Early American Traditions at Coggeshall Farm in Bristol

Celebrating early Rhode Island culinary traditions


If there’s one lesson to be learned from a day at Bristol’s Coggeshall Farm Museum, it’s this: always keep an eye on your sheep. They have a habit of jumping the fence in pursuit of greener – well, more modern – pastures. Outside, it’s 2016, but inside the carefully laid stone walls of this living history museum, it’s 1790, and everything happens the early American way… by hand.

Or in this case, by foot. We’re in the middle of walking through the farm’s heirloom vegetable garden when Casey Duckett, interim executive director, turns around and bolts away in pursuit of a Gulf Coast Sheep that has jumped the fence. “They wouldn’t be our first choice on the property, but they were here when we got here, and we’re not going to kick them out,” says Staff Historian Charles Quigley.

The museum’s cows, American Milking Devons, are another story. “They’re descended from the cows that were first brought here from Devon, England,” Charles explains. “They literally built New England. They’re the definition of living history.” The sheep and the cows are both heritage breeds, meaning that they’re rare animal breeds that have been nearly bred out of existence by the rise of industrial agriculture. The problem with the sheep isn’t that they aren’t good sheep – aside from the escape attempts, they are – it’s that they were brought over by the Spanish (not the English) and only lived as far north as the Carolinas in early America. They’re living history, just not in Bristol – at least, not in 1790.

If there’s another lesson to be learned at Coggeshall Farm, it’s this: don’t call them Colonists. You, coming from your world of technology and with your hazy grip on the lesser known parts of American history, might think that “colonial” is a catch-all term. You might assume that it applies to anything happening in America in the latter part of the 18th century, around the time of the Revolution. You might even have called to arrange an interview, asking to talk about Colonial Thanksgiving traditions. But you’d be wrong, and you’d be stepping on some distinctly Federalist toes. “Strictly speaking, we’re a Federalist farm,” Casey explains. “We’re in 1790, after the Revolution.” After the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the colonies became states, and were eager to shed any association with England. It’s basically like calling your college freshman a high schooler: it’s. just. not. done.

The historical interpreters on the farm won’t kick you out for making this faux pas, and luckily, they won’t make you chase any runaway sheep, either. But they will give you a lesson in some overlooked history. “The land that this farm is on was purchased in 1680, and this farmhouse was built in 1750, but we portray 1790,” Charles explains. “This farm was here during the Colonial period, but our narrative is focused on early American.” The highlights of American historical education, he says, hit the American Revolution, then skip straight to the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War. “The Federalist period is just as important,” Charles says. “It’s when America is finding its identity, when we’re starting to create the identity that we have now. Rhode Island, Bristol, and by association this farm, all play a part in that. This is a story worth telling, and it’s not a story that you hear too often.” They welcome visitors except in the coldest parts of winter, and are on track to host 4,000 school kids on field trips by the end of this year.

A living history farm is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a museum, but the exhibits are open and ready to explore, so you can learn while seeing, touching and smelling them. The passionate history buffs who work at Coggeshall Farm dress in period-appropriate clothing, and maintain the farm the way they would have in 1790, with a lot of manual labor and a lot of love. As I sat at the rough-hewn kitchen table talking to Casey and Charles, Casey buzzes around the kitchen like any good host, chopping sausage, potatoes, onions and sweet potatoes with a big old knife, then adding them to a heavy cast iron pot hanging above the fire in the open hearth. As he works, he throws vegetable scraps out the front window into the yard. George and Martha, sheep who are working hard at eating the front lawn, will happily eat those too. “That’s our garbage disposal,” he says.

