The “Gentleman’s Farm”
section of Warwick that is now familiar to us as the Rhode Island Mall,
the Community College of Rhode Island and the modern highway that is
East Avenue was once considered Rhode Island's nicest "gentleman's
farm." This was the Knight Estate, owned by members of the very
powerful and important Knight family.
A model farm
While the Knights were most successful in the field of textiles, many family members were interested in agriculture and owned "model" farms where prize livestock were raised. One of these farms was located in Warwick on 500 acres of land, which extended along the Pawtuxet River beyond the present Mall, along Greenwich Avenue, then down Tollgate Road and Commonwealth Avenue. The large open tracts of land are gone as are the prize cattle and horses and the red barns and hay fields, but the Knights' lovely house and many of the farm buildings remain as part of the property of the Community College.
The Warwick Proprietors
The story of the land, the buildings on it, and the changes in its use is comparable to the story of the growth and changes in Warwick from the 17th to the 20th century. The land changed in ownership from the rural farmlands of some of Warwick's early proprietors, to the early industrialists, to the flamboyant and politically powerful Sprague family, and then to the prominent and wealthy Knights.
The very early history of the land can be traced to the period when the danger of Indian attack was over after King Philip's War (1675 76). The area to the west of Old Warwick, known then as the hinterlands, was divided in the names of the original purchasers and proprietors. Their heirs were allocated lands over much of the large, 107 square mile town. In time, families began to consolidate their interests and, through exchanges and marriages, large contiguous farms were put together.
Once this happened, the parcels of land generally remained in the possession of one or two families for generations. The area, eventually known as the Knight Estate, was inhabited by the Baker, Arnold, and Holden families for a number of generations.
The Textile Giants
While Warwick engaged in maritime activities along the coast during this early period, farming was the chief occupation of most of the residents of the large town throughout the 18th century. By 1741, it was evident that the settlers in the westernmost section were finding it difficult to attend town meetings in Old Warwick as overland travel was slow and difficult. As a result, over 60 square miles were taken from Warwick to form the Town of Coventry.
During this period, most Warwick and Coventry farms were nearly self sufficient. Some land was used for the planting of vegetables for family use, some areas for tobacco, some for apples, which were usually made into cider, and a section set aside for timber for fuel. The bulk of the land was used as pasture land. Cows were raised for milk and cheese, hogs for meat, sheep for meat and wool, and chickens for eggs.
In the early part of the 19th century, the life style changed drastically in the Natick area, not far from the present day Knight Estate. The Rhodes brothers of Pawtuxet began buying up land and soon established a thriving textile industry.
By 1821, the Sprague family became interested in the Pawtuxet River Valley and purchased the Rhodes' mills at Natick Village. While Samuel Slater is usually regarded as the "father of the American textile industry," William Sprague, the 6th of that family to bear the name, is considered to be the man who developed it.
Along with the purchase of the Rhodes Mills in Natick, the Spragues acquired a great deal of real estate. In 1827, they obtained about 150 acres of farm land in the nearby area which included the homestead of Thomas Holden. It is generally believed that before his death in 1836, he built the house known as the Knight house that stands at 486 East Ave. His mills and property went to his sons, Amasa and William, who formed the A & W Sprague Co., one of the leading manufacturing firms in the United States.
The story of the Spragues, their success and eventual failure, and of the Knight family's acquisition of the property in Warwick will be continued.
A view of East Avenue and the Rhode Island Mall taken from the campus at CCRI. At one time, this was all part of the Knight Estate.
Photo by Don D’Amato