RICHMOND – Theakston De Coppet grew up far from the sprawling farmlands of Richmond, Rhode Island. The son of Henry De Coppet and his wife Laura (Fawcett), Theakston knew more about the duties of butlers and nannies than he did about milking cows and feeding chickens. A resident of high-class accommodations on Park Avenue in Manhattan, Theakston and is family lived well under the care of their Irish cook, a laundress, chambermaid, waitress and other numerous household staff members.
By the age of 30, he had become a successful stockbroker after attending Columbia University and majoring in Fine Arts. There, he had been a member of the tennis and racquet clubs as well as the Delta Phi fraternity. For many years, he and his parents and two sisters had ventured to Narragansett each summer, spending carefree days at their elaborate seasonal cottage “Summerstay” on the Pier. With his wealth and good fortune, he could have chosen anywhere on the planet to settle down for good. However, he decided to forgo the big cities with all their offers of excitement, to quietly replant his roots in the rural town of Richmond.
At first, as a new resident of Richmond, Theakston took up farming, providing room and board for several private house servants, a farm secretary, two Pilipino farmhands, a cook and a waiter. The city boy began investing money in Ayrshire cows, including “Blossom of Hillsdale” and “May of Hillsdale,” bred by W.A. Nye of Narragansett Pier.
Little by little, he bought up parcels of land along Hillsdale Road until he had in his possession an entire village, fueled by his interest in conservation. On the west side of the road, opposite the lower mill pond, he built an elaborate two-story house which stood in great contrast to the simple furnishings inside. To the south of the house stood a farmhouse built in the 1800s which served to accommodate the overseer of his farm. Another structure, known as “the halfway house,” served as a residence for the Schmidt family. Ned Schmidt was employed as a horse-groomer and dog trainer for Theakston.
The property also included the foundations of an old cider mill, store, dance hall, ice house and several outhouses, all the remnants of a textile mill village which flourished from 1830 until 1870. Theakston’s dream was to turn the entire historical oasis into a wildlife preserve.
After his death, his will was probated and directed that the property “shall be administered as a forest reservation and sanctuary for the scientific care, study and preservation of all desirable plant and animal life within its limits.” The trustees for the estate were the Rhode Island Hospital Trust National Bank.
According to Theakston’s wishes, the grounds were to be turned over to the State of Rhode Island and maintained as a wildlife preserve as soon as it could be proven they had the ability to manage it as such.
Presently, the 2,700-acre property, which contains 68 acres of industrial, commercial and domestic archaeological sites, is known as the Hillsdale Historic and Archeological District.
Kelly Sullivan is a freelance features and history writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.