(written by Jay Bee, as appeared in the Spring 1999 edition of the Prudence Conservancy Newsletter)
The Farnham Farm on Prudence Island is a rather special place. This area of the Island has been farmed since about the mid-seventeenth century. In fact, the first farm was established on this section of the island before 1660. The British burned the original farm on this site, in 1776, during the Revolutionary War. Members of the colonial militia on the island fought a skirmish with British regulars near here at that time.
The center section of the existing farmhouse is quite old, dating to about 1805. Members of the Dennis family, who farmed this section of the island for many years, built the house and a small barn on the property.
Edward Farnham (grandfather of Todd and Harris Farnham) purchased the farm from Elizabeth Dennis about 1867. Several years later, the east wing of the building was added and the barn was expanded around the same time. At that time most of the island was open fields and pastures. The view from the second story of this addition was such that a friend of the Farnham family, who owned the fish factory at the south end, would watch his workers from the window through binoculars when he visited the island.
The west wing or tower, was constructed in the 1890’s, when boarding houses and inns were popular on Prudence, as scores of visitors came to spend vacations or weekends at farms and boarding houses on the island to escape the heat of the city. At the time, the Farnhams intended to take in guests as many of the other island farmers were doing, but these plans were never realized. This wing of the farmhouse originally was three stories tall with a loft or attic about the third floor. In the late 1950’s the third story was removed.
The Farnham family worked this farm from their arrival on the island in the 1860’s until the 1950’s, except for a period of time from about 1907 to 1928, when the farm was leased to tenants. Ralph Farnham (Todd’s and Harris’ father), who was running the farm at the time, left the island with his family around 1907 and moved to Cuba where he operated a farm or plantation for a period of time. Ralph Farnham later operated a large farm in Berlin, Maryland for some years before returning to Prudence in 1928.
From the late 1920’s into the 1950’s, this was a productive farm. The Farnhams kept a herd of dairy cows and sold milk around the island, including house to house delivery, as well as stocking the island’s stores. The milk was delivered fresh in unpasteurized and unhomogenized form. The milk went almost straight from the cow to the customer, being only cooled and transferred to sterilized bottles. The building that served as the milk house still exists, and is located just west of the farmhouse. The Farnham dairy herd usually consisted of some Holstein cows, noted to be high volume milk producers, and some Guernsey cows, noted for producing milk of high butterfat content. Miller and Palmer’s Homestead Casino and Bill Smith’s Sand Point Pavilion carried milk from the Farnham Farm. These stores also carried milk from off-Island suppliers, such as H.P. Hood and Bliss Brothers Dairies.
However, the Farnham Farm was not simply a dairy farm, many crops were grown also. One of the principle crops was corn, which was sold on the island and was used as feed for livestock. Some corn was ground into meal right on the farm. The Farnhams maintained a large vegetable garden where they grew many fruits and vegetables such as potatoes, melons, beets, carrots, lettuce, raspberries, strawberries, etc. These items were delivered house to house and were sold in the island stores. Milk was delivered every day in the summer and vegetables were other day. In addition to these activities, every year, more than one hundred tons of hay had to be taken in to feed the animals, which included not just cows, but pigs and horses too. Small amounts of wheat and rye were grown at the farm and ground there also, but mainly just for their own needs.
By the early 1950’s, farming was no longer profitable and in 1954, when pasteurization of milk was required for all dairies, commercial farming ceased at the Farnham farm.
In August of 1998, Prudence Conservancy agreed to purchase the 18-acre Farnham Farm in order to preserve and restore this important property for the island community. A campaign was initiated in the fall of 1998 to raise $250,000 for acquisition of the farm property. Thanks to the tremendous support of islanders and a matching grant of $25,000 received from The Rhode Island Foundation the Conservancy acquired title to the propertyin 2002. Since Prudence Conservancy assumed responsibility, the Farnham Farm has been the site for children’s camps and Easter Egg Hunts, workshops on personal awareness, gardening and writing, ice cream socials, a harvest festival, annual First Day Walks and a community garden.
The gingko leaf is the logo of the farm because of the beautiful old gingko tree that greets visitors to the property. As Joe Bains writes, "According to Todd Farnham, the gingko tree in the front yard of the farmhouse was planted in the 1880s. The tree was a gift to Sarah from a ship’s captain who was a friend of the Farnhams. He had traveled all over the world in large sailing ships and returned from one of those voyages with some gingko seeds. These he planted in pots and gave as seedlings to special friends and relatives, including Sarah Farnham."