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.

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.



Joseph Cundall: Lost in a Snowstorm


Many vintage guides to Aquidneck Island call the Glen “Cundall’s Mills.”  The old history books tell the sad sorry of Joseph Cundall who was “engaged in the woolen manufacture, in the pursuit and improvement, of which he was uncommonly skillful, ingenious and enterprising” (Newport Mercury, December 1811).  This is the story of the Cundall family in Portsmouth and of the tragic ending to a life well spent.

Cundall Family Mills

The Glen had been associated with mills since colonial times.  The Cundall family had strong roots in the area.  The stream through the Glen was originally settled by Thomas Cook and his family.  As the Cooks moved on to Tiverton, this land was bought by James Sisson who sold his grist mill and 46 acres around the brook to a Joseph Cundall.  In 1706 Joseph Cundall had left his native Yorkshire, England to become an indentured servant in America. Becoming an indentured servant was a way for a young person to learn a trade and get an education in exchange for working for seven years or more. Cundall seems to have learned his trade well and was in a good position to buy land as an adult. Water from the stream powered the carding and fulling mills to wash and pull woolen fibers. Joseph Cundall added almost a hundred more acres to his land around the Glen before he died in 1760.

As we walk through the Glen today, it is hard for us to picture it as a busy mill and cloth manufacturing site.  There was a mill pond and a stream of water which would propel a small carding and fulling mill.  You can still see the remnants of the mill run with its stonework lining the mill stream.  The millstream ends at the Sakonnet River.  At one time there were wide paths along the mill run.  Walking through this area today, you can imagine that it is still much like the landscape the Cundall family knew so well.  This mill stream area, however, was the scene of  Joseph Cundall’s grandson’s death.

The Christmas Eve Tragedy

Although family genealogies are hard to follow, Joseph Cundall (the third Joseph in the line from our original miller) was born in 1763.  He was described as a “highly useful and industrious citizen” by the  Newport Mercury at the time of his death. His character was described as upright, amiable and benevolent.   In listing his death, the Rhode Island, Vital Extracts notes that he was repeatedly a Representative in the General Assembly and was a Justice in Court of Common Pleas for Newport County, besides filling other offices of trust.  At forty-nine years of age, Joseph Cundall Esquire was a respected man in business and the community.

How did he die so tragically?  On Christmas Eve, 1811 there was a sudden and violent snow storm.  It was described by newspapers at the time to be the most severe storm the area had seen in many years.   Joseph went along the mill run to secure some wood that had been delivered on the Sakonnet River shoreline.  He did not want the wood to go out with the tide.  Shepherd Tom Hazard, who lived nearby on Wapping Road, reported that hundreds of sheep, many cattle and several human beings died in the storm.  Hazard writes “Among the latter was

Joseph Cundall’s tombstone

Joseph Cundall of Portsmouth, who became so exhausted and bewildered while but a few rods from his house in what is now called “the Glen,” that he gave up striving, and sat down in a deep gorge a short distance south of the mill, where his corpse was subsequently found under a snow-bank (From Recollections of Olden Times).  Cundall’s body was not found for a week and there had been hope that he could survive.  Cundall was laid to rest in the Slocum graveyard, just a few yards from where his mill would have been.

The Christmas Eve tragedy marked an end to Cundall’s Mills.  The land and mills had been purchased by the firm of Clarke (Judge Samuel) and Grinnell and they carried on the wool manufacturing business.  When the land and mills were sold in 1823 the Newport Mercury lists that they operated a grist mill, a clothier’s works with looms and spinning machinery.  The Cundall family members gradually left the area, but the the name “Cundall’s Mills” still remains in our history.

Portsmouth Landmarks: Glen Manor House.

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Glen Manor House in the 1920s

The Glen Manor House is a Portsmouth jewel. We will share some of what we know about the history of the building and what it was like when the Taylors lived here. Even though the Taylor family began Glen Farm in 1882, construction did not begin on their home until around 1920. The Taylors had a Newport summer home, but they preferred the countryside of Portsmouth to the high society of Newport. They hired famed architect John Russell Pope to design their new home. Moses Taylor and his wife Edith had lost a son in World War I in France. There are stories that the French chateau style and the broad grass steps of the house were designed to remember the place where their son died. The house was completed in 1923.

Architect Pope encouraged the Taylors to hire the famed Olmstead firm to do the landscaping. Mrs. Taylor was involved in the details of the landscaping. The gardens were designed to be at their best in July and August when the Taylors would be in residence. The Taylors relished their privacy and the home is situated away from the road to give them that privacy. Moses Taylor died in 1928, but Edith Taylor continued to spend more time at the Glen. She opened the gardens to the public to benefit the Civic League and hosted dog and horse shows on the farm. She remarried and became Mrs. G. J. Guthrie Nicholson, but continued to come to the Manor House until her death in 1959.

In 1960 the Manor House and 43 acres around it were sold to the Elmhurst Academy of the Sacred Heart. The house served as a dormitory for boarding students. When Elmhurst Academy closed in 1972, the Town of Portsmouth bought the house and the property. Portsmouth citizens still own the house and the Glen Manor Authority and the Friends of the Glen Manor House constantly strive to restore the house and gardens.

