Rhode Island's Natural Laboratory: A History of URI's Alton Jones Campus
In the late 1920s, William Easton "Faddie" Louttit and his wife Sophia Robley Louttit acquired several adjacent farms west in West Greenwich for about $5 per acre and established Hianloland Farm. Additional acquisitions in the 1930s brought the farm's total acreage to about 2,500. Named for the rolling topography of the land, the property was intended to be a family compound, with a summer residence for Faddie and Sophia as well as homes for their children William Easton and Thomas Robley and their families.
Oil executive W. Alton Jones purchased the property in 1954 to use for periodic hunting and fishing weekends. Among the dignitaries he hosted were the King of Nepal and President Dwight Eisenhower. "We didn't know he was coming," said property manager George Wheatley. "One day I was near the cow farm and these two guys get out of their car. They told me they were Secret Service, just checking the place out because Eisenhower might want to visit."
Following her husband's death in a plane crash, Nettie Marie Jones donated the property to the University of Rhode Island "without restrictions of any kind," which meant that everything that remained on the property and in the houses - towels, china, furniture, books, farm machinery, boats and all the game birds and farm animals - was included in the gift. The acquisition of its 2,309 acres, valued at about $300,000, tripled the size of the University's landholdings and gave it the distinction of possessing more land than any of the six New England state universities.
The University's first objective was to focus on establishing a Youth Science Center that would provide children with an opportunity to explore and learn about the natural world. Initially the center offered a series of overnight camps for children to build self-esteem while helping them learn about the natural world. Today, the camp program, which includes off-site expeditions for teens, is rated as one of the top three camps in Rhode Island and one of the 15 best in New England.
The campus's Whispering Pines Conference Center holds 350 conferences each year for business groups, non-profit organizations, and state agencies. "It's a distraction-free environment," said Campus Director Tom Mitchell. "If you think about conference facilities in urban centers, there are lots of distractions. Whereas here you can focus on your topic for an extended period of time and stay on task. It's the perfect place to go and think." And its reputation for superb food is well deserved.
The undisturbed nature of the campus makes it an ideal site to study plants and wildlife in pristine ecological conditions. One of the first researchers to do so was Prof. John Kupa, who conducted the first study in the nation to track white-tailed deer with radio transmitters as they moved through the forest. His resulting data on the herd size was used to justify the first deer hunt in the state. The 24-hour BioBlitz event in 2004 counted 1,005 species of wildlife living on the campus.
The most famous of the unusual events to have occurred on campus was the day in 1976 when then-Gov. Phillip Noel planned to visit the campus to give a speech. As his helicopter was approaching, its tail rotor malfunctioned and flew off the aircraft, causing the helicopter with Noel and his pilot to plunge into the forest. The helicopter was impaled on a tree trunk, but no one was hurt. Lesser known is the story about the day when the state police used the conference center facilities as a safe house to hide an important organized crime informant.
The Executive MBA program was a new idea at the time, and what added to its allure was that it was scheduled as a residential program on weekends to accommodate busy professional calendars. "Alton Jones was the ideal setting for this program," said Professor Rick Scholl. "It had the combination of residency, amazing food, and classrooms that created a tremendous bonding experience. The residency component was important, because there was a lot of work that got done after class at night, and that's when a lot of the bonding happened."
"We like to create the impression that the wedding is being held at the bridal couple's private estate," explained Assistant Director George Lewis. "It's modeled after Alton Jones's philosophy of bringing friends and family to a private place to build relationships. They can use the entire property - the guests houses, the meeting rooms, the campfire - and we customize it so every wedding is unique." The wedding of URI President Robert Carothers and University College Dean Jayne Richmond featured jugglers, dancers and bonfires.
In the early days, the generosity of the W. Alton Jones Foundation provided most of the necessary financial resources to construct and renovate facilities, as well as to publish a book about local wildflowers and purchase boats and canoes for the campers. Later, the Foundation established a $1 million endowment to help fund campus operations. When the funds were lacking to build a needed cabin in 1995, the carpentry teacher at Coventry Vocational School agreed to take on the project with his students.
Rhode Island will forever be thankful for the generosity of the Jones family for the donation that established the campus. It remains one of the largest gifts the University has ever received. Nearly all who visit the property recognize its natural beauty and want to linger by its streams and ponds or pause to observe the many forms of wildlife peacefully co-existing with the campus' many visitors.
Todd McLeish's book Rhode Island's Natural Laboratory: A History of URI's W. Alton Jones Campus is available for purchase in hardcover for $24.95 by contacting the W. Alton Jones campus at 401-397-3302, ext. 6043 or via email.