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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.

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.

Resources:

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).


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Portsmouth Women: Alice Brayton and Green Animals

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Vintage image of Green Animals from the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society

Alice Brayton

Alice Brayton was born in Fall River in 1878, but she was a constant summer resident of Portsmouth.  She made her permanent residence here in 1938.  Her father, Thomas Brayton (treasurer of the Union Cotton Manufacturing Company),  bought property on Cory’s Lane in Portsmouth in 1877 to be a summer home for his family. Alice’s father hired a Portuguese mill worker, Jose Carriero, to develop and manage the grounds of his Portsmouth estate in 1905. Carreiro was superintendent of the property from 1905 to 1945, and his son-in-law, George Mendonca continued as superintendent until 1985.  They were responsible for creating the topiaries. There are more than 80 pieces of topiary throughout the gardens, including animals and birds, geometric figures and ornamental designs, sculpted from California privet, yew, and English boxwood.

When Thomas Brayton died in 1939 at age 96, he left this estate to his son and daughter – Edward and Alice.    Alice Brayton had re-opened the main house on the Portsmouth estate in 1936 to begin renovations to make it her permanent residence. She moved to the estate in the spring of 1939 naming it “Green Animals” for the topiary animals in the garden.

Alice Brayton was a woman of many interests.  During the Depression she helped to found a relief program in Fall River to bring milk, food and clothing to the needy.  She founded a nursing association in Fall River.  In Portsmouth she was active with the Red Cross and even opened her home for “home nursing” lessons.   She published many books and contributed  to “Gardens of America”  – a major work on historical gardens.  She wrote  a scholarly work on Bishop Berkeley who was a colonial resident of Middletown.  She encouraged excavations around the Old Stone Mill in Newport and wrote a paper on this.  She was a force in the early days of the Preservation Society of Newport Country.  Miss Brayton left Green Animals to the Preservation Society of Newport County at her death in 1972.  Newspaper accounts list her as a speaker for a number of local societies.  She spoke to the Portsmouth Historical Society in 1966 about “More Recollections of a Portsmouth Native.”  Obviously she considered herself a Portsmouth native.

Alice Brayton loved to garden and she loved to entertain  She hosted Jacqueline Bouvier’s (Kennedy) debutante party.  When President Eisenhower visited the area, she opened her gardens to the First Family and the White House press corps.  Alice’s topiary gardens survived the hurricanes in 1938 and 1944, but the 1954 hurricane badly damaged a double row of spruces and a large hemlock.  The famed topiaries were coated with salt spray.  Although some experts thought many could not be saved, George Mendonca and his helpers rewired and trimmed the sculptures.  Alice herself would putter around the gardens. She said she had a habit of mowing around the base of a topiary policemen “so that he wouldn’t hurt his feet standing all day on the grass.”  Alice Brayton was known for her wit.  One of her last public events was a $1,000 a plate dinner for the election of Nixon in 1968.  Alice took a sip of sherry and headed home without dinner “because it was past her bedtime.”

During her lifetime, Alice enjoyed letting the public enjoy her gardens.  Today “Green Animals” attracts thousands of visitors to Alice Brayton’s beautiful gardens.

 

 

Portsmouth Landmarks: Greenvale

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Grapes in the vineyard.

Vintage image of the Barstow house at Greenvale

Greenvale Farm has been in the same family since the 186os. John S. Barstow, a China-trade merchant from Boston, created a “gentleman’s farm” on fifty-three acres of land on the shore of the Sakonnet River. Greenvale was Barstow’s country retreat and he constructed a large main house and stable designed by Boston architect John Sturgis. Barstow followed a pattern for a gentleman’s farm from the agricultural literature of the day (Country Life by Robert Morris Copeland). Retiring to a farm and working with your hands was considered an ideal situation for the gentleman who had already made his fortune.

When Barstow died, his fortune was divided among many brothers and sisters. Sister Catherine was given Greenvale Farm. At her death in 1910 the house had been closed and was considered “a resort for tramps and idlers.” (Providence Journal, 14, June, 1910d).  For decades the property was abandoned. One of Catherine’s nieces – Charlotte Condit Parker and her husband Major General James Parker, took an interest in Greenvale and revived the farm. The property has been in the Parker family since then. Converting the property to a vineyard has been a way to keep the land together in family hands.

