Lost to Time: Portsmouth Grove.

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In the mid 1800s excursion boats used to make their way to the dock at Portsmouth Grove. Portsmouth Grove was a good place for a group picnic and for a day out by the water. Located on the west side (known later as Bradford or Melville) it was an important tourist destination. Even with an operating hospital, newspaper ads show that visitors still came to visit as late as 1862.

Edmund Cole operated the “Portsmouth Grove House” before the Civil War. During the Civil War it served as the location for Lovell General Hospital. More on Lovell Hospital will come in a later blog. This blog entry will focus on the happenings before the Civil War. The Portsmouth Historical Society has the diaries of David Durfee Sherman in our collection, and he writes about the amusements there at Portsmouth Grove Amusements Fandango & Ten Pin Alley.

1 September 1859 ”I went down to the Grove House & turned the Fandango (a merry-go-round) about 6 hours & got $1.50, It is very hard work to turn it, especially when not evenly balanced. The steamboat Cononicus came twice from Providence leaving 1300 people – all Irish – to enjoy themselves until nearly 8 o’clock when the boat came & took them all off…they expect this to be the last party of the season”

Portsmouth Grove welcomed hundreds of guests who arrived on steamships. For their recreation pleasure, Portsmouth Grove offered picnics, swimming, shore dining, a “fandango” and flying horses. Groups like the Sons of Temperance came a thousand strong for clambakes and chowder. There were even moonlight and torchlight excursions to Portsmouth Grove.

Detail from 1860 map at Portsmouth Historical Society.
  • Transcription of Shearman Diary by Marjorie Webster.

Portsmouth Places: Butts Hill Fort

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On Memorial Day we think of those who have lost their lives in defense of our country. For us in Portsmouth, we have places that remind us of those who fought and died so that we might have a country. We do honor those of the Black Regiment at a special site near the entrance to Route 24. However, Portsmouth has a gem of Revolutionary War history that is being neglected: the But’s Hill Fort. Portsmouth residents are unaware of this remarkable place in our midst.

Butts Hill Fort is the largest remaining Revolutionary War fortification in southeastern New England.

Blueprint from collection of Portsmouth Historical Society
Butts Hill Fort Blueprint from Collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society

In 1776 Americans built a fort on what was known as Windmill Hill. After British troops invaded Aquidneck Island, British and Hessian troops occupied the earthworks fort that the Americans had started. Records show that in 1777 Portsmouth residents were pressed into service three days a week to construct a more substantial earthworks fortification and barracks for 200 men. In 1778 the French fleet was expected in Newport so the British abandoned the fort to reinforce lines around Newport. By August 11 the Americans once again occupied the fort at Butts Hill (Windmill Hill). When the Americans received the news that the French fleet had moved to Boston, the Americans tried to make a retreat from the island. The British came after them in what came to be known as the Battle of Rhode Island. The heights of Butts Hill Fort provided the American Commanders with a view of the battlefield – Butts Hill, Quaker Hill and Turkey Hill. Although the Americans occupied the fort for only 17 days, it was their command post during the battle. On August 31 the Americans retreated off the island to Fort Barton in Tiverton. When the British abandoned Aquidneck Island, the Americans once more controlled the fort in 1779. French forces would occupy the fort as well.

What happened to the fort after the Revolutionary War. Most earthen forts were destroyed by farming, but this area was much too rocky to be farmed. When the land around it was to be developed for housing lots, Dr. Roderick Terry of the Newport Historical Society was able to purchase the land. There were celebrations and the land was used as a park with historical markers. Dr. Terry deeded it to the Newport Historical Society, but with reservations.

