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.

Stopping by Brown’s Tea House

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1849 Map showing Brown’s and Durfee Tea Houses

Today we might think of “tea houses” as a place to have a quiet cup of tea and sweet snack.  Tea houses were quite different in 19th century Portsmouth.  They served as hotels, party venues and places for the community to gather for events.  I have known about the Durfee Tea House off of Glen Road, but I didn’t know very much about other tea houses in Portsmouth.  This week I came across the name “Brown’s Tea House” as I was doing other research, so I dug deeper to find out something more about this tea house.

Researching local history is like piecing a puzzle together.  You get one clue from one source and that leads you to bits and pieces of information through other sources. Piecing the information together, you come to understand small windows of Portsmouth life.  I’m always searching for old maps and I came across a 1849 Hammett Road Map of Aquidneck Island on the Library of Congress website.  The purpose of the map was to show the roads, but it did mark some sites of interest like churches and windmills. Marked by “East Road” were both the Durfee Tea House (off of Glen Road) and Brown’s Tea House.

Through a newspaper database I found an advertisement for a new tea house in Portsmouth in 1847 – “Fashionable Tea House – Five miles from Newport, on the Post Road leading to the Stone Bridge”.   Benjamin Brown is the proprietor.  They welcome “transient and permanent Boarders” and offer “Tea Parties and Pic Nice furnished at short notice.”  Next to the house are two bowling alleys “where those who take pleasure in this invigorating exercise can indulge.”  They even had a 20 by 45 foot ballroom.

What happened to the Brown’s Tea House?  A later advertisement in 1857 announces a Tea House owned by Charles Russell, Jr.  It seems to be in the same location as the Brown Tea House.  The ad boasts that Russell has enlarged the house and put it in excellent order.  “The location is delightful, and persons visiting the House, for a long or short time, will find every convenience and luxury…there is fine bathing half a mile from the house.  Families desiring to spend the summer in the country will find this one of the most delightful locations on the island.” (Newport Daily News 08/06/1857.)

Yet another source, David Durfee Shearman’s diary, adds to the story.

Entry from 12/17/1858 “The Tea House owned by Charles Russell and occupied by him as a tavern was burned to the ground last night… It is supposed to have caught fire from the stove pipe or rather from the carelessness of an Irish Servant…”

Then on March 14, 1860 “I went to the Half Way Place with Levi Cory.  William B. Sisson has lately purchased the farm of Chas. Russell and will put up a public house this summer on the site of the one that burned down the on the night of Dec. 16, 1858.”

A Newport Mercury article from May 25, 1888 lets us know that the Sisson Tea House must have been built because “The Ell of the “Tea House” has been bought by Mr. Jonathan A. Sisson and moved to its new site on the east side of the road…”  An 1877 Newport Daily News article reports that a “republican caucus for the nomination of candidates for members of the General Assembly and for town officers will be held in the Tea House in South Portsmouth, on Monday, April 23.”

The “Brown – Russell – Sisson” Tea  House never seemed to reach the fame of the Durfee Tea House.  It is interesting that two such tea houses existed so close to each other.  Portsmouth is still looking for community gathering spots for large groups like we had in the days of the tea houses.



An Introduction to the Coal Mine Community of Portsmouth

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Coal mines operated in Portsmouth from around 1808 to about 1912. In colonial days coal deposits were found very close to the surface.  The coal bed runs from Narragansett to Mansfield, Massachusetts.  It is anthracite coal and it was not easily used for home heating. In fact, one inspector claimed that “when the final conflagration came” the Portsmouth mines would be a fine place to hide because the coal would never burn.    It could only be used in industrial grade furnaces. By 1867 the Taunton Copper Works was in operation using Portsmouth coal.  At that time there were about 40 workers and eight one and a half story tenements were constructed to house them.  The coal mine wharf was extended out into the bay making it 280 feet long.  There was a spur connection to the Old Colony and Newport Colony Railroad.  The railroad line extended from Fall River to Newport.  The Willow Lane Station by the Coal Mines became the major station for Portsmouth.  Raw materials came into the Coal Mines area and coal and finished copper products were shipped out both by water and railway.  Copper products from the Taunton Copper Works were used as a protective lining for the bottom of ships and for steam pipes on ships.  It could also be used in the production of brass and decorative items.   The Taunton Copper Works used the Portsmouth coal in their production of copper and the Mt. Hope Company next to it was mining from the South Shaft and transporting it to other locations by way of the railroad and wharf.