There’s a lot to learn and explore at the farm. There’s the farmhouse, which looks like a reasonable size for a family until you realize that “family” means 8-12 people. In the yard, there’s a barn, a chicken run and goat run, where animals have free range. In the blacksmith shop, there are live demos on Sundays, and near that is a firewood shed (that houses an ox cart recently seen on the TV show Salem), a wood shop where they’re diligently hand-chopping roof shingles and a building that houses a barn frame loom and a weasel, which is used to turn wool into thread – and from which the song “Pop Goes the Weasel” originates. That’s in addition to the heirloom vegetable garden, apiaries with honey bees, goats, chickens, sheep, barn cats and turkeys. The difference with these gobblers? They don’t really have any reason to be nervous on the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving, for almost all of the first century of America’s existence, wasn’t really a big deal to Rhode Islanders.

There’s one more thing that’s alive and well at Coggeshall Farm: the rivalry with our neighbor to the north. “Go over the border to Massachusetts,” Charles says, “and everything revolutionary happened there, according to them.” In a way, it makes sense. If the differences between the uber-religious Puritans and the secular government champion Roger Williams were strong enough to inspire him to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the dead of winter to found an entirely new settlement, they’re strong enough to last a couple of centuries. Those disagreements weren’t just about who should govern laws and who should govern faith, they were about many other things, including simple ways of life, like when and how people should celebrate.

You’ve heard the legends of the first Thanksgiving, where Colonists and Native Americans broke bread to celebrate their newfound camaraderie and mutual love of pumpkin pie. There were headdresses made out of construction paper, turkeys drawn with the outlines of little hands and ceremonial fights over the remote control. What you probably didn’t learn in school is that the holiday was very religious in nature. “Americans have this idea that it’s something we’ve been doing all along,” Charles says. But in early America, “It’s not the big secular feasting holiday that it’s become in the 20th century.” Before 1863, when it became a national holiday, Thanksgiving wasn’t on a set day. When a family or a group of neighbors felt their harvest was finished for the season, they would take one day to rest, give thanks and share a meal. Anyone who has been to a grocery store on the fourth Wednesday of November can attest that our attitude towards the holiday has changed dramatically.

Thanksgiving started as a Puritan holiday, and was very popular in Massachusetts, but, as Charles says, “It was a very religious holiday. It was about going to church and giving thanks to the community, and then going home and eating whatever was around.” Because Rhode Island was founded by people who wanted to distance themselves both geographically and ideologically from those Puritans, it makes sense that Thanksgiving was even less of a big deal. There was church in the morning, a nice meal in the afternoon. After, “Maybe you’d go visit your neighbors, and maybe they’d come visit you,” Casey adds. The resistance, he says, “Is mostly because we’re Rhode Islanders. Roger Williams thought it was a ridiculous thing that the Puritans were doing.” Apparently our contrarian nature isn’t a new development. Even when George Washington declared a national day of Thanksgiving in 1789, the reception was tepid in Rhode Island. “Thomas Jefferson may have complained about the lack of celebration in Rhode Island,” Charles says. Casey adds, “In his journal in 1804, Jefferson was complaining that Rhode Islanders just don’t seem to be behind this holiday.”

But like true Rhode Islanders, the people living at this farm still would have put on an impressive feast. “We know from various historical sources that turkey was a thing, but around here there was a lot of dairy farming, a lot of sheep being raised, a lot of pigs being raised,” Casey says. “So chances are around here you’d be having fresh beef, fresh pork or fresh mutton. The meat you were having normally would be salted or smoked.”

Then, all the sides: mince meat pies, sweet potato pies, onion pies, sweet and savory bread puddings. “Quahog, mussel and clam stuffings were very popular in Rhode Island,” Casey adds. “You’d probably be having a few different bread puddings, savory and sweet, as well as pies. Basically you’d go from soup to nuts. You’d start with a chowder or split pea soup, and course by course make your way to dessert. A middle class minimum at the time is two courses with six removes, or three dishes per course. If this were your big fall celebration, you’d be doing a bit more.” The next day, though, wasn’t about scouring shops for the best deals for Christmas – it was back to work as usual, preparing for the winter. Of course, most of that work was preserving food for the coming season - so basically, getting creative with leftovers. Maybe we’re not so different after all.