Old Town Hall Exhibits: Horse Drawn Hearse

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Whose Hearse Was It?

In 2009 the Portsmouth Historical Society welcomed back a horse drawn hearse that had been in storage for many years. An elder member of the society thought that the hearse had belonged to the Christian Union Church whose building was now the headquarters of the historical society.

Sure enough, a search of the church records showed that the church did indeed own a hearse. Church records from the Board meeting of March 12, 1871 indicated that: “The board unanimously recommended that Br. John T. Brown purchase a hearse of Langley and Bennett at a cost of $162 provided the sum of $200 is raised.”

Later records from December 16, 1871 showed that it was voted that:
“Br. John T. Brown who has the care of the hearse, be authorized to charge non-subscribers for its use, the sum of one dollar, said dollar to be added to the fund for keeping the hearse in repair.”

A search of the City of Newport Directory from the early 1870s showed that Langley and Bennett was a furniture maker in Newport that also made coffins, caskets and related funeral items.  They also were undertakers.
We were confident that the hearse we had was the one that would bring deceased church members on their last journey from their homes to the church and then on to Union Cemetery down the road.

As part of our celebration of the Christian Union Church building’s 150th anniversary, we read ALL the church records. To our amazement we found an entry in 1903 authorizing John T. Brown to dispose of the hearse and turn over the “hearse fund” that would have been used to maintain the hearse to the treasury.

The church hearse was gone by 1903, so what hearse did we have? We knew from research that the hearse was typical of what was used in the 1870s. Newspaper accounts from 1943 mentioned the donation of a hearse to the society by Mrs. David Anthony. According to the article the hearse had been purchased years before by Asa Anthony who lived on West Main Road. H. Frank Anthony, his son, went on the trip to New Bedford with his father to bring back a used hearse.

Why would Asa Anthony need a hearse? Newspaper articles again offer some clues. It seems that Asa B. Anthony was a coroner for Portsmouth in the 1880s. Asa Anthony would have used the hearse to transport bodies. Other articles comment that bodies remained at Asa Anthony’s home until a funeral. Ironically Asa Anthony’s home, once known as “Willowbrook” is the Connors Funeral Home today.

There are flames on top of the hearse that could be removed and replaced with plumes of black feathers. Of course the extent of the feathers signified how important the deceased was. It has a few practical features as well such as rollers to make it easier to push the coffin into the hearse and spikes that can be raised to keep the coffin in place. The hearse was originally painted black like most hearses but now it is painted grey.

We have no pictures of either the Christian Church hearse or that of Asa Anthony. We will never definitively know whose hearse this is but our assumption is that it served the Portsmouth Town Coroner –

Old Town Hall Exhibits: The Last Mail Wagon

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With COVID restrictions in place we have not been able to open the buildings of the Portsmouth Historical Society. We have hopes that guidelines will ease, but we can still give you a virtual tour of our properties.

The Old Town Hall on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society houses the society’s collection of farm tools and horse drawn vehicles. Among the gems in our collection, is the last horse drawn mail wagon that was used in Portsmouth. John Pierce’s Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth gives us a good history of the wagon.

This horse drawn mail wagon dates back to 1902 when Abner Anthony purchased it when a post office opened on the corner of Clearview Avenue and East Main Road to serve South Portsmouth. Mail to this post office was labeled “Melville Station, Newport.” Abner served for 43 years, first delivering mail by bicycle and then by horse and wagon. Pierce tells us that when this post office closed in 1918, Abner bought a Model T Ford and traded the wagon to Frank Fortner for 12 chickens. Frank was the carrier for the Newtown Village office.

Fortner used the wagon for some time and eventually it found its way to Tiverton. The wagon was then retired to the Taylor barn in Island Park. When that building was torn down in 1958 the wagon was given to letter carrier Roland “Pete” Tremblay who donated it to the Portsmouth Historical Society.

Last Mail Wagon from John Pierce Collection

The mail wagon was originally painted green, but you will find it painted blue and white today. The Portsmouth Historical Society used it as our “float” for the 375th parade.

Last Mail Wagon in 375th Anniversary Parade

On Society Grounds: Southermost School

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We believe this building is the oldest public school in Rhode Island. It may even be the oldest public school in the country that is still standing.

Southermost on grounds of Portsmouth Historical Society

In the early days of Portsmouth, children were probably taught to read and write at home if their parents had those skills. Now 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 the town.