A few years ago Elmhurst students interviewed owner Nancy Parker Wilson.
Do you use machines for making wine? Machines do make wine. They press the grapes. You use the same machines to make white and red wine. You have to clean the machines before you make white wine.
What is the grape growing season? May to October
When did the winery get started? Started their own label of wine in the 90’s.
How many people work on the farm? Seven people work full time. Other people help.
Why do you pick a certain bottle for a certain wine? Traditional colors are used. There are different bottle shapes for different wines, too.
What do you do about pests? Birds, beetles, moths and mildew are pests that bother the vines. They put nets on grapes vines to protect them from birds. They use a chemical on a twist tie to protect grapes from moths and other insects. They may use a spray.
What is your biggest selling wine? Chardonnay
What do you do in a drought? A drought does not really affect the grapes. The roots are very far down for older vines, but the younger vines are not so lucky.
How long does it take to make wine? It takes from five days to two weeks.
Where do you make your wine? Now they make their wine at Newport Vineyards.
How did you get started growing grapes? The Parker family got help from grape growers across the river.
What was the farm before it became a vineyard? It started out as a farm raising prize-winning cattle. There were barns and a horse stable.
Have you had any damage from storms? There has been damage from the salt water coming from storms.
Where do you sell your wine? They have a tasting room at Greenvale.
Do you use any machinery to pick grapes? No, the grapes are hand picked. They put them in bins and carry them away.
Have you had any disasters with your crops? No, a hurricane almost came. Some salt water got on the top leaves, but that was about it.

Portsmouth Landmarks: Founder’s Brook

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Founder’s Brook

Portsmouth Compact on the Puddingstone Rock

We call it “Founder’s Brook” because that was what the Portsmouth tercentenary committee called it when they unveiled a monument to Portsmouth’s founders there in 1936. In old records it was known as the “watering place” and later it was called “Stony Brook.” Today it is a place set aside to remember our founders, the Portsmouth Compact and the life of the community in its earliest days.

Although there is debate about whether Founder’s Brook was the original spring where the earlier settlement was centered, this area has traditionally been an important spot to remember the founders.  The bronze tablet with the words of the Portsmouth Compact inscribed was placed on a large “pudding stone” believed to be a spot where the founders made their speeches.  As the small group of settlers prepared to go to Aquidneck Island, they organized themselves into what they called a Bodie Politik or group of citizens. They picked William Coddington as their judge (ruler), William Aspinwall as their Secretary and William Dyre as the Clerk. They formed a government even before they left Boston. What is known as the “Portsmouth Compact” was a pledge to follow God and live by His laws as written in the Bible. These settlers were organized and came to Aquidneck Island with the idea that they agreed with each other to form a government which would follow the laws of God. Other settlements had the structure of church or a patent (agreement from the king) to guide them. These men and their families were developing something new.

As the spring of 1638 came, the little band of settlers began their journey to Aquidneck Island. Some came over the land by way of Providence. Others sailed around Cape Cod. The settled at the North end of the Island around Founder’s Brook and another brook in the area. They had left the security of Boston for tent like homes or dug out caves lined with wood. Just like the Native Americans before them, they hunted and fished for food and they began to prepare the land for planting. There was a new community on Aquidneck Island beginning as the old community had ended. At first this small settlement of English families was known by the Native American name of Pocasset.

Today we come to Founder’s Brook to honor the founders and to get a glimpse of the early roots of Portsmouth life.  Preserving this spot was not easy. The Tercentenary Committee in the 1930’s purchased the adjacent land and gave it to the town to preserve the brook area. In 1960 efforts were made to “save Founder’s Brook” when highway cloverleafs for Route 24 threatened to obliterate the Founders Brook Memorial Grove and the Mello Farm.  The Portsmouth Historical Society, the business community and the State Department of Public Works combined to protect the memorial area.  Improvements to the memorial area were made during Portsmouth’s 375th celebration.

Portsmouth Landmarks: Christian Union Church/PHS headquarters

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Church/Museum today

The headquarters of the Portsmouth Historical Society today was a church that was an important part of life in South Portsmouth.  The church was founded in 1810 as the Christian Church of Portsmouth. Members met in private homes until a small meetinghouse was built in 1824 on the site of the present building. At that point they called themselves the Union Society to help unite rather than divide the Christian community. The church was called the Union Meeting House and was financed with the help of a lottery.

The congregation seemed open to a variety of expressions of faith.  William Ellery Channing, a noted Unitarian who lived close by, loved to talk with the church members on Sunday afternoons. Noted social reformer Dorothea Dix began the Sunday School.

The present structure was built in 1865 at a cost of $7,000. At that time they returned to the name of the Christian Church of Portsmouth. The basic principle Rev. Miller was that the Bible is the word of God. Members were sent as delegates to the Rhode Island and Massachusetts Christian and Congregational Conferences.

