The City of Cranston

Search the City Directory

Historic Locations

The Boys Training School at Sockanosset

attached image
attached image
attached image

The establishment of the Howard Reservation, which includes the Boys Training School, was Rhode Island's first attempt to provide statewide social services through publicly supported and administered institutions. As such, the Howard Reservation represents both a significant change in the role of the state as well as a major alteration in the treatment of the poor, the mentally ill, and the criminal.

The story of the Boys Training School is actually part of the social history of the entire United States, not just of Cranston or Rhode Island. For the first 150 years of American history, poverty, crime, and insanity were regarded as natural elements of human society. In Rhode Island communities, as in other colonial towns, vagrants and others who did not belong were "warned out" and summarily driven from the town line. But those who did belong were accommodated either by public humiliation or imprisonment--in the case of culprits--or charity, in the case of the impoverished or diseased.

After the American Revolution a new philosophy evolved: It held that deviance and poverty were not inevitable but simply the result of a poor environment. The solution was believed to be the isolation of the poor, the mentally ill, and the criminal in an environment that eliminated the tensions and chaos that produced deviant behavior.

In 1866, a state Board of Charities and Corrections was established for the purpose of consolidating into one "state farm" a house of correction, a state asylum for the incurably insane, and a state almshouse. The two-fold goal was to raise standards for the indigent while at the same time lifting this burden from the local towns and cities.

To this end, two adjacent Cranston farms were acquired: the old Stukeley Westcott farm belonging to Thomas Brayton and the William A. Howard farm further west. The plans for a state farm thus reflect Rhode Island's adoption of some of the then-current thinking affecting social services. The selection of a pastoral site far from the city reflects the prevailing belief that many of the nineteenth-century's social ills derived from the chaos of urban, industrial environments.

Institutionalization would create a better, more organized environment where the behavior of inmates could be controlled and where, away from the temptations of society at-large, they would develop new habits of industry to prepare themselves for honest and productive lives.

And so the buildings and associated activities at the Sockanosset School for Boys reflect a commitment to the doctrine that idleness and lawlessness are closely intertwined. The various industrial shops would replace the idle hands of the "devil's workshop." (The original industrial arts shops were contained in the old administration building. The present industrial building was constructed between 1912 and 1914.)

There was a machine shop, a carpenter shop, a printing shop, a mason shop and a blacksmith shop where the boys learned useful trades. The boys also helped construct their own environment, so the elements that compose the structures themselves reflect the philosophy that created and guided the school throughout its history. The bricks, stone and mortar, as well as the woodwork, bear silent testimony to the benefits of honest labor.

The boys were also directly involved in the production, preparation and serving of their own food. These young tough guys even learned to sew!

The cottages that housed the boys were designed to give them a sense of ordered and structured home life; they were both institutional and domestic at the same time. These handsome cottages, which surround a circular driveway, were built between 1881 and 1895 and combine solid rubblestone walls, brownstone quoins, and arched windows with Stick style porches.

Wholesome recreational activities were provided by the gymnasium (the current gym was built in 1898.) The chapel and its infirmary addition administered the necessary spiritual and physical healing needed by the wayward youth. The current chapel (now minus the infirmary wing, which was destroyed by fire in the 1970s) was built in 1891 of stone, with a shingled porch. Designed by Stone, Carpenter and Wilson, it is one of the most handsome buildings at the Howard Complex.

The Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission report on Cranston states, "Although in disrepair, the buildings at Sockanosset, beautifully sited on spacious grounds behind a stone wall, are among the finest nineteenth-century institutional buildings in the state."

^ back to top