Wild, Wild West Greenwich

This wooded rural town is a study in peace and quiet.
Photography by Chris Vaccaro.

I run. My arms pump and my breath puffs in front of me before it’s torn back by my forward momentum. I pass our family friend’s house, then the house with five Weimaraners and continue towards Fry Pond on the appropriately named Fry Pond Road.

As I near it, the sun dapples through the trees and the expanse of marshy pond opens up, a marble reflecting the world around it. I pause to catch my breath, the cold air sharp and resinous from the pine trees. This is West Greenwich.

As an almost lifelong resident, my formative pre-teen and teen years were spent here, in this rectangular town of few people and many trees, a place where everyone knows each other but where seclusion and privacy are virtues. In many ways, West Greenwich is an in-between, an oft forgotten town between Coventry and Exeter, one that even lifelong Rhode Island residents don’t know exists.

“Oh, you live in East Greenwich?” is the common reply when I tell people where I live. “No, West Greenwich,” I say, to which they “ahh” with understanding and say, “I gotcha, the western part of East Greenwich.”
It’s also a place with an identity and history that is a mixed bag of rural paraphernalia, a curious blend of swamp Yankees, land preservationists, foragers, farmers, politicians and new and lifelong families.

Kevin Breene is a prominent resident and the town administrator. With his grizzled voice and office propped with a Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and portrait of Ronald Reagan, he’s your quintessential West Greenwich man.

Breene knows a thing or two about West Greenwich, with his family tracing back eleven generations into the town’s history.

“In the late 1700s there were more than 2,500 people here because there were little mills along the stream, there was a lot of agriculture here and most of the town was cleared off for pastures with sheep,” he says, leaning back in his chair.

The population declined sharply as wool was overtaken by cotton as the textile du jour, and Breene says, “by the time my grandmother was a girl, during the Great Depression, there were only around 450 people living here.”

Time drizzled onwards and by the ’60s, though still a poor, small community, West Greenwich had a tiny town center called Nooseneck Village with houses and little stores. But then, the Big River reservoir loomed.

“Fifty-one years ago, Big River was condemned to build a reservoir, which hurt a lot of people but preserved a lot of land. If that hadn’t happened, there would probably be 20,000 people living in West Greenwich,” he says. “Right now, more than 50 percent of the town is permanent open space; it can never be built on.” This controversial project to install a reservoir (which never actually happened) wound up giving West Greenwich its reputation as a town committed to land preservation, a reputation that it proudly embraces. The town’s Land Trust takes care to promote this image of West Greenwich and organizes events like West Greenwich Days and Earth Day festivities to celebrate it. And they are big hits; people come out of the woodwork to celebrate their town.

Sunlight dapples through the pines on a rural West Greenwich road; A stunning view of the pond on Fry Pond Road. Plain Meeting House, built in 1825, is one of the earliest structures of its type still standing in western Rhode Island; Get your country dance on at Mishnock Barn; One of the many babbling brooks in West Greenwich. Photography by Chris Vaccaro

But Breene is wary of the label “environmentalist.”

“We’re not necessarily tree huggers,” he says with a laugh. “We will cut them down but we’ll leave it so new ones can grow.”

Trees seem to define West Greenwich. You could cut a swath of a trail through the woods by hacking down saplings and a few months later, new ones will pop up. Rich in white pine, West Greenwich’s lumber industry flourished, as did the town’s reputation as an escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

One such place of escape was a parcel of land owned by W. Alton Jones, the president and CEO of CITGO, who had a getaway tucked into the woods off Route 102. Jones knew a lot of movers and shakers, often inviting them to drop by his West Greenwich estate.

“He was very good friends with President Eisenhower, so he came up here a couple of times to visit,” Breene says. Jones’s estate also hosted the King of Nepal in 1960. Then after Jones’s death when it was gifted to the University of Rhode Island, it was chosen as a safe spot to host an organized crime informant and, later, former governor Phillip Noel, whose helicopter crashed in the woods.

Breene gets it right when he says of the town, “There’s more characters and weird stories than you could ever write.”

But even with its surprisingly loaded history, today West Greenwich is still a study in contradiction, both dynamic and progressive but also quiet and reserved.

Breene crosses his arms and sums it up. “It’s just a nice rural town.”

Great Places for Foodies

West Greenwich

Dan’s Place
The vibe is large dive bar, the crowd is a mix of locals, bikers and people on their way somewhere, and the food is hearty, with plenty of fried goodness. You won’t want to miss the live music and the poutine and pickle chips are some of the best finger food you can find.
880 Victory Hwy., West Greenwich, 392-3092, danspizzaplace.com.

Woods Tavern
The appropriately named Woods Tavern (after all, most of West Greenwich is wooded) has more than just trees going for it. Load your plate with Wood Chip Nachos or pick up a grilled pizza with just enough scorch to get that summer grilling taste.
45 Nooseneck Hill Rd., West Greenwich, 392-1314, thewoodstavern.com.

A Short Drive Away

Middle of Nowhere Diner
The name is half the reason why this place is so great. Truly in the middle of nowhere, this diner has all your classics, from bottomless cups of coffee to huge omelets and scrumptious apple pie.
222 Nooseneck Hill Rd., Exeter, 397-8855, themiddleofnowherediner.net.