Some added information:

  • We call it the Glen Manor House, but the Glen Farm families called it “The Big House,” and the Taylor family called it simply, “The Glen.”
  • Taylors had a permanent Garden staff that took care of the gardens while the Farm staff took care of the farm.
    Some of the trees were grown in the glen nursery or brought from Long Island, “Vanicek delivered thirty four trees and shrubs.”
  • There was a house staff of over ten individuals, a garden staff and a person whose full time job was bringing in and arranging fresh flowers in the Flower Room.
  • Taylor used to enjoy sitting in the verandah watching the river. She enjoyed sailing and there was a dock and boat house at the Manor House . Her 24 foot sailboat (named the “Nieuport”) was anchored off the dock.
  • The boathouse by the dock had showers and changing rooms so they could freshen up after sailing or enjoying the beach (Sandy Point).
  • The stone boathouse that was cut into the hill was where they stored small boats and there was a skeet range on top of this structure. The skeet range was built by Guthrie Nicholson, Mrs. Taylor’s second husband.

The Boathouse and Dock

Out of the Attic: Glen Farm Ribbons

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Second Place Ribbon from Newport County Fair 1914

The theme of this year’s Portsmouth Historical Society Museum displays is “Out of the Attic:  Items of Interest from our Collection.” Among the items to be featured is a cache of award ribbons from Glen Farm.  These are a recent addition to our collection and they offer an opportunity to highlight the outstanding success of Glen Farm. The Taylor family, like so many of the gentleman farmers in our town, were very proud of what they bred or grew on their farm.  It was a matter of pride and sometimes a point of contention.   A 1910 National Magazine article reports.  ” In most national dairy shows and state expositions, the Glen Farm stock has taken many of the prizes, both for butter fat tests and as breeders. Perhaps the brightest star in all Mr. Taylor’s constellation of prize winners is “Missy of the Glen.”  But another gentleman farmer claimed that Missy’s butter fat content was not as high as claimed.  H.A.C. Taylor, the owner of Glen Farm,  brought that farmer as far as the Supreme Court.  Taylor won after the state college monitored Missy’s butter fat for an entire year.  According to Taylor’s son Reginald, the award given by the court didn’t cover the legal costs, but Missy and the Glen Farm workers were vindicated.Missy of the Glen

Portsmouth Windmills: Lost to Time

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sherman mill001

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 Glen: Elmhurst School Days

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Principal Bob Ettinger greets students on the first day of school 2009.

Happy children on the Big Toy during recess, 2009.

As Portsmouth children go back to school, my thoughts turn to the excitement of the first days of new years at Elmhurst School.  As sad as the school building is now, I have great memories of Elmhurst Elementary School.  When Elmhurst Academy closed in 1972, the Town of Portsmouth purchased the property primarily because the school rooms were needed.

The fourth grade class of 1995 worked with me to write an oral history of the school.  We interviewed teachers who remembered the first days in 1973 that Elmhurst served as a public school.  Richard Donnelly was the first principal and Ruth Sears remembered that opening day was so hot that Mr. Donnelly wore shorts!  Students were coming from Hope and Anthony Schools and later Coggeshall School.   The faculty and students had to create the culture of a new school.

There were many problems to be solved.  Eileen Lacazette shared that one of the first problems was that there were no bathrooms for the boys.  They had to be created and they didn’t quite look like typical bathrooms.  Music teacher Susan Woythaler remembers that the original classrooms for the private school were tiny, but the classroom size for the public school didn’t fit well.  They made the best of the small rooms the first year, but later walls had to be removed to create more efficient space for an elementary classroom.

After shepherding the school through its first year, Mr. Donnelly went back into the classroom.   Mr. Crudup became the first long-term principal followed by Al Honnen.  There were many physical changes in the building during Mr. Honnen’s leadership.  Classrooms were added, the chapel was made into a cafeteria and gymnasium.  Mary Foley, Dennis Silva, and Hathaway’s principal Robert Ettinger were all Elmhurst School leaders.  All the principals leaned on School Secretary Ruth Ziegler.  She kept the school running efficiently.

It was a joy to come to work at Elmhurst.  The school setting was beautiful, the staff was dedicated and the parents were so supportive.  Elmhurst traditions added to the school culture.  Third grade teachers introduced “Egg Drop” day where students had to invent designs they hoped would protect their raw eggs when they were dropped from the roof by custodians (beginning with Mr. Augustus).  Market day for kindergarten and first grade grew out of a project for including the arts into subjects like science and math.  We turned the library into a market and watched third grade students make presentation of plays about seeds.   Field day was one of the oldest events when fourth grade students ran sports games for the other students.  Even Elmhurst Academy had a field day.

Piano Day, Colonial Fair, Immigration Day, Gingerbread Houses, Family Math and Science Nights, Arts for Life Week were all well loved traditions for a while.   As librarian, Reading Night was dear to my heart.  Themes of Arthur, Magic School Bus, Where in the World is Mrs. Foley, drew families for after school fun.

When the decision was made to close Elmhurst in 2010, I felt fortunate that I was retired and did not have to take my library collection apart.  It was a good school and it is sad to see it closed and vandalized now.  It would be good to see children playing in a new park if the school building is torn down.

Fogland Ferry

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Cook Ferry

The Cook family began to ferry their animals to Fogland to graze during the day.

Fogland Ferry (or Cooks Ferry) began when Thomas Cook bought grazing rights to Fogland across the river in what is now Tiverton. Cook lands were located in the Glen area. Thomas Cook’s home was where the Glen Manor House is today. Later on the family seems to have established a public ferry. In 1762 Joseph Cook sold 31 acres of land with wharves, buildings and ferry rights to Christopher Cadman. When he died in 1787, the Cadman Ferry was left to Gideon Cadman, Christopher’s son.