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Portsmouth Places: Portsmouth Free Public Library

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In many ways the Portsmouth Free Public Library is the heart of the town. It provides the traditional library services but also provides meeting space, special programing and computer access. Many Portsmouth residents would be surprised to know that the library is not a function of town government. It originated and still functions under the Portsmouth Free Public Library Association.

It all began with the Thursday Evening Club that started through St. Paul’s Church. The group would meet to discuss literary and cultural matters. They soon outgrew holding meetings at members’ homes. In 1897 there was a public meeting attended by 55 people. Rev. Pearce of St. Paul’s proposed the establishment of a public library called the Portsmouth Free Public Library Association. The idea was quickly adopted and within a week they were applying for a charter. Petitioners for the charter were Rev. Sturgis Pearce, Edward F. Dyer, John L. Borden, Edward Ayler and Leroy Tallman. The charter stated the objective of the association: “For the purpose of the free distribution of books and other literary purposes in accordance with Law.” The Charter petition came only eight days after the organizational meeting. The petition was dated March 26, 1897.

The building site committee was extremely gratified when John L. Borden, donated a parcel of land at the corner of Freeborn Street and East Main Road for the Library building. The Library was built at cost of $2,363. It was designed by Russell Warren who also designed the St. Paul’s Church, the Arcade in Providence, and the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport. The initial collection of books came from donations and the library was only open on Wednesday evenings and Saturdays.

Through the years donors financed additions to the little building and to its collections. Artist Sarah Eddy contributed a West addition to house an Art Room in the 1920s. August Miller set up a family fund to buy children’s books in honor of his wife and daughter who had drowned. Edith Taylor Nicholson of Glen Farm donated generously and the North Wing is dedicated in her honor.

Through the years the Portsmouth Free Public Library Association has owned and operated the library to the benefit of Portsmouth residents. Trustees and officers have been active in the running of the library. Longtime board member Ernest Denomme put together a history of the library for the opening of a new wing in 1975. Mr. Denomme humorously relates stories of the work of board members. One chairman read every fiction book that came into the library and marked those she approved of with her stamp. Author and playwright Lillian Hellman came to town. She remarked that none of her works were in the library. The board chairman responded that if Miss Hellman would donate her books, she would read them and only put on the shelves those books she considered patriotic. Mr. Denomme recounted that once people joined the board they continued on until their eighties. Some would fall asleep during meetings and others were assigned “assistants” so the work would get done despite the confusion of the board members.

For over a hundred and twenty years the Portsmouth Free Public Library has been the cultural center of our town. The original association founders would be proud. All Portsmouth residents are welcome to join the association if they are eighteen and pay their dues. You can be part of an association that has made a difference in the life of Portsmouth.

A Tale of Two Springs: Founder’s Brook and the First Settlement Spring

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Founder’s Brook is an excellent place to celebrate the original founders of our town. The large puddingstone rock holds a bronze plaque with the text of the Portsmouth Charter and the names of the signers. The babbling brook in a peaceful setting lets us think of the primitive camp of the original settlers. No doubt this area is important to Portsmouth’s history, but it probably wasn’t the first settlement.

In the 1930s Historian Edward West pieced together early maps of Portsmouth through the land grants. We are indebted to him for visually laying out who had which piece of land and where it was. In an article called “The Lands Of Portsmouth”, West states:

“As we all know, the first settlement was at the Spring.
It has always been my supposition that the reason for
settling here, aside from the fresh water, was that the land
was more easily cleared, although I have found record of
a wood-lot. As more people came to the Island, and it was
found that land in other parts was better for agriculture,
this section was gradually acquired by several men.”

The “spring” mentioned was the one he labeled with an x – near Common Fence. I have it labeled with a red arrow. The Blue arrow he labeled “The Spring or Founder’s Brook.” Both areas are of importance. When West was writing in the 1930s, that brook by Common Fence was dried up, but he could still tell where it had been.

West goes on to write.

“The Town of Portsmouth was started soon after the first
settlement in fact, part of the first settlement was included
in the town. … As finally laid out, the town extended as far south as Sprague Street and from the east shore to the west road. In the center of the land between the East Road and the West Road is a brook which runs into the Town Pond.” *1

This brook area is labeled Founder’s Brook on his map. Part of this area is what we have set aside as “Founder’s Brook” today. This piece of land was not given to any one individual. It was a “watering area” and place to wash sheep. West writes that after part of the settlers moved to found Newport in 1639, the “town was built along the second spring which is now called Founder’s Brook.” *2

West is clear that there were two springs. The spring of the very first settlement was close to the Common Fence and is now dried up. The second spring was by what we call Founder’s Brook. It was a hub of activity for the town. The new house lots were laid out around the brook and there was a “highway” along the brook. The Brook was used for water for the families that lived by it. To the east of it was a level tract of 4 acres that was used as a “Training Place” for militia drills. Nearby where the Brook enters the Town Pond William Baulston had his public house, an important meeting place for the town.

