This article was archived in December, 2005
CELS News Site: Fall, 2005

URI Master Gardeners recreate American revolution-era period gardens at historic Prescott Farm

CELS News Editor & Reporter

(Middleltown, RI)
URI's Master Gardeners are usually prone to looking ahead—to next year’s gardens and growing season—but a group of them have been looking back more than 200 years to recreate a little history on a very historic site.

The 40-acre Prescott Farm in Middletown is one of the gems owned by the Newport Restoration Foundation that was started by the late millionaire heiress Doris Duke and it is there that URI Master Gardeners are toiling to recreate period gardens that were typical during the American Revolution.

URI master gardeners Jim Garman and Susan Estabrook work in the Period Garden next to the historic Sherman Mill at Prescott Farm. Click here for a related press release about hurricane relief efforts at Prescott Farm.

Susan Estabrook, a longtime Master Gardener who has worked on the demonstration vegetable gardens on both the main URI campus and at East Farm, has taken on Prescott Farm as a new Master Gardener special project with the intent of establishing vegetable and herb gardens there that are accurate to those that flourished in the late 1700s.

Working with Miles Connors, a CELS graduate in landscape architecture who is responsible for the grounds on all of the Foundation’s properties, Estabrook last fall enlisted a small group of volunteers to rework the gardens there.

During the winter months, the Master Gardeners, most of whom live on the east side of the bay, did research as to what vegetables and flowers the

The Prescott Farm guard house is situated above the herb garden. Next to the guard house is a windmill, known as Sherman Mill, built in 1812, and was originally part of a distillery in Warren, RI. The windmill was moved to Prescott Farm in 1969.

colonists grew—there were no tomatoes or peppers in gardens of that time but they did grow artichokes and leeks not to mention many root crops that could be easily wintered over.

The project has taken much of Estabrook’s free time—she has a real job working for a yacht-servicing company in her hometown of Newport.

“But it’s a lot of fun,” she says. She is particularly grateful to Frank Crandall of Wood River Evergreens in Hope Valley who has donated labor and equipment to help with the project.

The vegetable garden is only a year old and yet it has yielded hundreds of pounds of vegetables that were donated to local charities.

Prescott Farm was purchased by the Foundation to preserve the rapidly dwindling open space in the area. The Foundation owns 85 properties including the famous Rough Point mansion off Bellevue Avenue which was Doris Duke’s summer “cottage.” Rough Point is open for tours. Most of the other properties have historic value but are rented.

Prescott Farm has become home to several historic structures that were in danger of being destroyed or dismantled. Gradually the Foundation is bringing aged structures to the farm including, most strikingly, the Sherman windmill that used to be in Warren and was moved around a lot before ending up at the farm.

An important building on the site is the so-called General Prescott’s Guard House and therein lies one of the few notable chapters in Rhode Island’s history during the Revolutionary War.

Gen. Richard Prescott was one of the least liked- British generals in the war and he had about 4,000 British and Hessian troops occupying Newport. He preferred to reside away from his troops and took up residence with an aide in the Overing farmhouse on what is now Prescott Farm.

In December, 1776, Gen. Charles Lee,

the second-in-command of the American Army, was taken prisoner by the British. In order to effect his release through a prisoner exchange, a British general of the same rank was needed.

American Lt. Col. William Barton came up with a bold plan. He enlisted about 40 volunteers, both black and white, and unveiled his plan. In the middle of the night of July 9, 1777, the expedition climbed into small boats and with muffled oars rowed past the general’s warships, landed near Prescott Farm, waded through a swamp, overpowered the guards in the guardhouse, went to the farmhouse, broke down the general’s bedroom door and kidnapped him. They took him to Providence and later he was exchanged for General Lee.

Today, Prescott farm is a lot quieter. The only action is on the pond where geese and ducks live. Visitors can tour the property on their own or with a tourguide and the facility can be rented for special occasions.

Estabrook says her next project is to address the overgrown herb garden. Research will have to be done about the herbs used commonly in the 18th century.

Estabrook is also busy with a special project of helping restore the formal Olmsted gardens on the grounds of the New York Yacht Club which was formerly the John Nicholas Brown Estate.

Overlooking Newport Harbor, the property has a pond and gardens flanked by huge beeches and elms not to mention a quaint wooden greenhouse that needs restoration. The yacht club is not a Master Gardener project although Master Gardeners such as Estabrook do give advice on plantings.

Estabrook says the connections she and other Master Gardeners have made with groups in Newport could go far in spreading the influence of the URI Master Gardener program throughout the state.

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