Portsmouth Farmer: Leonard Brown

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If you are familiar with the Glen, you may know that the newly restored Leonard Brown House sits at the end of a drive lined by majestic linden trees.  Who was Leonard Brown and what does he represent in Portsmouth history, especially its agricultural history?

Leonard Brown was born in Middletown in 1815.  A newspaper clipping shows that he is an orphan in 1835. By 1838 Brown marries his wife Sarah. She was the daughter of Revolutionary War militia leader Cook Wilcox.  Leonard Brown came by his farm land through his wife’s inheritance from her widowed mother. What would become the Brown farm had been part of Wilcox’s land and that land was originally part of settler John Cooke’s original land grant.  Brown’s descendants believe that the property would not officially become Leonard Brown’s until 1870 after the death of Sarah Wilcox Brown’s mother – “Polly” Wilcox. The Wilcox home is found close to East Main Road in the Walling map of 1850. By 1870 the Dripps map shows Leonard Brown holding the property in 1870 and that his house was placed much further into the land where it is today.

Leonard Brown House in 1920

There is no doubt that Leonard Brown was farming the property even when his mother-in-law officially owned the land. Dating the Brown House has been difficult.  The diary of George Manchester shows that Brown was on the land in 1851 because a barn was built for him by Albert Coggeshall.  1852 clippings of the winners of the Aquidneck Agricultural award show him as the winner of “best lot of native cows.” Award postings for 1875 give us an idea of what animals he raised. He won Agricultural Fair ribbons for best Durham cow, Beef cows, lambs, working oxen, Aldernsey heifers, Southdown Backs sheep, and best pen of sheep.

By the 1880s Brown was considered one of the best farmers in Portsmouth.  He raised poultry and pigs and brought them to market in New Bedford.  Along with farming, Brown served as a wheelwright and a blacksmith. Leonard Brown represents the Yankee farmers, the descendants of the original English settlers.  Brown and the farmers like him were the backbone of Portsmouth.  They served in political offices, farmed and were the skilled craftsmen of the town.

 When Leonard Brown died in 1896, the Brown farm was sold to H.A.C. Taylor and became part of the Glen Farm.

A Year (1858) on Portsmouth Farms

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David Durfee Shearman did not have a farm of his own, but he helped on his father’s farm (Benjamin C. Sherman) and did odd-jobs for a number of farmers in Portsmouth.  His 1858 diary gives an idea of what the farmer’s year was like.


Portsmouth farmers did not rest over the winter.  Shearman worked on making farm tools, but he noted on January 28th that farmer Dennis Hall was taking advantage of the mild January to plow his onion patch.


The better part of February, March, April and May were spent carting and spreading manure.  Most of the manure came from his father’s stable. February 6th he comments: “Went to father’s about 10 o’clock and helped cart manure until night.  Carted 11 loads. Father has got a great lot of manure this year.  He has got 9 pigs and a sow fattening and a part of oxen and steer for beef besides 12 head of cattle and 5 horses.”  May was a good time to spread fish on the plowed ground.


March and April seemed to be busy months for the potato crop.  Durfee comments on March 27 that some potatoes were being planted in Newtown.    The Shearmans themselves were plowing to plant potatoes April 4th.  On April 22nd Shearman wrote:  “Been planting in my garden today; planted half a bushel of potatoes with two or three peas betwixt each two pieces of potatoes.”  


March 29:  “Uncle John brought us a two horse team and a two ox team to help Father.  We finished plowing and sowed all of the oats – 43 bushels – on about 7 acres and harrowed them in the ground in most excellent order to work upon being dryer than any spring I remember for many years, and so early, too.”  By October 12th, Shearman comments of threshing oats:  “Went over to Father’s to eat breakfast and began to thresh before sunrise.  Finished threshing at three o’clock having thrashed 394 bushels.  The stacks were in first rate condition at the top and bottom and shelled out oats beyond our expectations.”


Corn husking on Glen Farm

Corn occupied the farmers for many months of work.  In April they began to prepare the fields by removing the stubble and rocks from last year.  Planting began in May.  May 15th:  “Planted corn all day.  We manure it in the hill where it is wet.”  Corn was hoed in June and July.  By August they were picking the corn.  August 14th:  “I arose at 4 o’clock and went to Newport with Robert carrying sweet corn, getting 12 or 14 cents a dozen…”  They continued husking through to November.  November 11th:  “Benj. C. Jr. finished husking last evening – being about 3 bushels.  I helped get the corn into the cribs forenoon.  The side bins are full and fifty bushels of ears in the middle part estimated to be 350 bushes of corn, a large crop for the land planted.”  


