An old farmstead cases a spell on a family over three centruries.
As an heir-loom for the preservation of which many sacrifices have been made by my ancestors, and as a repository of the ashes of my beloved kindred, the place is beyond price, and I trust will ever be zealously guarded and cherished by me and mine."
Thomas Lincoln Casey wrote these words in 1881 at the conclusion of his Historical Sketch of the Casey Farm, Boston Neck, Rhode Island, a detailed narrative of the 300-acre farm in Saunderstown that his family had owned since 1702.
Thomas was born in 1831 in Sacketts Harbor, New York, the eldest son of General Silas Casey and Abby Pearce Casey, a seventh-generation descendant of the Casey family of Rhode Island. He attended West Point from 1848 to 1852, graduating first in his class. Upon graduation, Thomas was appointed a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he rose through the ranks to become Brigadier General and Chief of Engineers in 1888. Among his most significant professional accomplishments are construction of the Library of Congress in 1896 and the completion of the Washington Monument in 1884.
Plans for the monument honoring the nation's first president actually began when Thomas was just a toddler. In 1833, Congress formed the Washington National Monument Society to oversee the design and construction of what was to become the centerpiece of the National Mall. The society raised enough funds to host a design competition which was won by architect Robert Mills, and construction began on July 4, 1848. However, support for completion of the monument waned and construction halted in 1854. The monument stood ignored and incomplete at less than a third of its final height.
More than twenty years passed until Congress once again became interested in the Washington Monument. Following the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill appropriating funds to complete the monument. Construction resumed in 1879 under the direction of Thomas Casey and the Army Corps of Engineers. However, the debate on the appropriate design for the monument had resumed. The final decision was to simplify the original obelisk design and proceed.
Thomas reviewed the design, discovering that the existing foundation would not support the 40,000-ton monument. He redesigned the foundation and creatively found a way to incorporate all 193 of the original memorial stones into the interior walls. Thomas's work concluded in December of 1884, when the marble capstone was put in place during an elaborate dedication ceremony.
Despite the demands of his busy and distinguished career, Thomas found time to return to Casey Farm, his cherished family homestead, and spent his summers researching the farm's history. The extensive collection of Casey Family papers that Thomas gathered and organized throughout his life is now housed in the SPNEA Library and Archives. The collection, which ranges from plans and documents related to his Army Corps of Engineers projects to personal correspondence, diaries, and scrapbooks, offers a detailed and heartwarming look at the important role that Casey Farm played in the lives of the family.
The first records of ownership of the land that is now known as Casey Farm date back to the seventeenth century. On July 4, 1659, this 300-acre tract, which stretches from Narragansett Bay on the east to the Pettaquamscutt River on the west, was part of a larger tract purchased by Massachusetts Bay settlers from the Narragansett Indians. However, territorial disputes between Rhode Island and Connecticut, as well as King Philip's War of 1675, prevented much development of the area until early in the eighteenth century.
"It was, therefore, upon the thirtieth day of March in 1702 that the Farm in Boston Neck was purchased by my G. G. G. G. [great, great, great, great] Grandfather, Joseph Morey of Jamestown on Connanicut Island," wrote Thomas in his Historical Sketch. Morey's purchase marked the beginning of the family's nearly 250-year ownership of the property.
The land descended to Joseph Morey's daughter, Mary Morey Coggeshall, just a few years later in about 1705. In 1724, Mary, the wife of Daniel Coggeshall, conveyed her life estate in the farm by deed to her 20-year-old son Daniel.
Two years later, Daniel married Mary Wanton of Scituate, Massachusetts. It is likely that the c. 1750 house that stands on the property today was built by Daniel and Mary. However, it is not believed to be the first house to be constructed at the farm.
Daniel Coggeshall was well known in the town. He held several prominent positions and was a member of the General Assembly and of the Council, as Assistant of the Colony. "This Daniel Coggeshall, my G. G. [great, great] Grandfather, undoubtedly resided on the farm, and his wife and mother are possibly buried in some of the graves without headstones in the burying grounds," Thomas wrote. "One of his daughters, Mary, a girl of eighteen years, is buried in these grounds, and a headstone is erected to her memory."
