Turning onto Matunuck Beach Road, it’s difficult to discern whether you’ve hit a farm town or a beach town, a summer hot spot or a local dive. All before getting your first glimpse of the ocean, you pass a row of stone-lined corn fields, an elementary school, a market, an ice cream shop, and a trailer park. Turning past a tiny stretch of two bars and finally, the surfer’s beach, you realize you’ve stumbled upon a microcosm of all these things.
Matunuck is one of South Kingstown’s 11 villages. While the exact boundaries are undefined (and light-heartedly contested), it's safe to place it by its beaches, stretching from East Matunuck State Beach to the east, and Moonstone Beach to the west. Originally a summer encampment of the Narragansett tribe, the village’s original Native American name, Mattoonuc, means “lookout,” likely referring to the hilly stretch of land now known as “Matunuck Hills,” from where you could once see for miles to the ocean. For a period prior to 1861, the village was referred to as “The Backside,” a name locals contested and eventually reverted back. Like much of New England, the unique landscape was formed 18,000 years ago by the glacial retreat, leaving behind fertile land, freshwater ponds, and an abundance of wildlife. There’s little question why the Native Americans would have chosen this stretch of earth to fish, hunt, and set up camp.
In 1657, Matunuck was sold to colonists as part of the Pettaquamscutt Purchase and used as colonial plantations until the revolution. At the start of the 18th century, the local families with surnames many of us are familiar with today began to arrive, including the Weedens, Brownings, Carpenters, Congdons, and Whaleys. William B. Weeden (my fourth great-grandfather) writes of this time, “The whole social life was changed after the revolution when slavery diminished and the West Indian exports were less. Planting and slavery were replaced by small farming and economy and living.” The ocean and Matunuck’s four coastal salt ponds continued to be a resource for the newcomers. Seaweed was harvested to fertilize crops, marsh grass was used to feed livestock, and small fish pushed to shore in winter, too cold to swim, were collected for nourishment.
In 1837 the Kingston Station arrived, bringing in a new wave of summer vacationers, painters, writers, and artists of all kinds who enjoyed the relaxed ease of Matunuck, a refresh from the typical summer in Newport or the North Shore of Massachusetts. Most famously, in 1873 William B. Weeden built a summer home for his close friend, Rev. Dr. Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister, historian, and author, best known for his short story “The Man Without a Country''. The home became a buttress for the Matunuck summer art colony of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of several properties preserved by the South Kingstown Land Trust, tours of Hale House are available by appointment and the property hosts various cultural events.
With the arrival of the Hales, the art scene began to explode as a whole new crowd of writers and artists took an interest in Matunuck. By the turn of the century, summer guests would have the option of staying at one of Matunuck’s many seaside hotels or camping in tents and trailers on land rented by the Carpenter family. In 1933, Alice Jaynes Tyler opened Theatre By The Sea on her vacation property, drawing in a wave of Golden Age actors and patrons from around the world, including Marlon Brando, Groucho Marx, May West, and Charlie Chaplin. Now, the venue is best known for the musical productions that grace its stage throughout summer. By the ‘70s, a quick walk west from the theater would bring this crowd to Moonstone, Matunuck’s very own nude beach.
The ‘80s and ‘90s led to a few historic events, including the banning of nudity at Moonstone in an effort to “protect the Piping Plovers,” Kevin Finnegan’s purchase of Carpenter’s Bar (now the iconic Ocean Mist), and the opening of Dan and Patty Saber’s SeaView Marketplace, the best place in town for a 12-inch sub. But to this day, Matunuck remains what you might call an “everyman’s beach.”
Nature lovers can watch the birds from Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, surfcasters can meet to talk fishing and marine conservation at the Narragansett Salt Water Fishing Club, and beach bums can stop by the Matunuck Surf Shop. Perhaps most amazingly, in the same places summer guests once camped, you’ll find the 377 cottages that make up Roy Carpenter’s Beach, as well as almost 300 cottages and trailers that sit on Mary Carpenter’s Beach meadows, which she oversaw for almost 80 years. The Admiral Dewey Inn, one of Matunuck’s first beach hotels, also remains.
Richard and Kristin Schwab are transplants from Connecticut who now live in the former Matunuck School House, where my father went to school and my grandmother was a lunch lady. Rich and Kris praise the landscape of Matunuck: homes close enough for you to know your neighbors (yet with space enough for gardening), farms still run by the same families that started them, a shore line still accessible for beachcombing.
Rich grew up in a small farm town with just 63 students in his graduating class, Kris in an un-madeover surf town in California. A historic place in need of saving, the school house spoke to both of them. Rich explains, “This community is so forward-looking. They’ve preserved so much land, it’s almost like a mini national park. And it’s not just the land that’s preserved – the 1800s houses are still here too. The names you see on the street signs? Those are the same families that are still here. That is really telling.”
“Matunuck has so much open land and natural beauty, yet we’re still close to bars – The Ocean Mist and The Pub where we go to trivia,” says Kris. “The community association, the inn, the church, Mary Carpenter’s Beach...it’s unlike anywhere else. It’s a magic combination. People always could and still can afford to come here to this day. No one’s trying to impress and everyone feels the same; it’s like a silent agreement to keep things as they are.”
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