Portsmouth Women: Sarah Gibbs, St. Mary’s and Oakland Farm


Oakland Farm in Sarah Gibbs day

Sarah Gibbs was the force behind the founding of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth. She was born in 1784 in Newport. Her father, George Gibbs was a grain merchant.   His firm of Gibbs and Channing owned up to seventy-five vessels sailing from Newport. In 1787, he married Mary Channing of Newport, the sister of his partner, Walter Channing.  Among their children were Sarah Gibbs and Ruth Gibbs Channing.  Ruth would marry famed Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing.  Sarah Gibbs was a devout Episcopalian and would never go to hear William Ellery Channing speak, but that did not prevent her from opening her home (Oakland Farm)  in hospitality to him every summer.  The house was always filled with guests.  Channing brought not only his wife and children, but also governesses for his daughters.  Famed social reformer Dorothea Dix came with the family as a governess and she had a close relationship with Sarah.  Dorothea started her mental health efforts while here in Portsmouth.  She even started the Sunday School for the Christian Union Church across the street at Mrs. Durfee’s Tea House.  Dorothea continued to come to Portsmouth even after the death of Rev. Channing.

Channing found Oakland Farm was a retreat that refreshed him.  He would get up early and spend time out in Portsmouth’s nature before breakfast.  He enjoyed the gardens.  He wrote about Oakland Farm to a friend:  “Here I spend four or five months annually, enjoying my tranquillity almost too much; almost reproaching myself for being so happy, when I am doing so little for the happiness of others.”

About the founding of St. Mary’s  Church

In 1843 Sarah Gibbs wanted to bring the Episcopal Church closer to her home.  She invited Rev. Hobart Williams to Portsmouth to begin a church.  The first service was December 17th, 1843 in temporary quarters.  In 1844 Sarah donated 88 acres known as “Potter Farm” as a site for a seminary and church.  The cornerstone was laid Sept. 2, 1847.  Architect Richard Upjohn was chosen to design the church.  On May 20, 1852 the building was consecrated.  Bishop Henshaw wrote:  “I consecrated St. Mary’s Church, Portsmouth, a gift of faith and love from a pious and magnificent churchwoman, Miss S. Gibbs, costing about $11,000.”  Sarah lived to see a vibrant church community at St. Mary’s, but the seminary never developed.   Sarah died in 1866 and is buried by the church she founded.

St. Mary

Vintage image of St. Mary’s Church




Portsmouth Women: Barbara Norman Cook and “Prescott Place”

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View of Prescott House from Prescott Farm

As you pass by the Prescott House on the Portsmouth/Middletown border by West Main Road, you might think of it as the location of the famous raid of Colonel Barton to capture British General Prescott during the Revolutionary War.    There is a strong Portsmouth woman associated with that house as well.  Her name was Barbara Norman Cook, aka “Kitty Mouse” Cook.  Barbara was born in Newport and she was the granddaughter of George Norman who founded the Newport Water Works.  The Norman family was a major property owner in Portsmouth and owned land from the Middletown boarder to Redwood Farms.  Barbara’s father was Bradford Norman.  He owned Brook Farm and across the street the old Overing Property.  He willed his property on the east side of West Main Road to his daughter. In his will, he referred to this property as “Prescott Place.” By the time that Barbara Norman Cook came into the property in 1949, the farm included roughly 33 acres.

Barbara Norman married Daniel W. Jones in 1918 and the two moved to Portsmouth in 1930.  Both were co-administrators for the National Recovery Act under President Franklin Roosevelt and both were active in the Democratic Party.  Jones died in 1942, and Barbara married Benjamin Ladd Cook, Sr. in 1943.  She continued her wartime work, this time hosting a half-hour morning radio show telling listeners how to use their ration coupons.  She was active in civic organizations like the American Cancer Society, League of Women Voters, Birth Control League, Boys Club and the Newport Music Festival.  Barbara was one of the seven founders of the Portsmouth Historical Society and was awarded lifetime membership in the society.

Barbara bought the Lawton Valley Glen area from her grandfather’s estate in 1952.  She hoped to preserve the property for recreation.  It had long been a popular picnic spot and Boy Scout camping area.

Barbara Norman Cook lived in her Prescott Place house until 1969, when she sold it to Doris Duke for the sum of $475,000.  Doris Duke then deeded the property to the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1970. The home is a rental property now and not open to public view, but the Newport Restoration Foundation has established Prescott Farm on the Middletown side of the property.  Old Portsmouth buildings have been moved there as well as the Sherman Windmill.  This area is open to the public as well as lovely hiking trails in the back of the property.

In 1981 Barbara wrote a memoir “L’Histoire de Mme. Kitty Mouse.”  It relates tales of her youth in Newport.  Barbara died in 1985.

