Portsmouth Artist Bessie T. Cram (1875-1966)

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Bessie Thompson Cram was a Portsmouth summer resident and painter for almost 70 years. Bessie was born in Middleboro, Massachusetts, but her ties to Portsmouth were deep. She was the cousin of Gertrude Macomber Hammond and spent the last 12 years of her life in the home of her cousin on Quaker Hill. Around 1900 she established a studio at a cottage on the Sakonnet shore down from the Macomber home. She called it “Sakonnet Studio – Summer School of Arts and Crafts.”

Bessie’s obituary in the Newport Daily News (July 30,1966) calls her a “Craftsman.” Her artistry went beyond painting and she was adept at many mediums. She was a graduate of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Craft. In the 1920s she became a master craftsman of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts and Dean of its Leather Workers Guild. Bessie was a teacher who shared her skills with Portsmouth students. She taught jewelry design with precious metals and stones, leather tooling and molding and patching of pewter and other metals.

She was a “craftsman” but she never neglected her painting. Her style of work evolved over the years. Between 1912 and 1924 her work became more abstract and more colorful in design. From 1940 to 1959 her painting became even more abstract. Her last project was an impressionistic series with the Sakonnet River as a subject.

Steven Olszewski named his own “Sakonnet Studio” after Bessie and held an exhibit of her work in 1974. He used the weathered walls of Bessie’s cabin when he built his studio on East Main Road. The Sakonnet Times of June 20, 1974 describes this exhibit and was a great source of information on Bessie. A special thank you goes to the Portsmouth Free Public Library for providing that newspaper clipping to me.

I am grateful to Joan Macomber for sending images of her painting. Phone conversations with Joan and Bill Macomber introduced me to Bessie and her work. Bessie’s work deserves to be recognized.

The Women of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League

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Do you want to know more about the women who were part of the Newport County Suffrage League from 1907-1920? I have written a little booklet that is available her in pdf form.

Portsmouth Women Vote is the subject of a talk at the Portsmouth Historical Society at 6:30 PM on October 14th.

Lillian Wheeler Boone (1888-1978): A Suffragist’s Life Story

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Lillian Wheeler Boone was one of the younger members of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League. She lived a long and remarkable life, full of adventure and community service. Through the kindness of her granddaughter, Abigail K. Brown, I was able to hear Lillian’s story in her own words. She shared a tape recorded oral history interview that Lillian had given to a high school student. Lillian was ninety when the recording was made in 1978 and the high school student, Russell Byrd, did a fine job of prompting her memory with good questions. Lillian summed up her life with a few statements – “I’ve done everything” and “I had a wonderful life.”

Lillian was born during the Blizzard of 1888 and the difficulties of her birth would stay with her and her family for many years. Her father was the stationmaster for the railroad at Bristol Ferry and the Wheeler family lived upstairs in the station house. When her mother was in labor the doctor was anxious to leave and get home on the last train out in the storm and the birthing process was rushed. Lillian was born, but her mother almost died and was left paralyzed. Lillian would assume the responsibility for her mother’s care for many years.

Lillian was always surrounded by good friends and those friendships were very important to her. She was active at Rogers High School and graduated in 1905. She maintained many of those high school friendships throughout her life. After graduation Lillian stayed at home tending to her mother, but that didn’t prevent her from being active in the community. In Portsmouth she was an integral part of the Ladies Guild of St. Paul’s Church. Many of the Portsmouth suffragists were also active in that group. Some of those same women were her neighbors at Bristol Ferry and Lillian become part of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League that was organized in her neighborhood.

When Lillian was asked about the Suffrage Movement, she said she served as secretary and would go to meetings and record the events. Newspaper articles show that Lillian served as Treasurer as well. Lillian remembered attending rallies, placing ads in the newspapers and attending card and tea parties to promote the cause. She was part of the organization of the league. She was asked if there were men at the meetings and she said there were and she didn’t remember local men ever heckling the Portsmouth suffragists. She thought her time in the suffrage movement was “interesting” and she remembered Mrs. Belmont and her rallies at Marble House.

When she was able to get someone to help her mother, Lillian set out to get her teaching certification. It wasn’t an easy process. For two and a half years she daily traveled to the Normal School in Providence by train and electric car. With her certification she served as a teacher at the Bristol Ferry School. She rose early to build a fire to warm the students at the little one room school house. She thought that the model of the one room school was ideal because the older students helped the younger ones. She enjoyed her three years at Bristol Ferry School but the pay was meager – only twelve dollars a week for almost 50 hours of work.

In 1918 Cora Mitchel, the founder of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League, was looking for a companion for a trip across the county to California. Lillian was up for the adventure and Cora promised to pay her more than she could make as a teacher. Lillian had great adventures like riding through the area around Zion National Park in a horse and buggy.

In April of 1919 when Cora and Lillian arrived back home, Lillian volunteered for service to veterans coming home from the war. She met her husband, Alexander Boone, through this work. They married in June of 1920 and Lillian became a wife and mother. As women achieved the vote, Lillian became active in Republican politics. Many members of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League channelled their activities into the Republican Party. Lillian actively helped her party as a member of the Republican State Central Committee. When she was on the executive board she helped to pick the candidates. Having a role in the political process was a goal of the suffragists.

Lillian spent her ninety years deeply involved in the community. She started a newspaper, an insurance agency and a real estate agency. She founded women’s clubs with the intention of “beautifying the town” and working on worthwhile projects. She was active in Rhode Island’s tercentenary committee and helped procure part of Founder’s Brook for the town. Lillian loved her Bristol Ferry neighborhood and bought land to preserve it. She generously donated a parcel of land at the end of Bayview Drive to be the Bertha K. Russel Preserve, a tidal marsh protected for nature.

Lillian Wheeler Boone certainly had a life well lived.