It All Began With Six Farmers
In 1709, the lands that make up what is now West Greenwich were purchased by thirteen wealthy farmers, six of whom acquired the collection of plots that would become the W. Alton Jones Campus. The rocky soil – little more than glacial till left over from the last ice age – made West Greenwich farming very difficult. In an effort to clear the land for agriculture and establish property lines, farmers would build miles of rock walls.
As a result of their efforts, the forests gave way to sprawling farmland. At one point, 99% of Rhode Island’s land was cleared for use in farming. The forest has since grown back, but signs of these early settlers still exist today in the form of miles of forgotten rock walls, cemeteries, and old foundations visible throughout the campus.
In 1763, the Matteson family purchased what is now Woodvale Farm. Many of the structures on this part of the campus were built during this time, including the Farm House, two barns, and the blacksmith shop.
The Blacksmith Shop
The original Blacksmith Shop still stands and has also since been renovated for summer camp and school program staff housing. The large white pine and red maple are examples of just how quickly a forest can reclaim the land if left undisturbed.
Around 1867, a factory that produced acetic acid for Rhode Island’s burgeoning textile industry was built on what is today called Acid Factory Brook. The factory was destroyed in the great fire of 1907.
The property was purchased by William Louttit in the late 1920s for about $5 an acre. He named it Hianloland Farm for the rolling topography of the land. He and his wife, Sofia, constructed Whispering Pines and began to raise game birds for hunting.
The Nettles lodge, the summer home built by their son Robley, is now part of Whispering Pines Conference Center.
The Jones Years
When the property became too much for the Louttit family to maintain, it was put up for sale in 1954 and purchased by oil company executive William “Pete” Alton Jones. Continuing to call it Hianloland Farm, he used it as a private hunting and fishing resort.
“Jones got us up at 6 a.m. for one of his typical breakfasts – five kinds of fruit, three eggs, ham, bacon, biscuits, coffee, milk, pie and cheese…”
According to a story about Jones in Newsweek, accepting an invitation to relax with him was often a strenuous experience. “Jones got us up at 6 a.m. for one of his typical breakfasts – five kinds of fruit, three eggs, ham, bacon, biscuits, coffee, milk, pie and cheese,” said one friend.
“Then we rushed through 36 holes of golf before stopping for lunch about twice the size of breakfast. He worked lunch off with a 3-mile horseback ride, an hour of tennis, and a swim. Next he drove us 40 miles to a roadhouse for dinner. When we got back to his house, he suggested we go night fishing. Nobody would go, so he talked us into an all-night session of bridge. It started all over again at 6 a.m. I haven’t recovered yet.”
Some Famous Visitors
Highlighting the Jones years were four visits to the property by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who frequently vacationed in Rhode Island. An important supporter of the Republican Party, Jones had met and become friendly with the president in the early 1950s. The president visited Jones at Hianloland Farm in 1958 and 1960, when they engaged in fishing, duck hunting and skeet shooting.
“…one day I was near the cow farm and these two guys get out [of their car]… They told me they were Secret Service, just checking the place out because Eisenhower might want to visit.”
“It was a hectic time,” said George Wheatley (URI Class of ’51), who managed the property for Jones and later served as manager of campus operations for URI. “We didn’t know he was coming, and one day I was near the cow farm and these two guys get out [of their car]… They told me they were Secret Service, just checking the place out because Eisenhower might want to visit.”
President Eisenhower wasn’t the only famous guest at Hianloland Farm. In May of 1960, His Majesty Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva, the king of Nepal, and his wife visited at the end of a 36-day tour of the United States and Canada. In thanks, the king gave Jones a pair of large coffee tables that incorporate bronze engravings of cultural scenes of Nepal, both of which are still in use on campus today.
On March 1, 1962, Jones was en route to Los Angeles for a fishing date with President Eisenhower when his plane crashed on takeoff at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) in New York City. All aboard were killed.