1870 Map. Note the Coal Mines area shaded in green.

In 1870 the Copper Works and coal mines area was like a self-contained community within Portsmouth. The area included 320 acres of land.    There were company housing, company stores, a school, a church, offices, a boarding house for single workers, workshops and barns.  There was a strong sense of belonging to a “Coal Mine” community.  An 1870 article in the Providence Journal states:  “There are about fifty miners and operatives employed by the Mt. Hope Company and about one hundred and twenty children belonging to the employees of the two companies have a right in the school house.”

Those who knew the coal mines community best described it as a peaceful place.  Frank Anthony, the stationmaster for the railway, described the miners as follows.  “They were an honest, law-abiding God loving people.  They were industrious, thrifty, and withal generous-hearted in the extreme.”  Miners mostly came from two countries.  Skilled workers came from the Allihles copper mines of Ireland and the Cornwall mines of England.  Portsmouth locals, too, worked in the mines and many miners married into old Yankee Portsmouth families.  Workers were paid $1.25 a day for a workday that lasted from 6:30 AM to 4 PM.  The average rent for a tenement was $4 a month.  They raised their own vegetables and fished the bay for food.  After work there were social gatherings, dances and sporting events.

William Dwyer in a reminiscence published in the Fall River Herald June 11 of 1927 stated:  “It was a typical American community in which each individual had an unquestioned right to his political, religious or other views.  Intolerance had no place in the community life of the coal mines, and the result was a perfect harmonization of the different races and the establishment of a little colony which was an El Dorado to the humble peace-loving people that inhabited the sunny slopes of Portsmouth.”

Some of the depictions of life at the coal mine area claim that there was no crime at the coal mine community.  We know there was a infamous domestic disturbance that ended in a death in 1875, but in searching databases of the Newport Mercury and Daily News from the time, I don’t find many other reports of crimes.  Was this the idyllic place described?  I’m not so sure that the life of miners can be as rosy as described.  On the other hand, there were several generations of miners who continued to work the mines when they remained open.

For more information on the operation of the mines, Jim Garman’s book “Looking Back:  Historic Tales of Newport County” has an excellent chapter on the coal mines.


Lost to Time: Anthony Seed Farm and Hathaway Orchards

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Hathaway Peaches ready for transport.

Anthony jpgPortsmouth is certainly known for its farms and some of our farms were the best in the state.   We have lost many great farms, but this blog will remind us of two very special agricultural businesses:  H.C. Anthony Seed Farm and Hathaway Orchards.

Henry Clay Anthony grew up on his father’s farm and understood farming, but he also had training at Scoffield Commercial College in Providence and that prepared him for business.  Early on Anthony became interested in raising seeds to supply to the local farmers and he perfected his techniques through the years.  By 1920 he was the largest seed grower in all of New England.  His seed was sold through many areas of the United States and Canada.  He had more than 800 acres of land in Rhode Island and rented land in Massachusetts to grow his seed.  Besides working at his business for sixteen hours a day, Anthony devoted time to community service as a State Representative, Portsmouth Town Councilman and active member of countless religious and social groups.

You can see some of the drawers that stored Anthony Seeds at Denise Wilkey’s Pottery Studio on East Main Road.

Hathaway Orchards began in 1926 when Howard W. Hathaway bought one hundred and thirty (plus) acres of land around where Montaup Country Club is today.  The Hathaway fruit packing house is still used by the Portsmouth Public Works Department as a storage location.  Another Hathaway Orchard area was located on Middle Road close to where the Escobar Dairy Farm is today.  Some “Hilltop” area streets have names that reflect the fruits that were grown there.   From 1932 to 1959 Hathaway Orchards produced peaches, apples, pears, currants and gooseberries.

