NORTH KINGSTOWN – For the past 70 years, Smith’s Castle, a historical landmark in North Kingstown, has opened its doors to the public, allowing guests to tour the award winning house and learn about its centuries-long history. And in order to keep that tradition alive, Smith’s Castle has relied on a dedicated group of volunteer docents, dressed in colonial attire, to guide guests on 50-minute tours of the two-story house, which was first built in the seventeenth century.
Now, Smith’s Castle is seeking new docents and greeters for the upcoming tour season, with a series of four training sessions beginning in April. The tour season will take place from May through mid-October.
The training sessions will focus on basic procedures and, primarily, the history of the castle and the people who inhabited it.
“We will, of course, spend some time on basic procedures for opening and closing the castle, expectations, guidelines and how to conduct a tour,” said Marilyn Harris, who will be one of the leaders of the training sessions. “The main thrust of the training, however, is the transmission of information about the history of the castle, the people who lived here and how they lived their daily lives.”
Of course, Smith’s Castle–which now operates as a nonprofit National Historic Site–contains a great deal of history, dating back hundreds of years.
The original building, which was established by Richard Smith around 1637, served as a trading post. It is thought to have been a grand, fortified house, which gave way to calling it a “castle.” However, the original building was burned down in 1676 after the Great Swamp Fight.
But by 1678, Richard Smith Jr. built a new home, one that is still standing: what is known today as Smith’s Castle. Not long after, the home and property were bequeathed to the Updike family.
Throughout its history, Smith’s Castle, which was visited by historical figures like Roger Williams, was the epicenter for many, many unforgettable and sometimes tragic moments.
Harris said that Smith’s Castle is looking for new volunteers to take part in the training sessions in order to become docents, particularly ones who have a love of history.
“Many of our docents have had careers as teachers, nurses, or lawyers and are comfortable speaking to groups, but what is really important is a love of history and a desire to share that love with others,” Harris said. “Of course, it would be helpful if a person knows something about early Rhode Island history and the Castle, but it is not necessary as long as he/she is willing and eager to learn.”
Docents-in-training will be led by Harris, Joyce Fuller and Lynn Macalister, all of whom will rely heavily on experienced docents for their assistance. Veteran docents, Harris said, will provide the trainees with in-depth information about Smith’s Castle, preparing them to conduct future tours through onsite presentations about the castle’s features and history.
“Veteran docents will give in-depth tours of the individual rooms – what they were used for, interesting bits of trivia related to artifacts in the rooms or the people who once lived in them,” Harris said. “These will give the trainees much more information than they will be able to present in a regular tour, but also give them a feeling for the house and all the wonderful stories connected to it.”
Since each of the veteran docents has his or her own interests and presentation techniques, Harris continued, they also give the trainees “an idea of how different docents approach the task of creating a vibrant, living history for our guests.”
Harris used the eighteenth century room at Smith’s Castle as an example of the extensive information trainees will learn about the historic site during the sessions.
In the eighteenth century dining room, for instance, trainees will learn about the Narragansett Plantation system, while also hearing about Anstis Updike Lee, who died of an accident on her 100th birthday, and whose portrait hangs on the wall. Trainees will also be taught about a favorite colonial drink called “flip,” made of rum, ale, molasses and a raw egg, which was then frothed by plunging a red-hot poker into the pitcher.
“It’s these little bits that make history come alive,” Harris said.
During the training sessions, special speakers, such as Robert Geake, a historian and author, will instruct the trainees on the facts they will need to present to visitors of the castle. A member of URI Master Gardeners will also be around during another training session to talk about the colonial gardens which they maintain on the premises.
Once the volunteers finish the training sessions, and become official docents, they will be ready to give their own 50-minute tours of Smith’s Castle.
The tours given to guests are packed with historical information, detailing the importance of the Narragansett Tribe, Roger Williams, the coming of Richard Smith Sr. and the impact of King Philip’s War.
Tours also detail the reconstruction of the house in 1678 and how it passed from the Smiths to the Updikes. They also go over the slave room, agricultural tools from the 18th and 19th centuries and the nursery.
Smith’s Castle was also restored so that some of its rooms reflect how it would have looked in the late 1600s, while others were modeled to resemble their appearance after the 1738 renovation by Daniel Updike–all information that will be included in the tours.
“There are so many wonderful stories to tell that the 50 minutes is over before you know it,” Harris said.
This year, Smith’s Castle was also selected for a Rhode Island Slave Medallion, which will be dedicated at the opening day of the tour season on May 2.
“In the future this will serve to remind our visitors that slavery was a part of colonial Rhode Island and that there were, in fact, slaves owned by Richard Smith Jr., and his Updike descendants,” Harris said.
While Smith’s Castle is still seeking more volunteers to become docents by taking part in the training sessions, Harris said that a dozen people have already signed up from the sessions.
“This is an excellent turn-out – almost double what we have had in previous years,” she said.
Smith’s Castle is also seeking volunteers to assist as greeters, who, according to the organization, provide an important first contact with the public, staffing the visitors’ center to welcome guests and collect admission fees.
The first training session will take place on Thursday, April 16, with further sessions scheduled for the following three consecutive Thursdays. Each session will go from 3 to 5 p.m. While potential greeters are only required to attend the first and last sessions–where there will be an emphasis on procedures and methods–they are welcome to attend all four meetings.
Assistance in assembling appropriate costuming will be provided, with a limited amount of colonial wear available on loan.