Portsmouth People: Louis Escobar

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Escobar’s Highland Farm

Portsmouth dairy farmer Louis Escobar rushed into action when he saw smoke coming from his barn. He and his grandson ran into the old barn to try to rescue some of the young cows close to the door. Then he heard the roof start to crumble. It was too dangerous to stay inside. When the firefighters arrived they could see the flames leaping along the roof. Firefighters from Portsmouth, Middletown, Tiverton and the Navy base endured heat and thick smoke to battle the flames to protect the animals. They cooled the cows by watering them down with their fire hoses. A back hoe pushed in the side of the burning barn so that the livestock would have a path out of danger. The animals were so fearful that at first they wouldn’t move at all. When they began to move, they charged out of the barn. Crowds of neighbors cheered the cows as they escaped the flames. Neighbors also took a big role in rescuing the livestock as the firefighters tried to prevent the fire from spreading to a nearby gasoline tank and the two homes on the farm.

Through the help of brave neighbors and firefighters, the milking cows escaped the fire, but there were injuries. Animals were burned on their backs from embers that fell on them while they were in the burning barn. A veterinarian treated them and late into the night farmers arrived with trailers to move fifty of Escobar’s cows to a farm in Warren where they could be cared for. Five of the cows had lung damage and bad burns. One of the bulls was not expected to recover, but he did. When the community organized an Escobar Farm Fun Day at Glen Park three months later, the recovering animals were there to greet the crowd of almost 3,000 people who came to support the effort to “Bring the Cows Home” to a new barn. The community appreciates all that Louis does, including his annual Fourth of July fireworks display.

Fire investigators say the fire was started accidentally when two boys were playing with fire in the hayloft. Although it began as a foolish mistake, Louis Escobar stressed the positive results. He was thankful that the community had come to support him. He began to build a new and better barn complex.

The barn fire was only one of the challenges that farmer Escobar has faced. Louis was born into a farming family and he has lived on the family farm all his life. Farming is what Louis loves to do, but it has never been easy to keep his Highland Farm in business. Louis inherited the 98 acre dairy farm in 1974. Farmer Escobar had to find ways to compete with the big industrial dairy farms. The large milk companies could offer their products at a lower cost because they produced dairy products in large quantities. Louis helped form “Rhody Fresh” in 2004. Eight Rhode Island dairy farms banded together to produce their dairy products together to compete with the larger farms. When people buy dairy products with the “Rhody Fresh” label, they know they are supporting local Rhode Island farms.

In order to stay in business, Louis has to use his land for a variety of purposes. Escobar’s farm raises Christmas trees, has a pumpkin patch and has a corn maze in September and October that is a popular tourist attraction. When a neighboring farm came up for sale, Louis bought the property so it would still be farmed and he made the farmhouse into a bed and breakfast inn.

Like many of Portsmouth past farmers; the Escobars use the latest methods to insure the quality of their dairy products. The soil is tested regularly to make sure it is rich in nutrients, cows are tested to improve their nutrition, and good grazing land is set aside as open space. Younger cows have outside pens and these cows are used in the 4-H program. Young people can learn responsibility and independence by taking care of an animal.
Louis has continued to have his good times and his tough times. In 2013, when Portsmouth celebrated the 375th Anniversary of its founding, Louis Escobar was chosen as the Grand Marshal of the parade. He was a popular choice because he represents what has traditionally been good about Portsmouth. Farming, however, can be a dangerous job. On a June day in 2015 Louis was driving his tractor a little too fast when he drove into a 10 foot deep pit. Louis’ spine was injured and for a while he was paralyzed. Through hard work in physical therapy and the support of his family and community, Louis has been getting better.

Portsmouth is still proud of its farmers and our farming heritage. Dairy farmer Louis Escobar’s story shows that the hard work, community spirit and the ingenuity of Portsmouth past farmers is still represented in Portsmouth farmers today.

Bob Mello: Providence Journal, July 24, 1998. 2 boys charged in barn fire.
Jim McGaw – Portsmouth Times 6/23/15:  Portsmouth Farmer Louis Escobar still on the mend.
Sean Flynn – Newport Daily News July 23, 2015
Soljane Martinez, Providence Journal Sept 8 1998.  Community effort helps rebuild burned dairy farm.
Liz Foran:  A Fair to Remember July 28, 1998  Providence Journal

Portsmouth Places: Town Pond

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From West land-grant map.

The Town Pond is in the news because an Oyster Farm is in consideration for the location.  The pond was an important part of the early days of Portsmouth, but fell on hard times when it was used as a dumping ground.  Restoration projects have help to restore it to some level, but it is hoped that the Oyster Farm proposed might continue to improve the ecosystem.

From Rev. War map

The Town Pond area was important to the early settlers of Portsmouth. They landed near the area in 1638 when they first settled the area. The pond allowed entry to the settlement area from Narragansett Bay and it was close to a brook for drinkable water and a cove for entry to the Sakonnet River.  It was a salt (tidal pond) until 1949. At that time it was filled with dredged material and became a mudflat. With the help of Senator John Chafee, Congress authorized a “Narragansett Bay Ecosystem Restoration Study” that included restoration of the pond. The work of restoring the pond took 3 years (2005 to 2008). You can walk along the pond to the shore. There is a parking lot off of Anthony Road near Boyd’s Lane. You might imagine what the pond looked like in colonial days.