In 1944 Hathaway had the largest peach orchard in the state and  produced 2500 bushels.  The peach tree rows were over a mile long.  The picking season lasted six weeks.  Fifty workers were needed and boys and girls earned two or three dollars a day for their work.

The Hurricane of 1938 severely injured the orchard and it took six years for another good crop to appear.  Hurricane Carol in 1953 was the end of the peach orchards, but the apple orchards hung on until 1959.  The peach orchard was close to the water and the salt spray from the hurricanes ruined the trees.

Like Henry Anthony, the Hathaways were very involved in the community as well as running their agricultural businesses.  Both Howard and Merrill Hathaway (his son) served on the Portsmouth School Committee.  Howard also served on the Town Council and as Town Treasurer.  Hathaway School is named after Howard Hathaway.

In the Portsmouth Historical Society’s “Lost to Time” exhibit you can see clippings from a Providence Journal article on the Hathaway Orchards and an interview Elmhurst students did with Flo Hathaway Olivieira (Merrill Hathaway’s daughter) about growing up on the orchard.    In the display case there are vintage images of Anthony Seed Farm.  The Portsmouth Historical Society Museum is open on Sundays from 2PM to 4PM from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend.

Remembering Portsmouth Farms, Businesses and Institutions Lost to Time

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Aerial View postcard of Elmhurst School from Collection of G. Schmidt

Aerial View postcard of Elmhurst School from Collection of G. Schmidt

Nadeau's Pharmacy from collection of G. Schmidt

Nadeau’s Pharmacy from collection of G. Schmidt

Do you remember Nadeau’s Pharmacy?  Did you go to the Roller Rink?  Do you remember that Bernie’s Hardware always had what you needed?  I’m not a native of Portsmouth (I’ve only lived here 43 years), but I still have fond memories of what used to be.   Towns change and Portsmouth is no exception.  We are so fortunate that there are many places where we can touch our history and we need to protect and preserve what we have.  Through time, however, there are many farms, businesses and social institutions that have been lost through the years.  The Portsmouth Historical Society’s 2014 exhibit at our museum is a celebration and remembrance of what we have “Lost to Time.”  We focused the exhibit on what we have “lost” since around 1900. Farms like Sandy Point and Oakland Farm are now occupied by homes instead of livestock.  In our exhibit we have objects and images of these farms along with those from Glen Farm, Hathaway Orchards and even a milk bottle from the Briggs Farm “Fairholm Dairy.” Business may come and go, but we have fond memories.  The Roller Rink, Island Park, Nadeau’s, The Island Park Aquarium, Sea Fare Inn, the Wayside Gardens and many others are represented in the displays. Parts of our community fabric are gone as well.  Around 1900 we had five working mills. Two of them – Boyd’s and Sherman’s – were moved and carefully preserved in Middletown.  Vintage images of the mills and our lost ferries, trolleys, and bridges are included in our exhibit. With the destruction of Elmhurst School we remember the schools that have passed – Elmhurst School, Elmhurst Academy, Bristol Ferry, Newtown, Anthony and Coggeshall School  (among others) are represented as well.  Our one room school will have some reminders of those schools.  As Elmhurst librarian for 20 years I have so many good memories. Social events and organizations have gone by the wayside.  Social clubs like the Oliphant Club once flourished.  The Newport County Agricultural Fair was a social highlight.  We are looking for an Arts Center for our town, but we once had one in Sarah Eddy’s Social Studio on Bristol Ferry Road. “Lost to Time” opens Memorial Day Weekend and lasts through Columbus Day Weekend.  The museum is open Sundays from 2 to 4 PM and docents will be available to guide you through the museum, the exhibits and our buildings. This blog is the first in a series that will focus on topics related to our “Lost to Time” exhibit. Interested in learning more? Visit our website:  portsmouthhistorical.com

Portsmouth Windmills: Lost to Time

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Sherman’s Mill in its Lehigh Hill site.

Grain bag from Thurston's Mill

Grain bag from Thurston’s Mill


Boyd’s Mill on its Mill Lane and West Main Road site.