Grass and hay were planted in April and harvest began in June and through July.  Hay was raked in August.   April 2nd:  “Father and William went to Newport and got the grass seed forenoon, sowed it afternoon.”  June 30th:  Mowed south part of the 2nd meadow below the house very good grass in quality and quantity;  Mostly barley grass.  Stacked hay in the corner meadow.”  Sherman has a delightful entry about an Uncle Ned (a good mower)  who used to mow dressed in a pink striped calico dress!!  


Shearman is busy building stonewalls and other things during September, so we don’t hear as much about agricultural work.  In October Shearman reported picking Sweeting, Greenings, Roxbury Russets, and Leathercoat Russets.  October 22nd:  “We picked Roxbury Russetts today.  They are large and handsome.  The trees were loaded with them.  Picked 57 bushels, which is as many as they have had in any one year, since Uncle has owned the farm which is about 18 years.”


Hogs seemed to be a common livestock for Portsmouth farmers and New Bedford seemed to be the place to sell the pork.  April 21st:  “Helped Uncle John kill 7 fall pigs.  They averaged 175 lbs a piece.  Dressed them all at one scalding. “


Shearman has his own garden and plants.  May 19th: “Been hoeing and planting my garden all day.  Planting sweet and pop corn, squashes, cucumbers and melons….  Potatoes just coming up, the peas about two inches high.”  Other vegetables mentioned in the diary include cabbages, carrots and turnips.  







If you want to read Shearman’s Diary for yourself, it is online at the Portsmouth History Center Archive.  http://www.portsmouthhistorycenterarchive.org/items/show/475




Moving the Sherman Windmill: From David Durfee Shearman’s Diary

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David Durfee Sherman in Civil War Uniform

Among the prize possessions of the Portsmouth Historical Society are the diaries of David Durfee Shearman.  Shearman (or Sherman) was a jack of all trades and he recorded everyday life in Portsmouth.  We only have the records of a few years, but the 1858 volume provides a wonderful description of how the “Sherman Mill” was moved from Fall River to a spot on Quaker Hill in Portsmouth.  The mill had a history of moving from place to place.  It was constructed in Warren around 1812 and then moved to Fall River.  Shermans moved it to Quaker Hill and then to LeHigh Hill.  It was finally moved to Prescott Farm by the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF).  NRF says that Robert Sherman moved the mill to Portsmouth, but Sherman’s diary names his Uncle John Sherman as the owner who moved it.

From Sherman’s 1858 diary:

May 5: ..Uncle John has bought a windmill in Fall River and I and Jonathan Sherman has contracted to take it down and move it here on his land west of the main road – and put it up again.  It was moved from Warren to where it now stands.

May 15: Helped Jonathan Sherman unload the top of the Mill about 9 o’clock.  He brought it in 6 parts, sawed through from top to the plates. At one load with 4 horses.

May 31: Built wall for Father, he went to Fall River with John and Jonathan Sherman to help take down the Mill. They got three sides down and brought them home…

June 1: Built wall for Father. Uncle John’s hired man has been there two days helping us. Uncle having Father’s Oxen to get after the Mill…Jonathan did not get home until 3 o’clock in the morning with the loads of mill.

June 8: Helped knock the shingles off the sides of the Mill AM.  They are going to take them all off and nail the boards on firm then lay the same shingles again.

June 11..went up where the men was at work with the Mill. helped them some about raising the poles to make a derrick to put the mill up with. They are near 50 feet long. The bottom of the Mill is laid and some of the sides ready to put up. Four men at work on her.

June 14..Jonathan raised two sides of the mill today.

June 17. Went up to the mill awhile and helped some. They have got up all the sides but one.

June 25. I worked for Jonathan on the Mill – shingling some and putting together the driving wheel on the main shaft.

June 26: I worked for Jonathan today, putting on the top of the Mill. Got it all on. Uncle is going to have it new shingled.

July 14…I went up to Uncle’s Mill afternoon – put up the arms. I helped some. They have got the machinery all put up and will finish it in a short time.

July 22.. Jonathan Sherman finished Uncle’s Mill today.  He had $500 for moving and putting it up in running order.

August 13: I sawed some wood that Uncle exchanged with me for white oak, to make pins for his Mill. ….

August 15: Worked on Uncle John’s Mill sails patching and sewing up the rents.

August 17: … Finished mending the sails. Jonathan Sherman came out from Newport and Mr. Borden came in the stage from Fall-River to get the mill in running order to grind corn.  Mr. Borden was the owner of the Mill when Uncle bought her.  We went up and took up the Big stone (Runner) found that we should have to have the bed-stone to make the wheels gearing to each other.

