Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

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Do you know exactly where your property lines are?  Do you have your garden fenced high enough to keep the rabbits out?  From the beginning, Portsmouth settlers were concerned about property boundaries and managing crops and livestock. Good fencing was called for and the town council mandated it. The book Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth is filled with concerns about fences.   References to requiring a hedge or fence begin in 1640 with all in town obligated to help create a hedge and gate with “Mr. Samford overseer.”  As land grants were given out there was a 1643 mandate that the responsibility “equally be born half by one party and half the other party – fenced in with a general fence and fences to be maintained by the proportion agreed.”  People were appointed by the town to “view the fence run,” and others were appointed as judges to determine property line disputes.

Virginia type fence

What type of fences did they have? It took a long while to clear enough stones to build a wall.  Hedges and wooden railed “Viriginia Fences” were put up before the stone walls were erected.   At first hedges are mentioned.  The first mention of stones for a stone wall comes in 1651 when Mr. Earl gives Mr. Tripp “leave to take the loose stone on the said Earl’s land of the nearest to Tripps house to make about eight rod of such wall…”

The most comprehensive rules on fences come in 1671.  Because there was damage done to cattle which caused arguments between neighbors, ” It is ordered for the time to come that he or they within the bounds of this town of Portsmouth that will make sufficient fences shall recover satisfaction of the owners …of the cattle that doth him damage.”  There was an order to have:

“…a fence called a virginia fence. It is ordered that it shall be four foot and a  half – staked with stakes half a foot above the fence plumb up and that not any of the rails be above four inches from his fellow…… And for stone wall they shall be four foot and six inches high, .. for hedge or hedge and ditch only the sufficiency of any of them.”

Four men would be viewers  to “see and view the fences when we shall have occasion to look for satisfaction for damage.”  

Although the first fences in Portsmouth were hedges and post and rail wood, stone walls became more permanent.  In his book Stone by Stone, Robert Thorson comments that eventually Rhode Island had the highest percentage of fences (78%) being made of stone.  Boundary fences would be shorter while fences to protect crops from damage or to pen in livestock were higher.

What kind of fence do you have?

The Farmer’s Wall

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Farmer’s Wall

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, carrying them to the edge of the field and then off-loading them.

What did the farmer do with these discarded rocks?  They made them useful.  Instead of stacking them in mounds, they used them to form the boundary of a pasture or planting field.  This type of wall goes by several names.  “Tossed,” “thrown,” “pasture,”  “stacked” or “farmer’s” wall describe the type of wall.  Robert Thorson, in Exploring Stone Walls p.67, writes:  “In a stacked wall, the stones are placed one above the other with no concern for the fit of the stones beyond nesting them together, as if they were logs in a stack of firewood.”

The “farmer’s wall” pictured in this blog is in my backyard.  It reminds me of the farmers who cleared this land for farming.  As I look at the old maps I can name the families who farmed the land that is my yard.  I think about the Bordens, the McCorries, the Fales, and the Pierces.  As I try to preserve the wall I feel connected to them all.

Portsmouth Stone Walls: Building Stone on Stone


Stone walls are history we can touch. They remind us of our farming history and show us the ancient property boundaries.  We are blessed with so many stone walls in our town that we often don’t notice them.  Worse, we often don’t treat the walls with the respect they deserve as part of our heritage.  The Aquidneck Island Stone Wall Initiative, a collaboration of the Preservation Society of Newport County and Preserve Rhode Island, is attempting to raise awareness of the need to preserve and rebuild our historic walls.  They have restored a wall by Simmons Farms and are now working on a wall owned by Norman Bird Sanctuary at the corner of Paradise and Third Beach Road.  On the way to the beach today, I stopped and took some photos of the process of rebuilding a wall.

The Aquidneck Island Stone Wall Initiative has posted online a wonderful resource on island stone walls and barns.  The HISTORIC RESOURCE REPORT BY JENNIFER ROBINSON provides the text for the the steps in stone wall building below.