Middletown may have the windmill on its town seal, but Portsmouth had its share of wind powered and gasoline powered grist mills. Butts Hill was known as “Windmill Hill” on some of our oldest maps. Quaker Hill had up to three windmills at one time or another. The gristmills were part of the fabric of Portsmouth society, but as more grain was imported from the American West, local farmers turned to growing vegetables for market.  In 1901 five mills were still turning in Portsmouth. What happened to our windmills?  You can see two of them in preserved in Middletown. The mill now at Prescott Farm made the rounds of a few locations before being restored by the Newport Restoration Foundation.  It was built in Warren in 1813, moved to the Highlands area of Fall River and then moved by Robert Sherman to Quaker Hill.  Articles in the Newport Mercury from 1871 place the mill in Portsmouth and report that the mill was severely damaged by a storm.  Later Benjamin Hall bought the mill and got it back in operation at Lehigh Hill off of East Main Road.  The mill passed through other hands and was damaged in the 1938 hurricane.  In 1968, Doris Duke and the Newport Restoration Foundation purchased the mill and painstakingly unassembled it for a move down to Prescott Farm. Unlike many of the other mills, Boyd’s Mill was built in Portsmouth and stayed at he corner of Mill Lane and East Main Road for over a hundred years.  The wood for the mill, however, did do some traveling.  Portsmouth was still recovering from the devastation to its trees by the British occupying forces during the Revolutionary War.  The wood for the mill construction was cut in Wickford and ferried across the bay.  Some of the wood was recycled from owner John Peterson’s damaged schooner.  After five years the mill transferred into the hands of the Boyd family.   In its original construction, Boyd’s mill had four panes.  In 1901 one of the Boyds converted the mill to the eight panes we see now.  Later it was fitted for gasoline power.  The Middletown Historical Society has moved the mill to Paradise Park and has restored the mill to operation. Portsmouth maps from 1907 show a mill on the Thurston property just north of Union Street.  It was originally built in Little Compton but was moved to Portsmouth in 1896.  The Portsmouth Historical Society has a painting of a Glen Mill with the Thurston Mill in the background.  Thurston’s Mill may have been destroyed in a fire in the 1950s. Windmills are an important part of Portsmouth’s history.  We can be grateful that some of them still exist even if they have been lost to Portsmouth and moved to Middletown.

Lost to Time: Elmhurst Academy

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Aerial View postcard of Elmhurst School from Collection of G. Schmidt

Aerial View postcard of Elmhurst School from Collection of G. Schmidt

With the demolition of the Elmhurst School during the winter of 2014, two schools met their end.  Elmhurst School was preceded by Elmhurst Academy, a Catholic girl’s school.

By 1960 Reginald Taylor had inherited Glen Farm and he was looking for ways to sell the property. The Sisters of the Sacred Heart had a school in Providence called the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Elmhurst. The buildings were in tough shape and they made the decision to buy this waterfront area of Glen Farm to make a new home for their school. Reginald Taylor sold the Manor house and 43 acres to Elmhurst Academy of the Sacred Heart during a meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. The Manor House served as a dormitory for boarding students. Added to the house were classrooms, a chapel, a convent and a dining hall.

Education at Elmhurst began with First grade and went through high school. Most of the 22 children in the primary grades had older sisters in the school. In 1963 there were 23 nuns and a lay staff of 15 people. Ninety-five percent of the students went on to college. A 1963 Providence Journal feature article quoted Reverend Mother Husson as saying that at Elmhurst “Our ideal is to educate girls to be wives and mothers, women who can fulfill their first responsibility and who, nowadays, can take their place in the world if necessary.”

Two graduates of Elmhurst Academy, Suzanne Santa and Mary O’Connell Cummings, shared their memories of Elmhurst as a Catholic girls school. Suzanne was a boarding student and she remembers the day starting at 6 AM. They dressed in their day uniform of plaid skirt, dark blazer and big ugly shoes. There were actually four uniforms for boarding students – one for school, one for gym, one for dinner and a white uniform for special occasions. Their rooms at the Manor House varied through the year. Half the time they roomed with three others in one of the Taylor bedrooms and the other half year they shared a room that was in the servant’s quarters. After mass in the chapel they would go to study hall (where our kindergarten is now) and quietly studied. School began at 8 AM and ended at 3:30 PM, but there were sports after school. Elmhurst offered field hockey and sailing lessons. Most boarders went home on weekends, but some stayed almost year round at Elmhurst. On weekends they would study, play tennis and practice for chorus. Food poisoning (they called it the Green Death) was sometimes a problem, but a nurse or doctor was on hand to help.