Portsmouth Women: Alice Brayton and Green Animals

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Vintage image of Green Animals from the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society

Alice Brayton

Alice Brayton was born in Fall River in 1878, but she was a constant summer resident of Portsmouth.  She made her permanent residence here in 1938.  Her father, Thomas Brayton (treasurer of the Union Cotton Manufacturing Company),  bought property on Cory’s Lane in Portsmouth in 1877 to be a summer home for his family. Alice’s father hired a Portuguese mill worker, Jose Carriero, to develop and manage the grounds of his Portsmouth estate in 1905. Carreiro was superintendent of the property from 1905 to 1945, and his son-in-law, George Mendonca continued as superintendent until 1985.  They were responsible for creating the topiaries. There are more than 80 pieces of topiary throughout the gardens, including animals and birds, geometric figures and ornamental designs, sculpted from California privet, yew, and English boxwood.

When Thomas Brayton died in 1939 at age 96, he left this estate to his son and daughter – Edward and Alice.    Alice Brayton had re-opened the main house on the Portsmouth estate in 1936 to begin renovations to make it her permanent residence. She moved to the estate in the spring of 1939 naming it “Green Animals” for the topiary animals in the garden.

Alice Brayton was a woman of many interests.  During the Depression she helped to found a relief program in Fall River to bring milk, food and clothing to the needy.  She founded a nursing association in Fall River.  In Portsmouth she was active with the Red Cross and even opened her home for “home nursing” lessons.   She published many books and contributed  to “Gardens of America”  – a major work on historical gardens.  She wrote  a scholarly work on Bishop Berkeley who was a colonial resident of Middletown.  She encouraged excavations around the Old Stone Mill in Newport and wrote a paper on this.  She was a force in the early days of the Preservation Society of Newport Country.  Miss Brayton left Green Animals to the Preservation Society of Newport County at her death in 1972.  Newspaper accounts list her as a speaker for a number of local societies.  She spoke to the Portsmouth Historical Society in 1966 about “More Recollections of a Portsmouth Native.”  Obviously she considered herself a Portsmouth native.

Alice Brayton loved to garden and she loved to entertain  She hosted Jacqueline Bouvier’s (Kennedy) debutante party.  When President Eisenhower visited the area, she opened her gardens to the First Family and the White House press corps.  Alice’s topiary gardens survived the hurricanes in 1938 and 1944, but the 1954 hurricane badly damaged a double row of spruces and a large hemlock.  The famed topiaries were coated with salt spray.  Although some experts thought many could not be saved, George Mendonca and his helpers rewired and trimmed the sculptures.  Alice herself would putter around the gardens. She said she had a habit of mowing around the base of a topiary policemen “so that he wouldn’t hurt his feet standing all day on the grass.”  Alice Brayton was known for her wit.  One of her last public events was a $1,000 a plate dinner for the election of Nixon in 1968.  Alice took a sip of sherry and headed home without dinner “because it was past her bedtime.”

During her lifetime, Alice enjoyed letting the public enjoy her gardens.  Today “Green Animals” attracts thousands of visitors to Alice Brayton’s beautiful gardens.



Portsmouth Women: The Mitchels – Cora, Sophie, Floride and Clara May Miller


Womens suffrage photo

Cora Mitchel

The Mitchel Sisters – Cora, Sophie and Floride – were very active in Portsmouth culture and social reform movements.  Through their mother, Sophia Brownell Mitchel, they had long roots in the Bristol Ferry area.  Their father was a cotton merchant in Florida before the Civil War and the Mitchel family had to literally escape the South once the fighting began.  They came to Bristol Ferry because it was an ancestral and summer home for them.

Did you know that the Bristol Ferry area was a hotbed of the Women’s Suffrage movement.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her History of Woman Suffrage 1900-1920 wrote: “Among the nerve centers of suffrage activity in Rhode Island the Newport County Woman Suffrage League had a definite place from its founding in 1908, by Miss Cora Mitchell, its first president. The League’s work was at first largely carried on by an active group of philanthropic women of Bristol Ferry, Miss Mitchell’s friends and neighbors, among whom were Miss Sarah J. Eddy, Mrs. John Eldredge and Mrs. Barton Ballou. Gradually the suffrage agitation spread over the entire island, which includes the three townships of Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport.”  Cora remained active in demonstrations and organizing activities for many years.

Sophie was a talented artist and was among those in the Bristol Ferry artist community that had gathered around Sarah Eddy.  Sophie had studios in both Brooklyn and Portsmouth.  In 1908 Sophie built a house and studio on Bristol Ferry.  She traveled around the United States and Europe.  Subjects for her landscapes were Newport, Nantucket, Germany, Mexico, Long Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Cape Cod, etc.  She often led young socialite ladies on sketching tours.  She liked painting portraits, but she was more known for her landscapes and flower themes.  She exhibited in her own studios and also in more prestigious Boston art shows.

