Why Local History is Important

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Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time researching local history. I enjoy doing the research, but does it really matter? Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? I am going to share some of my personal struggles with these questions.

Does local history matter? When I was a college history major there was a new wave of interest. Historians had been placing a great deal of emphasis on political and economic history. Wars, explorations, nation building, etc. had been the dominating topics for historians. In the 1960s there began to be more interest in social history, how people actually lived. This is what interested me. What was daily life like in families, in the workplace, in the schools, in local organizations? These are the topics that a local historian and local history museum can share with our town.

Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? Some people may see the collection of the historical society as “grandma’s attic.” I see it as a touch stone to the past. As a historian I value “primary sources” – the photos, documents, diaries, maps and objects that were created at a past time. A local history collection is meant to visually illustrate the past. What did people wear? What tools did they use? How did they cook? The objects lead us to a story and those stories from the past help us to understand our common heritage as people of Portsmouth. Our horse drawn hearse, for example, led us to stories about the town coroner and his role in town. As we tried to understand its ornamentation, it lead us to research how people mourned in the past. As people we have so much in common with those our ancestors. We struggle with the same core human issues. These stories can actually unite us in a time when there is much that divides us.

So why am I struggling with these questions? I always wonder about how I spend my time so that will be a continuing question for me. I struggle with the questions about the historical museum because I hear too many voices who don’t value what a small town history collection can provide for a town. Perhaps I am too old fashioned – just like the history collection that inspires me as a local historian.

Cordelia Holman Lawrence’s Sketchbook: Portsmouth Art 1865


Items in the Portsmouth Historical Society collection lead us to uncover stories about our past. A few years ago Portsmouth Historical Society curator, Nancy Crawford, discovered a sketchbook while we were doing an inventory. The members of the curator’s committee enjoyed the brightly colored sketches and I was asked to scan the images so we might use them in the future. I am researching the arts in Portsmouth for a display next year and I thought of those sketches. Who was the artist? What is her story?

The first page of the sketch book provided the answer of the artist’s identity. In a beautiful handwriting is the name Cordelia Holman Lawrence. It was clear that the Lawrence was written at a different time with a different writing implement. The date was recorded as 1865 with Portsmouth, Rhode Island as the location.

Who was Cordelia? She was the daughter of Thomas Holman and Mary Durfee Sherman. I already knew Thomas’ story. He came to Portsmouth from Cornwall and worked his way to the position of Superintendent of the Coal Mines in Portsmouth. In 1843 he married Mary Sherman who came from old established Portsmouth families. Cordelia, the youngest of their four children, was born in 1852. Her mother died when she was only four.  Cordelia was only 13 when she did her sketchbook drawings.

Thomas Holman wanted to move away from mining and into farming. He first bought farms close to the mines, but by 1860 he resided on his farm which is now known as the “Seameadow”area today. I uncovered Thomas’ story as I researched a murder that took place in the coal mines housing. In June of 1875 Elizabeth Holman Casey was murdered by her husband and Thomas was a witness at the murder trial. As I researched the story I was surprised to find that Thomas Holman was the uncle of Elizabeth Casey. Cordelia would have been the victim’s cousin!

Cordelia married Albert T. Lawrence in 1870. Albert grew up in Portsmouth, but left home to be a sailor on ships to China and the East Indies. In 1869 he gave up his seafaring life and returned home to farm with his father. He was known as a successful farmer who specialized in market gardening and fruit raising.

Cordelia settled into the life as wife and mother. She would have lived on the farm known even today as “Lawrence Farm.” She was active in the Friends Meeting House with the Ladies Mission Society. In the records of the Society of Friends in 1912 you can read this obituary.

“Cordelia Lawrence, a beloved member and elder of Rhode Island Monthly Meeting, died of heart failure at Portsmouth, R.I., December 20, 1912, aged sixty years. She leaves a husband, son and daughter and a host of friends to mourn her loss. Converted in early life, her later years were an exemplification of the “life hid with Christ in God” with a “heart of leisure from itself to sooth and sympathize.”

Cordelia is an excellent example of Portsmouth’s amateur artists who enjoy painting as a hobby. Her work is colorful and lovely.


Portsmouth Artist Bessie T. Cram (1875-1966)

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Bessie Thompson Cram was a Portsmouth summer resident and painter for almost 70 years. Bessie was born in Middleboro, Massachusetts, but her ties to Portsmouth were deep. She was the cousin of Gertrude Macomber Hammond and spent the last 12 years of her life in the home of her cousin on Quaker Hill. Around 1900 she established a studio at a cottage on the Sakonnet shore down from the Macomber home. She called it “Sakonnet Studio – Summer School of Arts and Crafts.”

