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 1919: Focus on Henry Clay Anthony


The Portsmouth Historical Society website has a wonderful resource if you are trying to get a sense of what Portsmouth was like a hundred years ago. Scans of the town directory for 1916 and 1919 are located under the “Resources ” category. I looked to the directory to see who was listed as farmers a century ago. There were no house numbers in those days, but they do list some street information like “Middle Road by Jepson Lane.” There are certainly names listed in the directory that are familiar to us today. Their families are still among us. I will list these farmers from 1919 in blogs to follow and I will highlight some of the farmers’ stories that I have found.

George Hazard Albo: Braman’s Lane
William Albro: Milk producer, Braman’s Lane
Gaetanas Almeida – Jepson Lane
Edward Almy – Union at West Road
Henry Almy – (Almy Bros) farmer milk producer boards with William Almy
William Almy – (Almy Bros) poultry raiser and milk producer Union St. by East Main Road
Jacob Almy – Poultry dealer 27 Glen
Manuel Alvenas – Mill Road
Benjamin Anthony – Bradford Ave and West Main
Borden Anthony – East Main Rd and Town Hall
Charles Anthony – boards with William Anthony
George Anthony Jr. – East Main Road
Henry C. Anthony – market gardener – Park Avenue
Ralph Anthony – Dexter and Turnpike
William Anthony – E. Main Road

Anthony Seed Catalog

Henry Clay Anthony was a noted seed farmer. He was born in Portsmouth in 1852 and received a business education at Scholfield’s Commercial College in Providence. He made his home at “Elm Farm” on Park Avenue.

Agriculture was his family heritage, but he was scientific and practical as he aimed to create the best results in seed production. He was the largest seed grower in New England and he had large farms throughout the area – not just in Portsmouth. He had 800 acres of land in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. His seeds were in demand throughout the United States and Canada.

Anthony Seed Farm Field

Like many Portsmouth farmers, Henry Clay Anthony served the community in the State Assembly and on the Portsmouth Town Council.

Visit Denise Wilkey’s Pottery Shop on East Main Road to see some of Henry C. Anthony’s seed bins.

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: 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

A Portsmouth Farming Myth: The Origins of the Rhode Island Greening Apple

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A Portsmouth Myth: The Origins of the Rhode Island Greening Apple

Even before the Revolutionary War, wealthy Newport merchants had their country farm out in Portsmouth.  At that time Newport was the fifth largest port in the colonies. Many merchants became rich in the shipping trade. Among the most successful merchants was Metcalf Bowler who owned many ships that sailed around the world.  Bowler’s Portsmouth farm, Vaucluse,  was off of Wapping Road.

One day one of Bowler’s ships was caught in a typhoon. Captain Chausan, the master of the ship, skillfully sailed his ship through the bad weather. Floating on the rough seas, however, was what remained of another ship that did not fare so well in the storm. Captain Chausan rescued the men who had clung to the pieces of the boat. Among these men was a man of great importance – he was the son of the Shah (ruler) of Persia in the Middle East. Captain Chausan brought the men into a safe port and went on his way with his journey.

When Captain Chausan returned to the East Indies area again, a group of men representing the shah arrived. They offered a gift to the Captain as a thanks for the rescue. Although it seemed like a simple gift of a graceful tree that had been planted in a porcelain pot, it turned out to be a priceless gift. The Shah’s representatives told the captain that the shoot of the tree had been carefully nourished because it was a very special tree. The Shah’s palace was on the very site of the famous Garden of Eden. The gift tree was a shoot from the very tree that tempted Adam and Eve.

Bowler’s Vision

Captain Chausan accepted the gift and took good care of the plant on the way home to Newport. Upon landing he presented the tree to his employer, Metcalf Bowler. The potted tree was brought to Bowler’s Portsmouth farm. His intention was to place the tree in his green house. The first night the tree was in Portsmouth, Bowler had a dream. A woman appeared to him. She was dressed in shimmering clothes and she had a golden halo around her head. She told Bowler that she was Mother Eve and instructed him not to plant the tree in the green house. The soil and the climate of Aquidneck Island is the same as that of the Garden of Eden. The tree must be planted in open air under the heavenly sky. The Vision faded and disappeared, but Bowler followed the advice it gave. He very carefully planted the tree outside. It became a great tree that produced delicious apples that were green in color with a hint of yellow. The seeds of the fruit were planted and a whole new variety of apple was established – the famous Rhode Island Greening Apple.

There are other stories about the beginnings of the Rhode Island Greening Apple that are not quite as fanciful.

— Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 31, 1908

Portsmouth Farm Heritage: What a Death Inventory Tells Us about Farming

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When Thomas Cooke died in 1677, he left us a valuable insight into farming in Portsmouth in colonial days.  Recorded in the Portsmouth Scrap Book on page 72 is an inventory of the Cooke’s estate done by John Albro and Joshua Coggeshall.  What livestock did he have? What kinds of tools did he work with?  After living in Portsmouth for thirty years, what possessions did he have? At the top of the inventory is “housing, lands, orchards”.  We know that the Cooke lands include what we think of as the “Glen” area.   Cooke’s home was located just about where the Glen Manor House is today.  In the early days, before his land was cleared, Cooke would ferry his livestock over to Fogland across the river in Tiverton to graze during the day.
What livestock did he have?  He had fifteen sheep, five lambs, two horses, six cows, three yearling cattle, and ten swine. What farm tools did he use?  He had sheep shears, three hoes, a whip saw, carpenter tools, and two scythes.  He had branding irons (marking livestock was an important duty then), stilliards (a type of scale), perhaps axes, a crow bar, iron chains, sieves,  and lumber.  He had a bridle for his horse. What household goods did he have?  For cooking he had brass kettles, iron pots, colanders, spits to cook meat over a fire, jugs, a bottle,  pewter and what may be a churn. He had household items made of materials and tools to make material.  He had flax, wool, linen yarn, four pairs of cards (to pull wool apart) and two spinning wheels.  He had bedding, a coverlet, sheets and even a “pillow bear”.  He had his “wearing clothes”. For furniture he had a table, and two cupboards, a chair, one bed, two chests, bags, boxes and a basket. Cooke had been a military man (he was sometimes called “Captain”) so he had weapons – two guns and two swords. And yes, he owned  “one Indian Boy”. Who was Thomas Cooke?  In 1637 Thomas, his wife and three sons left their home in Dorset in England to board the repaired Speedwell at the port of Weymouth in England.  Like many of Portsmouth’s early residents, the Cooke’s journey to Portsmouth passed through the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Taunton. Thomas and his family came to Portsmouth in 1643 and he was welcomed as a freeman who could vote and he was granted land. He had a house lot nearby Common Fence Point, the site of the first Portsmouth settlement. We know Thomas couldn’t read or write (his mark was a capital T), but he served the town in many ways as timber warden (protecting the trees), he made agreements with the Wampanoags and he took his turn as part of a jury. The Cookes prospered with hard work. Between Thomas, his sons and grandsons they owned property from what we call East Main Road on the west all the way to the Sakonnet River and from Glen Road to the north to Sandy Point Avenue. Thomas Cooke was not a wealthy man, but he left an inheritance of land and goods to pass down to his son and grandchildren. The whole inventory can be found here.