The construction of the new church was very brief – lasting from August to December 1865. The choir loft was added later. The minister at that time, Rev. William E. Miller was instrumental in overseeing the construction and he also built the church pulpit. A church dedication ceremony was held in early January 1866.

Women were invited to preach. Julia Ward Howe, another neighbor up on Union Street, would come to “supply the pulpit”. Ellen Gustin of Attleboro was active in evangelization at the church and worked with the pastor.

In the 1870s the pastors held open meetings at the Glen and local Methodist pastors and ministers from many denominations were present.  The governing structure of the church revolved around a board which was charged with finding and overseeing pastors and the life of the church. The officers were three Elders (and later a President), two Deacons, treasurer and the clerk. Most of what we know about the church is from the writings of the various clerks in the church records. The activities of the church centered around the official church committee.

The most active of the committees seemed to be Music and Social Life. The church members believed that everyone should have access to a musical education. The church had a singing school and organ lessons were given. The organ you see in the church today was bought from Emmanuel Church from Newport in 1903.

Organ from Emmanuel Church

The social life group coordinated turkey suppers and Christmas festivals at the church. Clambakes, strawberry festivals and oyster suppers were held at the Glen and other sites on the island. Even when there was no pastor and the spiritual side of the congregation was lacking, the social and benevolent parts of the church were active in uniting the group. The church building served the community as a school, lecture hall and social meeting spot.

The church was an active, thriving congregation for the half century between the Civil War and World War I. It then went through a decline from which it never recovered. The last church service was held in the summer of 1937.  In 1940 the fourteen remaining members voted to give the property to the Portsmouth Historical Society. The remaining members recognized the church as a historic landmark in Portsmouth and they wanted the building to be used for educational or historical purposes.

Audience Room

The Portsmouth Historical Society has worked to preserve the Christian Union Church as its headquarters and museum by using grants.

Portsmouth Landmarks: Sherman Mill at Prescott Farm

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Sherman Mill at Lehigh Hill

The windmill at Prescott Farm has traveled far, but Portsmouth has been its home for most of its life.  It was built in 1812 in Warren and served in connection to a distillery.  It was moved to Fall River where John Sherman of Portsmouth bought the mill and ultimately dismantled it and rebuilt it on Quaker Hill.  It was moved again to Lehigh Hill.  It ceased being useful in the early 20th century.  In 1969 the Newport Restoration Foundation acquired the mill, dismantled it, and carefully reconstructed at Prescott Farm.

1910 image of Sherman Mill

Sherman Mill Entries from David Durfee Sheaman Diaries
1858
5 May 1858
… Uncle John [Sherman] has bought a windmill in Fall River (RI) and Jonathan Sherman has contracted to take it down and move it here on his land west of the main road _ and put it up again. It was moved from Warren, to where it now stands.

15 May 1858
… Helped Jonathan Sherman unload the top of the Mill about 9 o’clock. He brought it in 6 parts, sawed through from top to plates at one load with 4 horses.

31 May 1858Built wall for Father (Benjamin C Sherman] he went to Fall River with Uncle John & Jonathan Sherman to help take down the Mill. They got three sides down & brought them home being after 10 o’clock when they got home. Weather fine & calm morning, light breeze from south afternoon.

1 June 1858
Built wall for Father. Uncle John’s hired man has been there two days helping us Uncle having Father’s Oxen to go after Mill. Warm part of day with little rain in the night. Jonathan did not get home untill 3 o’clock in the morning with the loads of Mill. 2 June 1858

8 June 1858
… Helped knock the shingles off the side of the Mill A.M. They re going to take them off and nail the boards on firm then lay the same shingles again. ..

11 June 1858
I done but little work today, feeling quite unwell; went up where the men was at work on the Mill. Helped them some about raising the poles to make a Derrick to put the Mill up with; they are near 50 feet long. The bottom of the Mill is laid and some of the sides ready to put up. Four men at work on her. Wind blowing from the southwest, thundered and rained at night just after six o’clock.

14 June 1858
… Jonathan raised two sides of the Mill today.

17 June 1858
I split some wood & George packed it up to dry. Went up to the Mill awhile and helped some. They got up all the sides but one.

