Mrs.Durfee’s Tea House AND Miss Durfee’s Tea House

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DurfeeTeaHouse001During the 1800s the Durfee Tea House was famous for its tea-cakes.  But who was “Mrs Durfee” or was she “Miss Durfee?”  Newspaper and magazine articles seem to conflict.  In researching further, I found there were two Durfee women who ran the same Tea House but at different times.

Mrs. Mary G. Durfee

Samuel Clark, who took over the Cundall Mills property in the Glen,  sold the original lot without a house to Mrs. Mary G. Durfee. in 1836. The house must have been built shortly after the sale. Mary Durfee must have originated the tea house because when the property was sold to Ruth Durfee in 1857 it was already known as “Mrs. Durfee’s Tea House.” In the days of Mary Durfee  the Tea House was a cultural center for Portsmouth. Many activities were held there including the original Sunday School for the Union Meetinghouse which was organized by social reformer Dorothea Dix.

When an article mentions “Mrs. Durfee” and the time period is before 1857, we know that it is referring to Mary G. Durfee.  A 1853 book by John Dix, (Handbook of Newport Rhode Island) refers to “Mrs. Durfee’s” fame.

Are you fatigued, reader, with your ramble? if so, near the Glen, and between it and the main road, are the snug quarters of a lady who cheerfully dispenses the cup which cheers but not inebriates to all those who require soothing souchong, or glorious green, or magnificent mixed tea. Capital coffee too, may here be found, and choicest cakes, (we are growing alliterative.) What can be pleasanter after a ramble through that charming glen, than a quiet gossip over the incomparable infusion of the Chinese leaf? The very idea of it inspires us, and so we close the chapter by saying or singing :—a la Mary Wortley Montague:

And then, when our lovely Glen Ramble is past,
And wo rest our tired limbs on a sofa at last,
How delightful to mark on the table outspread
The primrose-hued butter, the delicate bread!
The cakes and the cream, the preserves and the ham,
The eggs, the hung beef, the sliced peaches and jam,
The coffee so fragrant, the fine flavored tea,
And the other good things of good Mrs. Durfee!

Reader, Mrs. Durfee is no fiction of our imagination; she keeps the Tea-House of The Glen!

A Newport Mercury article from Oct. 14, 1893 recounts trips forty years before to the tea house. At that time Mrs. Mary Durfee was the proprietor of the tea house.

“On coming back from the Glen, it is usual to take tea at Mrs. Durfee’s celebrated tea-house close by, an Inn as charming as the Royal Sandrook of the Isle of Wight, and then reach Newport at the twilight hour.  Mrs. Durfee’s griddle cakes were famed over all Rhode Island and the ____ appetites of the young ladies, after the drive and the courting in the Glen, proved their excellence, as well as the fact that women cannot live by romance alone.  The grounds about the Inn were very pretty  and a number of persons boarding there through the summer.  In addition to these regular lodgers, Mrs. Durfee turned many an honest shilling by the delicious teas she furnished to excursion parties.”

Miss Ruth S. Durfee

The second proprietor, Ruth S. Durfee , was known as a well educated woman who in her younger days ran a school in her home.  She is listed in the household of Mary G. Durfee and may have been related to her.  I haven’t tracked down a good genealogy to confirm this.

A 1893 Harper’s Monthly Magazine called Miss Durfee the “Goddess of the Glen.” No trip out to the romanic Glen was complete without stopping at the Durfee house for refreshments. Many of the Newport society greats would host dinners and events at the Durfee Tea House. One guest describes a visit in the 1870 timeframe: “Miss Durfee, very lame but most hospitable, received her guests and soon the famous tea-house cakes were served.”  Ruth’s obituary in the Newport Mercury, Jan 9, 1892, tells us she was “helpless so far as walking was concerned, and, and she was obliged to propel herself about the house in a wheeled chair.”

Map showing tea house location.

The Durfee Teahouse and the its barn have been moved to Glen Road.  The original location is part of Rhode Island Nursery property today.  It was closer to the Glen itself and served as an entry or exit point to a day in the Glen.


And what was the recipe for the tea cakes?