Bessie’s obituary in the Newport Daily News (July 30,1966) calls her a “Craftsman.” Her artistry went beyond painting and she was adept at many mediums. She was a graduate of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Craft. In the 1920s she became a master craftsman of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts and Dean of its Leather Workers Guild. Bessie was a teacher who shared her skills with Portsmouth students. She taught jewelry design with precious metals and stones, leather tooling and molding and patching of pewter and other metals.

She was a “craftsman” but she never neglected her painting. Her style of work evolved over the years. Between 1912 and 1924 her work became more abstract and more colorful in design. From 1940 to 1959 her painting became even more abstract. Her last project was an impressionistic series with the Sakonnet River as a subject.

Steven Olszewski named his own “Sakonnet Studio” after Bessie and held an exhibit of her work in 1974. He used the weathered walls of Bessie’s cabin when he built his studio on East Main Road. The Sakonnet Times of June 20, 1974 describes this exhibit and was a great source of information on Bessie. A special thank you goes to the Portsmouth Free Public Library for providing that newspaper clipping to me.

I am grateful to Joan Macomber for sending images of her painting. Phone conversations with Joan and Bill Macomber introduced me to Bessie and her work. Bessie’s work deserves to be recognized.

The Women of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League

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Do you want to know more about the women who were part of the Newport County Suffrage League from 1907-1920? I have written a little booklet that is available her in pdf form.

Portsmouth Women Vote is the subject of a talk at the Portsmouth Historical Society at 6:30 PM on October 14th.

Lillian Wheeler Boone (1888-1978): A Suffragist’s Life Story

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Lillian Wheeler Boone was one of the younger members of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League. She lived a long and remarkable life, full of adventure and community service. Through the kindness of her granddaughter, Abigail K. Brown, I was able to hear Lillian’s story in her own words. She shared a tape recorded oral history interview that Lillian had given to a high school student. Lillian was ninety when the recording was made in 1978 and the high school student, Russell Byrd, did a fine job of prompting her memory with good questions. Lillian summed up her life with a few statements – “I’ve done everything” and “I had a wonderful life.”

Lillian was born during the Blizzard of 1888 and the difficulties of her birth would stay with her and her family for many years. Her father was the stationmaster for the railroad at Bristol Ferry and the Wheeler family lived upstairs in the station house. When her mother was in labor the doctor was anxious to leave and get home on the last train out in the storm and the birthing process was rushed. Lillian was born, but her mother almost died and was left paralyzed. Lillian would assume the responsibility for her mother’s care for many years.

Lillian was always surrounded by good friends and those friendships were very important to her. She was active at Rogers High School and graduated in 1905. She maintained many of those high school friendships throughout her life. After graduation Lillian stayed at home tending to her mother, but that didn’t prevent her from being active in the community. In Portsmouth she was an integral part of the Ladies Guild of St. Paul’s Church. Many of the Portsmouth suffragists were also active in that group. Some of those same women were her neighbors at Bristol Ferry and Lillian become part of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League that was organized in her neighborhood.

When Lillian was asked about the Suffrage Movement, she said she served as secretary and would go to meetings and record the events. Newspaper articles show that Lillian served as Treasurer as well. Lillian remembered attending rallies, placing ads in the newspapers and attending card and tea parties to promote the cause. She was part of the organization of the league. She was asked if there were men at the meetings and she said there were and she didn’t remember local men ever heckling the Portsmouth suffragists. She thought her time in the suffrage movement was “interesting” and she remembered Mrs. Belmont and her rallies at Marble House.

When she was able to get someone to help her mother, Lillian set out to get her teaching certification. It wasn’t an easy process. For two and a half years she daily traveled to the Normal School in Providence by train and electric car. With her certification she served as a teacher at the Bristol Ferry School. She rose early to build a fire to warm the students at the little one room school house. She thought that the model of the one room school was ideal because the older students helped the younger ones. She enjoyed her three years at Bristol Ferry School but the pay was meager – only twelve dollars a week for almost 50 hours of work.

In 1918 Cora Mitchel, the founder of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League, was looking for a companion for a trip across the county to California. Lillian was up for the adventure and Cora promised to pay her more than she could make as a teacher. Lillian had great adventures like riding through the area around Zion National Park in a horse and buggy.

In April of 1919 when Cora and Lillian arrived back home, Lillian volunteered for service to veterans coming home from the war. She met her husband, Alexander Boone, through this work. They married in June of 1920 and Lillian became a wife and mother. As women achieved the vote, Lillian became active in Republican politics. Many members of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League channelled their activities into the Republican Party. Lillian actively helped her party as a member of the Republican State Central Committee. When she was on the executive board she helped to pick the candidates. Having a role in the political process was a goal of the suffragists.

