In the summer of 1912, Elizabeth Carr Locke, a California-based descendant of Caleb Carr who was in Jamestown for the summer, had 200 posters printed and distributed around the island asking anybody interested in forming a historical society to meet at Town Hall on August 19. Historical and preservation societies weren’t new – the Rhode Island Historical Society had been founded in 1822 – but very few small towns had made an organized effort to remember and preserve their history.
Jamestown had a head start. The Jamestown Windmill Association had saved the old windmill in 1904. Preserving the mill over the coming years was still on people’s mind.
Windmill with sails, early view, photo may have been taken before mill ceased operation. Placed on the National Register of Historical Places on March 14, 1973.
On the appointed day, 26 men and women gathered in Town Hall. The decision to organize a society with annual dues of $1 was reached quickly. The society’s purpose of “preserving old landmarks and collection of historical relics” was also decided without difficulty. What to name the new organization was harder. Should it be the Jamestown Historical Society or the Conanicut Historical Society?
At the very next meeting of the society the following week, the collection of historic relics began with the donation by Dr. William Lincoln Bates, owner and director of the Maplewood Sanitarium on Conanicus Avenue, of scrip issued by the U.S. Post Office for 50 cents during the Civil War.
A committee led by Dr. Bates quickly wrote the constitution and bylaws and on September 10, 1912, the state issued a charter to Lena H. Clarke, Elizabeth Carr Locke, Sarah W. Carr, Josephine A. Weeden, and Herbert Head that incorporated the Jamestown Historical Society. The charter itself became the second object in the collection.
The most important old landmark that the new historical society wanted to preserve was the Jamestown windmill. The windmill was owned by Mary Rosengarten in trust for the Jamestown Windmill Association, which was unincorporated and couldn’t own real property. Even before the society’s incorporation papers were issued, negotiation began to transfer the windmill to the newly incorporated entity.
The decision did not take long. Many of the members of the Jamestown Windmill Association were among the founders of the new historical society. On October 7, less than two months after the first organizational meeting, Mrs. Rosengarten transferred ownership of the Jamestown windmill to the Jamestown Historical Society. The deed included the 3,600 square feet around the mill itself, which the Windmill Association had bought in 1904, and a half-acre of land to the south of the mill, which had been donated by Annie L. Carr of New York. The Carr gift provided direct access to North Main Road which had earlier been reached along the pathway in front of the miller’s cottage.
Acquisition of new objects for the society’s collection was slow, at least partially because the society had no secure place to keep the collection. (In 1927, the society entered into an informal agreement with St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church to house the collection in a room in the parish hall, but it wasn’t until the Town leased it the empty school/library at 92 Narragansett Avenue in 1972 that the society found a permanent home.)
In 1913, three members followed Dr. Bates’ lead and donated paper currency. The oldest was a 30-shilling note issued by the colony of New Hampshire in 1775, which was donated by Louise Atkinson. Miss Atkinson, the daughter of a former Newport mayor, had lived in a cottage at the corner of Green Lane and Friendship Street since 1895. She also donated a delegate identification ribbon for the Whig party convention in 1840 and a campaign button for William Henry Harrison, who was elected President that year.
Isabella Weeden Hull donated scrip issued in 1776 by the Massachusetts Bay colony for 4 pence. Mrs. Hull was born in Jamestown and lived with her husband Benjamin on a farm on North Main Road near what is now Jamestown Shores. Mrs. Richard Viall, who lived at Dr. Bates’ Maplewood Sanitarium, gave paper money worth 50 cents issued in 1875. She was the widow of one of the founders of Brown & Sharpe.
Without a large collection to exhibit, the society asked its members to lend objects for its first historical exhibition. Thirty-five members and friends of the society responded and over 300 articles were displayed in Town Hall on August 13 and 14, 1913. Admission to the exhibit cost 25¢ and netted the Society $63.47