The runner stone of Boyd’s Mill

Note:  The “bed-stone” was set into a bed of concrete to keep it from moving.  The “runner” is the top rotating stone.  Both stones have a pattern of grooves that direct the grain to the outside edge.  The stones don’t touch each other and the grain is cut in a scissor like motion over and over again as they go from the center to the edge.   

August 18: Cut away the floor and moved the bed stone just on the Runner. Rigged the sails the afternoon and started her up for the first time in 4 years.  A damp, strong south -west wind – she went off start with sails reafed; ground about 5 bushels of southern corn for feed – some was mixed with oats. Levi Cory bought two grists.  The first that was bought.

Picks and tools for sharpening the grooves

August 19: We took up the Millstone and picked it with the small picks, shaving 25 or 30 of them together, making the surface of the stone much finer than the old way of picking with a single pick and not taking a quarter of the time to do it.  We started up and ground a little at night, but wind light from northwest.

Note:  Stone dressers would come at least once a year to “re-face” the stones to keep the grooves sharp.  Picks were used to sharpen the grooves.

August 20: Had to move the small bed-stone about an inch. wedged around it again: Worked a good while to make the break clear the driving wheel, and doing other small jobs.  Started up the Mill and ground 6 bushels flat corn, making fine meal for John Eldred of Newport: got 6 cents a bushel for grinding it; wind south west, whole sail breeze.

August 21: Isaac Grinnell came and set up the curb around the small stone (it is made of staves and hooked), and done one thing or another about the Mill.  A fine clear day, wind west, light.

Sherman Mill today at Prescott Farm

August 23: Worked on the Mill – wedging the arms of the driving wheel to keep it firm and strong. Asa Tibbets was there and assisted us.  Jonathan left many things undone which was needed to be done. Started up and ground 13 bushels of corn for feed, one bushel of round corn for Father, and one bushel of eyes in less than two hours, wind blowing strong from west nor west..

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: Judge Childs Farm – 1840

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What was farming like in Portsmouth before the Civil War?  Back in 1840 a Portsmouth farmer named Judge Joseph Childs responded to some questions about his farm.  This report was published in the New England Farmer and Horticultural Register, Vol. 19 for 1840.  This questionnaire gives us a unique glimpse into farm methods, crops planted and profitability of a small Portsmouth farm.  Charles Jackson (in his Report on the Geological and Agricultural Survey of the State of Rhode Island – 1840) also uses Childs’ report in making observations on the agriculture of Aquidneck Island.

Judge Child (Childs – I have seen it spelled both ways) must have been notable since Rev. Edward Peterson includes him in his 1853 History of Rhode Island (page 287).   Peterson thinks of him as a representative Portsmouth farmer.

“Farms generally are small, having been cut up and divided time to time. This, however is preferable, as a few acres, well cultivated, will yield far more than a larger quantity, partially cultivated….As illustration of this truth, it may be found in the proceeds of the model farm of the late Judge Child of Portsmouth, which contains about forty acres of land.  It was stated to the author, that he had realized $1000 per annum, independent of his living.”

Since Childs is listed as “Judge Childs” it is clear that he held public office and like most farmers in Portsmouth, he probably had other occupations beyond farming.

Possible location of Childs’ farm.

Jackson’s report tells us that “the farm of Judge Childs is situated in Portsmouth, on the eastern side of the island, near the sea shore.  Looking at an 1850’s map of the island there is land owned by John Childs in the Newtown area near Child’s Wharf that would probably fit that description.   Jackson visited the farm itself and collected soil samples. John Childs is listed as the executor of Joseph Child’s will, so he may have inherited the land or some of the land.

Childs reported that his farm was about 46 acres.  Twenty-one of the acres was plowed land, 6 acres were in pasture, over 16 acres were hay and two and a half acres were orchard.  Most of his land (over nine acres) was in growing Indian corn.  Four acres were devoted to potatoes, and another two and half to rye.  Child also grew peas, onions, turnips, wurzel (beetroot), apples, pumpkins, cabbages, and grapes.  Childs lists onions as his most profitable crop.  He sold them as far as New York.  Potatoes were the next most profitable.

He had livestock as well and produced 2000 lbs of beef, 2000 lbs of pork and 300 lbs of butter.  His stock included two horses, two oxen, 5 cows, 12 hogs and 40 chickens.

The judge was seventy-one years of age and he and his wife worked what they could on the farm.  The census lists four people on the land working agriculture.  He hired labor for about $500 a year.

