As I have been researching Portsmouth farm heritage, I found that our farmers have come from a variety of experiences.  They were settler farmers who were originally tradesmen and merchants in England. “Gentleman farmers” with big estates came from business backgrounds in New York and cities.  Our Yankee farmers were the descendants of the settlers and they were pillars of the community.  Portuguese farmers came across the Atlantic to Portsmouth to continue their farming trade.  I came across another farm family, the Ayler family, whose road to Portsmouth was quite different.

Edward Ayler’s obituary (published in the Newport Mercury in June of 1935) provides some clues to understanding their lives.

“Edward Ayler, one of the oldest and best known citizens of Portsmouth, died last Friday at his home on Freeborn Street.”

Ayler Property on 1907 map

This first line tells us where Edward (and his father before him) lived – in the area of Portsmouth known as Cozy Corner. Edward was well known.

“He was the son of the late Morgan and Matilda Ayler, former slaves, who came from the South to Portsmouth after the Civil War.”

The last line of Edward’s obituary tells us that he lived a long life as a Portsmouth farmer.  “He was more than 80 years old and had been engaged in farming practically all his life.”

How did the Aylers settle in Portsmouth?  The obituary of Matilda Ayler’s sister gives us another clue.  The Newport Mercury 1926 article about the death of Mrs. Robert Scott said “She came to this town over 60 years ago from the South, when the late Joseph Macomber went there and returned with 16 slaves.”   I am still working on researching the others who came here with the Aylers and I will write more about these Portsmouth community members in a later article.

Morgan Robert Ayler was born in Virginia in 1825.  I will focus on his life in Portsmouth, but genealogical resources show him residing in Ohio and West Virginia on his way back to his native Virginia.  The  records of the U.S., Freedman’s Bank show his residence as Washington, D.C. in 1870.   Also in 1870, Morgan, his wife Matilda and three of his children are listed as residing on the farm of Joseph Macomber off East Main Road in Portsmouth.  Morgan is listed by his middle name of “Robert” and son Edward is listed as “Edmund,” but their ages correspond to the birth dates of Morgan and Edward.  The men are listed as being farm laborers.

An interesting Daily News article in 1879 tells us that Mr. Morgan Ayler is in charge of  Friend Macomber’s farm.  It seems that Morgan Ayler found thirty six small bottles of liquor – all in a row – in one of the fields.  Since Macomber was a “well known temperance man,” it was suggested that the bottles were left behind by “thirsty Providence folk” who came for the “great celebration” of the Battle of Rhode Island the year before.

By the 1880 U.S. census both Morgan and Edward are listed as farmers with land of their own.  Both men won awards for their produce at the local Agricultural Fair.   At age seventy-seven, farmer Morgan’s tomatoes were given awards in 1902.   In 1914 and 1918 Edward was winning awards for his potatoes, parsley, beans and lima beans.   The Aylers must have been well known as farmers because an 1890 newspaper ad uses a testimonial from Edward Ayler and his brother Robert – “In trial with other Fertilizers, E. Frank Coes’s Red Brand Excelsior Guano gave the best results.”

The Ayler family was very involved in Portsmouth activities.  Edward Ayler’s wife (Louise Jackson Ayler)  was active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.  She often hosted meetings at her home.  She was active in the Friends Missionary Society.  The early generations of the Aylers were strong Quakers, but there seems to be a split among the third generation.  Edward’s sons Raymond and Emerson and daughter Alice Ayler Morris were known for their singing in the Friends Church before World War I.  During the war, however,  Raymond H. Ayler was commissioned as Second Lieutenant after having been drafted “with the colored boys” (Mercury, 9/13/18) while brother Osceola received a deferment because of his Quaker faith.  In the 1920s Raymond would be on the executive board of the American Legion along with William Vanderbilt and Bradford Norman.  L

Later generations of the Aylers would move on from Portsmouth.  Despite their difficult beginnings they became a vital part of the Portsmouth community.  The Ayler family is part of Portsmouth’s farm heritage.