It took nine years for that school – Southermost School – to open its doors in 1725 on land near the corner of Union Street and the East Path – across from the current location of the Historical Society.

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. We have records that indicate that the first schoolmaster, James Preston, and his family lived in the basement of this building when it was across the street.

The building was used as a school for many years but 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.

Around the time of the Civil War the Gibbs School was built to replace the Southermost School and the Almy family bought this building at auction. It took eight teams of oxen to move the school building to the Almy Farm halfway down Union Street. The school spent 90 years at the Almy/Hall Farm (also known as Lakeside) where it served as a storage and harness shed.

In 1952 the Hall family gave the school 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 Society. Since then the Society worked to restore the school house through grants, house tours and yard sales.

Southermost School on Lakeside Farm

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 two original large school bells from Portsmouth old schools. It also has lunch pails and pegs to hang the student’s coats.

The historical significance or this building can not be overemphasized. It serves as a monument to the desires of early Portsmouth citizens to support education.

Listen to Schoolmaster Preston:

On Society Grounds: Stone Walls

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The stone wall in back of the Portsmouth Historical Society building marks the original boundary of the Christian Union Church lot that was bought in 1824.

From the beginning, Portsmouth citizens were concerned about marking property boundaries.

At first boundaries were marked with hedges and wood, but stone walls became the permanent way to mark our property lines.

Our walls look different from the walls in the communities off the island.  The fieldstone that make up our walls are flatter. That makes them easier to work with when a wall is put together. Our slate, for example, is layered and can be split into slabs.  Slab type stones make the best walls.  

Slate, quartzite, puddingstone and granite are among the types of rocks in our walls.
Portsmouth stone walls remind us of our farm heritage. Clearing the land for crops was no easy task. It wasn’t just a one time chore.  Trees had to be cut down and stumps removed.  As the soil was plowed, rocks had to be dug out and cleared away from the planting area.  Rock removal was not just a one time process.  The winter’s freeze brought up a bumper crop of rocks every year. So what was the farmer to do with the rocks?  Removing them was heavy manual labor.  They had to find them, lift them, load them onto a cart, carry them to the edge of the field and then off-load them.

What did the farmer do with these discarded rocks?  They made them useful.  Instead of dumping them in mounds, they used them to form the boundary of a pasture or planting field.  

The walls around the Portsmouth Historical Society are called stacked walls or “dry” walls because there is no cement holding the stones together.

The first step in building a stacked wall was to dig a fairly deep ditch on the boundary. Larger stones were placed underground to form a foundation. Stones were placed in a pattern so that where two stones met there was one stone in the row above and below. Large flat “capstones” finished the top of the wall.

On Society Grounds: Arnold Point Cup Stone

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Research and text by Majorie Webster

Who created the inscribed stone’s makings? Theories abound.
We know that similar stones in the area are attributed to the Wampanoag but experts are not certain that this was true for the Arnold’s Point Stone.
The experts do agree that the holes were definitely manmade employing a time consuming process with rudimentary tools. They also agree that the carvings show considerable age.

In place at Arnold’s Point

Underlying the uncertainty is that the holes are deeper than traditional cups and the connecting grooves are even cruder than the cups.
One theory is that it is a true cup stone! – but that the cups were “enhanced” in the 1880s leaving the channels untouched.

Could this have been done, just as we trace over fading writing with an effort to preserve rather than to vandalize or deceive?
Could coal miners in the area have used their tools in their idle moments to alter the cups?

This is but one theory. We recognize that if true, an altered artifact relocated from its original location is not ideal. Yet we are grateful that it is preserved and that you are able to view it on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society today.

On Society Grounds: Beirut Memorial

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Research and text by Dave Duggan

On October 23, 1983, at about 6:20 a.m. on a Sunday morning, a yellow Mercedes truck crashed into the lobby of the barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines. Then the driver detonated a suicide bomb killing 241 servicemen. FBI forensics experts later determined the bomb was the equivalent to about 12,000 pounds of T.N.T. and was the largest non-nuclear blast since World War II. Across town, a second suicide attack killed 58 French soldiers.

You can read the names on the plaque of the nine Marines from Rhode Island who perished. They came from all over the state including two from Portsmouth: Corporal Stephen Spencer, and Private First Class Thomas Julian, a graduate of Portsmouth High School.

Duty called these Marines and they responded — and they gave their last full measure. They are forever part of a brotherhood that doesn’t feel self-pity but is willing to serve as our nation’s guardians.