Even though Founder’s Brook may not have been the original settlement location, it was the center of the new town just a year later and it remained a central part of Portsmouth history for many years.

  1. Edward West: The Lands of Portsmouth, RI, and a Glimpse of Its People. Rhode Island Historical Society, July 1932.

2. Edward West: New Interpretations of the Records of the Island of Rhode Island. (collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society).


Portsmouth People: Samuel Cory (1758-1841) on Barton’s Raid

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As Col. Barton prepared for his daring raid to capture General Prescott, he selected four men from Aquidneck Island to be among his forty raiders. John Hunt, James Weaver and Samuel Cory were three of the men and they all had Portsmouth connections. They were acquainted with the area around the Overing House where Prescott often visited. They served as guides once the whaleboats landed on the shore. They led Barton’s men along the banks of Redwood Creek up to the Overing House.

Vintage Image of Overing-Prescott House from collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society

What roles Hunt, Weaver and Cory played once the raid began on July 10, 1777 are hard to follow. John Hunt’s pension application claimed he had captured the sentry at the front door and was the first to enter Prescott’s room, but other men claimed the same honor. A “Biography of Revolutionary Heroes” written by Mrs. Williams records a story told to her by Samuel Cory.

“The prisoner made great complaint of having no shoes; his feet were much scratched and swollen, and Colonel Barton procured a pair of one of the officers at Warwick, for him; and told Samuel to take them up to him and put them on. Sam took the shoes, and Prescott protested he could not wear them, his feet were so swelled, and they would not fit and &c (etc.). But Sam very deliberately sat himself down, and went about putting them on, saying, his orders were to put them on the General Prescott, not to see whether they fitted, and that he must obey orders. It was in vain the captive General remonstrated, and writhed about with most hideous contortions of countenance, Sam kept at work with the gravest face, although ready to burst with laughter, until he had forced the shoes on. Sam thought the General must have found out, on that occasion, “where the shoe pinched.””

The capture of Prescott was a minor victory, but it did give the Americans a boost in moral. Aquidneck Island was still in British hands and the Americans had a long fight ahead of them. Samuel Cory went on to fight in the Battle of Rhode Island in August of 1778. Again from Mrs. William’s article:

“He was in Sullivan’s expedition, and fought bravely on Lawton’s Hill, where he was the last one to retreat and being pursued by a party of Hessians, faced about and fired his ramrod at them, not having time to load. He then fled and gained his company. Several times he fought in a platoon where he was almost the only one that escaped. He afterwards fought in the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth and with the Rhode Island regiment. He was afterwards engaged in privateering, and with James Weaver, engaged in several skirmishes in the ‘General Arnold.’ a sloop that in the early part of the contest was very successful, but which like its great namesake, was finally caught by the British.”

Weaver and Cory swam to the Connecticut shore where they begged their way home to Rhode Island. That is a great story but as I fact checked it seemed that the “General Arnold” (which was a privateer), went down in December of 1778 in a storm by Plymouth Harbor. What can we believe?

Family stories and the recollections of old soldiers may be true, but it is hard to confirm them. In any event, we honor the 40 men who bravely took part in William Barton’s capture of General Prescott. We especially remember Portsmouth men John Hunt, James Weaver and Samuel Cory.

Read more:

Reference: Mrs. Williams: Biography of Revolutionary Heroes: containing the life of Brigadier Gen. William Barton and also of Captain Stephen Olney. Providence, 1839.

I recommend Kidnapping the Enemy by Christian McBurney – 2014.. He has done a very detailed study of the Barton raid.

Portsmouth Places : Overing (Prescott) House and Barton’s Raid

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This house is known not for the importance of its owners, but for a daring deed in the Revolutionary War. It was probably built by Jonathan Nichols before 1750. In 1770, the property was sold to Henry John Overing. Overing was a “sugar baker” who refined raw sugar into loaves. Overing was loyal to England and when the British invaded Aquidneck Island in 1776, Overing’s farm was frequently visited by General Richard Prescott.