Childs reported that he used 350 large ox-loads of manure per year.  That manure was made of fish, sand, sea weed, green weeds and remains from hog-pens and barn yard manure.  He experiments with composting with spent ashes and lime.

When asked “what agricultural experiments have you made?” Childs replied that “I change my seeds often, and practice a careful rotation of crops with every thing except onions.”

Rev. Edward Peterson’s history comments in his section on Childs that “Farming is a most honorable employment, and the most independent which can possibly be followed.”  Joseph Childs and his farming success are clearly examples of this “honorable” employment.

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: Greenvale and Gentleman Farms

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Greenvale on 1870s map

“Gentleman’s Farms” have long been a part of Portsmouth farm history. Greenvale Farm has been in the same family since the 1860s.  John S. Barstow, a China-trade merchant from Boston, created a “gentleman’s farm” on fifty-three acres of land on the shore of the Sakonnet River.  Greenvale was Barstow’s country retreat and he constructed a large main house and stable designed by Boston architect John Sturgis.  Barstow followed a pattern for a gentleman’s farm from the agricultural literature of the day (Country Life by Robert Morris Copeland – published 1859).  This volume is among the “Greenvale Library” collection that was given to Redwood Library by an heir to Barstow.

In his introduction, Copeland wrote: “I shall confine myself to the wants of men with small fortunes, as our country must always be principally inhabited by this class.”  Copeland sees these as men who have retired from active business so they need to have an occupation so to avoid the “evil of mental inactivity.”

Copeland goes on to describe a pattern for such a farm.  He sees the ideal farm as 60 acres of which 20 are farm. three acres are kitchen garden, 11 acres are for orchards of pears, peaches, cherries, plums, quinces, apricots, nectarines, apples and nuts.  Six acres are occupied by barns, stables, greenhouses, a grape house, hotbeds and nurseries as well as a dwelling house.  Land is set aside for a flower garden as well.  The rest is lawn, woods, ponds and roads.

The author organizes the book around an agricultural calendar that somehow starts with September when planning begins for the next growing year.

Vintage image of the Barstow house at Greenvale

Gentleman Farms existed in Portsmouth during colonial days when Newport merchants (Metcalf Bowler, Aaron Lopes, etc.) had their country estate.  After Barstow’s day the tradition continued with the Taylor’s Glen Farm and Sandy Point and Oakland Farm with the Vanderbilts. You can visit Greenvale today.  It is located off Wapping Road and descendants of Barstow operate it as a vineyard.

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: Windmills

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Wind grist mills were important to Portsmouth farmers during the 19th century. In 1942 the Fall River Herald ran an essay by Benjamin Boyd whose family ran the Boyd’s Mill. Boyd wrote about “Wind Grist Mills of Rhode Island.”  He provides a first hand account of the history of his family’s mill, the Sherman Mill and the vital role the mills played for local agriculture.

“For some reason,” Boyd wrote, “Rhode Island seems to have been the only place where these wind mills were used to any extent.” When Boyd was a boy he remembered 10 mills in Portsmouth.  In 1942 there were three mills left in Portsmouth.  Almy’s Mill (later called Thurston’s Mill) was on East Main Road.  The Sherman Mill was built in Warren to grind grain for whiskey production.  It was moved to Fall River and then to LeHigh Hill on West Main Road.  Boyd’s Mill was the third.  The first mill the Boyd family ran stood by Bristol Ferry.  The Great Gale of 1815 destroyed that one.  The family bought the Peterson Mill.  It was located by Mill Lane near West Main Road.  This mill was built in 1810 to grind grain to feed livestock.  Boyd said that in 1901 he converted the Boyd Mill into a eight vaned windmill.

Boyd wrote that cheap grain and meat from the western US made these old methods of farming unprofitable for Rhode Island farmers so they went more into truck farming.

Sherman Mill – Now at Prescott Farm

“But there were many people who appreciated the fact that Rhode Island corn, which is of a different shape and color from any other, possessed merits for making meal for family use superior to any other cornmeal.”  Boyd was referring to the famous Rhode Island Johnny Cake meal.

Boyd commented that all meal up to 1895 was unsifted so that the cook had to sift it.  Boyd invented a “power sifter” run by the mill.

By the end of the 19th century there were 6,000 sheep kept on the island and many hogs.  November was slaughter time for the hogs that had been grown and fattened by the wind mill ground grain.  As the miller, the Boyds received a portion of the ground grain as payment and they fed their hogs with it.   Benjamin Boyd said his father took up to 6,000 pounds of pork to sell in New Bedford.  The gristmill grain and hay fed cows, oxen, sheep, pigs and poultry.

