A tavern and stagecoach stop were established here on the Post Road in 1745 and a snuff mill was built on the Saugatucket River by William McCoon around 1765. When mill owner Rowland Hazard changed the name of the village from McCoons Mill to Wakefield in the 1820s, supposedly after friends of his in England, the population was about 60. The industrial hamlet had almost as many businesses - a store, a carding mill, a grist mill, a saw mill and a blacksmith shop - as houses (9).
Through the 1800s the neighboring village of Peace Dale usurped Wakefield as the manufacturing center of South Kingstown and instead developed as a commercial center. Wakefield has remained so ever since and in 1966 the village center along Main Street (the old Boston Post Road) between Belmont Avenue and Columbia Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Our walking tour will explore Main Street and we’ll start at the top, at Columbia Street, and work our way down...
FROM THE INTERSECTION OF MAIN STREET AND COLUMBIA STREET (TO THE NORTH) OR WOODRUFF STREET TO THE SOUTH, WALK A FEW STEPS UP COLUMBIA STREET.
17 Columbia Street
Now standing quite alone, this was once the heart of the village and the recently closed Campus Cinema represents a tradition of entertainment on this spot that reaches back some 150 years - it has unfortunately been a “hot spot” in another way. In 1882 Silas Wright built a replacement for the town’s Columbia Hall which had just gone up in flames. The barn-like theater hosted traveling minstrel shows, lectures and stage performances. A 1918 conflagration swept away much of the town’s building stock on this street, including Wright’s Opera House. It was rebuilt as the Community Theater that morphed into the town’s movie house. Fire struck again in 1968 but the single-screen theater soldiered on. The building was renovated in 1998 but its future appears to live in residential use.
RETURN TO THE INTERSECTION.
187 Main Street at corner of Columbia Street
The Narrangansett Times traces its roots back to June 12, 1858 when publisher Duncan Gillies put out the first issue of the South County Journal. That paper lasted just about exactly one year when Gillies returned to his Scottish homeland. The paper was introduced as the weekly Narrangansett Times under the direction of Thomas P. Wells. In August 1864 a distress letter was sent across the Atlantic urging Gillies to return to Rhode Island and take up the publishing of the paper again, which he did until 1881. Afterward the Gillies sons produced the Narrangansett Times.
W.E. Stedman Co.
196 Main Street
This building with the mansard roof has been a fixture on this Wakefield corner since the 1870s when it was operated as the Columbia House inn by the Armstrong family. On the first floor the townsfolk could purchase a new conveyance from the Armstrong Carriage company. It also served as a shop for Dr. Horace Wilcox, where he made his “Fenagen” mouthwash and tonic. By the 1890s, brother Ben was selling bicycles out of the building. In 1920 William Earl Stedman opened his shop in the building selling and repairing Indian Motorcycles, peddling gasoline and running a general store. In 1926 Stedman picked up ownership of Archie Brown’s bicycle shop which also operated here when Brown died of pneumonia. It was not long before he was known as “Bicycle Bill, a honorarium that passed through the family, which runs the business to this day.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK DOWN MAIN STREET.
Wakefield Baptist Church
236 Main Street
The white frame church was constructed in 1852 at the cost of $8000. It replaced an earlier 1831 church that had been moved to the site.
CONTINUE ON MAIN STREET AS IT BENDS TO THE LEFT DOWN THE HILL.
Main Street Branch
297 Main Street
J.C. Tucker began selling farm goods out of this building in the 1860s. When the Narragansett Pier Railroad rolled through town it crossed Main Street right where the Tucker store stood. Locals took to calling it the “Wakefield Branch.” In 1990 the J.C. Tucker Company was absorbed by the Arnold Lumber Company, a relative newcomer in business - Carold “Kit” Arnold opened his woodlot in 1911.
William C. O’Neill Bike Path
The Narragansett Pier Railroad was chartered in January 1868 and the first trains began rolling between Kingston and Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island in 1876. Regular passenger service continued until 1953 after which limited excursion service continued into the 1970s. By 1981, the line was pared back to being just a 2-mile line between Kingston and Peace Dale. Operations were suspended by 1981, and the line was never reopened. Trolleys like this one operated from 1904 until 1907. With the end of the railroad it was first proposed to use the line asa commuter “school train” to bring students to South Kingstown’s public schools. Ultimately the plan for the nation’s first such train was rejected and in 2000 today’s bike path was opened.
former United States Post Office
corner of Robinson Street and Main Street
This handsome Colonial Revival brick building was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression in 1936. The post office was most most noted, however, for what was inside - an oil on canvas painting by Ernest Hamlin Baker. Such works were commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture in the 1930s to decorate new federal buildings with art of the highest quality. Baker’s “The Economic Activities of the Narragansett Planters” was an unusual depiction of a plantation in the North with slaves toiling under the command of a mounted planter. The controversial mural was on display in the post office until it closed in 1999; in 2003 it was restored and reinstalled at the Pettaquanscutt Historial Society in Kingston.
