Remembering Our Veterans: Mary E. Lopes Clark – World War I

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Mary Lopes was a Portsmouth girl who volunteered for service during World War I. Many Portsmouth women helped with the war effort. As I researched the local suffragists I learned that many women aided the cause with clerical duties or providing hospitality for troops. Mary went further, she enlisted in the military service.

The Naval Reserve Act of 1916 permitted qualified “persons” for service and the Secretary of the Navy began enlisting women as “Yeoman (F). Over 11,000 women answered the call. They served in a variety of jobs: clerical, bookkeeping, inventory control, telephone operators, radio operators, pharmacists, photographers, torpedo assemblers and other positions. The women did not go to boot camp, but they were in uniform. They had some of the same responsibilities and benefits as the men. Like the men they earned about $28 a month. They were treated as veterans after the war.

What do we know about Mary? Her parents were Manuel Lopes and Georgina Lopes. Their farm seemed to be on Middle Road close to School House Lane but there are listings for East Main Road also. In 1918 newspaper clippings show she won the dance contest at the Newport County Fair. The town directory of 1919 lists her as a “Yeowoman” in the United States Navy and living at home.

After the war the women were quickly released from service, but Mary stayed very active in the Portsmouth Post 18 of the American Legion. She was later Post Commander of the Rhode Island Women’s American Legion Post. Mary even returned to service as a nurses’ aide with the American Red Cross during World War II.

Mary married Alfred Clark and went on to live in East Providence until her death. When she died in 1946 she received full military honors.

Remembering our Veterans: Thomas Julian – Beirut Bombing

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On the front grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society is a stone that commemorates Rhode Island Marines who were killed in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon on October 23, 1983. Since 1984 there has been a ceremony on October 23rd to honor these soldiers who were killed in a terrorist attack. Among those we honor is Lance Corporal Thomas Julian of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Thomas Julian was very familiar with the Portsmouth Historical Society grounds. As a teenager he cut the lawn there.

Thomas Julian was an active teenager in Portsmouth. Newspaper accounts for the time list his awards earned while he was a Boy Scout with Troop 82 at St. Mary’s Church. In 1974 he earned the God and Country Award at that church. He was a 1979 graduate of Portsmouth High School.

In 1982 Thomas went through boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. As a private he was an Intelligence Specialist and was trained at the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Atlantic Fleet, Little Creek Virginia. He became a Private First Class when he was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

By 1983 he was stationed in Beirut, Lebanon as part of the Multinational Force in Lebanon and served as a peacekeeper during the Lebanese Civil War. A terrorist organization used truck bombs to target American and French troops at their barracks. It is estimated that the bombs were equivalent to 21,000 pounds of TNT. The death toll was staggering. Americans lost over two hundred and forty troops. The French lost soldiers as well.

As you pass by the Portsmouth Historical Society, remember Thomas and the others whose promising lives were cut so short. Thomas was just twenty-one years old when he died.

The Stories Behind the Objects: The Horse-drawn Hearse

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As we approach Halloween it might be fitting to tell you the story behind our horse-drawn hearse. Visitors to the Old Town Hall exhibits at the Portsmouth Historical Society either love the hearse or back away from it with dread.

At first glance people remark that the hearse looks short and therefore people must have been shorter a hundred and fifty years ago. If you look closer you can see that the coffin would fit under the coachman’s seat. There are spikes that can be raised to hold the coffin in place and rollers to make it easier to slide. Our hearse looks grey, but we have determined that it was originally black – the traditional color. On top of the carriage there are six “urns” with carved wood flames that can be removed so that black feathers could be inserted instead. The more important the deceased the more feathers would be on display.

How did we come to have a hearse? At first we thought it had belonged to the Christian Union Church that now is the Portsmouth Historical Society headquarters. Indeed, church records say they bought one in 1871. Later church records show that hearse was disposed of in 1903. So whose hearse did we have? Newspaper clippings from the 1940s about the donation of the hearse led to the discovery that it had belonged to Asa Anthony, the Portsmouth Town Coroner in the 1880s. He used it to transport the deceased to his home until a funeral was arranged. Ironically, his home is today the Connor’s Funeral Home. When the Society received the hearse there was no place to store it, so it was housed at the Breaker’s Stables. A fire there in 1970 forced it to be moved to and stored by the Little Compton Historical Society. When Old Town Hall became available as an exhibit space, we moved it here in 2009.

