In North Kingstown, there is a castle that transports people back in time, showcasing stories of fame and fortune—as well as the dark secrets—of our American colonial past. For 75 years, the Cocumscussoc Association has carefully curated experiences through exhibits, events, and re-enactments. Visitors will now be able to enjoy a learning experience on their smartphones, even when the museum is closed.
Anyone entering Smith’s Castle, located at 55 Richard Smith Drive, becomes enchanted by a simpler time gone by. This is the oldest surviving plantation house in the United States, with its roots dating back to the mid-1600s. Inside is a treasure trove of artifacts and displays; and an outdoor colonial herbal and flower gardens have been re-created.
John Dower, President of the Cocumscussoc Association and Smith’s Castle historian, said that one of the biggest misconceptions about the property is that visitors envision an actual castle when they arrive. Needless to say, they are surprised to see a simple colonial wooden structure.
“Smith’s Castle is not what people expect, but the home was large, compared to other homes during that period,” Dower said. “The compound is 4,200 sq. ft., and by comparison, the average home back then was 500 sq. ft. Richard Smith, Jr., was one of the top five richest people in New England at that time. It was a testament to economic success of the plantation.”
Although the home has only 10 rooms, several are quite large. The colonial kitchen and a large chamber upstairs are each over 500 square feet, which is indicative of the use of those particular rooms during the colonial plantation era. Social events and overnight guests were the norm during those years at Smith’s Castle.
Richard Smith, Jr. earned his fortune in cheese making. His descendants would later play a role in the American Revolution – printing the Declaration of Independence, and even entertaining such dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette, on site.
Dower said that he and the volunteer docents that greet visitors take pride in telling these stories, not glossing over any sordid or difficult details. That means focusing on tough issues during that period, such as the plantation-era of slavery or the site’s unfortunate role in the King Philip’s War. He said that it’s important to tell the full history—all of it—so people have the complete picture.
In his day, Smith had a consistent workforce of enslaved people. However, they weren’t traded by the English, as many enslaved were, a few decades later. Dower said that Smith traded with people in the Dutch Indies to get the labor he needed. The area’s agricultural economy was built on the business of slavery.
By visiting Smith’s Castle, people of all ages have the opportunity to learn about its rich history. From the land being a trading post co-owned by Richard Smith, Sr. and Roger Williams in the 1600s, to the plantation era in the 1700s, to becoming a National Historical Landmark in 1949, to the nature trails and coastal marshlands, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Until now, education opportunities only took place when volunteers were available to teach. This year, thanks to one local entrepreneur, a new mobile app will enable a fun learning experience, even when the museum is closed!
Michelle Girasole of Fresh Maps, also based in North Kingstown, recently launched an interactive map to guide visitors on their journey around the property. A “digital learning map,” delivered via visitors’ smartphones, will highlight different points of interest with video tidbits from historians appearing in costume. Each map pin point challenges visitors to complete trivia questions, puzzles, and games, reinforcing the learning in a fun way.
Girasole said that her combined love of the property, history, and new technology made it a compelling project. “I started coming here during the off hours because of its proximity to where I live,” she said. “There is a lot of beauty here that can be enjoyed, and I found the history intriguing. Smith’s Castle is a hidden gem that more people should get out and see for themselves.” A grant from the H. Kimball Foundation made the project possible—and free—for visitors.
To celebrate its milestone year, Smith’s Castle will be holding several events that are open to the public:
There will be a seminar called, “Anchored in Rhode Island: The Slave Trade and Reckoning with Our Past,” on October 14, from 9:30 AM–3:00 PM. This seminar will bring together a host of local scholars and authors to share the history of enslavement in Rhode Island, and offer insights on the legacy of slavery’s grasp on the narrative of our national and state history, as well as examine the impact on our current society, as we recognize the work that still needs to be done to ensure all Americans are treated equally in law and opportunity.
Tickets are $40 for general admission and $25 for seniors and students.
Finally, a Christmas at the Castle event happens on December 3rd and 4th, from 12:00 Noon to 4:00 PM. The museum will be fully decorated. Period pieces, live entertainment, crafts for children, and a cup of good cheer from Father Christmas will provide for a fun and unique experience .
For additional information about these and other upcoming events, as well as scheduling tours and other events, please visit their website at www.smithscastle.org.