"Fringe Benefits" on the Knight Farm
Webster Knight, son of Robert Knight, the founder of the B. B. & R.
Knight Company, made his home at the former Sprague mansion on East
Avenue in Warwick. He was one of the most influential personages in the
town, both as a mill owner and a politician and as the owner of the
lovely estate on East Avenue.
The Knights excelled as "gentlemen farmers" and the East Avenue estate became a model farm. Webster Knight's two children, Adelaide and Robert Lippitt Knight maintained that interest well into the 20th century.
Unlike his father, who did not care for politics or politicians, Webster Knight became very active in public life. He held a number of state offices under Governors Elisha Dyer and Charles Warren Lippitt, and was the assistant quartermaster general of the R. I. National Guard. In Warwick, he is best remembered as a member of the Town Council. He served in this capacity for 11 years and was president of that body from 1894 1898, acknowledged as the political "boss" of Warwick.
The end of the textile company
In 1920, after the Knights sold their vast manufacturing interests to the Consolidated Textile Corporation of New York for $20,000,000, Webster Knight’s children continued to be active in farming and breeding of animals. Webster’s son, Robert L. Knight, purchased the Cranston farm of his maternal great, great grandfather, Col. Christopher Lippitt. His interests led him to the breeding of Ayreshire cattle and he became a noted leader in that field.
Robert’s sister, Adelaide Knight, who had never married, remained at the East Ave. estate until her death. At that time the property passed to her nephew, Royal Knight. He owned the property until 1964 when it was acquired by the Community College of R. I. Many of the farm buildings around the Main House remain and are kept as they were.
The “good old days”
There are a number of people who have fond memories of the "old days" on the estate. In a 1984 interview, Bob Jodrie, who worked for the Knights and was employed at the college until his retirement, vividly recalled the farm as it was when he was a young man. He remembered and kept alive many of the stories told to him by old timers who worked there. The Knights often recruited people from the mills who had special skills in farming or animal husbandry. Jodrie recalled that one of these men, Camille Charette, worked for the Knights for over 50 years.
Farm work and Turtle soup
By the end of the Civil War, as the Knights grew in size and power, the supply of inexpensive labor at the mills was insufficient and they began recruiting French Canadians as the chief source of labor for their textile empire. Like so many other Knight employees, Charette came from Canada when he was very young and began working in the mills at age 12. He was transferred to the farm a few years later and remained there until his retirement. Camille was fond of recalling how he worked on the farm from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. for five days a week, and then a half-day on Saturday. The hours were long and the work was hard, but there were many "fringe benefits', and the mill hands vied for the jobs. Camille especially liked it when the Pawtuxet River would be low and he would be ordered to hook up the horses and clean out the section of the river that bordered on the farm. As the men walked along the river bottom, they very often came upon large turtles, which they were allowed to keep and take home for soup.
During the winter months when there wasn't a great deal of activity on the farm, some of the men would go back to the mills while others cut firewood or worked on the deposit of "bluestone" found on the farm. They would drill and dynamite the stone and used that material to build the exceptionally fine walls that abound on the estate and add greatly to the beauty of the grounds. By using a team of oxen on one side of the wall, and an inclined plane on the other, it was possible to raise the huge stones onto the wall.
The story of the Knight Estate will be continued.
beautiful stonewalls near the gardener’s cottage bear mute testimony to
the quality of the bluestone and the skill of the workers who built the
Photo by Don D’Amato