The Story

The beautiful waterfront property overlooking Mount Hope Bay in Bristol, RI, where almost 5,000 Roger Williams University students currently reside, was once the site of Ferrycliffe Farm, a thriving dairy farm.

Established by Dr. Herbert Marshall Howe in 1877, Ferrycliffe was one of 138 farms in Bristol at that time.[1] Gentlemen farms, like Howe’s Ferrycliffe and Samuel Colt’s Colt Farm, developed outside of Bristol’s town center, while smaller farms sprung up throughout other parts of Bristol. This is the story of the changing landscape of Ferrycliffe and Bristol, as Dr. Howe’s heirs worked to maintain the peace and tranquility of the farm while Bristol transitioned from a rural farming community to a more suburban, industrial based town.

Although not a native Bristolian, Dr. Howe was well familiar with the area. His father, Mark Antony DeWolf Howe, was born in Bristol in 1808 and later owned Weetamoe Farm, which he inherited from his father, John Howe. After graduating from Brown University and working as a tutor first at the Hawes School in Boston and at then at Brown, Howe entered the ministry. Several years later, in 1871, he was elected Bishop of Central Pennsylvania and moved his family to Reading, Pennsylvania. Bishop Howe returned to Bristol every summer with his family to vacation. He died at Weetamoe in 1895.

In 1877, Dr. Herbert Marshall Howe purchased 120 -130 acres of farm land in the southern part of Bristol from Holder Borden Bowen. Originally known as Ferry Hill Farm, Howe renamed it Ferrycliffe to reflect the farm’s landscape and location – being situated on low cliffs near the ferry to Aquidneck Island. The land extended to the eastern and western sides of Ferry Road. A farmhouse, which still stands today as the University’s Center for Global and Community Engagement was part of the original property. At that time, the farmhouse was a one and one-half story, 3-bay, gabled roof cottage.[2] It served as a residence for the farm manager and his family. Howe also received a barn, calf-house, stable, greenhouse, dairy, and livestock as part of the 1877 purchase. Two of the original cows, Gilderoy and Regina, would remain the center of the farm’s herd for decades. [3]

 


Howe Girls with Sheep

 

Dr. Howe owned two additional farms in Bristol [4] – one on Hog Island where he raised sheep and another in the Mt. Hope area. For most of the year, Dr. Howe resided in Philadelphia where he was involved in mining and railroad projects, as well as other business ventures. Like his father, he would bring his wife Mary and six children – Mary, John, Edith, Grace, Rhoda, and Amy – to Bristol every summer, even before he purchased Ferrycliffe Farm.

Dr. Howe took a great interest in the daily workings of Ferrycliffe Farm and made efforts to improve both its herd and farm buildings. He hired farm manager Andrew Lynch and his wife Mary to oversee the farm in 1878.[5] The two men corresponded regularly regarding milk production, breeding requests, building and renovation projects, and related farm matters. Potatoes, corn, beets, and fruit were grown on the farm. When Dr. Howe purchased Ferrycliffe, most farmers used draft horses to plow and cultivate the fields, plant and bring in the crops, pull wagons and haul manure. Howe added two Percheron horses to the herd in 1880. One was an eight-year old prize winning mare weighing 1470 pounds and the other her three-year old colt, Iron Duke, weighing 1210 pounds. [6]Over the years, Dr. Howe became quite active in the agricultural and farming communities throughout New England, investigating best practices concerning ensilage and fencing, and serving as treasurer and vice-president of the American Jersey Cattle Club.

 

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Bristol, Bristol County, Rhode Island, 1911.

 

Dr. Howe introduced his Pennsylvania friends and business relations to Bristol. Following an 1894 visit, one such friend, Augustus VanWickle, purchased Garner House and the surrounding property upon which he built the estate, Blithewold. Howe and his neighbors, VanWickle, Mills, and Low, formed a golf club in 1897, with each man contributing a piece of land for the Ferry Hill Improvement Company, which included a nine-hole golf course, tennis court, and small club house.[7] Around 1900, Howe built a new family home, the Homestead, on the spot where the University Residence stands today.[8] It was demolished around 1958.