Floride Mitchel May was a mother and grandmother. Floride was the older sister of the Mitchel girls and she married around the time the Civil War began.  She and her husband moved from Florida to Georgia and Cora was sent to live with her and go to school.   Their mother, Sophia Brownell Mitchel, did not want to move north without Cora, so she undertook a very dangerous trip to get Cora before she managed to shepherd her family to Bristol Ferry.  Floride came to Bristol Ferry, probably after her husband died.

Bristol Ferry Map edit

Note Mitchel family land on 1907 Portsmouth map.

Floride’s daughter,  Clara, married famous artist Oscar Miller.  Clara took part in many of the activities that her aunts pursued.  She was among those doing suffrage work.  She was active in the arts exhibits in the County Fair.  Once the women got the vote, Clara was active in Republican politics.  In 1920 she was one of the organizers of the Newport County Women’s Republican Club.  She was a delegate to the state Republican convention.  Even after her husband’s death she continued as a patron of the arts for a Swanhurst Concert.

Portsmouth benefited from the work of all the Mitchel/May women.  Their activities in suffrage, the arts and politics made them women ahead of their time.



Portsmouth Women: Gerry, Mary Lou and Nan: Growing up on Glen Farm

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Camara Sisters

Gerry Leis and Mary Lou Lemieux

Growing up on Glen Farm was idyllic for an adventurous girl named Geraldine Camara.  Gerry and her sister Mary Lou shared stories of their childhood with Elmhurst students many years ago.   The students interviewed the Camara sisters on the porch of the Leonard Brown House.  They lived at that house (and others on the farm) because their father, Manuel Camara,  was a long term worker on the farm.  His story is another one that deserves to be told in a separate blog.

Stories about Gerry – in the words of the student interviewers.

Gerry was born at the Brown House on a very cold January day. She was so tiny they had to keep her warm, so the nurse put her on the oven door.

The fields around the house were filled with cows – Angus, Guernseys and later Charolais.  The girls had to walk up Linden Lane to get to the school bus and the cows followed them all the way.

Gerry was always getting into trouble.  She used to climb into the hayloft of the barns and she even tried to ride the cows.

There were seven wooden bridges over the paths around the stream that ran from the mill pond to the river.  One day Gerry used the wood from one of the bridges to make a raft.  Then there were only six bridges.

The Glen families were careful to let the Taylor family have their privacy.  They were the owners after all.  When Gerry picked daffodils from Mrs. Taylor’s garden, her mother was very upset with her.

Glen Farm has beautiful stone walls.  Mrs. Taylor’s second husband didn’t like to see the children sitting on the walls.  he paid them a quarter not to sit on the walls.  He had a fancy car and when the girls saw the car coming, they sat right on the walls so he would give them more quarters.

Gerry made the sheep barn into her own clubhouse.

It could get cold at the Brown House, so the workers would “bank the house.”  That meant they would put a wood frame around the outside of the basement and fill the frame with leaves to help keep the heat in.  Geri would walk on the frames even though she wasn’t suppose to do that!

The Camara sisters, Gerry Leis and Mary Lou Lemieux, have both passed away, but we cherish the stories they told us and continue to share them with other generations of Portsmouth school children.

The Brown House has memories for many families.  It was one of three homes Nan Howell Waters called home on the farm.  Nan was on the farm because her father, Arthur Howell, worked on the farm.  He started out as a mechanic, moved to bookkeeper for dairy cattle and then to superintendent of the farm. His office was in the Cow Barn and he worked up until he died at 76 years old. He worked close to 50 years on the farm.


Nan Howell Waters

Nan came to Glen farm when she was a baby.  When Nan lived at the Brown House it was divided to hold two families.  Her family lived downstairs and the Camara family lived upstairs.  On their floor was a bath room,  two bedrooms, kitchen (with a wash tub and pantry),  dining room and a large living room.  It was heated with a big coal stove in the basement.  The basement was good sized and each family had partitioned areas.  The children like to play store in the basement.  With the four Camara girls and Nan and her brother, there was always someone to join in play.

Glen Farm was a self contained community.  They had electricity and telephone service.  There was a switchboard operator on the farm and they had a phone in the hall with each family having a different number of rings to signal calls for them.

Outside the yard was set off from the field by a stone wall.  There were kitchen gardens – each family had one.  Each family had a garage.  There was a chicken shed for each family, so they had fresh eggs.  Milk, meat and other vegetables came from the farm itself.




