On Society Grounds: Old Town Hall

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Most people think that we have a barn on the Portsmouth Historical Society grounds. They are surprised when we tell them it was actually the Old Town Hall. Yes, the building did serve as a stable and carriage house, but before that it was Portsmouth’s Town Hall from 1840 to 1895. We have a good idea of the building date because we have a card in the historical society collection that is an invitation to the town hall opening ceremonies.

Old Town Hall today

The building was originally located where the present town hall is today. When a grander town hall was erected in 1895, the old town hall was moved to the south side of the town hall lot. At this time the building was used like a barn. One story we have from these days takes place around 1907 when George Hicks was Town Clerk. When he had to work late in the evening for special meetings, he would hitch his horse and buggy in the Old Town Hall. One night some young people decided to play a trick on Hicks. Somehow they managed to get his buggy on the roof of Old Town Hall. We are not sure of who the culprits were or how Hicks got the buggy down, but a picture in the John Pierce Collection at the Portsmouth Free Public Library proves the story was true.

The buggy on the roof – 1907

Later the building served as headquarters for the Portsmouth Volunteer Fire Department. When the new firehouse was built, Old Town Hall served for a storage and meeting room. Around the late 1970s the town offered the building to the Portsmouth Historical Society and the building was moved to our grounds.

Today the Old Town Hall houses our horse drawn vehicles including the coroner’s hearse and the last mail wagon. It also displays a fine collection of local farm tools and machines.

Lost to Time: Oakland Lodge

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“A roaring fire last night destroyed the Oakland Odd Fellows Hall at 126 East Main Road, Portsmouth, after 250 people attending an auction walked quietly outdoors to safety.” (Newport Daily News – January 19, 1955).

Lost to Time? The Oakland Lodge was lost to time and Portsmouth in a rather dramatic way – a fire.

The fire that took the building in 1955 must have been a traumatic event. John E. Janes of Newport was the auctioneer and his assistant smelled smoke and discovered it on the second floor. Janes calmly led his patrons out of the building. He saved some of his merchandise, but lost 125 chairs in the blaze.

Fire equipment from Portsmouth, Middletown, Glen Farm and the Navy tried to put out the flames, but the water supply was limited. Fifteen thousand gallons of water had to be shuttled from a hydrant on the corner of Forest Ave and East Main Road. Empty petroleum trucks helped to ferry the water. Chief Henry W. Wilkey said that he could have had three 500 gallon pieces from Tiverton, but the Stone Bridge was not passable. Wilkey believed the fire probably started from an overheated stove pipe running through the partition.

In a recent blog I wrote about the arts in Portsmouth. In researching what was going on with the arts in Portsmouth in the 1920s, I came across a theater troop centered at Oakland Lodge. As I gathered materials for our 1920s exhibit at the Portsmouth Historical Society, I came across a photo of the Lodge. The Lodge was located close to the Middletown border on East Main Road. On the back of the photo (taken in April of 1925) there is a brief history of the Lodge.

“Oakland Lodge, No. 32, I.O.O.F., was chartered January, 1874, with twenty members, of whom Charles C. Slocum was Noble Grand; Samuel G. Arnold, Vice P.S., Constant C. Chace, W.S.; Peleg L. Thurston, P.S. and Herbert Chace, R.S. Oakland Lodge Hall was built in 1875. It was destroyed by fire on the night of January 18, 1955. The one story building that was built to replace it was used by the Lodge for about twenty years, until its membership grew so small, that it merged with the Excellent Lodge of Newport and the property was sold.”

The Independent Organization of Odd Fellows was a fraternal organization – one of the largest groups in the United States. Newspaper accounts show that the Oakland Lodge was a very active organization. The Odd Fellows were one of the first fraternal groups to welcome women – “Daughters of Rebekah.” Their purpose was:

  1. To improve and elevate the character of mankind by promoting the principles of friendship, love, truth, faith, hope, charity and universal justice.
  2. To help make the world a better place to live by aiding each other in times of need and by organizing charitable projects and activities that would benefit the less fortunate, the youth, the elderly, the environment and the community in every way possible.
  3. To promote good will and harmony amongst peoples and nations through the principle of universal fraternity, holding the belief that all men and women regardless of race, nationality, religion, social status, gender, rank and station are brothers and sisters.
  4. To promote a wholesome fraternal experience without violence, vices and discrimination of every form.

Although the Odd Fellows rebuilt and continued to meet for twenty more years, the members dwindled and they closed the doors in the 1970s.

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