Harper's New Monthly Magazine

An excerpt from "Newport: Historical and Social," in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. 9, no. 51 (August 1854): 314-315

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We speak of the old days of Newport, and of its vanished glories.  But there remains one monument which interests the poet, the antiquarian, the traveler, the controversialist, the divine; of which sweet songs have been sung, wild theories spun, and happy hoaxes invented,  It is the "stem round tower of other days," the Newport ruin, the old mill.  It stands upon a lot between Mill and Pelham streets, opposite the front of the Atlantic House.  It tells no story itself, but it is suggestive of romantic legend, although there can be little doubt that it is only an old mill.  A pamphlet published two or three years since in Newport, and understood to be written by Rev. Charles T. Brooks, the accomplished and genial scholar, the graceful poet, and pastor of the church at whose dedication Dr. Channing paid his interesting and beautiful tribute of remembrance to the island, contains the most lucid and comprehensive account of the structure.  The society of Danish Antiquaries at Copenhagen had, upon the reception of some imperfect drawings, hastily decided that it was probably built in the twelfth century by the Northmen who coasted along the New England shore, and called the country Vinland, from the abundance of grapes.  It is upon this romantic hint, and the discovery of "a skeleton in armor" at Fall River, upon the main near Newport, that Longfellow has founded his heroic ballad of the same name. 

 

The Viking escapes with his mistress from her forbidding father and the Norsemen: 

 

"Three weeks we westward bore,  

And, when the storm was o'er,   

Cloud-like we saw the shore,   

Stretching to leeward;   

There, for my lady's bower,  

Built I the lofty tower,   

Which, to this very hour,   

Stands, looking seaward." 

 

The old mill is about seventy-five feet above the high-water level in the harbor, and about a hundred and twenty rods from the shore. The earliest settlers make no mention of it, and this is quite sufficient proof of its erection since that period, as the original settlement of the town was very near the site of the building, and so remark-able an object would not have escaped mention by some of the profuse diarists of the times.  In 1663, Peter Easton, one of the first settlers, says in his Journal, that the first wind-mill was built during that year; and, in 1675, it was blown down by a heavy gale.  This fact would induce its reconstruction in a more solid manner.  In 1653, Benedict Arnold, who was of a different family from that of the traitor, came to Newport from Providence, where he had had difficulties with Roger Williams and with the Indians.  He settled in Newport, and was presently made Governor.  He built a house upon a lot of sixteen acres, just in the rear of the present site of the Rhode Island Union Bank upon Thames Street, the eastern part of which includes the mill. Governor Arnold died in 1678, aged sixty-three years.  His will is dated 20th December, 1677, and speaks of the lot upon which stands "my stone-built wind-mill."  It would be very natural that Arnold, who was not in favor with the Indians, would be quite willing to erect a building which not only should look like a fort, but might actually serve as one, and especially as the wind-mill had just been blown down, he would wish to build securely. 

    

Mr. Joseph Mumford stated, in l834, when he was eighty years old, that his father was born in 1699, and always spoke of the building as a powder-mill, and he himself remembered that in his boyhood, say in 1760, it was used as a hay-mow.  John Langley, another octogenarian, remembered hearing his father say, that when he was a boy, which must have been early in the eighteenth century, he carried corn to the mill to be ground.  Edward Pelham, who married Arnold's granddaughter, in his will, dated in 1740, calls it "an old stone wind-mill." 

 

This is the direct historical testimony.  The evidence from the material, form, and quality of lime, &c., is equally satisfactory.  It was built of stone, because there were no saw-mills then upon the island to make boards, and because the material was ample and accessible.  The shells, sand, and gravel for lime were equally convenient to use.  In the year 1848, some mortar from an old stone-house in Spring Street, built by Henry Bull in 1639, from the tomb of Governor Benedict Arnold, and from various other old buildings, was compared with the mortar of the old mill, and found to be identical in quality and character. The form is that of English mills at the period, with which the builders would be most familiar. In the Penny Magazine for November, 1836, there is a picture of a mill in Warwickshire, designed by Inigo Jones, who died in 1652, of which the form is quite the same.  Old sea-captains and travelers testify to having seen hundreds of similar wind mills all over the north of Europe.

 

Vague romance totters under these direct blows of fact. 

 

"Alas the antiquarian's dream is o'er-  

Thou art an old stone wind-mill, nothing more!" 

 

sings Mr. Brooks in his poem of  "Aquidneck." But the old ruin does not lose its interest.  It is a permanent link with the earliest historical days of the Island. It belongs still to as much romance as the poet can bring to it.  No one has more fully proved it than the author of an admirable antiquarian hoax upon the building, in a series of letters professing to come from "Antiquarian," dating from Brown University, in 1847.  He introduces the Danish theory, supported by reports of fabulous investigations by fictitious characters, which did not fail of provoking caustic correspondence, and finally achieving its triumph by eliciting a solemn denial, from Professor Rafn, of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries at Copenhagen, of the existence of such characters as Bishop Oelrischer, Professors Scrobein, Graetz, &c.  Its true history, also, has been hinted in song by the laureate of Old Grimes, a Rhode Island poet, scholar, and gentleman [Albert G. Greene, of  Providence], whose musical verses sum up the whole matter.  It is the Song of the Wind-mill Spirits

 

"How gayly that morning we danced on the hill,   

When we saw the old Pilgrims were building a mill.   

Its framework all fell ere a century waned,   

And only the shaft and the millstones remained.   

It was built all of wood,   

And bravely had stood,   

Sound-hearted and merry, as long as it could;  

And the hardy old men   

Determined that then   

Of firm, solid stone they would build it again,  

With a causeway and draw,   

Because they foresaw   

It would make a good fort in some hard Indian war."