Lillian spent her ninety years deeply involved in the community. She started a newspaper, an insurance agency and a real estate agency. She founded women’s clubs with the intention of “beautifying the town” and working on worthwhile projects. She was active in Rhode Island’s tercentenary committee and helped procure part of Founder’s Brook for the town. Lillian loved her Bristol Ferry neighborhood and bought land to preserve it. She generously donated a parcel of land at the end of Bayview Drive to be the Bertha K. Russel Preserve, a tidal marsh protected for nature.

Lillian Wheeler Boone certainly had a life well lived.

Portsmouth Farmer: Manuel Camara (1900-1991) of Glen Farm

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Manuel Camara was a dedicated worker at Glen Farm for over sixty-four years. In a Newport Daily News interview in 1984, Camara said “The Taylors are excellent people to work for, that’s why I’ve stayed here all these years.” While at Glen Farm, Camara worked for two generations of the Taylor family. After Edith Taylor Nicholson’s death in 1959, the farm land began to be sold. Manuel Camara began to work in the glory days of the Gentleman’s Farm and continued on until almost the last days when he was one of three workers.

“It’s funny that I even took the job here. I hated driving my father’s plow horses and that’s what they had me doing here (at Glen Farm). Boy was I happy when they got the tractors in.”

Camara grew up in Tiverton and left his father’s farm to become a farm hand at age 21. When Camara started at Glen Farm there were sheep, cattle, dairy cows, poultry and horses. The “gentleman’s farm” was over 1,000 acres. Manuel worked his way from farm hand to herdsman, and then foreman of the farm.

Like many of the Glen Farm workers, Manuel’s family lived on the farm. At one time they lived at the Leonard Brown House. His daughters, Geraldine Leis and MaryLou Lemieux, have shared their experience of growing up on the farm. Manuel would warn his family to get into the house because they were going to “stampede the cattle.” This was when they had to move them from one field to another. When Manuel became a foreman he spent more time at the barns. Daughter Geraldine, the youngest of his four daughters, would get into trouble by playing in the hayloft and trying to ride the cows.

As Glen Farm diminished in size, Manuel kept active. His day would start at 7 am. As the daily farm chores began he would feed and water the cattle, clean the stalls and clean-up the barnyard. “We bail a lot of hay here.” he mentioned to the reporter. Manuel would also plant and harvest corn. He complained that winter could be slow, “but spring is always around the corner and that means more hard work.” Manuel Camara was never afraid of hard work. Although he ultimately retired, he told the reporter “So I guess I’ll stick around until I can’t work any more.”

Manuel Camara

H.A.C. Taylor and The Glen Barns

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Glen Farm developed when Henry A.C. Taylor, a successful banker and merchant from New York, began to purchase farmland in Portsmouth. Taylor had vacationed in Newport and owned a house there, but he liked the idea of a working farm. The first purchase was 111 acres from Halsey Coon which included two houses, a grist mill, two barns, and two corn cribs.  An 1885 map shows that this piece of land stretched from the Sakonnet to the barn complex.  In 1885 Taylor bought 700 acres around Glen Road and he officially established Glen Farm.   Taylor began to buy and consolidate the smaller farms in the area into a farm that would at one time reach 1500 acres.  

In 1889 he began to breed Guernsey cows and would later breed Percheron horses and Horned Dorset sheep.  He was very serious about scientific breeding and kept detailed records of milk and fat production as well as the number of calves born.

An October 1911 to March 1912 quarterly edition of National Magazine has an article on Rhode Island farming that details Taylor’s efforts with Glen Farm.  Taylor’s intention was “not merely to develop an ideal farm, but also to establish a herd of Guernsey cattle upon the place that should attain and hold pre-eminance in this country.”  Taylor spared nothing in raising the best.  He hand picked the cattle from the Isle of Guernsey.

The article goes on to explain that the arrangement of the barns and stables and their construction were all specifically designed.  The last of the barns built was especially modern.   “There was an inner wall of brick with a six inch air space between it and the outer wall, which supplies proper ventilation and insures a uniform temperature within.”  Even the drinking basins for the animals have water “tempered by the furnaces in the basement which warm the buildings.”

Mr. Barclay, the farm manager, explained that H.A.C. Taylor instructed him “not to study how to make money, but how to spend money in ways that will conduce to the highest development of his pets and pride, the Guernseys of Glen Farm.”  Even with that instruction, Glen Farm was exceedingly profitable.  The stock raised at Glen Farm was very desirable.

H.A.C. Taylor was proud of his animals.  The walls of the manager’s office were lined with hundreds of prize ribbons. When a friend challenged his claim that “Missy of the Glen” had set a record for butterfat production, he brought a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Taylor won the suit but paid more for the lawyers than he won in the judgement.

At least twenty-six families lived and worked on the farm. In its heyday there were up to 100 workers.  They raised all they needed for the families and the animals.

If you are interested in more information on the Glen and Glen Farm, you might visit my other blog: glenhistory.wordpress.com

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.

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