Ferrycliffe and Bristol grew in the early 1900s. Bristol’s population nearly doubled from 6,091 to 11,375 in the first two decades of the 20th century. New houses, factories, churches, public and commercial buildings were constructed.[9] To accommodate the additional workers needed to run the farm, Ferrycliffe’s farmhouse was expanded around 1920, adding another floor and tower.

When Dr. H. M. Howe died in 1916, the farm passed to his wife Mary and later to his daughter Edith Howe and her husband Halsey DeWolf, following Mary’s death in 1925. Under Edith and Halsey’s ownership, the farm began milking by machine[10], introduced ice cream[11], and became one of the first farms in Rhode Island to produce “certified Jersey milk.” Around this time, farmers throughout the country also began making the transition to gas powered tractors. The first mention of a tractor on Ferrycliffe appears in the 1931 tax book, along with the notation of 47 cows, 2 bulls, and 5 horses.[12]

The tradition of raising championship stock continued and the farm also began producing and selling honey. Howe’s great grand-daughter, Harriet Fulton Dwyer, continues to raise bees today. Glen E. Smith managed the farm for the DeWolfs from 1928-1945 and the farm continued to grow. The DeWolfs built a new barn and by 1951 had acquired two tractors, including a 1949 Farmall Cub which today remains on the family’s property across Metacom Avenue.[13]

The Mount Hope Bridge, completed in 1929, was an important factor in the development of Bristol. Before it was built the ferry was the only way to travel across the Mt. Hope Bay to Aquidneck Island. Having lost land for the bridge to the State of Rhode Island and witnessing the bridge’s construction, Edith Howe became concerned about the future of the family farm and summer residence she had enjoyed for so many years. In Edith’s will she stated:

“It is my desire that the said Farm shall not be divided nor used for other purposes than farming nor sold until my said daughter shall reach the age of twenty-five (25) years, so that she may be old enough to decide for herself if she cares to retain the Farm … I have lived on it during every summer of my life and have found there strength and inspiration in facing my life’s gravest problems. Feeling that there is so much spiritual strength to be gleaned from such inherited tradition … With the menace of the possibility of a bridge being built connecting the Island of Rhode Island with Ferry Hill hanging over us, I realize that the quiet retreat above referred to may cease to be even habitable.”[14]

The farm did indeed pass to Mary Howe and her husband Marshall N. Fulton after Edith’s passing. The Fultons shared their parents’ and grandparents’ love of Ferrycliffe. Marshall wrote a short poem celebrating its cows:

Her dainty coat is soft as silk,
And oh! the richness of her milk!
When Grade A falls into the pail,
All other bossies quake and quail

 

Cows at Ferrycliffe

 

Shortly before Edith’s death in 1958, the family was again forced to give up part of their land. The farms original fields bordering Ferry Road were much broader and in 1956 when Ferry Road was widened, the family sold additional property to the State to save the trees that once edged the property. Now part of a median strip, these trees still shade Ferry Road.[15] A few years later the United States Army acquired more land by eminent domain to build a Nike guided missile launching site and, at the same time, Ferrycliffe lost additional acres to the state for the construction of a new stretch of Metacom Avenue, allowing it to grow into the commercial corridor it is today. Throughout Bristol, farms were being replaced by new homes and subdivisions.

Mary Howe and Marshall Fulton were compelled to give up farming in the late 1950s, at which time the farm had 56 cows, 4 bulls, and 2 tractors.[16] They sold off the last cows in 1962.[17] By 1964, only 62 farms remained in Bristol County, the number having peaked at 206 in 1940.[18] The Fultons offered about two-thirds of their farm property (amounting to over 60 acres) to Roger Williams Junior College in 1965, rather than risking the land becoming a housing development. Mary Howe and Marshall maintained the farmhouse, barn, and stable, and over the next 15 years James and Bunny Ramsay, the son and daughter-in-law of the farm’s last manager Enzly Ramsay (1957-1962), operated Ferrycliffe Stables, after restoring the dairy barn and adding a show ring.

Mary Howe and Marshall’s involvement with the College did not end with the sale of Ferrycliffe. The two participated in the August 1967 groundbreaking ceremonies and Marshall served on the Board of Trustees until his death in 1977. They were active members of the College, even receiving a service award in 1972. The University purchased the remaining property and buildings in 1992. Today, the only remnants of the original farm are the farmhouse near the end of the main campus road and the beehive stone pillars at the entrance to North Campus.