Postcard Circa 1907
  1. That the said Newport Historical Society and its successors and assigns shall forever preserve, keep and maintain the said premises as a memorial or monument to the memory of those who fought in the American-Revolutionary War and as a place where the public may enter, view and study the battle field on which our soldiers fought, be enlightened in the battles thereon fought, and in American history.
  2. That said premises shall always retain the name of “Butts Hill Fort”.
  3. That said premises shall never be used as a means of obtaining pecuniary gain or profit.
    Dr. Terry gave instructions:
  4. I further provide that in the event that said Newport Historical Society shall at any time fail to preserve, keep and maintain the said premises as aforesaid or shall violate or fail to observe and carry out any of the foregoing conditions, then in that event the said Newport Historical Society shall forthwith stand seized of said premises to the use of the State of Rhode Island, in which State of Rhode Island the title to said premises shall forthwith vest; and I hereby grant and convey to said State the right to re-enter and take possession of said premises for any breach of the foregoing conditions by the said Newport Historical Society, said premises to be held, kept and, maintained by said State of Rhode Island for the uses and purposes aforesaid; and the Attorney General for the time being of said State or any other proper officer representing the said State shall have the right and authority to take possession thereof to the use of the State and may also be any appropriate remedy either at law or in equity, enforce the provisions of this deed.
    These provisions continue to control the property to this day!

By 1934 the Butts Hill Fort was overgrown and the State of Rhode Island took over the property. By 1968 the State transferred the property to the Town of Portsmouth for one dollar. Much of the land around it has been developed. Water towers, Portsmouth High School and the Wind Turbine all surround it. The earthworks are being eroded by vegetation. I’m not sure of the effect of the vibrations from the Wind Turbine The isolation of the spot seems to encourage vandalism. It is neglected, yet it is a site we should honor as we remember those who gave their lives for us to have a free country.


National Register of Historic Places – Inventory Nomination Form for “Battle of Rhode Island Historic District.

“Planning, Preservation and Management Plan for Butts Hill Fort, Portsmouth, RI,” A Project of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, Funded by the National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program, in Partnership with Newport Collaborative Architects (2009).


Portsmouth in the 1920s: Professional Actors – Rev. Robert Downing and the Island Park Actor’s Colony

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In the 1920s (and even before) Portsmouth was home to some well known professional actors. Aquidneck Island has always attracted summer residents with its mild climate. Portsmouth was a transportation hub and the Fall River Line made travel to New York City theater sites easier. Newspaper articles from the end of World War I to 1929 record the activities of professional actors who lived in Portsmouth.

The January 5th 1918 Newport Mercury reported that the Christian Union Church pastor Robert Downing entertained the troops aboard the U.S.S. Massachusetts for New Year’s Day celebrations. The boat carrying Rev. Downing had to break its way through the thick ice. The troops enjoyed the performance and gave the minister three cheers and wished him a happy New Year. Robert Downing was not an ordinary pastor. Before he became a minister, he performed Shakespearean plays and even had his own touring company. He retired from the theater in 1909 to became a minister. Downing’s church – the Christian Union Church in Portsmouth – is now the headquarters of the Portsmouth Historical Society. Downing used to dramatize scripture readings for his congregation. Some church members enjoyed the drama while others did not. He served as minister from 1915 to shortly after this performance for the troops. He continued to live in Portsmouth even after he resigned as minister. At first the congregation had a hard time getting the Downings to leave the parsonage. Late newspaper articles show the Downings continued to come back to their home on Quaker Hill in the 1920s. The New York Times reported in 1919 that he would take a role in a moving picture called Termination.

Robert Downing as Marc Anthony

Newspaper articles also tell us about an actors’ colony at Island Park that continued to spend summers in Portsmouth for over eighteen years. A 1908 Fall River Evening Herald article let us know that the actors enjoyed the pleasures of Island Park.

“Gertrude Dion Magill, Nat Leffington, and Mr. Royan of the Puritan Theater are having the time of the their lives rising, bathing and securing fine coat of tan coloring on their complexions. Miss Magill is remarked along the shore as an expert swimmer. The trio says they are charmed with the park as a summer resort and will surely laud its beauties to other members of their profession the summer season.”

In 1921 the Fall River paper includes an article on the arrival of actors Mr. and Mrs. Hill who have been coming to the Island Park Actor’s Colony there for over 18 years.

Portsmouth in the 1920s: Artists

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Three Portsmouth artists illustrate the importance of the arts in Portsmouth during the 1920s. Sarah Eddy of Bristol Ferry, Finis Macomber MacLeod of Quaker Hill and Elizabeth Anthony Wilkey of Elm Farm on Park Avenue were accomplished artists who shared their love of art with the community.