25 June 1858
I worked for Jonathan on the Mill – shingling some and putting together the driving wheel on the main shaft. An exceedingly hot day …

26 June 1858
I worked for Jonathan today putting on the top of the Mill. Got it all on. Uncle is going to have it new shingled. Had a very favorable time being so still and very warm …
14 July 1858
… I went up to Uncle’s Mill afternoon – put up the arms- I helped some. They have got the machinery all put up and will finish it in a short time,

22 July 1858
… We went over then helped Uncle John get three loads of hay when it began to rain a little- then held up a while, then rained again a light shower. Jonathan Sherman finished Uncle’s Mill today. He had $500 for moving and putting it up in running order.

16 Aug. 1858
… Worked on Uncle Johns Mill-sails, patching and sowing up the rents, afternoon.

17 Aug 1858
More rain this morning and cloudy all day. Finished mending the sails. Jonathan Sherman came out from Newport and Mr. Borden came in the stage from Fall River to get the Mill in running order to grind corn. Mr.Borden was the owner of the Mill when Uncle John bought her. We went up and took up the Big stone (Runner) found that we should have to move the bed stone to make the wheels gear in to each other.

18 Aug 1858
Cut away the floor and moved the bedstone & leveled it & put on the Runner. Rigged the sails afternoon & started her up for the first time in 4 years. A damp, strong south-west wind- she went off smart with sails reefed; ground about 5 bushels of southern corn for feed – some was mixed with oats. Levi Cory bought two grists. The first one that was bought.

19 Aug 1858
We took up the Mill stone and packed it with the small picks (having 25 or 30 of them together) making the surface of the stone much finer than the old way of picking with a single pick and not taking a quarter of the time to do it. We started up and ground a little at night but the wind light from north west.

20 Aug 1858
Had to move the small bed-stone about an inch, wedging around it again; worked a good while to make the Break clear the driving wheel, and doing other small jobs. Started up the Mill and ground 6 bushels of flat corn, making fine meal for John Elared of Newport, get 6 cents a bush. For grinding; wind south west, whole sail breeze.

21 Aug 1858
Isaac Grinnell came out to set up the curb around the small stone (it is made of staves & hooped) and done one thing or another about the Mill. A fine clear day, wind west, light.

30 Sept 1858
Worked on the Mill- wedging the arms of the driving wheel to keep it firm and strong. Asa Tibbets was there & assisted us. Jonathan left many things undone which was needed to be done. Started up and ground 13 bushels of corn for feed, one bushel of round corn for Father, and one bushel of rye in less than two hours; wind blowing strong from west nor’west clear but cool and drying.

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

Portsmouth Landmarks: Prescott Farm: Nichols – Overing House

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Vintage Image of Prescott Farm

We call the area “Prescott Farm,”  but the home and nearby farm might be called the Nichols, Overing House.  The home, which straddles the Portsmouth/Middletown Line, is best known as the location of the capture of British general Prescott by American William Barton during the Revolutionary War.  The house has an earlier history when it was owned by Jonathan Nichols, who was a Lieutenant Governor.  After Nichols’ death, the property was owned by Henry Overing who was a Loyalist, wealthy slave owner, rum distiller and sugar baker in Newport.  It was common for Newport merchants to have a county house .  The Overing family opened this home to  General Prescott who often took the opportunity to get away from city life in Newport with his troops.

Capture of General Prescott
Portsmouth was a site of action during the Revolutionary War. The residents of Portsmouth suffered under the British rule of the island, but they were encouraged by a daring plan to capture a British general. In July 1777, while Aquidneck Island was under the control of thousands of British soldiers, American Major William Barton (who was in Tiverton) received word that the British Commander in Chief, General Prescott was staying at Mr. Overing’s house on West Main Road close to the Middletown border. When Prescott was at his headquarters in Newport he was well protected. Visiting friends in the countryside, Prescott was less well defended. Barton planned to get Prescott so he could be exchanged for American Major General Charles Lee who had been captured in New Jersey. Barton had asked for volunteers for this dangerous plan and out of the many who stepped forward he picked out the best rowers and four who had lived on Aquidneck Island and could serve as guides

The river crossing between Tiverton and Portsmouth was closely watched, so Barton and his men rowed to Bristol and then all the way over to Warwick to begin their secret mission. The mission was so secret that even the volunteers did not know where they were going until after their journey had begun. On July 9, 1777 Barton and 40 volunteers left Warwick Neck in five whaleboats and rowed across the Bay with oars that were covered in wool to keep them quiet. They had to row around British ships that were stationed on the west side of the island. The Americans landed on the west shore of Portsmouth and followed a gully up to the Overing Farm on the Portmouth/Middletown border. Barton talked his way past a guard and took control of a sentry so he could not sound the alarm. The men worked quickly and within a few minutes took Prescott, the sentry and Prescott’s aide-de camp with them. No shot was fired. They again had to row through British ships on their way back. This capture gave the colonial troops some needed encouragement.