Wakefield Trust Company
336 Main Street
This was once the home of the Wakefield Trust Company that was organized in 1890. the bank moved into the brick vault with a Neoclassical projecting facade in 1924. Look for modest Corinthian columns and attached pilasters in the Greek portico, which has had all traces of its banking heritage removed in a remodeling for office use.
343 Main Street
Louis Bell, president of the Wakefield Mill, built this commercial block in 1899, bringing a splash of Beaux Arts style to Wakefield. The building, dominated by a parade of bay windows on the facade is constructed of thin wellow bricks and rough-cut stone.
Kenyon’s Department Store
344 Main Street
Kenyon’s Department Store opened its doors in 1856; owners Charles Chase and Harry Lewis moved into this building in 1891. It remained a landmark on Main Street until 1996 when the last descendant retired. The building, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, was donated to South County Hospital to maintain as a medical supply store.
349 Main Street
The Sheldon Furnishing Company was established in 1857 on the other side of the Saugatucket River. The building and the business moved here in 1899 using oxen and plopped down on the ground floor retail space that was built for it. Furniture has been sold here ever since.
The Church of the Ascension
370 Main Street
After meeting in members’ homes the congregation decided on February 28, 1839 “to establish an Episcopal Church in the Village of Wakefield” and to be called the Church of the Ascension. That first wooden frame church was constructed about about one half mile from this spot and was ready for on Ascension Day, June 3, 1840. The building was destroyed in 1935. The present stone sanctuary was consecrated in June 1883. The open frame bell tower was a later addition; otherwise the outside of the church looks the same as it did to worshipers climbing the little rise 125 years ago.
CONTINUE TO HIGH STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
10 High Street
William McCoon built a dam on the Saugatucket River in the 1750s and started a grist mill. Later, a saw-mill and a snuff mill were added to the operation. In the 1800s it transitioned into the textile industry. Several different businesses, including the Wakefield Woolen The Wakefield Mill underwent several ownership changes and expansions in the 20th century. In 1903, it was sold to the Wakefield Woolen Company, which installed new looms and carding equipment for producing high-grade woolen fabrics. It sold again in 1922 and four more times between World War II and 1984. Beginning in the 1950s, parts of the mill complex began to be converted to other uses that can be seen today.
St. Francis of Assisi Church
114 High Street
The first Mass for the parish took place on Christmas Day 1879. For many years services were held in a wooden church on High Street before moving into this rural-style stone sanctuary in 1932. The property is distinguished by the Father Greenan Hall, a community hall that was badly damaged by fire in 1939. The funds of the Depression-era parish were badly depleted at the time and pastor James Greenan set out to create a building that “would serve the needs of the parish, at the lowest possible cost.” The parish hall that he spearheaded was, said the Providence Sunday Journal, “a parish hall like no other in the country; new in the sense of a new building, old in all the materials used. Bricks - mostly red, but also white and black - came from the remains of an old mill that had been demolished in Providence. Windows were from an old and dilapidated restaurant, candelabra from a Vanderbilt estate, radiators from as far away as the North Shore in Massachusetts, and the iron girders from an old grocery wholesale house in Fall River.” Over the years the barn-like brick structure was used for classrooms, boxing matches, carnivals and other church-related events. It recently underwent a nearly $2 renovation.
South Kingstown Town Hall
180 High Street
Rowland G. Hazard was born in South Kingstown in 1801 where his father founded the Peace Dale Manufacturing Company in 1802. Young Rowland was sent to Pennsylvania to grow up with his maternal grandfather but returned in 1819 to join his brother in managing the family business. he would remain involved in the textile mill for almost fifty years, spending a great deal of time in the South selling cotton goods. Hazard became involved in the anti-slavery movement which cripple the company’s southern trade and forced a transition to higher grade woolens. Rowland Hazard won several terms in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, wrote extensively on philosophy and economics and built this stone town hall in 1877. Three major additionsand renovations have brought the building to what you see today.
WALK DOWN CEMETERY LANE ACROSS THE STREET. CONTINUE TO THE BIKE PATH AND TURN RIGHT. FOLLOW IT BACK TO MAIN STREET. TURN LEFT TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.