The burying ground that Thomas refers to is a small cemetery on the property where six generations of the family rest, including Thomas himself. The earliest marked grave is that of Mary Coggeshall, who died March 11, 1747.
In his Historical Sketch, Thomas tells the story of one of the most significant historical events in the property's history, the colonial militia's occupation of Casey Farm, and the attack by the British, "Early in December 1776 (Dec. 8) the British landed 7000 men in Newport and took possession of the Islands of Rhode Island and Connanicut... During this period of occupation repeated excursions were made to the shores of main land on either side of these islands... Companies of rangers and scouts, militia and alarm, and independent companies were organized by the patriots to patrol these shores, and one such company had the Boston Neck and Point Judith Country assigned to it to guard. On one occasion a portion of this company had taken up its quarters for the night in the present mansion-house of the farm, when word was carried to the Commander of the British vessel blockading the West Channel by his spies, and he landed a party of marines to attack the patriots. The larger part of these warriors, however, made good their escape, one man having been shot through the arm while fleeing across the yard. There is a tradition that another man tried to hide himself in a recess in the big chimney, which is approached by a door opening on the front stair-case, but fell from this position to the cellar. It is probable that a number were made prisoners. The marines fairly riddled the house with bullets, firing through the windows, the doors, and under the doors, and to this day the marks of their attack can be seen. In firing under the doors the balls cut grooves in the flooring boards, which boards have since been removed, and most of the holes in the doors have been closed with small patches. One hole, however, in the parlor door, has been left as a memento of the assault."
Throughout the war and for much of the mid-eighteenth century, tenants lived on the property. However, Silas and Abigail Coggeshall Casey, Thomas's great-grandparents, were determined to call the farm home."On the 25th day of March, 1787, Silas Casey took up his permanent residence upon the farm, having discharged the mortgage of Benjamin Gardiner Aug 19, 1786, paying to the several heirs a rental for the portions owned by them." It is believed that they were the only owners to reside there full-time.
Following Abigail's death, Silas remained at Casey Farm until 1813, when he moved to East Greenwich, Rhode Island, to live with his son Wanton Casey; Silas died the following year. The three generations that followed Silas and Abigail never called the farm home. "From the latter portion of the life of my G. G. Grandfather, Daniel Coggeshall, Esq., the farm has been almost continuously in the hands of tenants," wrote Thomas Casey. "Since 1769, no owner of the estate has lived upon it, excepting my G. Grandfather, Silas Casey, Esq."
Despite careers in business, the military, engineering, and architecture that took them away from Boston Neck, Casey descendants continued to cherish the property. Tenant farmers lived on and worked the farm day-to-day, while the family made it their summer retreat. "Having a most agreeable climate during the latter portions of the summer and the early fall, the farm has at those seasons been the favorite resort for a few weeks of the families of its owners," Thomas wrote. "The children of my Grandfather, Wanton Casey, went down there every summer and two of them, Thomas Goodale and Abby Sophia, were born on the estate. Among the earliest recollections of my father as a boy, are his summer visits to 'the farm.'"
Thomas continued the tradition of summering on the farm with his own children. Thomas was married in 1856 to Emma Weir, daughter of Robert W. Weir, a professor of drawing at West Point. Thomas and Emma had four sons, one of whom died in infancy. Their other three sons, including the oldest, Thomas Lincoln Casey, Jr., followed in their father's footsteps at West Point. Their youngest, Edward Pearce Casey, trained as an architect at the Ecole des Beaux Art in France. Tragically, their third son, Harry Weir Casey, drowned near Narragansett Pier in Rhode Island at the age of nineteen, during one of his visits to the family farm. Included in the family papers are scores of letters written to Thomas and Emma by their sons telling how they spent their summer days at the farm.
