KINGSTON, R.I.-April 12, 2017—In 1888 Kingston postmaster Bernon E. Helme joined Jeremiah Peckham Jr., Thomas G. Hazard and other South Kingstown citizens to raise $5,000 to purchase the 140-acre Oliver Watson Farm* as a site for an agricultural experiment station and school. Little did they know the educational seed they planted would bloom into a distinguished university with a world-renowned reputation and a budget of nearly a half billion dollars.
The University of Rhode Island will host a Founders’ Day Festival to acknowledge those forward-looking citizens, Tuesday, April 25 from 2 to 4 p.m. on its historic Quadrangle. (Raindate: Thursday, April 27.)
Regardless of your age or interests, the free public festival offers something for everyone. The festival is part of URI’s 125th celebration, when, in 1892, the State Agricultural School became Rhode Island College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
The festivities include a brief speaking program at 2 p.m. including a few words by North Kingstown resident Hayley Greene ’15, a six generations-removed descendant of Oliver Watson. The celebration includes tours of the Watson House, horse-drawn hayrides, and animals from URI’s Peckham Farm. Master Gardeners will provide hand-outs and answer questions. South County’s own 8-piece horn-driven band, The Roger Ceresi All Starz, joined by Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame guitarist Gary Gramolini and bassist Richard Bibb, will provide high-energy R&B and rock ’n roll.
The first 125 guests will receive a free T-shirt. Rhody the Ram will mingle with the crowd and pose for pictures. WRIU 90.3 FM, the URI student-run, commercial-free radio station will broadcast live. Former alumni DJs will join in.
Students dressed in 1890s costumes will stroll the Quad. For those interested in fabrics, a textile exhibit in nearby Quinn Hall offers visitors a glimpse of college fashion spanning 125 years.
Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets will oversee two, 300-foot zip lines stretched between different elevations to give riders a gravity-driven ride. Corn Hole tosses, football tosses, and pedal carts are also on the agenda.
The celebration is not a day to count calories but a day to ingest festive complimentary food: Del’s lemonade, kettle corn, hot dogs and ice cream sundaes with toppings.
Then and Now
Graduating Class of 1894 Graduating Class of 2017
17 undergraduates 3,589 undergraduates *
2 females, 15 males 1,894 females, 1,421 males
All from Rhode Island 44 states, 66 nations
Agriculture and Mechanical Arts Studies: 80+ majors
Campus Buildings: 2 Campus Buildings: 173
First Founders’ Day
In 1892, the State Agricultural School became the Rhode Island College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. To celebrate the occasion, students borrowed a canon from a local Kingston resident. Unfortunately, the last round of powder lit by the students proved too much for the canon, blowing a hole in the side of Old Ben Butler—which was named for a Civil War general, lawyer and politician. The canon now rests on the southwest corner of the quad.
Background on the Oliver Watson House*
The Watson House, built around 1796, is the oldest structure on URI’s campus. The typical Rhode Island two-story colonial farmhouse was named after its last and probably 10th owner, Oliver Watson, who occupied the house from 1844 to 1888. When purchased, it served as the farm manager’s residence, but was soon converted into a women’s dormitory. Later it became the home of Lambda Chi fraternity, a men’s dormitory, a tea room operated by the Department of Home Economics, and a nursery school. In 1958, when the new Child Development Center was built, Watson House became idle. The restored farmhouse stands today as a testament to the University’s humble beginnings. The house is open by appointment and welcomes group tours. To schedule a tour or for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information provided by URI’s Distinctive Collections and Archive.