Capture of General Prescott
In July 1777, while Aquidneck Island was under the control of thousands of British soldiers, American Major William Barton (who was in Tiverton) received word through a runaway slave that the British Commander in Chief, General Prescott was staying at Mr. Overing’s house on West Main Road close to the Portsmouth/Middletown border. When Prescott was at his headquarters in Newport he was well protected. Visiting friends in the countryside, Prescott was less well defended. Barton planned to get Prescott so he could be exchanged for American Major General Charles Lee who had been captured in New Jersey.

Barton asked for volunteers for a dangerous and secret plan. Out of the many who stepped forward he picked out the best rowers and four who had lived on Aquidneck Island and could serve as guides. Barton had five whaleboats and each boat had eight soldiers and one officer. The river crossing between Tiverton and Portsmouth was closely watched, so Barton and his men rowed to Bristol and then all the way over to Warwick to begin their secret mission. The mission was so secret that even the volunteers did not know where they were going until after their journey had begun.

The night of July 10th was perfect – it was very dark and the weather was good. Barton and his volunteers left Warwick Neck, rowed across the Bay with oars that were covered in wool to keep them quiet. They had to row around British ships that were stationed on the west side of the island. The Americans landed on the west shore of Portsmouth and followed a gully up to the Overing Farm on the Portmouth/Middletown border. Barton divided his troops and they approached the house quietly. There was only one sentry on guard at the guardhouse. Hearing noise, the guard asked: “Who comes there.” Barton responded: “Friends.” The guard asked for a countersign and Barton said he did not have one but asked the guard “Have you seen any deserters tonight.” With that the guard allowed Barton to pass and the American grabbed his musket.

They found Prescott in his nightclothes. Barton asked if he was Prescott and he responded. “I am”. Barton said: “You are my prisoner.” and Prescott said “I acknowledge it, sir. The men worked quickly and within seven minutes took Prescott, the sentry and Prescott’s aide-de camp with them. No shot was fired.

They again had to row through British ships on their way back. This capture gave the colonial troops some needed encouragement. There was a prisoner swap in which General Prescott was exchanged for American General Charles Lee, but Prescott made it back to Aquidneck Island.

After the war Overing seems to have sailed for England in 1783 and there were many owners of the house along the way. Bradford Norman picked up the property in 1927 and his daughter, Barbara Norman Cook (aka Kitty Mouse) owned the house until she sold it to the Doris Duke’s Newport Restoration Foundation in 1970. The Overing House itself is a private rental, but you can see the guard house that has been moved from the main house and now is part of the “Prescott Farm” complex.

More details of the raid are in Christian McBurney’s book: Kidnapping the Enemy, 2014.


Hannah Hall Sisson(1860-1946): Bristol Ferry Suffragist

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Placing a name with a face opens up a new dimension as I research our local suffragists. Through the Hall family, I was able to see a picture of Hannah Hall Sisson. She had been part of a database of 40 women I found involved in the Newport County Woman Suffrage League. With her picture in front of me, I began to think of her as a person with her own story. Our culture has portrayed the suffragists as radical and militant. There are other words I would use to describe our Portsmouth suffragists. Caring, community centered and dedicated are the words I would use. Hannah Hall Sisson played a small role in the suffrage movement, but she illustrates what I have found about the women in general.

I search the vintage newspaper databases to gather information about the lives of the women. Hannah was very dedicated to her church, St. Paul’s Episcopal. Many of the local suffragists were part of St. Paul’s women’s groups – Grace Hicks, Emeline Eldredge, Veva Storrs and Abby Sherman among them. Their activities went beyond socials and they supported causes such as raising funds for the Girl’s Friendly Society which was an Episcopalian society that sought to help girls – especially working girls. The women of St. Pauls held fundraisers like whist parties which helped them donate to homes for these young girls. One newspaper clipping in 1927 records that they were donating to “St. Virgin’s Home” in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Like most of the Portsmouth suffragists, Hannah lived in the Bristol Ferry neighborhood. It is very clear that the early roots of the Newport County league were neighborhood meetings at Sarah Eddy’s Social Studio or Cora Mitchel’s home. Hannah had long roots in the Bristol Ferry area and grew up there.

We may focus on winning the right to vote, but the suffragists were concerned about the rights of women in general. Women, especially married women, were just beginning to get rights to their own children. They had to fight for rights to own property on their own or even to keep what they earned. For too long husbands had all the rights. I don’t know Hannah’s story, but from newspaper clippings I know that she had to fight for guardianship of her daughter and she had to sue her husband to gain the income from a property that was willed to her and her daughter. Hannah was tenacious in fighting for her rights. In the suffrage movement she would be fighting for more than just the right to vote.

