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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.

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