Day student Mary Cummings started high school at Elmhurst the year it opened in Portsmouth (1961). Mary’s report card shows that they were graded on personal appearance, courtesy and cooperation in school discipline as well as traditional subjects such as French, English and science. Classes were about 50 minutes long and there were bells that signaled the change in classes. They practiced curtseying and had to curtsey whenever they passed a nun.

In 1995 an Elmhurst Elementary student interviewed Mother General Whalen. She gave us an idea of what life was like for the sisters who lived in the convent. They were “cloistered” and lived apart in their own community. Their small sleeping quarters are located around the chapel. They awoke at 5 AM for a one hour meditation in the chapel. Meditation was followed by singing prayers in Latin. They then went to breakfast and started their teaching day. Their teaching day ended at 4:30 PM, but in the evening they graded papers or quietly prayed for hours.

In 1972 Elmhurst Academy closed its doors. The Town of Portsmouth bought the property for $1,350,000. The town used the school as Elmhurst Elementary School until that school was closed in 2010. More on Elmhurst School in a later blog.

The Elmhurst Reuse Committee pondered what to do with the school property and the recommendation was to tear down the school building.  This was done winter 2014. It is my hope is that the townspeople of Portsmouth will enjoy this historic property for generations to come.


The Social Studio – Lost to Time

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Social Studio postcard - GSchmidt collection

Social Studio postcard – GSchmidt collection

Wouldn’t it be nice if Portsmouth had a place where young and old could gather for social, artistic and cultural events?  There could be drawing and painting classes as well as craft and sewing lessons.  There would be stage where musicals and plays could be performed.  It would be a space for art exhibits, lectures and writing and reading.

Portsmouth residents have been looking for such a space in the past few years, but we used to have it.  The Social Studio on Bristol Ferry Road was such a spot a hundred years ago.

Magazines at the time describe the studio as “a large room for assemblies, one end of which is occupied by a small stage, is furnished simply and artistically.  Potted plants, a pianola, a huge open fireplace, oil painting on the wall and a good library-all lend great charm to the big room which is a delightful retreat for the young people who flock there from adjoining farms.  Lectures, readings, musicals and social gatherings are frequently held.  Classes in pyrography, drawing, water color painting and raffia are conducted by competent teachers, a nominal fee being charged for instruction.” (The Common, Vol. 10 – 1905)

The Social Studio was founded by Sarah J. Eddy.  This remarkable lady was a talented photographer, author, painter and sculptor.  She came to Portsmouth in the early 1890’s and lived in Portsmouth until her death at age ninety-three in 1945.  Sarah had a passion for the humane treatment of animals and was among the founders of the Rhode Island Humane Educational Society.

You can find out more about the Social Studio when you come to the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum for the “Lost to Time” Exhibit for 2014.  The Exhibit will be up and running at the museum (on the corner of East Main and Union St.) from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day Weekend.  On display will be s a large painting of a cook preparing vegetables for Thanksgiving dinner which was painted by Mrs. Eddy.  You will also be able to see animal books for children written and illustrated by Mrs. Eddy.  A Good Housekeeping Magazine article on the Social Studio and a series of postcards of events at the studio help us to understand the activities that took place there.  Newspaper clippings alert us to the various sales and lectures held at the site.  Even Julia Ward Howe came to speak and socialize. The Social Studio building still exists today as a private home.

Our research into Sarah Eddy in Portsmouth continues.  Look for future blogs on Sarah as artist and photographer

Classes at Social Studio:  collection of GSchmidt

Classes at Social Studio: collection of GSchmidt

and Sarah’s many causes (abolition, women’s suffrage, humane treatment of animal).