This memorial was placed by Shirley Zdanuck in 1984 in memory of the Rhode Island marines killed in this tragedy including PFC Thomas Julian, who as a high school student, used to cut the lawn here at the Portsmouth Historical Society.

On Society Grounds: Battle of Rhode Island Monument

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On a morning in August of 1778, American troops ambushed a British advance group nearby at the corner of Middle Road and Union Street. The Americans were waiting behind some stone walls. As the British troops marched from Newport half went straight ahead on the East Path and the rest turned left on Union Street. The Americans rose from their hiding places and slaughtered one quarter of the British. Some historians refer to this corner as “Bloody Angle.”

Image from in 1940s – PHS President Fred Sherman and Vice President Ms. Chase

This skirmish was commemorated with the dedication of a monument on the grounds of the Christian Union Church, now the headquarters of the Portsmouth Historical Society. This skirmish was only one event in what we call the Battle of Rhode Island. This battle was the only major action in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War and fighting took place up and down East and West Main Roads in Portsmouth. Action took place at earthen fortifications at Fort Butts, on Quaker Hill, and on Turkey Hill. Although the American troops were forced to retreat to Tiverton, the patriots lost few troops.

Chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Newport and Portsmouth worked together to erect a monument to the “patriots who fought here in the first skirmish of the Battle of Rhode Island, August 29th, 1778.” The monument is made of Westerly granite and is dressed on one side but left natural on the other side. The stone itself weighs about two tons. The dedication ceremony took place on August 29, 1910. Festivities included a “stirring and patriotic speech” by Congressman William Paine Sheffield. Descendants of soldiers who took part in the battle unveiled the inscription and the program ended with the singing of the Star Spangled Banner.

On Society Grounds: The Christian Union Church

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Research and text by Marjorie Webster

The Christian Church of Portsmouth was formed in 1810. Their meetinghouse was erected in 1824 at the corner of Union Street and East Main Road. They had previously met in private homes. As their flock grew there was a need for a larger building. In 1865 they moved the old meetinghouse to the Sisson farm on Glen Road and replaced it with the building that exists today.

Christian Union Church – PHS Headquarters

The congregation expressed an openess to a variety of expressions of their Christian faith.  William Ellery Channing, a noted Unitarian who lived close by, frequently spoke with the church members on Sunday afternoons. Women were invited to preach. Julia Ward Howe, another neighbor up on Union Street, would come to “supply the pulpit.” Their reach stretched beyond the Portsmouth community. Membership records indicate that in1881 approximately 50 of their 155 members resided off Aquidneck Island.

Social, cultural and educational opportunities were offered to the members. The church members believed that everyone should have access to a musical education. The church had a singing school and organ lessons were given. Social and cultural activities included turkey suppers, road trips, masquerade parties and theatrical performances. A lending library was established. It predated Portsmouth’s public library.

Vintage photo of Audience Room

 The group 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.

On Society Grounds: Old Town Hall

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Most people think that we have a barn on the Portsmouth Historical Society grounds. They are surprised when we tell them it was actually the Old Town Hall. Yes, the building did serve as a stable and carriage house, but before that it was Portsmouth’s Town Hall from 1840 to 1895. We have a good idea of the building date because we have a card in the historical society collection that is an invitation to the town hall opening ceremonies.

Old Town Hall today

The building was originally located where the present town hall is today. When a grander town hall was erected in 1895, the old town hall was moved to the south side of the town hall lot. At this time the building was used like a barn. One story we have from these days takes place around 1907 when George Hicks was Town Clerk. When he had to work late in the evening for special meetings, he would hitch his horse and buggy in the Old Town Hall. One night some young people decided to play a trick on Hicks. Somehow they managed to get his buggy on the roof of Old Town Hall. We are not sure of who the culprits were or how Hicks got the buggy down, but a picture in the John Pierce Collection at the Portsmouth Free Public Library proves the story was true.

The buggy on the roof – 1907

Later the building served as headquarters for the Portsmouth Volunteer Fire Department. When the new firehouse was built, Old Town Hall served for a storage and meeting room. Around the late 1970s the town offered the building to the Portsmouth Historical Society and the building was moved to our grounds.

Today the Old Town Hall houses our horse drawn vehicles including the coroner’s hearse and the last mail wagon. It also displays a fine collection of local farm tools and machines.

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.

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