“These were meal cakes, made as thin as a wafer, slightly sweetened with a suspicion of nutmeg flavor. Baked on a griddle that covered the whole top of the stove, they were compounded of a milk mixture consisting of ten eggs to a quart of milk, the finest Rhode Island meal, butter, sugar and spice….After supper, the frolic terminated in a Virginia Reel, in which all, young or old took part, and then the revelers returned home by the light of the moon.” (Newport Historical Society Bulletin, April 1926).


No matter which Durfee Tea House proprietor is mentioned, it is clear that the food was marvelous and the mistress of the tea house was a master of hospitality.  We raise a cheer for Mary G. Durfee the founder of the tea house and a cheer for Ruth S. Durfeee, the “Goddess of the Glen.”






Joseph Cundall: Lost in a Snowstorm


Many vintage guides to Aquidneck Island call the Glen “Cundall’s Mills.”  The old history books tell the sad sorry of Joseph Cundall who was “engaged in the woolen manufacture, in the pursuit and improvement, of which he was uncommonly skillful, ingenious and enterprising” (Newport Mercury, December 1811).  This is the story of the Cundall family in Portsmouth and of the tragic ending to a life well spent.

Cundall Family Mills

The Glen had been associated with mills since colonial times.  The Cundall family had strong roots in the area.  The stream through the Glen was originally settled by Thomas Cook and his family.  As the Cooks moved on to Tiverton, this land was bought by James Sisson who sold his grist mill and 46 acres around the brook to a Joseph Cundall.  In 1706 Joseph Cundall had left his native Yorkshire, England to become an indentured servant in America. Becoming an indentured servant was a way for a young person to learn a trade and get an education in exchange for working for seven years or more. Cundall seems to have learned his trade well and was in a good position to buy land as an adult. Water from the stream powered the carding and fulling mills to wash and pull woolen fibers. Joseph Cundall added almost a hundred more acres to his land around the Glen before he died in 1760.

As we walk through the Glen today, it is hard for us to picture it as a busy mill and cloth manufacturing site.  There was a mill pond and a stream of water which would propel a small carding and fulling mill.  You can still see the remnants of the mill run with its stonework lining the mill stream.  The millstream ends at the Sakonnet River.  At one time there were wide paths along the mill run.  Walking through this area today, you can imagine that it is still much like the landscape the Cundall family knew so well.  This mill stream area, however, was the scene of  Joseph Cundall’s grandson’s death.

The Christmas Eve Tragedy

Although family genealogies are hard to follow, Joseph Cundall (the third Joseph in the line from our original miller) was born in 1763.  He was described as a “highly useful and industrious citizen” by the  Newport Mercury at the time of his death. His character was described as upright, amiable and benevolent.   In listing his death, the Rhode Island, Vital Extracts notes that he was repeatedly a Representative in the General Assembly and was a Justice in Court of Common Pleas for Newport County, besides filling other offices of trust.  At forty-nine years of age, Joseph Cundall Esquire was a respected man in business and the community.

How did he die so tragically?  On Christmas Eve, 1811 there was a sudden and violent snow storm.  It was described by newspapers at the time to be the most severe storm the area had seen in many years.   Joseph went along the mill run to secure some wood that had been delivered on the Sakonnet River shoreline.  He did not want the wood to go out with the tide.  Shepherd Tom Hazard, who lived nearby on Wapping Road, reported that hundreds of sheep, many cattle and several human beings died in the storm.  Hazard writes “Among the latter was

Joseph Cundall’s tombstone

Joseph Cundall of Portsmouth, who became so exhausted and bewildered while but a few rods from his house in what is now called “the Glen,” that he gave up striving, and sat down in a deep gorge a short distance south of the mill, where his corpse was subsequently found under a snow-bank (From Recollections of Olden Times).  Cundall’s body was not found for a week and there had been hope that he could survive.  Cundall was laid to rest in the Slocum graveyard, just a few yards from where his mill would have been.

The Christmas Eve tragedy marked an end to Cundall’s Mills.  The land and mills had been purchased by the firm of Clarke (Judge Samuel) and Grinnell and they carried on the wool manufacturing business.  When the land and mills were sold in 1823 the Newport Mercury lists that they operated a grist mill, a clothier’s works with looms and spinning machinery.  The Cundall family members gradually left the area, but the the name “Cundall’s Mills” still remains in our history.