The hearse has let us to explore Victorian mourning customs and aspects of Portsmouth history. We are still looking for photos of the hearse in 1943 when it won prizes in a parade. No doubt it will lead us to more stories.

This is the first of a series of blog entries on items in our Old Town Hall collection. We were not able to open the Old Town Hall exhibits this summer, so these blogs can serve as a virtual tour as well. If you learn more about the stories behind the items you might appreciate them and what they can teach you about Portsmouth history.

Why Local History is Important

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Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time researching local history. I enjoy doing the research, but does it really matter? Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? I am going to share some of my personal struggles with these questions.

Does local history matter? When I was a college history major there was a new wave of interest. Historians had been placing a great deal of emphasis on political and economic history. Wars, explorations, nation building, etc. had been the dominating topics for historians. In the 1960s there began to be more interest in social history, how people actually lived. This is what interested me. What was daily life like in families, in the workplace, in the schools, in local organizations? These are the topics that a local historian and local history museum can share with our town.

Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? Some people may see the collection of the historical society as “grandma’s attic.” I see it as a touch stone to the past. As a historian I value “primary sources” – the photos, documents, diaries, maps and objects that were created at a past time. A local history collection is meant to visually illustrate the past. What did people wear? What tools did they use? How did they cook? The objects lead us to a story and those stories from the past help us to understand our common heritage as people of Portsmouth. Our horse drawn hearse, for example, led us to stories about the town coroner and his role in town. As we tried to understand its ornamentation, it lead us to research how people mourned in the past. As people we have so much in common with those our ancestors. We struggle with the same core human issues. These stories can actually unite us in a time when there is much that divides us.

So why am I struggling with these questions? I always wonder about how I spend my time so that will be a continuing question for me. I struggle with the questions about the historical museum because I hear too many voices who don’t value what a small town history collection can provide for a town. Perhaps I am too old fashioned – just like the history collection that inspires me as a local historian.

Cordelia Holman Lawrence’s Sketchbook: Portsmouth Art 1865


Items in the Portsmouth Historical Society collection lead us to uncover stories about our past. A few years ago Portsmouth Historical Society curator, Nancy Crawford, discovered a sketchbook while we were doing an inventory. The members of the curator’s committee enjoyed the brightly colored sketches and I was asked to scan the images so we might use them in the future. I am researching the arts in Portsmouth for a display next year and I thought of those sketches. Who was the artist? What is her story?

The first page of the sketch book provided the answer of the artist’s identity. In a beautiful handwriting is the name Cordelia Holman Lawrence. It was clear that the Lawrence was written at a different time with a different writing implement. The date was recorded as 1865 with Portsmouth, Rhode Island as the location.

Who was Cordelia? She was the daughter of Thomas Holman and Mary Durfee Sherman. I already knew Thomas’ story. He came to Portsmouth from Cornwall and worked his way to the position of Superintendent of the Coal Mines in Portsmouth. In 1843 he married Mary Sherman who came from old established Portsmouth families. Cordelia, the youngest of their four children, was born in 1852. Her mother died when she was only four.  Cordelia was only 13 when she did her sketchbook drawings.

Thomas Holman wanted to move away from mining and into farming. He first bought farms close to the mines, but by 1860 he resided on his farm which is now known as the “Seameadow”area today. I uncovered Thomas’ story as I researched a murder that took place in the coal mines housing. In June of 1875 Elizabeth Holman Casey was murdered by her husband and Thomas was a witness at the murder trial. As I researched the story I was surprised to find that Thomas Holman was the uncle of Elizabeth Casey. Cordelia would have been the victim’s cousin!

Cordelia married Albert T. Lawrence in 1870. Albert grew up in Portsmouth, but left home to be a sailor on ships to China and the East Indies. In 1869 he gave up his seafaring life and returned home to farm with his father. He was known as a successful farmer who specialized in market gardening and fruit raising.

Cordelia settled into the life as wife and mother. She would have lived on the farm known even today as “Lawrence Farm.” She was active in the Friends Meeting House with the Ladies Mission Society. In the records of the Society of Friends in 1912 you can read this obituary.

“Cordelia Lawrence, a beloved member and elder of Rhode Island Monthly Meeting, died of heart failure at Portsmouth, R.I., December 20, 1912, aged sixty years. She leaves a husband, son and daughter and a host of friends to mourn her loss. Converted in early life, her later years were an exemplification of the “life hid with Christ in God” with a “heart of leisure from itself to sooth and sympathize.”

Cordelia is an excellent example of Portsmouth’s amateur artists who enjoy painting as a hobby. Her work is colorful and lovely.


