by Rona Mann

An invitation to explore.

The following article originally appeared in the Westerly Sun, March 3, 2005, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Old pound, Route 102.

Here's the thing. You gotta go there yourself. We can tell you about the place all right, but it's only our take on things… not yours. So if we see beautiful trees, and you're the type who wants to examine the leaves in detail, or we take the road to the left that's filled with dirt and ruts, but you want the paved one to the right with the "pick your own blueberries" sign, well, that's as it should be.

So don't worry about exact directions. We'll give you general directions. We'll get you there. Then it's your turn to put out your hand and let a ghost take it from there. And whichever way you turn will be the right road for you. And if you get lost, well, so what? You'll get there eventually; and in the meantime, think of the adventures you'll have! And this is the perfect place to start your own personal adventure.

This is Exeter… a curious mix of country, unspoiled nature, folklore, and yet with an eye toward progress and development. It's the old cemetery that houses a vampire, and it's the brand new coffee bar on Route 2… the paths and trails of nature in the Arcadia Management Area on Route 165, the skiing at Yawgoo Valley, and the faithfuls downing their eggs at the Middle of Nowhere Diner. It's the swamp Yankees whose families have been there forever and the young, growing families who've moved to the country to find room and don't mind the commute to the city for their livelihood.

More than 6,000 residents live in this curious little piece of geography that once was the homeland of the Narragansett Indians. The township includes the villages of Liberty, Exeter, Fisherville, Tripps Corner, Pine Hill, Black Plain, and Millville, all mere dots on the map, but with characters all their own; tiny neighborhoods within a not-much-larger town.

To reach Exeter, start out by taking Route 95 to Exit 5A, and drive a quarter mile to Route 3. Now turn right, because before you start out on your journey, you need a little something in your stomach. Just up the road on the left is the Middle of Nowhere Diner, so named nearly eleven years ago by owner Neil White. White remarked, "I was only 21 when I opened. I didn't want to call it Neil's Diner. I wanted something different. My family was originally from the city, but I grew up in Richmond… in the country. My neighbors always called this area 'the middle of nowhere,' so it was a natural."

And has the name hurt White? Not at all. "People come here just to say they ate in the middle of nowhere!" he laughed.

The Middle of Nowhere may be just a small diner serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but their parking lot is nearly always full twelve months a year. It's no mystery to White, who tells the visitor that everything is homemade and fresh, everything is cut to order, and portions are "giant." He proudly displays a banner proclaiming his "The best omelette in the State of Rhode Island," according to the readers of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Now that you're completely satiated, you have a choice. Either turn left and drive up to Route 165 for the adventure of the Arcadia Management Area, or turn right and drive to the junction with Route 102.

A word about Arcadia first. This wildlife management area covers 13,817 acres and is the largest of all the management areas in the state. It is actually located in four towns: Exeter, West Greenwich, Hopkinton, and Richmond, and is accessible by trail or gravel road. Motorized vehicles are prohibited, so unless you are an experienced winter hiker, Arcadia should be saved for spring, summer, or autumn. But by all means go! If you're a bird watcher, this is heaven. If you fish or hunt, this is your place. And if you just enjoy the peace and quiet and wonder of seeing many different species in their own habitat, then this is paradise.

If you've chosen to turn right out of the Middle of Nowhere parking lot, drive just a short way to Route 102 and bear right onto 102 South. Now, open your eyes and ears. Approximately one mile down on your right is Wawaloam Elementary School, a special learning community that is home to 300 first and second graders. The unique name comes from an Indian legend about Princess Wawaloam who is buried under the rock and oak tree situated on school property. When the land was deeded to the town it was requested that this rock never be moved.

The wolf is Wawaloam's mascot because the wolf naturally takes good care of its young. Thus the school's children are divided into "dens" and the environment is one of great caring and enrichment.

Proceed farther down Route 102 South and on your left you will see a tiny old church, the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church, just adjacent to Historical Cemetery #22. To the truckers and motorists whizzing by on 102 this might not even be worth a glance, but to you, aficionado of "the road less traveled," this is a stop you'll want to make.

Pull in the driveway and proceed into the cemetery itself. Approximately one-tenth of a mile down on the left are the graves of the Brown family. Again, if you don't know the story, you'd never think of stopping.

STOP! It isn't hard to find the grave of Mercy Brown who passed from this life in 1892. But the story doesn't end there, because there are many in Exeter who say Mercy never died at all. That she was one of the "undead." That she was, in fact, a vampire!

Legend tells us that a number of members of the Brown family succumbed to tuberculosis, including a teenage daughter named Mercy. Two months later her brother contracted the disease. The father, George, now believed that one of his dead family members was returning from the grave as a vampire, causing his son's illness. Contemporary folklore dictated that multiple deaths in one family were quite often connected with activities of the undead.

George therefore persuaded several villagers to help him exhume the bodies of his family. While the others had decomposed significantly over the years, the body of Mercy was intact… a sign that the girl was one of the "undead," and therefore a cause of her brother's illness.

The heart of Mercy Brown was then cut from her body and burned, all of which according to Neil White makes Exeter "the vampire capital of the United States."

It is interesting to note that of all the Brown graves only Mercy's has been decorated by local visitors with flowers, pennies, and most curious of all, an artificial apple.

After paying your respects, turn left onto Route 102 South and drive past the town offices, farms, homes, a highly rated golf course, and eventually you'll meet the junction of Route 2. Turn right here, for this is the southeastern corner of Exeter and vastly different from where you've just explored.

You might wish to stop at Shartner Farms, one of the best farm stands in the state. There you can pick your own fruit, or purchase some maple syrup, flowers, or cider depending upon the time of year.

Just a bit farther up the road is the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery, a beautiful final resting place for Rhode Island veterans of all wars and their dependents, spread out over 265 well-manicured acres. There is a chapel available on the grounds and committals are performed with military honors. Additionally there are monuments dedicated to the glory and memory of past wars, the most recent being the Korean conflict.

After leaving the Veterans Cemetery, turn right and continue on Route 2. Shortly on your left you'll see the signs for Yawgoo Valley. If you think Yawgoo Valley is where you go to ski in Rhode Island, you're right; but there's so much more. Yawgoo is where lovers of the outdoors go to ski, to snowboard, to snow tube, to attend ski school, to play Par 3 Pitch and Putt golf, to enjoy a water park, to partake in the fun of the climbing wall, and to enjoy clambakes, wedding receptions, and parties.

In the winter, you might catch someone ice fishing at Barber Pond on the right side of the road as you head toward Route 138. Turn right when you reach 138 west and head toward Richmond, Wyoming, and Route 95 to take you home.

But aren't you glad you came? That you took those roads less traveled, that you didn't need the security of a map, that you opened your eyes and saw a part of Rhode Island that isn't that far from home, but offers so much if you just put out your hand and let a ghost take it from there? And who knows… on the road to Exeter, it might just be Mercy who grabs your hand and begs to show you around.

Rona Mann is a writer, performer, and raconteur whose second book, I Never Knew the Knife Man's Name, was written as a complement to her one-woman show of the same title. Several of her "Road Less Traveled" columns for the Westerly Sun are collected in the book Ghosts on the Road, "an offbeat look off the beaten path in a special part of Rhode Island and Connecticut." Mann resides in Hopkinton.

This article last edited February 8, 2006

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