Monday, June 3, 2013

My Backyard - A Portrait of Gilbert Stuart

Growing up in Rhode Island, I never knew the local history included the great portraitist Gilbert Stuart. Who's that, you might ask? To me, his name is not well known. His work? That's another matter. Everyone has seen one of his portraits.
Look familiar?
I'm sure it does. How about this?
Yes, that's a Gilbert Stuart portrait on that piece of currency.
I'm not sure why I never knew the history of Mr. Stuart and his connection with my little state. But once I realized it, I had to rectify the situation and travel to Saunderstown to see his birthplace for myself.
On a recent unseasonably hot Spring day, I traveled to his birthplace and museum situated on over 22 acres. The grounds are open annually from April through October. After paying an admission fee, I was informed there are tours of the grounds that take place on the hour. I was led outside and introduced to a docent who provided a very informative, interesting tour.

He led me and another local couple into the home where Gilbert Stuart was born on 12/13/1755. The house has been authentically restored and furnished with replicas of items that would have probably been found in the building when the Stuart family lived there. Copies of Stuart's paintings hang on the walls of the home (the originals can be found in museums in the United States and England). I learned the artist painted over a thousand portraits, including those of six presidents, their wives, the King of England and other notables of his day.

The docent also provided a lively discussion of the daily life of a family in colonial times. Sure gave me pause and made me appreciate our modern day amenities.
An interesting aspect of this home is the "snuff" mill in the first floor of the house, the first such mill in colonial America. The artist's father operated the mill which ground locally grown tobacco into snuff. Apparently snuff was very popular, not just for the men-folk but for women and children, too. (Ew!) The family lived in this home until the artist was approximately 6 years old. At that time the family moved on to Newport. It was there where Stuart's talent began to shine.
After leaving the home, we walked to the adjacent 250 year-old Hammond Grist Mill. The docent provided a great deal of info on the workings of the mill and it's mission to grind whitecap flint corn into corn meal. The mill was actually in operation until the early 1900's. Both the snuff mill and the grist mill have operational waterwheels. Visitors to the annual Spring Fair in April, can observe the grist mill in action.
Also found on the property is the picturesque millpond and stream which feeds the waterwheels and provides the power necessary to run both. A fish ladder is installed in the stream which allows thousands of migrating river herring to spawn in Carr Pond each spring. Come Fall, the herring journey downstream to the ocean. Members of the non-profit organization that operates the birthplace and museum can rent row boats and fish in Carr pond. The grounds also has a herb garden which contains herbs original to the colonial period and a nature trail.
I couldn't foresee and was quite surprised to find how much I enjoyed my visit. Hubby is even a bit jealous to learn of the great fishing opportunity available at this historic site. Looks like we'll be scheduling a return visit and signing up for a membership...for the both of us!


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