Sarah Eddy trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. She was a nationally known painter, sculptor, and master photographer. She established her own studios on her property on Bristol Ferry Road around 1900 and founded the Social Studio which taught artistic skills to Portsmouth youth. She drew artists to Bristol Ferry and an artist community grew there. Often her students stayed at her guest house, Willowbrook – the Connors Funeral Home today. Dressed in smocks and berets, Sarah and her students would venture out early to capture the beautiful light. Sarah contributed the money to add a room to the Portsmouth Free Public Library that would be used to display art work. Sarah’s work was regularly displayed there during the 1920s and one painting mentioned in a newspaper article is now in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society. It is a painting of an older woman, Mrs. Burke, and she is preparing a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner.

Finis Macomber MacLeod was one of Sarah Eddy’s students. She continued her studies at Moses Brown School and in Boston where she took up sculpture. Finis later studied with Helena Sturtevant, a very accomplished artist, at the Newport Art Association. Finis was a minister’s wife and often moved around New England, but she kept coming back to the area. Newspaper accounts show she shared her skills in portrait sculpture with local artists. She exhibited her paintings and sculptures locally including the Newport Art Association and the Portsmouth Free Public Library.

Elizabeth Anthony Wilkey began teaching art in the 1920s and continued to train Portsmouth artists throughout a lifelong career as Art Teacher and Arts Director for Portsmouth schools. Elizabeth was a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. A 1929 newspaper article is centered around a exhibition of her students work at her studio on Park Avenue.  She designed the insignia for the town of Portsmouth based on old drawings of the original insignia. Her seal design appears on official Town of Portsmouth vehicles and documents.

If you know of other Portsmouth artists who worked in the 1920s, I would love to learn about them and see images of their work. Hopefully we will have displays on the artists this summer at the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum.

Photo of Finis Macomber MacLeod and her painting courtesy Christine Stockman – her granddaughter.

Portsmouth in the 1920s: The Crystal Radio

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At the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum the curator’s committee is focusing on life in the 1920s. We have a crystal radio set donated to the museum by Annie and Fred Sherman and it is from the J. F. Sherman estate.

This lower photo shows an American family in the 1920s listening to a crystal radio. It is from a 1922 advertisement for Freed-Eisemann radios in Radio World magazine. The small radio is on the table. Crystal sets work off the power received from radio waves, so they are not strong enough to power loudspeakers. Therefore the family members each wear earphones, the mother and father sharing a pair. Although this is obviously a professionally posed, promotional photo, it captures the excitement of the public at the first radio broadcasts, which were beginning about this time. Crystal sets like this were the most widely used type of radio until the mid 1920s, when they were slowly replaced by vacuum tube radios.

Portsmouth in the 1920s : Listening to Radios

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Radio historians generally agree that broadcasting for the public began in 1920 with a broadcast on station KDKA out of Pittsburg, PA. On November 2, 1920, station KDKA out of Pittsburg, PA, made the nation’s first commercial broadcast. They chose that date because it was election day, and the power of radio was proven when people could hear the results of the Harding-Cox presidential race before they read about it in the newspaper.

However, very few folks heard the broadcast because few radio receivers were privately owned. After word of that original broadcast spread people overwhelmed radio manufacturers. They stood in line for hours to fill out order forms because the manufactures had run out of radio receivers. Between 1923 and 1930 fully 60% of American families purchased radios and gathered around the new devices to listen to nightly entertainment broadcasts.

The more folks purchased radios the more radio stations were needed to satisfy the public. In just two years 600 stations were up and operating nation-wide.

In Providence RI thriving downtown department stores like Outlet, Shepard’s, Gladding’s, Diamond’s, the Boston Store, and Cherry & Webb competed for shoppers. Of those stores, the Outlet and Shepard’s were the boldest of rivals. Radio in Rhode Island was born out of this intense department store rivalry. In June of 1922, Shepard’s launched WEAN, the first radio station in Rhode Island. Just three months later and not to be outdone, the Outlet premiered WJAR. Not long after, Cherry & Webb debuted WPRO. The new technology provided these stores with an exciting promotional vehicle unlike anything the world had ever seen – or heard.

Portsmouth in the 1920s: Community Theater

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Portsmouth may not have had professional theater troupes in the 1920s, but it had its share of community based theater to entertain local audiences. Newspaper accounts show that church, school and social groups often presented plays. One group associated with Oakland Hall and the Oakland Lodge seems to have performed in a very professional way for an amateur group.