Leonard Brown’s Farm – 1869 newspaper article sheds light on local farming methods.

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I have been researching Leonard Brown and his farm for almost 20 years. I just found an 1869 newspaper article that really gives me a sense of how Brown raised his animals. The New England Farmer (Boston, Mass) published a little article on local farming and had a section of “Mr. Leonard Brown’s Farm and Stock.” Dated June 5, 1869, this article gives us a glimpse of the methods used by a noted Portsmouth farmer and other farmers in the area. Brown, like the “gentlemen farmers” was competitive and businesslike in his farming.

“Still farther east from Mr. Belmont’s is the farm of Mr. Leonard Brown, which extends to the shore.” (I don’t believe this is true). He is an industrious and intelligent farmer, who has no fear of investing money in his business. He has sixteen good cows, some of which show strongly the Durham blood; being large size and in good order. The number of his oxen varies from time to time –usually three or four pairs.

The neighbors say ‘Leonard Brown don’t care what price he pays for cattle, if he takes a fancy to them, but we haven’t money to through away.’

He says ‘I buy good cattle and make more money on a pair that has been fed some, than on a poor pair.’

His cattle are tied in a stable, as is the almost universal custom here, by the horns with a rope, with about three feet slack. They stand upon earth and not upon plank, and sand is used for bedding. The cattle eat from the barn floor, on both sides –the oxen one side and the cows the other, with stable doors wide enough to back in a cart to remove manure or to leave the bedding.

The clear beach sand used by the farmers is sometimes drawn three miles. (from Sandy Point beach, maybe). On the middle beach I saw at one time thirteen teams after sand and gravel. This shows the enterprise of the farmers in increasing their manure pile, and is a strong reminder that I and my Vermont neighbors would do well to work our deposits of muck for the same purpose.

Mr. Brown has a flock of forty breeding ewes, South Downs, from Thomas B. Buffum’s stock. I find sheep of this blood on many farms from one end of the island to the other, and learn that they give universal satisfaction. He sold his lambs last summer for six dollars each, and many of his ewes bear twins. He has tried the cross of Cotwold buck upon some of the ewes and half blood lambs seem to dress heavier than the full bloods.

The buildings, walls and lots do credit to their owner.”

This correspondent – Z. E. Jameson of Vermont, includes insights into a number of Aquidneck Island farms. His closing paragraph is a sad commentary and foreshadowing of what would happen to the Leonard Brown Farm.

“I have thus briefly referred to a few items in Rhode Island farming. A farmer from any section of the country would find pleasure and profit in observing the management of these farmers, whose success has given them the confidence, self-esteem, and business habits that usually accompany prosperity. But here, as elsewhere in New England, one cannot but notice and regret the absence of the sons of farmers. They have gone to trades or traffic, and left the old men to depend on hired help.”

When Leonard Brown died of heart failure in the 1890s, his children would sell the family farm and move on.

Actors Cindy and Jim Killavey portray Leonard and Sarah Brown.

Portsmouth Places: Anthony House – Anthony School

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Have you ever wondered how Anthony House (a senior living apartment building at 51 Middle Road) got its name? If you are a long term resident of Portsmouth you might remember that it was once the Henry F. Anthony School. Some of those living at Anthony House may just have been students at Anthony School.

Who was “Henry F. Anthony” and why was a school named for him? Henry Franklin Anthony was Chairman of the Portsmouth School Committee for over 46 years. He was the son of Asa Burrington Anthony and was born and grew up at the Anthony Homestead on West Main Road (AKA Willow Brook and now Connors Funeral Home.) He was the station agent for the railroad for 55 years.

For years Portsmouth had a series of one and two room schools. Anne Hutchinson School on Bristol Ferry Road was built in the 1920s as one of the first “modern” school buildings. By 1937 Portsmouth students needed a modern building for the upper grades. The ten room Anthony School was constructed in 1937 but it opened in February of 1938. WPA (Works Progress Administration) workers graded the grounds and newspaper accounts said students would be making some things that were needed.

The original teachers came from other schools in the district.

Miss Mary Shea – 8th grade and principal
Miss Catherine Moran – 8th grade
Edna Griffin – 7th grade
Mr. Fanning – 7th grade
Francis Carroll – 7th grade
Miss Speigle – 6th grade
Miss Simmons – 5th and 6th grade
Miss Marion Gray – 6th grade

By 1973 Anthony School was closed. Portsmouth Middle School opened in 1971 to educate the students in grades 5 to 8. The elementary students who were at Anthony School were transferred to the new Elmhurst School in 1973.