Today the property is owned by the Newport Restoration Foundation.  The home is used as a rental property and “Prescott Farm” is the area where several historic Portsmouth buildings  (including the Sherman windmill) have been relocated.

Portsmouth Landmarks: Southermost School

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Southemost School before restoration

There is a little schoolhouse on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society. We call it the “Southermost School” and we believe it may be the oldest school in Rhode Island.

In the early days of Portsmouth, children probably were taught to read and write at home if their parents had those skills. Education was important to the townspeople of Portsmouth. In 1716, while considering how to divide land in the southern part of town, the freemen of Portsmouth were planning for public education in town. “Having considered how excellent an ornament learning is to mankind and the great necessity there is in building a public school house on said south side” of Portsmouth, the freemen put aside money to build a school and and chose a committee to raise money to build it. It must have taken a long time to collect the money needed because it took nine years for that school – Southermost School – to open its doors.

Land was donated on the corner of East Main Road and Union Street. Town citizens authorized 20 pounds (English money) for construction but it actually cost 23 pounds or about a hundred dollars in today’s money. We can understand how the school was built from reading the bill presented to the town by the builder, Captain Adam Lawton. The building is fourteen feet by twenty-six feet. It took eight days for Lawton and his “negro” to build it. Slaves and indentured servants (who had agreements to work for a specific time) were part of the community in early Portsmouth. The town was billed for 2000 feet of boards, 200 shingle nails and 200 clapboard nails. There were hearth stones for a fireplace for warmth and 200 bricks for an oven in the cellar so that cooking could be done. It has a simple “post and beam” construction which uses heavy timbers as supports. Even though it is an old way to build, the original wood frame has lasted all these years. To save costs it had a “pony chimney” which is supported by just the roof and extends down part way into the building. It has an arched and plastered ceiling that was unusual for a school in those days. It was a type of construction used in finer homes.

In colonial days the school teachers were all men. The families of the students in the school were responsible for providing a home and food for the schoolmaster and his family. Early records of the town tell us about the first schoolmaster, James Preston, and how his family ending up living in the cellar of Southermost School. The school opened in 1725, but by 1727 Preston was reported to be sick and unable to work. The Preston family had been living at the home of James Strange. Town records from 1727 mention that “James Strange refuses to entertain James Preston and his family any longer in his dwelling house. It is is agreed by this council that said Preston and his family be settled in the Southermost School house in town for the present, that is in the cellar part…” The town tried to take care of families in need and the school was one of the few public buildings that could house a family. By 1730 they family was ordered out of the schoolhouse. Interestingly, the widow of James Strange, Sarah Strange, ended up needing to use Southermost School as her home, too. In a town meeting in 1746 she and her family were ordered out so that the “school house might be improved in the use for which it was built..”

Sometime before 1800 the school was moved to the corner of West Main Road and Union Street. The entry way (as you see it now) was added at this time. A stove was used for heat.

Southermost School on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society.

Around the time of the Civil War the Gibbs School was built and the Almy family bought the school at auction. It took eight teams of Oxen to move the school building to the Almy Farm. The school spent 90 years at the Almy/Hall Farm (Lakeside) at 559 East Main Road where it served as a storage and harness shed. In 1952 the Hall family gave it to the Portsmouth Historical Society and once again it returned to the corner of Union Street and East Main Road, but this time across the street on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society. The society worked to restore the school house through grants, house tours and yard sales.

Inside the school house today you can sit in one of the original student desks and view the top of the original schoolmaster’s desk. There are also examples of the primers, copy books and textbooks students would have used in one room schools in Portsmouth. The entrance way has lunch pails and pegs to hang coats.

Posted on the wall is a 200 year old list of Rules and Punishment posted at Southernmost School.
• Boys and girls playing together – 1 lash
• Fighting at School – 5 lashes
• Quarreling at school – 3 lashes
• Climbing for every foot over 3ft up a tree – 1 lash
• Telling tales out of school – 8 lashes
• Giving each other ill names – 3 lashes
• Misbehaving to girls – 10 lashes
• Leaving school without leave of the teacher – 4 lashes
• Wearing long fingernails – 2 lashes
• Boys going to the girls’ play place – 3 lashes
• Girls going to the boys’ play place – 2 lashes
• For every word you miss on your heart lessons without a good excuse – 1 lash
• For not saying yes or no sir or yes or no marm – 2 lashes
• Telling lies – 7 lashes
• Swearing at school – 9 lashes.