Portsmouth Women: Sarah Eddy’s Portraits of Portsmouth Families

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Majorie Wilkey’s mother and grandmother

Professionally trained, Sarah Eddy was an artist well into her 90’s. Painter, sculptor, master photographer. She was listed as a “painter of pictures” in the Providence census. As a pioneering woman photographer, Sarah exhibited in Paris and London as well as major exhibits in the US. Her images are in the collection of the Library of Congress. Her art was part of every cause worked for – as prizes, for fundraising, as a way of bringing beauty into the world. She was a master arts educator. She brought artists to Bristol Ferry, and encouraged amateurs. Sarah and her students went out painting with smocks and berets.

Sarah paid for the construction of an addition to the Portsmouth Free Public Library which would be a place to exhibit art in Portsmouth. The public library has a lovely landscape with sheep in the Reference Room that is attributed to Sarah and they have some of her sculptures in the Children’s Room.  It is fitting that the Portsmouth Free Public Library is a gallery space for special exhibits today.

Sarah never took any payment for her photos or paintings. She delighted in photographing and painting her neighbors in Bristol Ferry. What is in your attic? Could you have some of her artwork? After her death in 1945 there was a yard sale at her home.  Some items have surfaced at antique stores and in private collections. We know that Sarah gave artwork to church guilds and that a church in Tiverton has one of her bronze sculptures.  Marjorie Wilkey has shared some precious family portraits with us.  Her mother and grandmother were photographed and a sketch of them seems to be a “mother and child” image that was common in her work.  The Wilkey family allowed me to scan a glass plate that includes members of their family.  Mothers and children were her favorite subjects.  Let us know if you have some of Sarah’s artwork as part of your family treasures.

Sarah Eddy photograph of Portsmouth children.

Portsmouth Women: Sarah Eddy, Susan B. Anthony and Women’s Suffrage

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Vintage photo of Sarah Eddy Home.

Susan B. Anthony has secured her place in history as an important figure in gaining the vote for women.  Her full length portrait hangs in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. We have forgotten, however, the artist and friend of Susan B. Anthony who painted that grand full-length oil painting. The artist, Sarah James Eddy, was a long time resident of Portsmouth and Susan actually came to stay with her in Portsmouth for three weeks as she “sat” for the portrait.

Why did Susan take the time to come to little Portsmouth for a long portrait sitting? You have to learn a little about the artist to understand why Miss Anthony would indulge the artist. Sarah James Eddy was an accomplished artist. She was a skilled painter, photographer and sculptor. Sarah was also a close friend to some of the most notable leaders in the great causes of the day – abolition and women’s suffrage. Sarah had experience in painting important portraits. In the 1880s she persuaded Abolitionist Frederick Douglass to come to Rhode Island (she was living in Providence at the time) to sit for a full-length portrait. Now hanging at the Frederick Douglass National Park near Washington, this painting might be the only painting where Douglass actually “sat” for the artist.

Sarah’s family supported the anti-slavery cause and Douglass became a friend of Sarah. The friendship and family connections Sarah had with these great figures provided her with an opportunity other artists would not have had.  Although Susan B. Anthony had long promised a visit, the opportunity didn’t arrive until the fall of 1902. Susan visited family members in Massachusetts as she made her way to Sarah’s large home in the part of Portsmouth known as Bristol Ferry. The letters Susan wrote show how she relished her time at Bristol Ferry. She stayed over three weeks and the artist and subject would spend their mornings on the portraits and would enjoy the afternoon traveling around Aquidneck Island.

Miss Anthony wrote: “We have delightful drives over the old stone bridge that connects us with the mainland to Tiverton and along the shore of the Sconset (Sakonnet) River, which is really an arm of the ocean and here we can see the whole length of the island with Newport in its beauty on the coast. It is ten miles away and we went by train one day, took the famous ocean drive and passed the palaces of the nabobs.”

Susan enjoyed just being at Sarah’s home. She wrote of waking up from afternoon naps to “the slanting rays of the sun” shining on Narragansett Bay. She must have slept in a turret room because she wrote that “from all five windows of my big room is the most glorious view imaginable.”

Bristol Ferry was the “hotbed” of the Rhode Island Women’s Suffrage movements, so Susan was among friends and supporters in Portsmouth. She would take a carriage ride down West Main Road to Oak Glen, the home of Julia Ward Howe. She found Julia “charming” and “had an interesting time.”

Sarah Eddy was a woman of many causes and she entertained so many at her home. While Susan was there one of the guests had just come from a Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Convention and another was from the Anti-Vivisection Society. Sarah was a strict vegetarian and one of her neighbors teased that Susan should come for a meal at their house because a “slice of good roast beef” would do her good. Susan declined the offer, but the neighbor sent over some of the roast beef “for Miss Eddy’s cannibal friends.”

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