The maps in this blog show the Town Pond as mapped out at different times in Portsmouth’s History – Revolutionary War times, 1848 and as historian Edward West rendered it in the 1930s when he compiled his land grant maps.

From 1848 Hammett map.


Portsmouth Places: Quaker Meeting House

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Quaker Meeting House
circa 1700

Today the people of Portsmouth have the opportunity to preserve an important piece of our history.  The Friends community no longer uses their meetinghouse and it is up for sale.  The Portsmouth Historical Society is sponsoring an Open House at the meetinghouse this Saturday at 10:AM.  Come see this Portsmouth treasure.

The Portsmouth Friends Meeting House was built between 1699 and 1702. It was constructed at about the same time as the meeting house in Newport. Both are among the oldest meeting houses in the United States and among the earliest houses of worship in Rhode Island. Rhode Island was one of the few colonies that welcomed Quakers and there were monthly meetings in homes as early as 1660 before the meetinghouse was built. Additions were made to the meeting house through the years. Quakers had a strong influence in the community.

The meetinghouse was occupied by English forces during the course of the American Revolution. Records show that Hessian troops occupied it as well.

After the war the Friends decided that Quakers should not hold public office, so they power they once had in the community was lessened.

In 1784 the meeting house was used as a school. Students boarded with Quaker families near by. When the school was closed in 1788, the remaining funds were used to start what would become the Moses Brown School in Providence.



Portsmouth Places: Patriots Park

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Battle of Rhode Island map at Patriot’s Park

Patriots Park
West Main Road at split with Route 24.

This is a memorial to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, known as the “Black Regiment” located at the junction northbound of Routes 114 and 24. Flagpole commemorates the site where the Black Regiment courageously fought off a Hessian attack, saving the American line, on August 29,
1778 during the Battle of Rhode Island.

The August 30, 1778 diary entry of Liet. Col. Samuel Ward of the First Rhode Island Regiment provides an eyewitness account.
“The army retreated the evening of the 28th. Early yesterday morning, the enemy moved out after us, expecting that we were leaving the island, and took possession of the Heights in our front. They sent out parties in their front, and we made detachments to drive them back again. After a skirmish of three or four hours, with various success, in which each party gave way three or four times, and were reinforced, we drove them quite back to the ground they first took in the morning, and have continued there ever since. Two ships and a couple of small vessels beat up opposite our lines, and fired several shots, but being pretty briskly fired upon from our heavy pieces, they fell down, and now lay opposite the enemy’s lines. Our loss was not very great, it has not been ascertained yet; and I can hardly make a tolerable conjecture. Several officers fell, and several are badly wounded. I am so happy to have only one captain slightly wounded in the hand. I believe that a couple of the blacks were killed and four our five wounded, but none badly. Previous to this, I should have told you our picquets and light corps engaged their advance , and found them with bravery.” Ward believed that “our loss was not very great,” but later estimates were for 500 American deaths and a thousand for the British and Hessians. Ward believed that the British ships had been deterred by the American cannon fire, but the Captain’s log of the HMS Vigilant suggests that the wind direction and shallow depths of the area prevented the ships from reaching Bristol Ferry.

David Durfee Sherman: Recording Everyday Life in Pre-Civil War Portsmouth


Our Portsmouth history research often focuses on people who accomplished great things or were notorious in some way.  The focus of this blog is on an ordinary person who represents the lives of many of our unheralded Portsmouth citizens.  David Durfee Sherman (Shearman) recorded his daily life in a diary.  Several volumes of his diary are in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society.   His writing has been a valuable glimpse into daily life in Portsmouth before the Civil War.  He records people, places and activities in Portsmouth life.  Through the diary entries we learn about the steps in rebuilding the dam at Glen Farm and how the Sherman mill was moved from Fall River and re-assembled in Portsmouth.  (That mill still stands today at Prescott Farm.)  He commented on the weather, religious meetings, barn raising, the amusements at the Portsmouth Grove, and even raiding a local brothel.

About David Durfee Sherman:  He was born in 1830 and died at the age of thirty-seven in 1868.  As a young man he married  Cynthia Dixie and they had seven children.  Only three of them lived to adult life – George, Charles and Clarence.  Like most men in Portsmouth, David spent most of his time farming, but he worked at construction projects as well.  He did his public duty as a town marshal and he served in the Union Army in Company D of the Rhode Island 12th Infantry Regiment.  At age twenty-nine he served as a traveling book salesman.  It is hard to imagine walking from Portsmouth to Somerset or Swansea to peddle his books, but David would do that.

His writing is clear and enjoyable to read.  He comes across as an intelligent and inquisitive person who takes every opportunity to develop his intellect.  He didn’t have much money, so he was very creative in using his own skills to improvise and craft what he needed.

David’s diary entries will be included in some blogs to come and his entries will be a focal point for the 2018 Exhibit at the Portsmouth Historical Society. Marge Webster, a past curator and member of the Curator’s committee, has done extensive work with the diaries and has compiled an index of names and places in them.

Parts of his diary have been digitized and are available online through the Portsmouth History Center Digital Archives:  Click on the link to the right.  Digital Archives



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