A town of poor soils and small farms, rocky and, by Rhode Island standards, hilly, Foster contains the state's highest elevation. Jerimoth Hill in northwestern Foster is 812 feet above sea level. The area of the future town was isolated in the colonial period and retained a sense of remoteness, along with other western towns in the state, into the mid-twentieth century. Well into the “Outer Woods” beyond the Seven Mile Boundary measured from Fox Point in Providence, its sparse population early complained of lack of representation and difficulties in conducting town business. Split off as part of Scituate in 1731, it separated from Scituate in 1781.
The four principal turnpikes which cross Scituate west from Providence also cross Foster. Central Pike, officially the Foster and Scituate Central Turnpike, built 1814–c. 1824, was once an important east-west road across central Foster. Located between Danielson and Plainfield pikes, it was a favorite route for Connecticut drivers to get their cattle to Providence markets but had fallen on hard times as early as the 1840s. It was severed at Balcom Road toward the west and some time thereafter by the Scituate Reservoir toward the east. Although it is macadamized now, its bypassed quality preserves some aura of an early turnpike, matched only by sections of New London Pike (see under West Greenwich).
But no village transportation hub, like Greenville in Scituate or Union Village in North Smithfield, developed. No major north-south routes cut across the major turnpikes. Nor did Foster seem to be placed to catch many overnight travelers. Its hamlets were of the smallest sort, except Clayville, a one-time mill village which straddles the Scituate border, and perhaps Hopkins Mills for a few decades before its small mill folded around 1850. Foster's headwater brooks and streams fed rivers large enough for serious manufacturing only outside its boundaries. No railroad touched it except for the very tip of a spur to Clayville. The trolley line from Providence to Danielson, Connecticut, completed in 1902, affected more important change in Foster than any other means of transport before the popular use of the automobile. But condemnation for the Scituate Reservoir severed the “P. & D.” and its brief existence ceased in 1919. The bulk of Foster's population increase and the height of its prosperity before the late twentieth century occurred between 1780 and 1830, after which a long period of decline set in. Those who stayed in Foster turned mostly to livestock as the best living from the poor land, or to sawmill operations. Most farmers got by only with a second occupation.
Building in Foster was minimal after 1830. One result has been the often dilapidated preservation (until well after the mid-twentieth century at least) of ancient farms and outbuildings. No other town in the state has a larger number of rural Greek Revival church buildings. The type survived here through the Victorian period. Although the peak for Greek Revival building is the decade of the 1840s into the 1850s, four of the six examples in Foster date from between 1864 and 1882. Virtually every Foster hamlet has one. Without them, indeed, these tiny hamlets might be invisible to outsiders. Already by the 1890s local writers commented on the delights of a town that “time had passed by.” Not until 1970 did the population of Foster exceed the peak it had previously reached in 1830 as a new breed of country dwellers, followed by out-and-out suburbanites, moved into the lean arcadian void.
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