Most Portsmouth farmers had at least a pair of oxen that could be put to work.  Boyd said that local farmers looked to “pay off” their taxes.  “Money was scarce, so the town was divided into seven road districts with a supervisor for each district, and on a certain day after planting, when there was a slack time before cultivating and hoeing, the supervisor warned each taxpayer that he could come out and work out his tax if he so desired, bring oxen and carts, crowbars, shovels, forks, hoes, chains, plows, and as many of his hired help as he desired.”  Boyd states that the seven “road districts” corresponded to the “school districts.”

Boyd remembers “cattle drivers” and “horse traders” who drove their livestock down the main roads to sell their animals to the farmers.  One such driver stopped to talk to a potential buyer but his animals continued down the road and found a poor farmer’s cabbage patch.

For Boyd, windmills were part of his heritage.  He was a descendent of Nicholas Easton who built the first wind grist mill.  “I have farmed all my life and have turned the black dirt of Old Mother Earth into wheat, rye, oats and barley to be ground into feed for livestock, and as I have baked many Johnny Cakes.  I have literally turned the black dirt of Old Mother Earth into one of the finest food products known to man, the Famous Rhode Island Johnny Cake; ground by the power of the free air, which is the only thing that is free today.”

This article is available online at this link:

Click to access Scrapbook-Part-2-p-13-20-18-blank.pdf

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: After the Occupation

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What happened to Portsmouth farms and farmers after the British occupation? A line from town hall meeting records states the post Revolutionary War situation succinctly:

“On Sunday ye 8th Day of December A.D. 1776 about Eight Thousand of British Troops took possession of this island and Remained on until Monday the 25 Day of October A.D. 1779, for which time the inhabitants were greatly oppressed.”

“The inhabitants were greatly oppressed.” Farmers were left without their livestock, without their hunting guns, without their farm tools, without their carts and wagons, without their fencing, and in many cases without their homes. Firewood was scarce since the British had chopped down just about every tree on the island, so the farmers felt the cold winter without fuel for heating or cooking.

Farmers may have had their land, but many had not been able work their land.  During the occupation they had been impressed by the British to labor on fortifications, etc. The occupation had taken its toll and right after the Revolution, Portsmouth farmers needed to focus on their own interests.

Household Inventory

To make good their losses, Portsmouth families petitioned the state for compensation for the damages suffered during the War. Among the documents in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society is such an inventory of losses dated around 1780. Robert Binney (Benney) and Elizabeth Heffernan were “in laws” who shared a home and a 26-acre farm just north of the Quaker Meeting House.  The household inventory that they prepared can give an idea of what Portsmouth residents lost in the War. Among the items destroyed were five acres of orchards, a mare and 5 hogs. They lost their corn crib, four acres of corn, 12 loads of hay, twelve goats, two cows and one calf, a jackass and a ox cart among other household items.

In 1779, when the town meetings began again, Portsmouth citizens sent a message to the Rhode Island General Assembly asking that their taxes should be lowered because the town was in a “Distressed Situation.” Unfortunately the state still wanted its taxes and in May of 1781 threatened to confiscate the property of those who did not pay even though they had supported the war and suffered from the hardships of occupation. Portsmouth people were so concerned about their local issues, that it was hard for them to sacrifice anything more for the state or national government.  The citizens preferred the more decentralized Articles of Confederation to the new Constitution that was proposed.  Portsmouth Freemen voted twelve to sixty to not adopt the Constitution in a vote held May 24th, 1788.  Portsmouth military leaders Cook Wilcox, David Gifford and Burrington Anthony were among those who voted against adoption of the Constitution.  As an agricultural community, Portsmouth people were concerned about war debt repayment and “paper money” issues as well as waiting for the adoption of the Bill Of Rights.  Portsmouth townspeople began to favor the new constitution when it seemed that the national government would start putting heavy fines on Rhode Island trade with other states.  That would not be in the best interest of the Portsmouth farmers.  Portsmouth voted for the Constitution and Rhode Island finally became the thirteenth state in 1790.

The 1790 census showed a thousand, five hundred and sixty residents – 243 families and 19 slaves. By the early 1800s dairy and grain farms were more important.  Sheep raising became less important than it had been in early years.  The occupation and post war concerns had changed the lot of the Portsmouth farmer.

Resources:  Localism in Portsmouth and Foster during the Revolutionary and Founding Periods  by WILLIAM M. FERRARO.  Rhode Island Historical Society, August 1996.