The Killing of Charles Porter : Issues of Race, Self-Defense and Police Protection

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Map showing location of Chase Farm

Farmer and auctioneer Isaac Chase may have killed Charles Porter in 1903, but the issues involved in this case could come out of our headlines today. The right to defend one’s life and home, racial division and the lack of police protection all come into play during the legal proceedings against Portsmouth farmer Chase.

Before we get into the issues and headlines, lets go over the timeline of the case as reported by witnesses at the inquest.

Case Timeline

  1.  Charles Porter had been employed on Isaac Chase’s farm in Portsmouth for nearly three years. Porter seemed to be living at West Broadway in Newport.  Little was known about him and we even find his name confused.
  2. During the month before the shooting, there were several altercations between Chase and Porter.  Chase had a large farm off Wapping Road and his produce was sold to Newport kitchens and restaurants.  Chase discharged Porter and had warned him not to come back to the farm.
  3. On Feb 19, 1903, attorney F.F. Nolan had a visit from Porter.  Porter told him he had some trouble with Chase and wanted to get a settlement from him.  Porter told the lawyer that Chase had been circulating damaging stories about him.  Nolan reported that Porter did not seem violent, just a trifle unbalanced.  He talked about the blowing of horns.
  4. Also on Feb 19, a black man purchased a revolver and box of cartridges at Mr. Southwick’s store.   The clerk could not identify Porter as the purchaser.
  5.  On the morning of Feb 20, 1903, Isaac Chase and his daughter, Augusta, were leaving their home on a sleigh.  A man was standing near the gatepost and her father stopped to talk to him.  The man said that her father had been talking about him.  Her father denied this.  Chase’s daughter testified that the man drew out a revolver and fired it. The shot went wild even though Porter was right next to the sleigh.
  6. Chase drove on in the sleigh until he met Fillmore Coggeshall.  He asked Coggeshall to go to Oakland Farm to telephone for an officer.
  7. Frank Paquin (perhaps a constable) was sent to Newport in search of an officer.
  8. At around 2 PM, after asking Coggeshall to telephone for an officer, Chase and his daughter returned to their home.
  9. Chase armed himself with a shot-gun and loaded with both barrels with buckshot.
  10. Owing to a number of reasons, there was a long wait for an officer.
  11. Augusta Chase reported that the man in the road (Porter) followed her father around to every spot he went.
  12. The man (Porter) had his hands in his pocket when he started into the yard.  Her father shouted a warning and then he shot.  Chase claimed he did not deliberately aim or shoot to kill.
  13. Chase requested someone to go to Oakland Farm and call up the Sheriff.  He gave an accounting of the shooting and offered to give himself up.  The sheriff sent out two deputies to arrest him.  They returned with Chase and locked him up in the county jail.
  14. Dr. Steele, medical examiner for Portsmouth found Porter’s body lying across Chase’s driveway – entirely within Porter’s property.  He found a seven shot fully loaded revolver on the body and evidence that the gun had been recently fired and reloaded.

Racial Tensions

This case raised some issues of racial tensions.  Because the victim was a black man and the shooter was white, the black community rallied.  Newspapers reported threats against Chase, but there were also calmer voices.

Let us look at the threats first.  The headline in the Feb 27th Boston Herald read:  “Farmer Chase Threatened – If not Imprisoned for Killing Porter, He Will Be Murdered, Letter Says.”  Although I couldn’t find the original article this quotes, the Herald reports that the Newport News (Maybe the Newport Daily News?) says:  The News is in receipt of an anonymous letter – “We colored men are to form a delegation to see that the law in enforced and that the murderer  be sent to prison for life; if not, we are pledged to murder him within a year’s time. The statement is also made that Chase owed Porter $73 for work, he having received only $7 for four months previous.”  These threats were viewed seriously by the police and Chase was protected.

