Portsmouth Farmer: Mervin Briggs and Fairholm Dairy

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Are you old enough to remember the days when milk was delivered to your home in glass bottles? In the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society is a calendar advertising the Fairholm Dairy. Located on West Main Road by Hedly Street, it was started by Mervin Briggs and later was run by family members. The dairy developed into a wholesale and retail establishment.  As a family business, Mervin’s sons Barclay, Frederick II and Ernest Briggs all had roles to play. By 1970 it was operated by Mrs. Frederick Briggs and sons Frederick, David and Richard.

Newspaper accounts in 1953 show that the Briggs family had a championship Guernsey cow named Fairholm Senator’s Coronet – that produced 10,423 pounds of milk and 483 pounds of butterfat.  In 1949 when the Glen Guernseys was sold at auction, Mervin Briggs bought one of the Glen Farm prize cows.

Mervin was a dedicated member of the Friends Church in Portsmouth and he played an active role in agricultural interests in the town.  One account lists him as a “Extension Minuteman” who would help to survey Portsmouth farms for food supply in 1943.

Portsmouth Farmers: Frank Chase and Mary Chase Hanks

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Frank Chase

Many of the farm tools in the Old Town Hall exhibit were used on Frank Chase’s farm at the bottom of Quaker Hill. Frank was a farmer for 80 years. He was a local pioneer in raising turkeys, eggplant and late growing cauliflower.  Frank’s daughter, Mary Chase Hanks, donated the farm equipment in her father’s name.

A number of years ago my students at Elmhurst School were studying Portsmouth’s farm heritage.  I was able to bring the third grade students to various farms in Portsmouth to interview farmers about their work.  I brought one class to the Chase Farm at the bottom of Quaker Hill.  The students were delighted to talk to two women farmers.  One was an organic farmer who was renting the Chase land.  The other was Mary Chase Hanks whose family had been farming the land for generations.  In many ways their farming techniques were similar.

It is difficult to find information about many of our Portsmouth farmers, but a 1994 Newport Daily News article by R.E. Reimer on Mary Chase Hanks give us more information on both farmers.  At the time Mary was growing peaches, pears, tomatoes, peppers, berries, flowers and corn and selling them at her “Stonewall Stand” on East Main Road.  Mary was using organic techniques and was quoted as saying, “I like natural things, the natural way of preserving life and doing things that’s going to help the other fellow.”  She didn’t use herbicides or insecticides.  That was the Chase farm way since before the Civil War.

Mary stated that the farm was once part of her great-great-grandfather Samuel Chases much larger farm.  Frank Chase inherited part of that farm – around 18 acres of it from Quaker Hill to Bloody Run Brook.

Mary said her father Frank worked long, hard hours and expected the same of everyone who worked with him.  “Remember he started out when you delivered milk in the horse and buggy at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Mary related that her father liked to plant cauliflower because he loved to watch it grow.  He teased that he had the sweetest melons because he put sugar on the land.

Mary Chase Hanks was dedicated to farming on her father’s side, but she was also artistic like her mother.  She earned a degree in commercial art, but didn’t use her training for a while.  She married and went on to raising four children in California.  She became a portrait painter with children as her subjects.

Mary Chase Hanks – part of Daily News photo – Kathryn Whitney

Mary returned to the Chase Farm in 1954 in order to help her father and she brought her children with her.  As her father aged she would farm in Portsmouth from April to October and then return to her California life over the winter.  Farming was an essential part of Mary’s life.  She died at age 88.

Portsmouth Women: Librarian Ruth Lunan


Ruth Lunan at age 17. Image from Ancestry.

The Portsmouth Free Public Library is a central gathering spot for our community.  The librarian and staff have an important role in encouraging our children to read, providing resources for education and enabling lifelong learning for adults.  One of the librarians that filled that role for twenty-three years was Ruth Coggeshall Lunan.

