Collection Highlights

Sakonnet Light Fresnel Lens

Lighthouses like Sakonnet Light have long kept sailors from wrecking on unseen rocks. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when shipping was the lifeblood of commerce and travel, running aground was a serious and often deadly hazard. Early lighthouses relied on a simple flame provided by oil lamp or candle to warn impending ships, however, the light given off was so feeble that by the time the captain saw the lighthouse, it was often too late to change course. This changed with the invention of kerosene lamps and the Fresnel lens. Invented by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in the 1820s, the Fresnel lens has been dubbed “the invention that saved a million ships.” 

The Sakonnet lighthouse, built in 1884, used a Fresnel lens to warn ships away from the Point’s rocky outcroppings. The lens could be made much thinner than a comparable conventional lens and deployed a large aperture and short focal length that projected light much stronger and at a farther distance. Fresnel lenses were classified into seven orders: first-order lenses were the largest and strongest, used for lighthouses along open oceans, while fourth-order lenses like this one were smaller and located along lakes and harbors. This light rotated on a clockwork mechanism and produced one white light with 3 red flashes every sixty seconds.

Sakonnet Lighthouse sits on Little Cormorant Rock at the entrance to the Sakonnet River. One of its first keepers, Lucius E. Chadwick rowed out to the light on his first day on duty. Upon seeing the conditions on his new cold and rocky home, he promptly returned to the mainland and resigned. Clearly Sakonnet Light needed hardier keepers than Mr. Chadwick. One of its later keepers, Nils Nelson was awarded a gold lifesaving medal in 1903 after rescuing a man from drowning in a perilous attempt that could have dashed his own boat against the rocks.

Though impaired, the light survived the Hurricane of 1938, continuing to light the mouth of the river until 1954, when Hurricane Carol severely damaged Sakonnet Lighthouse. The necessary repairs were deemed too expensive and the light was deactivated. The Coast Guard planned to demolish the station but the citizens of Little Compton fought for the preservation of the light. The light was maintained through public and private means until  on March 19, 1997 Sakonnet Lighthouse was relighted as an active aid to navigation.

Cow Vomit Rope

Cows sometimes get food stuck in their gullet: apples, potatoes and the like. When that happens, a vomit rope can come in handy. A vomit rope is a type of probang, a device used to reach obstructions in the esophagus. It is a cheap and affordable implement used to save an expensive dairy cow from at best being uncomfortable and at worst an unpleasant demise.

Little Compton farmers would have learned about probangs from their fathers, or their neighbors, or from a farmer’s magazine or veterinary handbook. They’d see advice like this: use a ¾ inch thick rope, three or more feet in length. The end meant for the gullet of the cow was made smooth and firm by winding the rope twine around a metal center with a sort of knob on the end. Before use, the rope should be greased for easier passage and after use, the rope should be hung up from one end to keep it drying in a straight line. Some farmers recommend a dose of linseed or olive oil “to be poured down the throat before using the probang.” The article goes on to say, “A simple gag and probang, such as we have described, should be kept at hand by every stock-owner. Though they may never be needed, they cost but a trifle and may save the farmer fifty or a hundred dollars, and will at least mark him as one who is merciful to his beast, as well as careful of his property.”

Little Compton Chair

Influenced by a variety of European furniture traditions, the William and Mary bannister back chair was a popular design featured in England and its American colonies. The style marked a departure from the sturdy and blocky style that characterized the furniture of the medieval period. The William and Mary style combined light straight lines with elegant curves, carved by turning on a lathe. The details in the design for the chair changed based on the region it was made in.

The skill of Little Compton’s 18th-century furniture makers paled in comparison to the artistry of masters like Townsend and Goddard in nearby Newport. Little Compton’s wealthier families could easily purchase fine pieces from craftsmen in that city. Farm families likely made simple items like boxes and stools themselves but turned to neighbors for specialty items. 

Chairs like this one were crafted by the Davenport family and their enslaved workers. The Davenports are believed to have made their own version of the 18th-century William and Mary bannister back chair, today called the “Little Compton Chair.” The chair was defined by distinctive features including urn finials topped with small onion-shaped knobs, double arched crest rails and cupid bow bottom rail, as well as three to four banisters forming the back. Local families purchased sets of these chairs and many survive today. This one distorted as its green wood dried, but was still used by a local family.

Sheep Treadmill

This wooden treadmill from about 1860 was powered by a sheep or dog. The animal would walk to keep its position on the wooden belt, propelling a series of gears and rollers which turned a metal crank with a long wooden arm. The arm with a hook on one end would be attached to a simple machine. Some butter churns, threshing machines or early laundry machines utilized animal power this way. 

Beyond their usefulness for wool and meat, with a machine like this, a sheep could churn the cream from twenty cows. By using animal power, farmers had more time to do other activities, besides churning butter or agitating laundry. For larger duties, some companies made much larger treadmills built for horses. Two, three, or even four horses could power large threshing or grinding machines. By the 1920s, the invention of gas-powered motors and electricity made sheep or dog power no longer practical.


This seeder would have a strap that would be placed across the farmer’s shoulder while the body of the seeder would hang by the farmer’s midriff. As he walked through his fields he would move the handle back and forth to shake tiny alfalfa seeds (or other hay seeds) through the small holes in the metal bottom of the seeder. The seeder would allow the farmer to cover a strip about 12 feet wide, doubling his normal wingspan. Hayseeds grow well left just on the surface of the soil. It takes about 20 pounds of alfalfa to seed an acre.

Dr. White’s Specialty Medicine

During Little Compton’s diphtheria epidemic in 1877, Dr. George White of Adamsville invented a new remedy. “Dr. White’s Speciality, for Diphtheria” combined the bark from the cinchona tree, pepper and ipecac in alcohol. He claimed it was “a panacea for this distressing disease. It is also an excellent remedy for coughs, colds, or any affection of the throat.” A teaspoonful of the tincture was administered every two hours to the afflicted.

After the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed such claims were no longer allowed, and in 1917 a US court condemned Dr. White’s advertisement as “false and fraudulent.” Such claims as “Specialty for Diphtheria . . .thousands of cases have been treated by it with a greater percentage of cures than from all other remedies combined” and “Dr. White’s Specialty, the best medicine in the world” were no longer acceptable according to the Secretary of Agriculture, since the drugs “had no such curative and therapeutic effect as set forth in said statements.” The Frederick Brownell family purchased Dr. White’s recipes and continued to make his cold medicine and ointments as a way to supplement their farming income.

Fodder Smasher?

Please help the historical society learn more!

We think this tool was used for smashing produce such as pumpkins into small pieces (fodder) to feed livestock, but it is so heavy that a farmer could only use it a couple of times before getting tired. We cannot find anything similar in old books or on-line. It might be a rare example of a forgotten tool or a one-of-a-kind handmade implement. Can you help us identify this farming tool?

Please contact 401-635-4035 or if you think you have the solution to our farming conundrum!


Please help the historical society learn more!

This large tool looks like a hayfork, but it is much larger and heavier than any other we have in our collection. It has a sturdy metal collar that connects it’s long sharp tines to the wooden shaft. This collar has a large hoop connected that might attach it to other machinery. It seems too heavy to be used by one person, do you have any ideas?

Please contact 401-635-4035 or if you think you have the solution to our farming conundrum!

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548 West Main Road, Little Compton, Rhode Island
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