Billy Hill’s Roadhouse
With sweet barbecue and sweet deals like half-off the appetizer menu during happy hour, Billy’s Roadhouse is worth the scenic drive to Richmond. It also has some great weekend music to pair with your philly cheesesteak egg rolls (yep, you heard us right).
1219 Main St., Richmond, 321-2811, billyhillsroadhouse.com.

Celestial Cafe
Chef Branden likes to make tasty twists on classic favorites, resulting in dishes like sweet potato wontons with locally made ricotta and an Asian-style calamari with local squid, mushrooms and a ginger soy glaze.
Oak Harbor Village, 567 South County Trl., Exeter, 295-5559, celestialcaferi.com.
{ great places to shop }

West A Short Drive Away

Therapy Boutique
Who doesn’t need some retail therapy? That’s the mentality behind this boutique in nearby East Greenwich, where you can stock up on cozy cashmeres, cute boots and get expert advice on the latest trends. 235 Main St., East Greenwich, 884-3130, therapyboutique.com.

Davin and Kesler
Thomas Davin and Mary Kesler are known for their handmade contemporary crafts, including the couple’s gorgeous wooden jewelry. There’s also a vast selection of items for your foodie friends and family, like handcrafted sushi boards and chopsticks. 24G Dorset Mill Rd., Exeter, 295-7515, davinandkesler.com.

URE Outfitters
Whether you’re gearing up for backpacking, rock climbing, hiking, kayaking or canoeing, this store is the jackpot for all your outdoor activity needs. Find world-renowned brands while supporting a local business. Even if the outdoor look is no more than a fashion choice, URE has you covered. 1009 Main St., Hope Valley, 539-4050, ureoutfitters.com.
{ great places to explore }

West Greenwich

Sand Dunes
When this former quarry is covered in snow, the steep hills make it the perfect place for sledding. Just make sure to get there early to beat the inevitable crowds and pack some hot chocolate in thermoses for a post-sledding treat. 145–151 Division Rd., West Greenwich.

A Short Drive Away

Mercy Brown’s Grave
In nearby Exeter is a spooky relic of local folklore tucked into a beautiful old graveyard. Mercy Brown died in 1892 with multiple familial deaths following. She was exhumed shortly after her death and since her body remained perfectly preserved, it was concluded that she was a vampire praying on the surviving members of her family. In a Dracula-like move, her heart was cut out and burned. You can see her grave up close and personal, and decide for yourself if Mercy Brown was the vampire she was said to be. Chestnut Hill Baptist Church Cemetery, Exeter.

Mystic Aquarium
A quick thirty-minute drive from West Greenwich, the Mystic Aquarium is a great day trip for the entire family. With an array of aquatic learning programs and animals, including beluga whales and African penguins, be prepared to learn things you never knew. Plus, Mystic is a quaint town to explore after you visit the aquarium. 55 Coogan Blvd., Mystic, Conn., 860-572-5955, mysticaquarium.org.

Sources: Images of America: West Greenwich, By Kathleen A. Swann Ph.D, Kevin A. Breene; wgtownri.org; Providence Journal; ESRI.

Hit the trails in  West Greenwich

Ben Utter Trail, Stepstone Falls Austin Farm Rd., Escoheag, West Greenwich
Distance: 3.2 miles
Difficulty:  Easy
This hard-to-find trail is worth scouting out. Stepstone Falls are normally small, careening falls that provide a bubbling soundtrack to a lovely hike. While the water might be frozen over in the winter, the frosty, almost creamy currents are truly a splendid sight to behold.

Big River Management Area Trail, 25–31 Burnt Sawmill Rd., West Greenwich
Distance: 17.8 miles
Difficulty:  Moderate
A mix of woodlands, wetlands and agricultural areas, this vast swath of protected nature is great for the more zealous outdoorsman. Common activities include running, bicycling and even snowshoeing once snow blankets the land. You can also bring your leashed pooch on a hike here if you’re searching for a companion who won’t complain.

Wickaboxet Management Area, just beyond 555 Plain Meetinghouse Rd., West Greenwich
Distance: 10 miles
Difficulty:  Easy
Comprising Wickaboxet, Tillinghast Pond and the Pratt Conservation Areas, this protected woodland is perfect for a gorgeous day spent in nature. Hike along fields and forests, or cast a line or take a paddle in streams and ponds on ten miles of interconnected trails. Fun fact: There is one brook in the Pratt Conservation area that is lovely, but has the unfortunate name of “Acid Factory Brook.” But rest assured, there is no factory pumping acid into this water!
A Short Drive Away

Maxwell Mays, 2082 Victory Hwy., Coventry
Distance: 2.3 miles
Difficulty: Easy
While technically in Coventry, this well-worn trail is barely outside the bounds of West Greenwich. With gorgeous views of Carr’s Pond and vibrating meadows, it’s no wonder this preserve was named after the famed landscape painter. This is an easy, pleasant hike with small challenges like roots and stones that jut out in random places.