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.

Portsmouth Farmer: Manuel Camara (1900-1991) of Glen Farm

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Manuel Camara was a dedicated worker at Glen Farm for over sixty-four years. In a Newport Daily News interview in 1984, Camara said “The Taylors are excellent people to work for, that’s why I’ve stayed here all these years.” While at Glen Farm, Camara worked for two generations of the Taylor family. After Edith Taylor Nicholson’s death in 1959, the farm land began to be sold. Manuel Camara began to work in the glory days of the Gentleman’s Farm and continued on until almost the last days when he was one of three workers.

“It’s funny that I even took the job here. I hated driving my father’s plow horses and that’s what they had me doing here (at Glen Farm). Boy was I happy when they got the tractors in.”

Camara grew up in Tiverton and left his father’s farm to become a farm hand at age 21. When Camara started at Glen Farm there were sheep, cattle, dairy cows, poultry and horses. The “gentleman’s farm” was over 1,000 acres. Manuel worked his way from farm hand to herdsman, and then foreman of the farm.

Like many of the Glen Farm workers, Manuel’s family lived on the farm. At one time they lived at the Leonard Brown House. His daughters, Geraldine Leis and MaryLou Lemieux, have shared their experience of growing up on the farm. Manuel would warn his family to get into the house because they were going to “stampede the cattle.” This was when they had to move them from one field to another. When Manuel became a foreman he spent more time at the barns. Daughter Geraldine, the youngest of his four daughters, would get into trouble by playing in the hayloft and trying to ride the cows.

As Glen Farm diminished in size, Manuel kept active. His day would start at 7 am. As the daily farm chores began he would feed and water the cattle, clean the stalls and clean-up the barnyard. “We bail a lot of hay here.” he mentioned to the reporter. Manuel would also plant and harvest corn. He complained that winter could be slow, “but spring is always around the corner and that means more hard work.” Manuel Camara was never afraid of hard work. Although he ultimately retired, he told the reporter “So I guess I’ll stick around until I can’t work any more.”

Manuel Camara

H.A.C. Taylor and The Glen Barns

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Glen Farm developed when Henry A.C. Taylor, a successful banker and merchant from New York, began to purchase farmland in Portsmouth. Taylor had vacationed in Newport and owned a house there, but he liked the idea of a working farm. The first purchase was 111 acres from Halsey Coon which included two houses, a grist mill, two barns, and two corn cribs.  An 1885 map shows that this piece of land stretched from the Sakonnet to the barn complex.  In 1885 Taylor bought 700 acres around Glen Road and he officially established Glen Farm.   Taylor began to buy and consolidate the smaller farms in the area into a farm that would at one time reach 1500 acres.  

In 1889 he began to breed Guernsey cows and would later breed Percheron horses and Horned Dorset sheep.  He was very serious about scientific breeding and kept detailed records of milk and fat production as well as the number of calves born.

An October 1911 to March 1912 quarterly edition of National Magazine has an article on Rhode Island farming that details Taylor’s efforts with Glen Farm.  Taylor’s intention was “not merely to develop an ideal farm, but also to establish a herd of Guernsey cattle upon the place that should attain and hold pre-eminance in this country.”  Taylor spared nothing in raising the best.  He hand picked the cattle from the Isle of Guernsey.

The article goes on to explain that the arrangement of the barns and stables and their construction were all specifically designed.  The last of the barns built was especially modern.   “There was an inner wall of brick with a six inch air space between it and the outer wall, which supplies proper ventilation and insures a uniform temperature within.”  Even the drinking basins for the animals have water “tempered by the furnaces in the basement which warm the buildings.”

Mr. Barclay, the farm manager, explained that H.A.C. Taylor instructed him “not to study how to make money, but how to spend money in ways that will conduce to the highest development of his pets and pride, the Guernseys of Glen Farm.”  Even with that instruction, Glen Farm was exceedingly profitable.  The stock raised at Glen Farm was very desirable.

H.A.C. Taylor was proud of his animals.  The walls of the manager’s office were lined with hundreds of prize ribbons. When a friend challenged his claim that “Missy of the Glen” had set a record for butterfat production, he brought a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Taylor won the suit but paid more for the lawyers than he won in the judgement.

At least twenty-six families lived and worked on the farm. In its heyday there were up to 100 workers.  They raised all they needed for the families and the animals.

If you are interested in more information on the Glen and Glen Farm, you might visit my other blog: glenhistory.wordpress.com

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