Newport Mercury and Newport Journal-Weekly News articles in 1928 tell us about performances of a comedy – “A Couple of Million.” I was able to find a copy of the play online and this four act play is funny. An audience today might find it dated and they would cringe at the racial dialects used and references to women as “skirts.” A modern group might perform this with some dialogue modifications. The plot opens at a lawyer’s office where a young man gets the news that he has inherited a “couple of million” from his uncle, but he has some difficult requirements to meet or the inheritance goes to someone else. The Journal Weekly article states: “From the rising of the curtain to the final drop there were few who were not convulsed with laughter or secured a thrill from the compromising situations in which the players became involved.”

The Oakland Players had all roles necessary for a quality performance. There was a fourteen member cast, a stage manager with three assistants, a prompter, a director of costume and makeup, an electrician and a carpenter. There were several parts for women and these were all performed by MEN.

The players did several performances on Aquidneck Island, but were also invited to perform in East Greenwich.

Portsmouth in the 1920s: Going to the Picture Show

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You might be surprised to know that the early movie theater for Portsmouth was the Town Hall. Newspaper articles from the time show that churches and local groups showed picture shows at the hall. There wasn’t a movie theater in Portsmouth at that time, but most movies were shown where you could set up a screen and darken the room. The Town Hall provided that. I found newspaper articles that show that church groups and community organizations used the Town Hall to show their films. Some were for entertainment or fundraising. Others were more of a “community service” performance.

In the 1920s the films didn’t have sound, but they were far from “silent.” The first full length feature that included sound was “The Jazz Singer” in 1926. The early movie shows were short and the often included lectures, music and audience participation. A January 1920 Newport Mercury article shows that the Red Cross showed a movie called “Winning the Way.” It was shown to an “appreciative audience” and included a speaker from Boston who discussed public health.

Entertaining religious “photo-plays” were shown to raise money for St. Anthony Church. An article in the The Newport Mercury in November of 1922 shows one film called “The Eternal Light” on Friday and Saturday evenings at the Town Hall. “Photo-Play” was a new term for me and it was one description given to early films.

The most interesting film was graphically described in a December of 1922 article of the Fall River Globe. ” ‘Fabiola’ a selfish heartless, cruel women overcome by a Faith which triumphed over treachery, hate and greed” would be shown for the benefit of St. Anthony’s Church. The ticket price seems rather steep for those days: Fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children under 12.

The Newport County Woman’s Suffrage League Ends with a “Jubilee”

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When the state of Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment to grant suffrage to women, suffrage groups throughout the nation celebrated the victory with jubilees. Philadelphia, New York City, Tacoma in Washington, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chattanooga were among the locations to hold the jubilees. On Aquidneck Island, the suffragists gathered back where it all began – at Sarah Eddy’s Social Studio in the Bristol Ferry neighborhood.

The Jubilee was planned even before Tennessee cast its vote on August 18th. An article in the Newport Mercury on August 14th announced the coming celebration. The gathering was set for August 17th. “It is expected that by that time the necessary number of State legislatures will have ratified the Constitutional amendment to make it effective.”

The article ends by saying “A large number of invitations have been issued.” Among those attending were two Catholic suffragists from the Philadelphia area – Jane and Marianne Campbell. In a letter from Jane to her nephew, she writes: “We are staying over a day here to attend a Jubilee Suffrage Meeting, the practical dissolution of the Newport and Bristol Ferry Suffrage Society. The women in Rhode Island had Presidential Suffrage and the gentle Misses Chace have registered so they can cast a ballot in the Presidential Elections. The Rhode Island Constitution gives the legislature the power of conferring Presidential Suffrage on the women and that legislature has done that” (August 13. 1920) letter of Jane Campbell to John J. Campbell.) The envelope to the letter had a return address of “Willowbrook” in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. This was a guest house owned by Sarah Eddy.

The program of the Jubilee included speeches by Rhode Island Governor, R. Livingstone Beeckman. The clergy were represented by the former pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Reverend Charles Jarvis Harriman and the pastor of Channing Memorial Church in Newport, Reverend William Safford Jones. Miss Sarah Louise Arnold, the Dean of Simmons College in Boston, also spoke. Other speakers were George Moriarty, a Newport Genealogist and Dr. Alfred Johnson.

