Robinson Farm…Forever!

About a half mile from the center of Wakefield, twenty-five Hereford/Angus cattle and seven calves graze on forty-five acres of South Kingstown Land Trust pastureland.  This is the result of a gift from James and Susan Bowers who live in a home that abuts the property on Main Street.

The “Robinson Farm” has an interesting history and an even more interesting story of how Jim and Susie went about preserving it for future generations to enjoy.

Origin of the farm. Susie’s grandfather Dr. Rowland Rodman Robinson and his wife, Mary Peace Hazard, created the farm in 1907 when they built a home on Main Street and started buying up adjacent parcels. It seems Dr. Robinson was the only doctor in South Kingstown, and he was often paid in livestock because his patients were short on cash but rich in chickens, cows and turkeys. Back then, the farm consisted of 90 acres that stretched all the way to Salt Pond. The property soon became home to numerous cows, horses, goats, turkeys, and chickens.

Mary Robinson, with a couple of hired hands, was very busy running the family farm for her husband, who practiced medicine throughout South County. In fact, that is how he got the coveted RI license plate “#1” in 1904. Dr. Robinson had one of the first cars in Rhode Island because of the size of his practice and also had family connections to the legislature. That license plate still resides on a Robinson family vehicle – a Cadillac that Jim and Susie own – despite numerous attempts by politicians and others to acquire it.

From generation to generation. In 1942, Susie’s father, Rowland Robinson, and his wife, Caroline, built the house the Bowers now live in. Rowlie had attended St. George’s School and then went on to Harvard, earning a degree in Chemistry in 1933. When his father died in 1935, he came back to run the farm and take care of his mother. He called himself a “gentleman farmer,” but it was a real farm with three chicken coops and a large herd of Black Angus cattle. He remained at the farm until his death in 1989.

Jim and Susie were married in 1964 and lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where Jim had a thriving four-plant dry cleaning business. He sold that and with his brother started the company that became West Marine before going into the mergers and acquisitions business for 15 years. The Bowers had been coming to South County periodically in the summer and in 1988 decided to move here full time. Susie loved her parents’ farm, and Jim liked the change of becoming a farmer.

Jim’s father-in-law set a good example, but being a “gentleman farmer” is a lot of work. Chickens lay copious amounts of eggs, and cows have calves. The livestock has to be provided with feed and water all winter long. Cutting all that grass, harvesting hay twice each summer and maintaining several woodlots as well as mending fences and stone walls, brush cutting, maintaining all of the houses, barns, and equipment is a full-time job. It turns out “gentlemen farming” is a full- time job for several people. The Bowers have two daughters, Lisa and Linda, but neither of them were interested in the land or running a farm, so Jim and Susie had to find a way to keep the farm and not go broke paying property taxes and the help. Along with the farm, Susie had inherited three houses on Pond Street. These were originally built to house the people who worked on the farm. They were each sold to the existing tenants.

Pathway to preservation. When the new Route 1 was built in the late ‘50s, it cut off nine acres that bordered Salt Pond, effectively preventing the woodlot from being used so Rowlie gave the property to the Audubon Society as a bird sanctuary.

In the meantime, Jim had a contingency plan that divided the farm into house lots, but this was a last resort and not something he and Susie really wanted to do. Instead, in 2006 they sold the development rights to the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Town of South Kingstown, and the South Kingstown Land Trust. This solved one problem, but they also wanted to preserve the property as a farm, which still required a lot of work and full-time help. They solved this by gifting most of the land to the South Kingstown Land Trust in 2013. The Land Trust in turn leases the land to Ed Duffin who owns the Herefords that now occupy the pastures. This arrangement ensures that the land will never be developed or sold because it is protected by the South Kingstown Land Trust and the US Department of Agriculture. There is however, no public access to the property because of liability with the cattle.

Jim and Susie still own 12 acres of the original farm that Mr. Duffin also uses for his cattle and Susie for her two horses. Their spectacular view of pastures, trees and stone walls is maintained. Jim is retired for the third time in his life, and the South Kingstown Land Trust has a unique piece of property. This looks like a win-win for everyone concerned including the residents of South Kingstown. There is still one real farm in downtown Wakefield.

By Frederick J. Wilson III