Bristol has changed considerably since Ferrycliffe Farm’s beginning. The total population then was close to 6,600. Today, Roger Williams University’s student body approaches that number and the town’s population is over 22,000. Travel between Aquidneck Island and Bristol is now more efficient due to the construction of the Mount Hope Bridge and Metacom Avenue. Although Bristol is no longer the quiet retreat Edith Howe DeWolf and her family cherished, it retains its historic charm and still serves as a popular summer getaway for visitors. Just as Ferryliffe Farm was once the pride of Bristol, today Roger Williams University holds a similar status and is the town’s primary employer.

In August 2016, Roger Williams University re-named the main entrance to campus Fulton Way, in honor of Marshall Fulton, and installed a plaque in the center of campus. At the ceremony, Marshall’s son DeWolf spoke of his father’s legacy and family’s commitment to education.

 

[1] Warren, E. S., Pamela A. Kennedy, and Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission.

[2] Ibid.

[3] In 1884 W. J. Labey, prize winning breeder of Jerseys including Gilderoy’s dam, wrote to Dr. Howe in praise of his feed: “I have much pleasure in thanking you for sending me those photos which I consider to be very good. Their bags are simply perfect and of such a size that I cannot understand how you feed them. Your feed must be of a very superior quality for we cannot have them with such large bags so young.” John S. Linsley, also writing about Ferrycliffe Farm and Gilderoy the following year, concluded, “All his progeny have the handsome, black-fringed, orange-glowing ears and orange-colored skin; and the Gilderoy cows yield a rich, buff-colored cream, and brilliant, orange-tinted butter. Gilderoy is not excelled by any living bull in this rare coloring, and I know of no herd that approaches that of “Ferrycliffe” in the prevalence of this very desirable feature. All the yearlings and calves in the herd of Dr. Howe show the rich orange-tinted skin.”

[4] “The Ferrycliffe Farm,” The Bristol Phoenix, August 13, 1881.

[5] [untitled] The Bristol Phoenix, April 3, 1880. The Lynches successfully ran the farm for nearly 30 years, until Andrew’s death in 1909. James Edge followed as farm manager, serving from about 1911 – 1928.

[6] Ibid. Andrew Lynch wrote to Dr. Howe about Iron Duke’s first days at Ferrycliffe: “All the stock are looking very well. Iron Duke works very well. I plow him when I can follow him myself. I think he looks betters every day. Bristol people say he is the finest horse they ever saw. When in harness a while he is a gentle as a camel.”

[7] Pardee, Alice DeWolf. Blithewold, Bristol, Rhode Island.

[8] Bristol (RI) Tax Book, Bristol. Bristol, RI. 1900.

[9] Warren, E. S., Pamela A. Kennedy, and Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission.

[10] Smith, Benjamin. The Howe Family and the Bristol Farms They Lived On.

[11] “Ferrycliffe Farm Honored,” The Bristol Phoenix, July 11, 1933.

[12] Bristol (RI) Tax Book, Bristol. Bristol, RI. 1931.

[13] Bristol (RI) Tax Book, Bristol. Bristol, RI. 1955.

[14] Will, Edith Howe DeWolf (1945). University Archives, Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI. Bristol’s beauty attracted visitors, near and far. In a letter to her mother Edith wrote of a visit from artist Dorothy E. Vicaji to the farm in 1922: “In the afternoon we came down to our house in Bristol and Miss Vicaji at once fell in love with the place, and said she much preferred painting in our front parlor to any other place she had seen…When she came own the following day I brought her into father’s studio and she felt the light was even better there, so here we are. How pleased father would be to know that after looking over various studios in Providence that a really accomplished artist chose his studio out of preference to all the others…She is perfectly delighted with the view from our home and the color of the water. It is simply lovely now, the apple trees are out and are perfect against the blue water and the lilacs are just coming into bloom…”

[15] “Ferrycliffe Farm Revisited,” The Quill, May 27, 1977.

[16] Bristol (RI) Tax Book, Bristol. Bristol, RI. 1955.

[17] “Ferrycliffe Farm Revisited,” The Quill, May 27, 1977.

[18] USDA Census of Agriculture Historical Archive. Ithaca, N.Y: Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University, 2010.