"Dear Papa," wrote eleven-year-old Harry on August 10, 1872, "I have just come from feeding some little chickens that have to be fed three times a day because they have just been hatched a day or two ago."
As he got older, Harry clearly looked for more active places to spend his summer holidays. "My Dear Father," he wrote on September 7, 1879, a year before his death, "If anyone wants news this is the worst place I know of to get it, but I will try to scrape up a little to write you."
Thomas Casey died in 1896 en route to inspecting work at the Library of Congress building in Washington, D. C. But his legacy as the family historian lived on in his writing and through his son, Edward, who was serving as Supervising Architect for the library at the time of his father's death. Edward was the last member of the family to own Casey Farm, and it was through Edward's will that SPNEA received the property in 1955. Edward stressed that the property always remain a working farm. And it has.
Another tradition has continued as well-the family's discovery of and love for the history of the property.
In November of 1999, another Thomas Casey-Thomas (Tom) Clark Casey-was spending a few days in the area before heading to a meeting in Maine. Tom grew up in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, about fifty miles from Casey Farm, but he never knew the farm existed. He had moved to California in the mid-1950s to attend graduate school at Stanford University and made the West Coast his home.
Tom's father, Thomas Wanton Casey, had spent most of his life in the Midwest, and his mother's family was from Ohio. "I always thought our roots were in Ohio with my mother's parents," said Tom, adding that his father had mentioned that his family came from Rhode Island, but didn't provide much detail. After his father's death, Tom came across the old family history written by Thomas Lincoln Casey. "I just put it aside," he said.
In time, Tom became a trustee of his alma mater, Bowdoin College in Maine. "I began to travel twice a year to New England," he said. "But I hadn't thought any more about the family history." Then, during a move, Thomas Lincoln Casey's book popped up again. "By then I had a son and a grandson, and I became more interested," explained Tom.
In November 1999, Tom was attending a family funeral in Ohio and was due at a Bowdoin College trustee meeting a few days later. "I had two or three days before the board meeting, so I decided to go back to Rhode Island to find out more," said Tom. "I took Thomas Lincoln Casey's book." His goal was to find some of the family properties mentioned in Thomas Lincoln Casey's writing. One of the properties was in Scituate. "So one night I was looking through a AAA tour book to find something about Scituate. As I was thumbing through, I saw an entry for Saunderstown, which I had never heard of," said Tom. "Something caught my eye. It said Casey Farm."
Tom still wasn't sure what connection, if any, his family had to the farm he found listed in the guide. The next day he headed toward Newport. "With time to spare before taking the Jamestown Bridge, I went looking for the Boston Neck Road that T. L. Casey had mentioned in his book. I saw a sign for Casey Farm," said Tom. "I pulled in and saw a school bus and a bunch of kids running around. I told the staff who I was." Farm Managers Polly and Mike Hutchison were delighted to introduce Tom to the farm, and Tom was delighted to find them. "It just blew my mind," Tom recalls. "It was like hitting a home run with the bases loaded. If I hadn't flipped through the auto club tour guide, I never would have found it."
Since that first visit, Tom has become very interested in the farm and has learned much more about his family's history. On June 1, Casey Farm was the site of the Casey Family Reunion, attended by Tom and more than thirty of his relatives from all over the country.
When asked if he is named after family historian Thomas Lincoln Casey, Thomas Clark Casey laughs. "I don't really know, but probably it's after the first Thomas Casey who came to Rhode Island in 1658." he answers. "My father is also Thomas. My grandmother somehow came up with the name Thomas Wanton Casey for him." And, yes, Tom has carried on the tradition. Both his son and grandson are named Thomas as well.
Today, SPNEA resident farm managers raise organically grown produce for more than 200 households that are members of the Casey Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Each CSA member household purchases a share for the season. In return, throughout the growing season, CSA members visit the farm weekly to pick up their freshly-harvested produce. In addition, they volunteer at the farm, helping with planting, cultivating and harvesting. The CSA program began in 1994, and is the most recent success on land with a rich local history.
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