Not long after the fatal crash, Wheatley heard that the property had been put up for sale, and there were rumors that it may be donated to Brown University. “So I called Mrs. Jones and asked if there was any way of giving it to somebody else,” Wheatley said. “She said yes, so I asked her about URI, and she said yes.”
A Natural Laboratory
A formal dedication of the property, including speeches by Gov. John Chafee and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall, was held in April 1964. By that time, plans were already under way to designate 1,000 acres of the property as a research reserve. Dozens of faculty members have conducted research at the site since then.
“[URI faculty have] led studies of white tailed deer, erosion control, soil moisture, caddisfly larva, and colors that elicit avoidance behaviors in mallard ducks, among many other topics.”
Professor C. Robert Shoop spent decades tracking the movement patterns of salamanders and other amphibians at the campus; Professor Stanley Cobb conducted numerous studies of the aquatic life in the campus ponds; and Professor Irene Stuckey surveyed the property for wildflowers and led public wildflower walks for more than 30 years.
Others led studies of white tailed deer, erosion control, soil moisture, caddisfly larva, and colors that elicit avoidance behaviors in mallard ducks, among many other topics. The Rhode Island Department of Health has used the campus to monitor ozone levels in the state since 1975.
During its 50 years of operation by URI, the campus has been caught up in some rather strange events. Perhaps the most famous of these occurred in 1976 when then-Governor Phillip Noel planned to visit the campus to speak at a meeting of the Providence Newspaper Guild. As the governor’s helicopter was approaching campus, its tail rotor malfunctioned and flew off the aircraft, causing the helicopter to plunge into the forest below. According to Wheatley, the helicopter went straight down and was impaled on a tree trunk that went between the seats occupied by the governor and the pilot. Neither were seriously injured.
“One of our workers walked over there and accidentally tripped [the wire], and they came out with their machine guns.”
Lesser known is the story about the day when the State Police used the conference center facilities as a safe house to hide an important organized crime informant. The conference center received a call from State Police Superintendent Walter Stone, who was looking for an isolated place to use as a temporary hideout. “They kept him here for about a week, and they strung trip wire around the building to keep everyone out,” Wheatley recalled. “One of our workers walked over there and accidentally tripped it, and they came out with their machine guns.”
Camps, Conferences, and Weddings
The first construction project at the campus – a youth science center (now called the Environmental Education Center) — was completed in 1966, and an extensive variety of camps and educational programs have been offered ever since. Accredited by the American Camp Association, the camp program at the Alton Jones Campus has repeatedly been rated as one of the top three camps in Rhode Island and one of the 15 best in New England.
“The residency component was important, because there was a lot of work that got done after class at night, and that’s when a lot of the bonding happened.”
Even before the first camps got under way, the facilities were being used as a conference center where organizations could get away from the distractions of their urban offices to think and reflect and plan. Thousands of organizations have held conferences here, from major corporations like IBM and Polaroid to religious organizations, government agencies and other universities. The coaches of the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers even gathered there for a meeting in 1964, the first of three years that the team held its training camp at the Kingston campus.
In the early 1980s and continuing into the 2000s, the campus was the site of an executive MBA program, which targeted those with significant business experience who were rising to the top of their organizations. Part of its allure was that it was scheduled as a residential program on weekends to accommodate busy professional calendars. “Alton Jones was an ideal setting for this program,” said Professor Richard Scholl, who directed the program. “The residency component was important, because there was a lot of work that got done after class at night, and that’s when a lot of the bonding happened.”
“We like to create the impression that the wedding is being held at the bridal couple’s private estate.”
In more recent years, the campus has marketed itself as a wedding destination. Today the campus is the site of about 50 weddings per year, one nearly every Saturday and Sunday from April through October. “We like to create the impression that the wedding is being held at the bridal couple’s private estate,” explained George Lewis, assistant director of the campus. “It’s modeled after Alton Jones’ philosophy of bringing friends and family to a private place to build relationships.”