Daily News accounts report a large group of blacks (hundreds) attended the hearing.  Members of the black community “have raised a sum of money to defray the funeral expenses and to secure a counsel to look after the interests of” Porter.  Indeed, the counsel (F.F. Nolan) participated in the interrogation of witnesses even though there was an attorney representing the state.

One of the most interesting headlines was in the Boston Journal of February 28, 1903.


Rev. I. Derricks so Advises Newport Colored People.

The article relates Reverend Israel Derrick’s remarks at the funeral of Charles Porter.  “I want to caution all my people, you grown up men in particular, to be careful what you say, as well as what you do in this regrettable tragedy.  You are living in enlightened New England, where the torch and rope are presumed to be unknown.  Be calm and let the law take its course.  I should be sadly grieved to see any of my brethren attempting to take the law into their own hands, as has been threatened by some of you.  I am a law abiding citizen, and I want all of you to be, at the same time I agree with you to this extent.  ‘Let justice be done, though the heaven’s fall.'”

Did He Shoot In Self-Defense?

One of the witnesses at the preliminary hearing, William Butler (Town Sergeant)  quoted Chase as saying he had to protect himself.

“Butler, I hated to do it but I had to protect my life and family.”

Chase himself testified that he thought he saw a suggestive movement towards the hip pocket where the revolver had been produced in the earlier attack.

The white community was sympathetic to Chase.  A Newport Mercury article on Feb. 28th, commented that “Little else has been talked of in the towns on the Island since the affair happened and sentiment seems to be greatly in favor of Mr. Chase on the ground that his action was entirely justifiable under the circumstances.

The view of the Black Community was quite different.  The headline on Feb 26, 1903 Boston Journal reads:
“Not Satisfied, Chase Shot in Self-Defense:  Colored Citizens of Newport Aroused Over Killing of Potter.” (Note that there was confusion about Porter’s name).  The newspaper account talks about the funds raised not only for the burial, but also to investigate the affair.  Porter’s father and others in the community believed Chase owed Porter and had been keeping items at the Chase home (a trunk with clothing, a gold watch and money) that rightfully belonged to Porter.  The reasoning was that Porter had just come for what was owed him, but Chase willfully shot him.

The Boston Journal (Feb. 28) reported that “the negroes as a unit, are on the side of the dead man.”

Lack of Police Protection

Because of the threats, Portsmouth town authorities were advised that they had to provide reasonable protection for Chase and his family.  There was a constable assigned to the Chase house every night.  A March 11, 1903 Boston Journal article brings up another issue – that of  police protection.  “On the day of the shooting about seven hours elapsed before an officer of the law appeared upon the premises, and this is being used as an argument that the citizens do not have proper protection.  Because of the slow means of communication about the town it is difficult to locate the town officers in emergency, though they do their best to respond to calls when they receive them.”

In an age where we carry cell phones and can call 911 in an emergency, it is difficult for us to understand the length of time it took for Chase to get help.  When Charles Porter fired a wild shot at Isaac Chase, Chase tried to do the right thing.  He sent someone to a telephone at the Vanderbilts at Oakland Farm who had the closest phone.  When they did reach the authorities, no officer was available.  It was an hour or two after the death of Porter when a deputy sheriff arrived.  Instead of arresting Porter, Isaac Chase was offering himself up.

We have no record of how long the constables protected Isaac Chase.  We do know that he lived sixteen more years.  The courts did not indict Chase for the shooting of Charles Porter and the newspaper records do not show any reaction from the black community.  Perhaps they listened to Rev. Derrick and let justice be done.

I encountered this story as I was researching Isaac Chase’s auctioneer’s book for a display at the Portsmouth Historical Society coming spring of 2018.  There are still many questions left to explore.  What was the racial climate on the island at the turn of the century? Was this case representative of a general divide between black and white?  The lawyer describes Porter as “a trifle unbalanced” and reported that Porter said he had been “hearing horns.”  Is this another incidence of mental illness creating a confrontation?  How did the development of the telephone help the response time of the police?  Was there enough of a police presence in the town of Portsmouth?

As a community we seem to grapple with some of the same issues as Portsmouth residents in Isaac Chase’s day.  Racial tensions, questions of self-defense, and the effectiveness of the police force are on the national news today.  Some issues never get resolved.