the Green Hill community probably in the 1960’s. The Brogie Motel is still present as is the Green Hill Beach Club’s old location before rising sea levels caused damage and a new building was constructed.
The Green Hill Beach Club was established in 1961; its three acres with 800-foot beach front was originally bought after the 1938 hurricane by Bernie Poppe who much later sold it to the Green Hill Acres Association that then became the Club; a parking lot and club house were added and Mr. Poppe served as its treasurer for 35 years. The Poppes arrived soon after the hurricane of ’38 looking for construction work. They bought the Abijah Browning house on the end of Maple Avenue as well as other properties. The house had been used as a twelve-room hotel known as Coq D’Or, The Green Hill Inn and more colloquially as Madam Baker’s Hotel. Unfortunately, the house burned to the ground one month after they moved in, but was soon rebuilt to resemble the former Browning residence although scaled down. He became well known in South Kingstown where he served as a tax assessor and zoning board member. He sold another parcel to the Town in 1998 which eventually became the Green Hill Park in 2003.
The Green Hill Civic Association was formed in 1940 to promote the well-being of the community and the environment that is shared. The membership now consists of 280 homeowners in the area bounded on the north by Matunuck Schoolhouse Road, on the east by Trustom Pond Wildlife Management Area, on the south by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the west by any property that abuts Green Hill Beach Road from Schoolhouse Road southerly to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1951 John Carpenter through the South County Real Estate company sold two parcels for $10 each to the Association-- one of which bordered Green Hill Pond and the other, directly across Green Hill Beach Road. They were to became the boat launch area on one side of the road; the other, the basis for tennis courts. More recently bocce ball courts were added. The Association maintains a web site, deeded access to the beach at the foot of Green Hill Avenue, a life guard when feasible, and summer trash pick-up.
The Green Hill Pond is a shallow pond connected to Ninigret Pond; unlike Green Hill Pond, Ninigret is effectively tidally flushed through the Charlestown breech way. Green Hill Pond once supported oysters, clams, crabs and fish have suffered pollution until the 1960’s. For more than thirty years it has been closed to shell fishing and swimming because of pollution. Friends of Green Hill Pond was established recently to promote a plan to study the feasibility of making the pond viable again. Several factors have been identified as contributing to the rise in nitrogen and salinity. The densely inhabited shoreline residents bring wastewater, the geese population pollute the shoreline, fresh water tributaries into the pond such as Factory Brook are also polluted. It is thought that the main problem is the inadequate ability to tidally flush this 430-acre body of water. Studies are on-going with the support of Friends of Green Hill Pond, the Town of South Kingstown and state and federal agencies.
As this brief history has demonstrated the past is gone but not forgotten. Not so long-ago Moonstone Beach was well-known as a nudist beach. The more than one mile strip of beach, just east of Green Hill Beach is surrounded by Trustom Pond. Some of the surrounding land was owned by Ann Kenyon Morse who used it as a place to hunt. This avid hunter, aviator, conservationist and owner of Kenyon Mills set aside 365 acres in 1974. When the Audubon Society could no longer manage its 161 acres, both parcels were given in 1982 to the U.S. Wild Fish and Wildlife Service to make the beginning of the Trustom Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, now over 800 acres. A battle then ensued. For many generations of New Englanders Moonstone Beach, famous as a nude beach destination, the summer human traffic was not compatible with the nesting season for the lesser tern and piping plover. Court battles ensued with attempts to close much of the beach. In 1987 the matter was settled when the piping plover was declared an endangered species. From that time on the beach was closed mid-May to mid-September to the high-water mark. Later Rhode Island beaches barred nude bathing altogether. That is yet one other transformation over a short period of time.