Hike the historic Haile Farm in Warren, RI, a nature lover’s paradise
- Access: Off Market Street (Route 136), turn west at the sign for Haile Farm and through a small industrial area to the trailhead.
- Parking: Available for some cars.
- Dogs: Authorized but must be kept on a leash.
- Difficulty: Easy with some wet areas.
WARREN — Rock Singewald gestures across the vast flat marsh where farmers for hundreds of years have swung scythes to harvest salt hay to use as cattle fodder and sell in local markets.
Salt hay became a treasured crop for generations of families who farmed the land along the Palmer River, says Singewald, chairman of the Warren Land Conservation Trust, which runs the Haile Farm Reserve.
The nonprofit group maintains a network of trails that traverse the 61-acre sanctuary that includes forested uplands and trails leading down to the river, where hikers can cross the marsh and see salt sparrows, ospreys and, if you’re lucky, an eagle soaring above your head. .
“The reserve is a great asset and easily accessible,” Singewald told me.
On a crystal clear morning, Singewald and I hiked the Haile Farm trails past a small industrial area off Market Street to the trailhead near the entrance to Jade, a local maker.
We started by heading west on a right of way through private property covered in places with wood chips.
The trail entered a dense area of invasive plants, including fall olive, bittersweet, multiflora rose, and sagebrush, which crowd out native species unless cut down.
As we hiked the terrain changed from bushes to stands of box elder and some gray birch. We crossed a red maple swamp aboard bridges built by local volunteers and scouts.
Turning left on the red trail, we stopped at an interesting little circle of tall quivering aspens, then continued through fallen trees downed by high winds.
A blue marked trail on the left would have taken us to the river but is currently closed to protect ospreys and their nest.
The area got wet and we crossed bog bridges through patches of cinnamon fern and witch hazel before turning off the red trail, named after Betty Hallberg, onto the green trail, named after Dick Hallberg . The Hallbergs founded the Warren Land Conservation Trust.
A short distance further, we took a left onto a trail that crossed high ground covered in pitch pines and other small trees and shrubs. We passed a sitting bench and then hiked to the salt marsh on the east bank of the Palmer River, a brackish waterway that flows south into the Barrington River and then the Warren River before reaching the ocean .
Along the shore to the left is a wooden post topped with an osprey nest. To the south is downtown Warren and the old American Tourister brick factory. To the east, across the peaceful river, are tree-lined banks and cottages in Barrington.
The land was once the province of the Pokanoket tribe
As far as the eye can see from the swamp, and beyond, the Pokanoket, led by Massasoit Ousamequin, have lived for thousands of years on the rich land called Sowams. Native Americans planted the upland area of the swamp with corn, beans, and squash, fertilized with fish from the river.
After King Philip’s brutal war (1675-1676) between settlers and Native Americans, the rest of the tribe was driven from the land, which was divided and parceled out to English settlers, according to a story by Barbara Andrews Hail, of Warren, a descendant of the Haile family.
In 1682, Obadiah Bowen, the first landowner, built a one-and-a-half-story farmhouse with a steeply pitched gable roof that still stands on Market Street (Route 136) near the entrance to the reservation. Bowen sold the land in 1708 to Richard Haile, whose family farmed the land for around 170 years.
In the mid-1800s, the property was called Judge Haile Farm in honor of Levi Haile, an 1821 Brown University graduate who served as a justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island. It was the court that tried Thomas Dorr, the leader of Dorr’s rebellion in 1842.
Later, Manual Nunes ran the farm from 1911 to 1988. After a developer abandoned plans to build condos there, the town of Warren took title and turned the property over to the Warren Land Conservation Trust.
A key farm for growing salt hay, a valuable cash crop for early settlers
Haile Farm was one of many saltwater farms that grew up along Narragansett Bay and other New England shores.
Early coastal farmers learned that raising animals was more profitable than farming. A cattle farm required less labor and the salt hay that grew in the salt marshes and low meadows could be cut to feed cattle and dairy cows or sold to buyers along the coast. Salt hay, supplemented with English hay grown on the highland prairies, became one of the most valuable crops of the first century of English settlement in New England.
The salt hay harvest usually took place every August. Some of the cut hay was loaded onto small flat-bottomed sailing barges, called gundalows, and shipped downriver to markets.
Sometimes wagons transported the salted hay on roads built above the wetlands. The horses that pulled the wagons were fitted with special flat-bottomed wide shoes so as not to get bogged down in the swamp.
And sometimes farmers piled the hay on racks in the marsh called “staddles”, which were constructed by driving stakes into the ground about 2 or 3 feet above the marsh. Salt hay dried there and was hauled on sleds over the frozen swamp in mid-winter to be stored in upland barns.
After discussing this story, Singewald and I retraced our steps to the green trail and headed north on a path lined in places with yellow thistle, which blooms in the spring.
Nestled in the dense brush on the left is a solar-powered station on a short wooden pole set up by students from the Rhode Island School of Design to monitor climate change issues.
Turning left on an orange path, we passed another bench before arriving at the river again. Just offshore to the northeast we could see tiny Tom’s Islandalso called Three Tree Island.
Through the trees to the north, the Swansea Golf Club is visible.
Where will you see ospreys and eagles?
Back on the green trail, we took a short yellow loop, called Eagle View, through sandy ground and under power lines that cross the reserve to the north and south. We spotted other osprey nests, including one on top of a power pole.
Singewald said eagles can sometimes be seen here perched high in the trees, but they tend to live far west of the river. After the ospreys leave, however, the eagles spend more time on the east side of the river and can sometimes be seen on top of the poles where the ospreys build their nests.
Back on the leafy trail, we headed east under mature oak and tupelo trees and along stone walls that once enclosed cattle pastures. We also passed a row of beech and willow trees.
The trail curved south, then skirted the top of an earthen berm on the western edge of a pond. The water was stagnant and covered in places with algae.
Years ago, a real estate developer built the dike to form a pond to collect runoff from homes, planned condos, and some businesses to the north and east. The developer, however, never completed the project, but water from the pond flows under the berm to the salt marsh, which is damaged by polluted water. Singewald said the Warren Land Conservation Trust is planning corrective action and is seeking funding to address the issue.
After investigating the pond and the runoff issue, we resumed the red marked trail and returned to where we started.
In all, we walked about 2.5 miles in 90 minutes.
Haile Farm Preserve is the largest property managed by the land trust and attracts students, botanists, bird watchers, historians, walkers and others.
Singewald, a former steward of the reserve, said more work still needs to be done at Haile Farm, including reducing invasive species, building more plank bridges and solving pond runoff. He hopes the improvements will attract more people to enjoy the view and learn more about the history.
John Kostrzewa, former deputy/corporate editor of the Providence Journal, greets emails at email@example.com.