- Access: From Route 116, take Swan Road and travel approximately 2.5 km to a junction with Mann School Road. Go right then turn left onto Connors Farm Drive. After 0.3 km, the start of the trail is on the left.
- Parking: Available for some cars.
- Dogs: Authorized but must be kept on a leash.
- Difficulty: Moderate, with some hills and rough terrain.
SMITHFIELD – A narrow stream meanders through an oak forest at the foot of a steep hill covered in ledges, rocks and outcroppings.
It is a picturesque sight. But for the farmers who worked the land here years ago, the creek was essential to their livelihood.
They built a stone dam across the creek with a gate that could be closed to flood a natural cranberry bog.
Downstream, they erected an earthen dyke to hold water flowing into the creek to form a small farm pond to water dairy cows and crops.
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The meandering stream and the remnants of farming life along its banks are just some of the interesting features of the Connors Farm Conservation Area, a preserved patch of woodland surrounded by homes that was once worked by the Connors families , Comstock and Mowry.
They used the land around them to build a life for themselves and their families.
The Smithfield Conservation Commission now manages the 66-acre reserve, and the Smithfield Land Trust owns the adjoining 43-acre Jim Russell Preserve.
I set out to explore the reserves from a trail off Connors Farm Drive. The trailhead passes through what was once an apple orchard, one of many stands of fruit trees that once dotted the landscape.
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The short path drops slightly to a T junction. Straight ahead and rising about 100 feet is a steep incline with rocks, boulders and ledges that seem to overflow the hill. The rugged terrain is sometimes used by climbers to practice their skills.
At the foot of the hill is an unnamed creek, overgrown and hidden in places, which slowly flows east through the reserve.
Remains of an old cranberry bog
At the T-junction, I took a flat, red-marked path to the left, wide enough to be a passable road when the land was cultivated. I soon came to a wide stone slab bridge over a dam built of round stones with a gap where the stream water flowed through. A large area southwest of the dam was once a natural cranberry bog which was flooded by blocking off the space in the dam with wooden planks.
I tried to explore the lowlands and bogs, but they are now covered in dense foliage and almost impenetrable to cross.
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I once associated cranberry bogs with wetlands on Cape Cod. But on an earlier hike to Steere Farm in Glocester, I spotted the remains of a small stone dam with a gate to control the flow of water to a cranberry bog. Later I read that several bogs had been planted and commercially farmed in Rhode Island. In 1855 Abel T. Sampson planted a bog in Coventry which was later expanded to become one of the largest in the state.
The trail through Connors Farm crossed the stone slab bridge before heading northeast and up a steep incline, with a 20ft ledge wall on the right. Eventually the trail flattened out, passed through a copse of beech trees, and headed east on a ridge line above the rocky hill. At one point there were ledges on both sides of the path.
A little later I came to a clearing with a picnic table perched on a viewing ledge above the rocky hill I had seen at the trailhead. I noticed a long, thin slab of rock sticking out like a finger about 10 feet above the hill.
I learned later that years ago trees harvested from the top of the hill were slid down long chutes to the road below to be transported off the property.
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At Jim Russell Preserve, stone walls, ledges, caves and outcrops
Continuing east, I reached a crossroads that opened up to the left for a trail through the Jim Russell Reservation, named after the family who sold the property to the land trust. I took the yellow marked trail through a flat area that meandered under pine trees and stone walls on land that at one time was probably cultivated. The trail and some of the paths through Connors Farm have been cut by scouts for Eagle Service projects.
I followed the trail to Burlingame Road and a small trailhead with spots for a few cars.
Retracing my steps, I took the yellow marked trail southeast up a hill to an intersection with a blue marked trail, passing stone walls, ledges, caves and outcrops.
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I took the blue marked trail to the edge of a small still pond covered in weeds. I walked along the top of an earthen dyke, built to hold back a stream to form the pond, and realized it was the same stream I had crossed at the start of the hike. I inspected the levee and found a culvert at its base, and just offshore, which looked like a concrete footing that could have been built as a gate to keep water out.
It was in this area that Leo Connors’ family built a farm and garage and raised dairy cows and sometimes turkeys during holiday periods. The pond may have been built to water cattle.
I followed the path west along the edge of the pond and saw a duck box just offshore. The trail crossed a wooden bridge over the creek and I decided to do some bushcraft following its banks. It was difficult to get through the thick undergrowth, but my reward was to find a long concrete wall built across the creek with a square space in the middle that must have been a gate to hold the water. It was a different type of construction from the stone dam I had walked through earlier which seemed to have been built much later. I don’t know who built it or why. It may have been an updated version of a dam to flood a cranberry bog.
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I later learned that the Civilian Conservation Corps had built public works projects in the area in the 1930s, and that the dam may have been some sort of water control.
After investigating the structure, I found a shallow spot in the creek and crossed to find a green marked trail. He followed the creek west and took me to the stone bridge near where I started my hike.
In all, I walked about 3.5 miles in two hours.
A poetic conclusion to a scenic walk
Before leaving, I studied the stone dam again and noticed a plaque stuck on a stone that I had missed earlier. It was inscribed with the poem “Spring Planting” by Laurence J. Sasso Jr., the town poet who grew up near Connors Farm, performed there as a child and still lives nearby. When I contacted him he helped me understand the history of the farmland and told me some great stories including one about the time he and his friends built a raft to cross the Cranberry Bog . It sank about 10 feet.
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His poem speaks of regeneration and celebrates those who work the rich land. A stanza says:
“We place faith in the darkest dirt
And somehow it still works.
Our labor is neither wasted nor denied
Life comes from the thing that is dead.
It was a good idea to top off an interesting walk with a look at the history of those who once lived and worked there.
Hikers should always pack plenty of water, especially on summer hikes, to replenish what they lose through sweat. Seasoned hikers recommend packing two liters of water and stopping regularly for a drink. Don’t wait to be thirsty.
John Kostrzewa, former associate/corporate editor of the Providence Journal, welcomes emails at [email protected]