Music was part of the program as well. Kate Durfee (Mrs. Charles H. Durfee) of Fall River and Mr. Augustus Hazard Swan of Newport performed solos. Kate performed the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That would be a fitting note in a celebration to end a Portsmouth suffrage group that included Julia Ward Howe as one of the founding members. Julia’s daughter Maud Howe Elliott presided over the celebration. The Social Studio, the home of many of the first meetings was an appropriate place to celebrate a victory in securing the vote for women.

Suffrage Work Branches Out County-wide: Middletown Suffragists

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True to its name, the NEWPORT COUNTY Woman Suffrage League (NCWSL) began to quickly branch out county wide from its Bristol Ferry roots. Founded with eight members in 1907, by 1909 there were seventeen members.  One of the 1909 officers, Mary Osborn, was from Tiverton.  Cora Mitchel and Veva Storrs went to the Kingston state fair to promote the suffrage cause.  NCWSL was active in giving lectures and socials.  The group hosted the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association and there were sixty people present.  By 1910 membership was up to thirty-three members.

There was a critical shift in 1912 once Maude Howe Elliott became the President.  Cora Mitchel stepped into the Vice President role.  In 1913 there were ninety members and they were from Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport and Tiverton.  Newport, Middletown and Tiverton meetings began. Julia Ward Howe had died in 1910 and her daughter Maude Howe Elliott moved into the Oak Glen home on Union Street.  Meetings were conducted there, but they were also held at the Channing Parlors in Newport and at the summer residence of socialite Mrs. Katherine McCormick.  The League keeps its contact with the Rhode Island Suffrage League in Providence.

The Middletown Suffragists

Mary Clark Sturtevant (1843-1931) and daughters Mary, Helena and Alice Sturtevant Howard

Mrs. Eugene Sturtevant (Mary) was a prime founder of St. Columba’s (the Berkeley Memorial Chapel). Mary was the daughter of Thomas Clark – Episcopal Bishop of RI.  She and her husband donated the land.   Eugene Sturtevant was a real estate developer and he bought up large parcels of land on the eastern shore of Middletown and sold the lots.

Mary was a local historian and she researched, wrote and spoke about the history of the East Side of Middletown.  She had been a Middletown resident since 1871. Mary was an active member of the Art Association and would have worked with Maud Howe Elliott there.   She worked for the preservation of Whitehall, the Middletown home of Bishop Berkeley.  She was an advocate of child welfare causes and was on the board of St. Mary’s Home for Children in Providence.

Mary Sturtevant was active in the suffrage cause.  In The History of Woman Suffrage it states that “In Middletown the [Newport County Woman Suffrage] league’s work was ably carried on by Mrs. Eugene Sturtevant and her daughters.” In November 1914, Mary Sturtevant was named Vice President of the Newport County Woman’s Suffrage League. Her daughter Mary was named treasurer. In February 1915, Mary Clark Sturtevant was the Newport representative on the Rhode Island State Committee of Woman Suffrage. She also was a member of the Congressional Union, the offset of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), in Rhode Island in 1915.  In a newspaper article “Woman Suffragists Invade State House” Cora Mitchel, Maud Howe Elliott and Mrs. Sturtevant “buttonholed” (detained them in conversation against their will)  state senators and representatives. They had pictures taken with the statesmen.    She was a speaker before NCWSL at Oak Glen 1913.  When the suffragists entertained the troops as war service, Mary would play the organ.  She wrote a booklet countering the arguments of the Anti-Suffrage speakers.

Lila Pierce Peckham 1864-1948  (Mrs. Elisha Peckham) hosted meetings at her Middletown home, “Seven Pines”.  A Newport Mercury account of a meeting there in 1914 tells of a “Preparation Day” meeting for a national woman Suffrage demonstration.  Lila’s daughter, Elizabeth A. Peckham presented readings for “The Woman’s Journal.”  Interestingly, the meeting was presided by a man – R. Wallace Peckham.

Lila Peckham (1864-1948) was a newspaper reporter and was noted for club work, especially the Oliphant Reading Club.  She was a member of the Middletown School Committee.

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