Stopping by Brown’s Tea House

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1849 Map showing Brown’s and Durfee Tea Houses

Today we might think of “tea houses” as a place to have a quiet cup of tea and sweet snack.  Tea houses were quite different in 19th century Portsmouth.  They served as hotels, party venues and places for the community to gather for events.  I have known about the Durfee Tea House off of Glen Road, but I didn’t know very much about other tea houses in Portsmouth.  This week I came across the name “Brown’s Tea House” as I was doing other research, so I dug deeper to find out something more about this tea house.

Researching local history is like piecing a puzzle together.  You get one clue from one source and that leads you to bits and pieces of information through other sources. Piecing the information together, you come to understand small windows of Portsmouth life.  I’m always searching for old maps and I came across a 1849 Hammett Road Map of Aquidneck Island on the Library of Congress website.  The purpose of the map was to show the roads, but it did mark some sites of interest like churches and windmills. Marked by “East Road” were both the Durfee Tea House (off of Glen Road) and Brown’s Tea House.

Through a newspaper database I found an advertisement for a new tea house in Portsmouth in 1847 – “Fashionable Tea House – Five miles from Newport, on the Post Road leading to the Stone Bridge”.   Benjamin Brown is the proprietor.  They welcome “transient and permanent Boarders” and offer “Tea Parties and Pic Nice furnished at short notice.”  Next to the house are two bowling alleys “where those who take pleasure in this invigorating exercise can indulge.”  They even had a 20 by 45 foot ballroom.

What happened to the Brown’s Tea House?  A later advertisement in 1857 announces a Tea House owned by Charles Russell, Jr.  It seems to be in the same location as the Brown Tea House.  The ad boasts that Russell has enlarged the house and put it in excellent order.  “The location is delightful, and persons visiting the House, for a long or short time, will find every convenience and luxury…there is fine bathing half a mile from the house.  Families desiring to spend the summer in the country will find this one of the most delightful locations on the island.” (Newport Daily News 08/06/1857.)

Yet another source, David Durfee Shearman’s diary, adds to the story.

Entry from 12/17/1858 “The Tea House owned by Charles Russell and occupied by him as a tavern was burned to the ground last night… It is supposed to have caught fire from the stove pipe or rather from the carelessness of an Irish Servant…”

Then on March 14, 1860 “I went to the Half Way Place with Levi Cory.  William B. Sisson has lately purchased the farm of Chas. Russell and will put up a public house this summer on the site of the one that burned down the on the night of Dec. 16, 1858.”

A Newport Mercury article from May 25, 1888 lets us know that the Sisson Tea House must have been built because “The Ell of the “Tea House” has been bought by Mr. Jonathan A. Sisson and moved to its new site on the east side of the road…”  An 1877 Newport Daily News article reports that a “republican caucus for the nomination of candidates for members of the General Assembly and for town officers will be held in the Tea House in South Portsmouth, on Monday, April 23.”

The “Brown – Russell – Sisson” Tea  House never seemed to reach the fame of the Durfee Tea House.  It is interesting that two such tea houses existed so close to each other.  Portsmouth is still looking for community gathering spots for large groups like we had in the days of the tea houses.



Portsmouth People: Greenvale’s James Parker (1854-1934)

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We are truly fortunate that Greenvale Vineyards carries on the tradition of Portsmouth farming.  Established as a model “Gentleman’s Farm” by China Merchant John Barstow, the farm and stick style house went into neglect after Barstow’s death.   Major General James Parker’s wife, Charlotte Condit Parker, was among the various heirs to the property. The Parkers took a real interest in Greenvale and brought it back to life. When James Parker retired in 1918, he and his wife resolved to make Greenvale their home and restore the property as a working farm. They began to work on the stick style Barstow house to make it livable and bright for the family. They hired a farmer and re-established a working farm with fields, chickens, pigs, geese, turkeys and a dairy herd.

While living in retirement on Aquidneck Island, Parker continued to be forward thinking, even if some of his ideas met with opposition.  An April 26, 1929 article in the Newport Mercury contains a letter Parker wrote in support of using Kings Park in Newport as a station for Curtis Flying Services seaplanes.  Parker believed it was the best site with passengers embarking and disembarking from the city pier.  He believed seaplanes were safer than airplanes.  “Air travel is sure to come.”  Seaplanes could make a two hour run from New York to Newport and that would enhance the value of Newport as a summer residence.  Mrs. J. Nicholas Brown and her son opposed that use for the park.

Before his retirement to Portsmouth, James Parker had a brilliant forty-two year career in the military. A graduate of West Point, Parker served in the Indian Wars (including chasing Geronimo), the Spanish American War, the Philippine-American War and World War I.  He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for combat at close quarters during an attack by an overwhelming number of enemy soldiers  in the Philippines in 1899.  He rose to the rank of Major General.

In 1934, Major General James Parker was buried with full military honors at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth.  James Parker’s son, Major General Cortlandt Parker, whose grave in close to his father’s also retired to Greenvale and continued the farm.  His grandson, Cortlandt Parker, went on to establish the vineyard that makes Greenvale a going farm today.  Family members, including Nancy Parker Wilson, continue to keep Greenvale a beautiful part of Portsmouth’s farming heritage.

Vintage image of the Barstow house at Greenvale

Julia in Portsmouth: First Home at Lawton’s Valley

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1860 Aquidneck map showing Howe property.

We know that Julia Ward Howe’s second Portsmouth home was Oak Glen on Union Street. Where was her first home? She started coming for her Portsmouth summers in the 1850s. The 1860 map that hangs on the wall at the Portsmouth Historical Society provides the answer.  It was on West Main Road, north of the Cornell property and in Lawton’s Valley.  In fact it was not very far from the Town Poor Farm.

Writing in her memoir, Reminiscences, and quoted in her daughter’s book – This Was My Newport – we know how the Howe’s came to own the home. She was writing about a notorious real estate agent named Alfred Smith.  Smith would entrap strangers in his gig (a light two-wheeled open carriage), drive them out to one of his properties and pressure them to purchase the property.  Julia says that “This lovely little estate (Lawton’s Valley) had come to us almost fortuitously.”  “In the summer of 1852 my husband became one of his victims… I say this because Dr. Howe made the purchase without much deliberation.”

Julia’s money was used to buy the property, but it was put in Samuel Gridley Howe’s name.  Later he would sell it just as abruptly as he bought it – and without Julia’s knowledge or agreement.  Thankfully, they later bought the Oak Glen property that we know today and Julia spent her last years there.

Note:  page 171 – This Was My Newport by Maud Howe Elliott, 1944.