Ruth was born in 1895 and was the daughter of Leander and Jennie Brownell Coggeshall.  In 1913, at the age of eighteen, Ruth married Clarence Lunan of Fall River.  They had three daughters, Elaine, Madeline and Ethel.  In 1934 Clarence died suddenly while driving a firetruck from a fire at Montaup Golf Club.  Ruth was left a widow and it was about that time that she began to serve the community as librarian of the Portsmouth Free Public Library.

During her twenty-three years of service, Ruth presided over many changes at the library.  The library lacked funds for many of the years Ruth served, but she was credited with providing the services and improvements needed to get by.  The yearly librarian report for 1954 shows that Ruth served 875 adult patrons and 390 children.  Total book circulation was 24,581 volumes.  Edith Taylor Nicholson became aware of the needs of the library and donated a gift to improve the library.  Ruth worked to use that gift wisely for the library and its patrons.  The schedule for library services in 1957 included hours Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons from 2 to 5PM.  Evening hours were Thursday and Saturday nights from 6 to 8PM.

Ruth resigned from her duties in July of 1958, but she continued to serve as a Friend of the Library.  In 1966 when a new wing was dedicated in the name of longtime benefactor Edith Bishop Taylor Nicholson, Ruth was on hand assisting staff during the open house and dedication.

Newspaper clippings show Ruth as an avid Contract Bridge player and she was active in the Methodist Church.  She and Fred Harper were granted a victualler’s license for Sherman Spa on Quaker Hill.

Sometime later Ruth moved to Florida and she died there in 1980,

Alice Anthony Webb and the Ladies of St. Paul’s Church

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Do you remember going to Cherry & Webb department stores?  A Portsmouth woman, Alice Anthony, provided a local connection to the stores.  When Alice, the daughter of prominent seed farmer Henry C. Anthony and Eldora Wilcox Anthony, married department store owner Frederick Webb in 1910 it was one of the highlights of Portsmouth’s social year. The Webbs were married at the residence of the groom on East Main Road.  Many of you may remember the house as the location of the Seafare Inn restaurant.  After a wedding breakfast the bride and groom took a honeymoon tour of the South and West.  According to the newspaper account, “The bride was the recipient of many beautiful and costly presents.”

Alice Anthony Webb

Alice ( 1886-1960) was active in Portsmouth life.  She was a delegate for the Republican party and she served on the board of St. Michael’s School in Newport.  She was especially active at St. Paul’s Church in the Guild and the Ladies Association.  She was president of the Girl’s Friendly Society which was an Episcopalian society that sought to help girls – especially working girls.  Alice and the women of St. Pauls held fundraisers like whist parties which helped them donate to homes for these young girls.  One newspaper clipping in 1927 records that they were donating to “St. Virgin’s Home” in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Alice was part of a dedicated group of women who worked to make St. Paul’s an active church.  Alice hosted the annual meeting of the Ladies Association in 1914 and the list of names of officers and committee members helps us recognize some of the “worker bees.”  You will note the number of  Anthony family women who were active.

President:  Miss Hattie G Anthony; Vice President, Mrs. William B. Anthony; Secretary, Miss Abbie Anthony: Treasurer, Miss Fannie Hicks; Collector, Miss Grace Hicks; Work committee, Mrs. Benjamin C. Sherman and Miss Grace Hicks; Fancy work, Mrs. John Eldredge, Mrs. George Anthony, and Mrs. Frank Chase; Other workers included – Mrs. Benjamin S. Anthony, Mrs. John Borden, Mrs. David B. Anthony, Mrs. William Grinnell, Mrs. Berton Storrs and Mrs. Clara Manchester.

