I grew up in a small, rural town in Kent County, Rhode Island. Though I can only vaguely recall having a “rural route” address, I vividly remember finding horseshoes buried in the rocky soil of our backyard. More than just found objects, these rusted, clunky pieces of the past were like tethers to a world of farming and farmers that had since largely disappeared.
Looking back, the town’s rural roots seemed best preserved in the names embedded in the landscape. Most of our roads, our town library (a truly tiny place, but a whole world to me) and our schools bore the names of the few families who had divided the land. A couple that immediately come to mind are the Louttits and the Linehams–but then there is a full name that is so etched into my brain: W. Alton Jones.
Today, I learned more about Jones. A colleague casually mentioned that President Eisenhower would visit his home in RI as a kind of alternative to “Camp David.” I had known that Eisenhower enjoyed visits to Newport, RI, especially to the large and inviting yellow 19c home (“Quarters Number One”) that is now part of Fort Adams State Park. But apparently Eisenhower also enjoyed Jones’s rural retreat, a place where he could enjoy fishing and the solitude of being far from the pressures of a Cold War presidency.
So, what brought Jones to RI? Jones, who hailed from Missouri, was an oil executive (tycoon?). As president of Cities Service Co., Jones is perhaps best known for the “Big Inch and Little Inch” pipeline projects. An incredibly wealthy man, at various points Jones had property in New York (Lake Placid and Manhattan), Maryland, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana. Clearly, Jones also owned an estate in West Greenwich, which would later be granted to URI.
Generally, I pride myself in knowing local history. This made me wonder: wouldn’t a public historian know if a camp located basically in her backyard had also been host to presidential visits? Not necessarily. After all, Jones did not have the same kind of deep roots as other local families; unlike those who endow schools or libraries, there are not many reasons to remind locals of this fleeting resident. And perhaps the very vagueness of his name has allowed most local residents to presume he must be part of some other lineage.
As I file this information away, I wonder what, if anything, it changes about my memories of this town and my own time in the woods. I weigh my memories of the smells of the babbling brook in our yard, the sound of a log cracking under the swing of an ax, and the way that light would curve through the bend of the stone walls stretching into the woods, seemingly forever. These snapshots are what I knew, and what I know. And now–I know something more.
Image: URI Digital Commons – “George Wheatley, the caretaker of Hianloland Farm from 1951 to ca.1963, guides President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mr. W. Alton Jones in a fishing skiff during a 1958 visit to the West Greenwich estate.”