Image of Wickford Village located in North Kingstown, c. 1925-1930.
Laid out as a port town in the first decade of the eighteenth century by Lodowick Updike, Wickford grew slowly during the early eighteenth century. By the time of the Revolution there had been a long history of speculation in unbuilt lots in the village, but probably only about twenty standing houses. Fifteen pre-Revolutionary houses and inns remain, in whole or in part, along Main Street and on adjacent lanes today; typically, these are five-bay, central-entrance, central-chimney houses, a type built in profusion after 1776 as well. Also standing are some of the many inns and taverns of the eighteenth century where townsmen met for business and pleasure and mustered for service during the Revolution. The houses of Wickford--many of them typical two-and-a-half-story, center-chimney types--clearly defined by the time of the war the Grand Highway (now Main Street), one of the most interesting, beautiful, and intact historic streets in Rhode Island.
The immediate post-Revolutionary period was slow in Wickford as well as in the rest of the state, but by the 1790s, with the resumption of coastal and West Indian trading and fishing, Wickford entered a period of vibrant growth as a busy port, building and maintaining the boats that brought agricultural products from the Narragansett regions to other ports. The many fine early nineteenth-century houses lining the village streets testify to its growing wealth and prominence.
Expansion of the village and its activities is indicated as well by building for specialized cultural, economic, religious, and governmental institutions. A Quaker meetinghouse was raised in Wickford in 1797; a house of worship for Baptists in 1816; in 1800, St. Paul's Church was moved to the village from its original (and now outlying) location. A Masonic Lodge was founded in 1798 (its building, at 44 Main Street, dating from 1828), and a post office was built in 1799. In 1807, North Kingstown constructed its first municipal building, the Town House, which stands today at 136 West Main Street. The first financial institution in this part of the state, the Narragansett Bank, was chartered in 1805 by Benjamin Fowler and associates, and placed in part of his house (99 Main Street). A second bank, the North Kingstown Bank, was begun in 1819 in the brick building at 24 Main Street. In 1819 there were ninety houses and thirty stores in the busy community, which had by then grown into Church and Fowler Streets and into the Brown Street area.
Wickford's boom period ended, in the view of later nineteenth-century historians, when the major Providence traders Brown and Ives were dissuaded from investing in the port by the high price of wharfage set by ambitious landowners. Further decline in the growth rate was assured when the village was bypassed by the Providence and Stonington Railroad in the 1830s. But while the economic changes of the second and third decades of the century meant an end to expansion, the village continued a vital economic existence all through the nineteenth century as a secondary port and as the commercial capital of a town whose prosperity was now becoming dependent upon the developing textile mill villages in the hinterlands.
The early twentieth century in Wickford was a period of somewhat greater economic stagnation, but one beloved by a new kind of resident, the summer visitor. Wickford's history as a summer resort may have been stimulated in part by the post-1870 Wickford Branch Railroad and the steamer from the railroad terminus at the end of steamboat Avenue to Newport, Thomas C. Peirce's hotel, the Cold Spring House, built in 1881, became a favorite resort of St. Louis families. Some of the new visitors built summer homes, but many more occupied old Colonial and Federal houses.
Throughout the nineteenth century both cotton and woolen mills were established along the three principal waterways of the town, sometimes on the sites of previous sawmills, gristmills, or fulling mills, and usually generating about themselves villages to house the workers. By 1832, North Kingstown had six woolen mills, employing altogether eighty workers, and three cotton mills which employed one hundred thirty-three workers. By 1870, there were eight woolen and four cotton mills, employing five or six hundred workers, most of them in the woolen trade. The older agricultural and fishing activities of the town's economy remained, but the value of North Kingstown's manufactured products was more than four times than of farm, forest, and fishing products, according to the 1875 Rhode Island census.
The opportunity to work in the mills attracted new workers to North Kingstown from other parts of the state, from other states in the union, and from other countries. In 1875, out of a total town population of 3,505, 333 were foreign born. Of these 333 foreigners, 143 were Irish, 85 English, 21 Scottish or Welsh, and 71 Canadian. The predominately northern European origins of the new manufacturing peoples the "Yankee" town with little change of its character or institutions, other than the introduction of a Catholic church.
Today whole communities or fragment of these milling villages remain. They are attractive and a testament to a particularly tight community form now rare in the nation. Because of their active economic life deep into the twentieth century, several are well preserved.
Excerpt from: National Park Service: Historic Resources of North Kingstown, R.I. , (Partial Inventory: Historlc and Architectural Properties)