The Portsmouth Temperance Ladies: Eunice Greene and Lillian Borden

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Photo includes some of the WCTU women – Josephine Sweet, Etta Sherman and Lillian Borden

What is your image of people who were active in the temperance movement? Do you think of them as radicals like Carrie Nation swinging their axes around saloons?  As I read through vintage newspaper articles about the Portsmouth chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), I’ve formed quite a different image.  These women fought for their cause by organizing, petitioning the Town Council and General Assembly, praying, educating the young, reaching out to soldiers and sailors and working for Women’s Suffrage.  They were the “church ladies” like Lillian Borden and community leaders like Eunice Greene.

The Rhode Island chapter of the WCTU formed in 1875 just two years after the national chapter began.  Phebe Hathaway of Portsmouth was one of the state leaders.  By 1888 the organization had experienced great growth and great failure.  Every town in Rhode Island had a chapter.  In 1886 a statewide prohibition referendum had passed, but there was a vote for repeal in 1889.  In the 1890s the organization regrouped to work on a national prohibition.  The Portsmouth group honored National president, Frances E. Willard, who led the organization for 19 years (1879-1898).  Willard promoted other causes that impacted women such as suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and the eight hour work day.  Local newspaper articles reveal that the Portsmouth chapter would read Willard’s writings at meetings and celebrated her long after her death.

Once National Prohibition passed, the cause faded away in many areas, but the Portsmouth group kept meeting. Sarah Eddy, a noted artist and reformer, hosted a meeting in 1929 at her home on Bristol Ferry Road.  Fifty WCTU members gathered to hear National leaders from many states.  Rhode Island did not ratify the 18th Amendment for Prohibition and our coastland was a well known area for bootlegging.  Even with national Prohibition laws, the “evils of alcohol” still impacted local men and their families.

Vintage newspaper articles give us some clues to the activities of our local WCTU chapter.

  1.  Meetings were religious and ecumenical.  Hymns, devotions, and scripture readings were always part of the gathering.  All the local Protestant churches and ministers seemed to participate.  These included the Trouts of the Friends Church, Kathryn Cooper (Pastor of the Methodist Church), Pastors Macy and Loucks (Christian Church)  and Episcopal Rev. Dennis who held services in Portsmouth over the summer.  I have not seen any mention of the Catholic pastors.  The Temperance movement arose from Protestant revival roots urging that society be reformed.
  2. Activities were varied and there was a Supervisor for each of these areas.  Among these committees in 1914 were “Evangelistic Work”;  “Sunday School Work”;  “Literature”; “Work Among Foreigners” ; “Peace”; “Social Purity”; “Medical Temperance”; and “Scientific Temperance Instruction.”  This instruction involved going into the town classrooms to teach temperance to the school children.
  3. Do you want to be Efficient? pamphlet for military

    In other articles I found outreach to Soldiers and Sailors.  Special pamphlets aimed at young military recruits were included in “comfort bags” that were given out in a war relief effort.  One such booklet was called “Do You Want to be Efficient?”  You can read this pamphlet online from the collection of Brown University.  It typifies the “scientific” bent of the Temperance movement.  Men were urged to make choices based on the science and with all the facts rather than purely moralistic.   https://library.brown.edu/cds/catalog/catalog.php?verb=render&id=1096893563508500&colid=7&view=pageturner

Eunice Chase Greene (1842-1921) was the President of the Portsmouth group for 40 years.  She was married to Dr. Benjamin Greene and she had a house at the foot of Quaker Hill.  For many years she was an Elder in the Friends Church.  In her younger days she taught music – both vocal and instrumental.

Lillian Collins Borden (1869-1933) became President of the Portsmouth WCTU when Eunice Greene became ill.  She was the wife of Alonzo Borden and the couple were very active in the Christian Union Church. This church (now the home of the Portsmouth Historical Society) hosted many temperance meetings throughout the years.   Lillian was active in the community and served on the Portsmouth School Board.