By 1980 the Portsmouth School Department sold the building to HFA Associates. In 1982, Anthony House opened with 71 apartment units for independent living. Seventeen of those apartments are in the old Anthony School Building. It is still a useful building.

Portsmouth’s First 4th of July Celebration

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Newport Mercury, July 6, 1822

Portsmouth’s first 4th of July celebration was held in the Union Meeting House – where the Portsmouth Historical Society has its headquarters now. A procession (a parade in our day), patriotic oration (speech) and reading of the Declaration of Independence was the program of the event. I wonder if they read from the town’s copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Museum Notes: Julia Ward Howe Collection

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Julia Ward Howe was a summer resident of Portsmouth for over fifty years. One of her homes was on West Main Road close to Lawton’s Valley. Her last home was up Union Street close to Jepson Lane. Julia and her family moved into what they called “Oak Glen” in 1870 and Julia died there in 1910. Julia’s daughter, Maud Howe Elliott, stayed at Oak Glen throughout her mother’s last years and then resided at Oak Glen with her husband,, artist John Elliott. When Maud and her husband moved to Newport, Charles (aka Rathbone) Ballou bought the house. Rathbone Ballou was the son of suffragist Mary Ballou and he hosted meetings of the League of Women Voters at the House. It was Rathbone Ballou in 1950 who donated many of the items in the Julia Ward Howe Collection. Much of what we know about the items comes from the Society’s Records book that lists donations, donors and notes. Most of these items had been at Oak Glen during Julia’s time and then left behind when her daughter sold the home.

Two steel engravings by Landseer – War and Peace, hung in the front hall of Oak Glen. The artist’s name was misspelled in the records book. Julia met the artist at a dinner party in England around 1842. She was seated next to the artist but had not caught his name when they were introduced. In her book Reminiscences she recalls asking him if he knew anything about pictures? “He smiled and answered, ‘Well, yes.’ I then begged him to explain to me some of those which hung upon the walls, which he did with much good nature. Presently some one at the table addressed him as ‘Mr. Landseer,” and I became aware that I was sitting next to the celebrated painter of animals.” Page 99

Julia is famous for writing the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, but she was also a prominent literary figure. She wrote plays, poetry, memoirs, speeches and sermons. Her desk is a prize item in our collection. She liked to write standing up and her friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow suggested adjusting a desk high to be the correct height. After her death, the desk at Oak Glen was cut down again for use by another.

Julia was part of a notable literary circle and many of these writers would have visited Oak Glen. Among these were Bret Harte, Edwin Booth, Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Emma Lazarus, John LaFarge, Mark Twain, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

As an older woman, Julia is often photographed with a cap. In our collection is one of these caps that our record book says was donated by a great grandson of Julia – John Richard Gardner. Also in our collection is a white shawl that Julia used.

There are a few other items and photos listed on the original donation record and we will be locating those and putting them together with our other items from Julia’s home.

Town Hall Exhibits: Railroad Bridge Gear

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One of the unique items in our Old Town Hall exhibits is a gear that served to swing the draw bridge of the Sakonnet River Railroad Bridge. The gear was in service from 1899 when a new bridge was constructed to 1988 when a barge ran into the bridge. In 2006 the bridge swing structure was removed and the Portsmouth Historical Society was gifted with the gear.

The 1899 railroad bridge was built by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. The railway bridge served a number of railroad lines, including the Providence and Worcester Railroad and the Old Colony Railroad. The original bridge was built for the Newport and Fall River Railroad and was constructed by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1864. From 1889 to 1899 the New York and New Haven railroad was in a controversy with the Secretary of War. The bridge was considered a block to navigation of the Sakonnet River and the War Department wanted a 100 foot draw span to facilitate movement of boats through a particularly treacherous current area. As the new bridge was being built, the old bridge still served for transportation to the island. The bridge was considered such an important link between Aquidneck Island and the mainland that the Newport Artillery Company had the duty of guarding it during World War I.

The bridge served to bring supplies to Aquidneck Island even until the 1970s. Weyerhaeser, the Naval Base and Naval Supply Center argued that they needed the bridge for hundreds of carloads of supplies. The railway found the route unprofitable and they petitioned to stop the line. The bridge itself became irreparable when a barge hit it in 1988.

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