The late Rhode Island artist Maxwell Mays, when asked about the 300 acres he owned here and would bequeath to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, said, “I would like this land to stay open, I would like this land to breathe.”
I stood on Hammitt Hill in the middle of the Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge, the conservation property Mays left to the Audubon when he died in 2009, a scant 609 feet above sea level but a brisk walk up a well-marked, hilly trail. Breathing deeply from the minor exertion, I took in the sights and sounds of this forest of pine and oak, wetlands, stone walls, brooks, a giant open meadow, and Carr Pond.
Anyone can hike the property for free — and rent the Maxwell Mays Cottage, an old stone structure with two bedrooms, a wide, open living room with a large fieldstone fireplace, fully equipped kitchen, and two-level deck. It is comfortably appointed and well lighted, with running water, full toilet and shower, and screened-in porch, all fronting an 11-acre pond with a dock, perfect for swimming, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing.
After my walk I pulled up a lounge chair, cracked open a beer, and reveled in doing nothing. There was precious little else to do with no TV, no Internet, and spotty cellphone reception.
“This is definitely a one-of-a-kind thing for us,” said Lawrence Taft, executive director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “It’s the only one of our properties we do this with. Normally on Audubon property, buildings are used by caretakers, but this is different. We wanted to attract people from in state and out of state, and saw the potential in doing this, making it available to all people.”
The cottage was renovated and painted two summers ago, new appliances installed, and electrical and plumbing systems upgraded before it was offered for rent mid-summer last year. This summer, Taft said, the Audubon hopes to rent it more often.
The house is the centerpiece of the refuge and sits by the pond that is home to river otters and freshwater fish; osprey can occasionally be seen diving into the water and popping up with a meal. Tossing a fishing line from the dock is a great way to spend time. (The day I did, I got nary a nibble.)
The refuge comprises a relatively mature and undisturbed closed-canopy forest and forested wetlands, which Taft said create ideal conditions for migratory forest interior birds. A 10-acre field near the head of the main trail also provides excellent meadow wildlife habitat, he said.
Taft said that even fishers, members of the weasel family that 10 years ago were rarely seen, have been spotted here. Beaver also inhabit the waterways, he said.
Mays, who died at 91, was a celebrated artist, most known for his historical paintings of Rhode Island. He lived in Providence and in another building on the property, using the cottage as a guest house. His art appeared on the cover of Yankee magazine dozens of times, and he did art for Collier’s magazine.
Mays bought the property in 1941. It had been in the Carr family since the early 18th century and its exact history is unknown, Taft said. Mays served in World War II, and his father looked after the land, writing to his son that he had found a cottage on the property that neither knew was there.
“I met Max in 2000. He was talking to people about preserving his land and invited us to talk about it,” Taft said. “Mostly, I listened. He was a very pleasant man who really cared about the land.”
The cottage also served as a gathering spot for members of the Greene Methodist Church, where Mays was a lay pastor. A panoramic photo inside shows Mays chatting with a group of people on the deck. None of the artist’s paintings grace the cottage, however.
“I know he gave a lot away to his friends,” Taft said, adding with a laugh, “I wish we had some.”
The sloped hill leading to the dock and pond is thick with pine needles, the sweeping deck shaded by pines, and a few small, stately white birches on shore bend toward the water. Sit on the deck and you hear the wind before feeling it, a gentle sound swaying trees across the pond before sweeping over the water and you. Sometimes you hear the dull thrum of a truck on Interstate 95 a few miles away, or a jet overhead. But mostly there is the sound of birds or breeze or brook — or nothing at all.
The cottage is spare. The living area with wood-beam ceiling and white stone walls has a pair of couches and a small dining room table, along with cushioned armchair near the large fireplace, the cottage’s sole source of heat. Portable electric radiators are available to cut the nighttime chill.
There are two hiking trails here, about 4 miles total, established with volunteers from the Appalachian Mountain Club. Both are easy ambles cutting through forest, over brooks, past stone walls, and around small meadows in the woods. Both can be done in a couple of hours at a relaxed pace. Off one trail is the Carr family cemetery plot, a grassy stone-walled enclosure, an official state historical cemetery.
The trails are clear and well maintained and not terribly difficult, though in some spots winding up hills. Mercifully, flat boulders atop most climbs offer a quick rest. One part of a trail cuts through a hilly mound of mossy boulders.
The cottage is a good bet for families who prefer a more sedate vacation, disconnected from technology, Taft said, or anyone looking for inspiration.
“One guest tried finishing a novel here he was writing,” he said. “Another guest was a poet and wrote poetry here.”