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Gerald Carbone: The Beauty In Rhode Island’s Farm Families

Saturday, October 12, 2013

 

Some people linger before the pumpkins, eyeing them, hefting them, trying to find that perfect one. I am not one of those people. They all look good to me, so I pluck one of the first that I spy off a shelf at Morris Farm in Warwick and bring it to the scale. My pumpkin weighs in at 17.35 pounds and costs $10.26, a price I’m happy to pay for this plump orange moon.

I seek out the farm’s owner to ask him about this place that I’ve been coming to for my pumpkins and Christmas trees for almost a decade. He knows my name, has remembered it from that first, snowy day that he carried a Christmas tree into my home.

“How you doing Mister Carbone?” he asks.

“Good,” I say, and I mean it, for I find it pleasant to be standing among his tiers of pumpkins and tablefuls of mums that glow yellow and violet against the gloom of a clouding day.

“Is your last name Morris?” I ask him. It’s a fair question; he knows mine, and it’s not as dumb as it sounds. You can’t assume that the man who owns a farm established 98 years ago bears the same name as his old farm.

“Yuh,” he says. “John Morris the III.”

“And the man who started it,” I say.

“Was my grandfather, John P. Morris. He emigrated from Portugal, San Miguel.”

Joao Mauricio came to this country in the early 1900s. The Boston customs agent heard Joao as “John” and Mauricio as “Morris.” Somehow this woodcutter and fisherman from the Azores managed to save $5,000 and in 1915 he bought 50 acres where Warwick Avenue runs into West Shore Road.

For decades he ran a small dairy farm of 30 head, making enough to raise two sons and a daughter. In the Depression he carried customers who could not pay, figuring it was better to feed hungry people than to throw out good milk. When prosperity returned, everyone paid him back.

His sons, John and Manuel, married the Mello sisters from Taunton, and stayed on the farm. One day in 1952 he announced, “Boys, we’re going into vegetables.”

Morris Farm supplied sweet corn for the clam boils at Rocky Point’s Shore Dinner Hall. Diners liked the corn, so he set out a roadside table for self-service. People mobbed the table so he moved it back from the road and built a farm stand around it.

The John Morris who is telling me this story points at the original, rough wooden table still standing behind the counter. He walked away from that counter in 1967, after earning a degree in biology from URI. He wanted to be a doctor, but wound up managing a terminal for a national trucking company.

In 1978 his father said, “Well, nobody wants the farm so I guess we’ll sell.”

John turned to his wife, Cindy, a school teacher and said: “You want to be a farmer?”

  “I’ve always wanted to be a farmer,” she said.

They’ve been at it 35 years now, raising crops and three kids. The kids did alright – they all graduated from Harvard graduate and/or undergraduate schools; the two girls became medical doctors, the son, John IV, a cancer researcher at Sloan Kettering.

For 95 minutes John III tells me about his farm, the warm April day when his father died at home with the smell of new hay on the air; his current manager, Paul Sullivan, whom many assume is John’s son; about Paul’s mixed-breed dog, Monty, the jaunty Mayor of Morris Farm.

I return to my truck and am almost startled by the 17-pound pumpkin squatting on the passenger seat. That’s the tangible thing for which I came but, as usual, I leave Morris Farm with so much more.

Gerald M. Carbone is the author of Nathanael Greene, and was a journalist for twenty-five years, mostly for the Providence Journal. He holds a Master's in Public Humanities from Brown University and has won two of American journalism's most prestigious prizes--the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.

 

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