Dorothea Dix in Portsmouth

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Dorothea Dix

Who was Dorothea Dix and what is her connection with Portsmouth, Rhode Island?  Dix is one of those names that you may have heard but can’t quite place. She was a social reformer who was active nationally and internationally from the the 1840s to her death in 1887. She is most known for championing the cause of the mentally ill who at that time were usually locked away in prison like conditions. Dix was a frequent visitor to Portsmouth and her visits here were an important part of her development as a reformer.

Dorothea Dix first came to Portsmouth as part of the household of William Ellery Channing.  Channing was a noted early figure in the Unitarian Church.  He had deep roots in Aquidneck Island and would summer at Oakland Farm off of East Main Road.  Oakland Farm was close to the little Union Meeting House and Channing would meet with the farm families of the congregation weekly during the summers.  During the spring and summer of 1827, Dix came from Boston with the Channing family as the governess to the Channing daughters.  Dix was recovering from tuberculous and could no longer practice her occupation of teaching.

The Channing daughters described her as “strict and inflexible in her discipline,” but they appreciated this strictness later in life. They wrote “At the little Union Meetinghouse which adjoined Oakland, our place on Rhode Island, Miss Dix always had the class of troublesome men and boys, who succumbed to her charm of manner and firm will.”  Indeed Dorothea Dix started the Sunday School at the Union Meetinghouse and came back to visit whenever she stayed with the Channing family.  Her visits to the Sunday (Sabbath) School were recorded in newspaper articles and church reports.  One account shows Dix bringing two young men with her to Newport to bring back an organ she bought for the school.  With that organ, music became a more integral part of the services and school.  Concerts and singing of the psalms began.  Later one of the Channing daughters would also donate an organ in her father’s name.

The Channing daughters describe her as a “constant visitor” after the death of her grandmother. “She delighted to drop in unexpectedly, and then suddenly receiving a letter from a poor soldier at Fort Adams, would start off at a moment’s notice to right this wrong and persuade the government to improve the arrangements for the comfort of the men.”

On one visit to the area Miss Dix talked to someone who made her aware of the plight of Abram Simmons, who was confined to a dungeon in Little Compton.  An article in the April 10, 1844 Providence Journal attributed to Dix, illustrates the treatment of the insane in Rhode Island at that time. Here is how the situation of Abram was explained.

“His prison was from six to eight feet square, built entirely of stone–sides, roof and floor–and entered through two iron doors, excluding fresh air, and entirely without accommodation of any description for warming or ventilating.  At that time the internal surface of the walls was covered with a thick frost, adhering to the stone in some places to the thickness of the half of an inch, as ascertained by actual measurement. The only bed
was a small sacking stuffed with straw, lying on a narrow iron bedstead, with two comforters for a covering. The bed itself was wet,  and the outside  comforter was completely saturated with drippings from the walls and stiffly frozen. Thus, in utter darkness, encased on every side by walls of frost, his garments were constantly more or less wet….”

Dix persuaded Dr. Cyrus Butler to donate $40,000 toward the establishment of a facility for the poor insane as long as matching public funds were raised. Butler Hospital for the Insane was created from that gift.
Efforts to ensure humane treatment for the mentally ill in Rhode Island and even in Portsmouth were not always successful. Dorothea Dix joined Thomas Hazard of Portsmouth in trying to move a young carpenter named Dennis from the Portsmouth Asylum into a hospital for real care. Appeals to Asylum supervisors and even the town council were unsuccessful. Hazard writes that “It was some weeks or months after the failure of this effort to relieve poor Dennis, that I visited the Portsmouth Asylum in company with that inestimable friend of humanity, Dorothea L. Dix. “ They helplessly watched as poor Dennis died while they were there. Even in Portsmouth it was difficult to shake prejudice against the mentally ill.

Dorothea Dix came to Portsmouth to restore her health, but she left her mark on the community. She used her teaching talents to begin a Sunday School that continued for almost a hundred years. The gift of an organ enabled the church to emphasize music education for all. Some of her early work in social reform benefited mental health in Rhode Island. Dorothy Dix left her mark on our community.