“First, the stone is sorted by size and type, and the largest stones are placed side-by-side in two rows (each stone positioned in an oblong direction) for the foundation.

Two sides of Wall

Strings and a frame are set in the ground to guide the slope of the wall faces and the level of the courses.

Next, the courses are laid, with each row of stone being laid simultaneously on each face; stones are positioned so that all joints, or spaces, are covered (i.e. a “one stone on two, two stones on one”).

Hearting, or small filling stones, are utilized throughout for stability, and are added in the middle of the two wall faces as each course is being built.

Adding through stones

As the wall increases in size (and above 23 inches), it becomes advisable to add regularly-placed throughstones; these long stones, which run across both wall faces, provide additional stability.

Finally, slab-like copestones are added across the top of the finished wall to provide a “binding” effect to

Capstones go on last

the structure.”

Read Ms Robinson whole resource booklet online: https://www.aquidneckstonewalls.org/resources

Portsmouth Women: Artist Sarah Eddy and her Subject Fannie Scott

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A wonderful portrait by Sarah J. Eddy has found a home back in Portsmouth. Newporter John Peixinho won the portrait at an auction and generously donated it to the Portsmouth Historical Society. Sarah painted the portraits of famous Americans such as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, but she also painted (or photographed) the images of local Portsmouth people.

Fannie Scott by Sarah Eddy

We had a mystery to solve. Who was this lovely lady in the portrait and what relationship did she have with Sarah Eddy? There were some clues. Carved in the frame was “Portsmouth” and “1920.” The name of the subject was hard to read. Curator’s committee member Marjorie Webster thought the first name might be “Fannie” and the last name may have included the letters “ott.” Marge was almost sure it was “Fannie Scott,” a black woman in our community that would have been about seventy at the date of the portrait. That name sounded familiar. In researching the black community in Portsmouth, I had come across a “Fannie Scott.”

Who was Fannie? Her 1926 obituary in the Newport Daily News provided a wealth of clues. Around 1870 Joseph Macomber brought a group of sixteen former slaves from Virginia to Portsmouth. Fannie Edna Brent came as a young woman. Her sister, Matilda Ayler came with her husband and children as well. They became a well known farming family in the “Cozy Corners” area of Portsmouth around Turnpike Avenue and East Main Road. Fannie lived with the Ayler household and eventually married another of Macomber’s group, Robert Scott. Robert was twenty years older than Fannie.

Newspaper accounts show Fannie as active in the Friends Church. She was part of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society in 1913 and helped cater a special dinner for service members in 1917. When her husband died in 1914, she went to live with family members at the Ayler home. Her obituary, however, shows that she spent her last days at the Home for Aged Colored People in Providence. Portsmouth Friends minister Elizabeth Trout, conducted the funeral services there and then she was buried next to her husband at the Portsmouth Friends Cemetery.

How did Sarah Eddy come to paint a portrait of Fannie? We can only guess. Sarah had a long term relationship with the Home for Aged Colored People in Providence. Every year for almost 40 years she hosted an outing at her home on Bristol Ferry Road. The elder citizens were served chowder, doughnuts, ice cream and tea. There was a short program with some speeches and singing. There were always other guests along with the members of the Home. I imagine that as a member of Portsmouth’s black community Fannie may have been one of the guests even before she came as a resident of the Home. Fannie’s grand-niece Alice Ayler Morris often sang at events at Sarah’s home.

Sarah Eddy always gave her photographs, paintings and sculptures away as gifts. She never sold any of them. She gave them as prizes, as donations for charity auctions and as gifts to the families in our community. We will treasure the gift of the portrait of Fannie Brent Scott.

Portsmouth Place Names: Lawton’s Valley – Mills and Julia Ward Howe

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1900s postcard of the falls at Lawton’s Valley

Lawton’s Valley was once a prominent picnic spot in Portsmouth.  We have newspaper clippings of church groups going there around 1900 and there is a lovely postcard of the fall at Lawton’s Valley.  I still make the corn chowder recipe that my dad learned when cooking over a Boy Scout campfire in Lawton’s Valley.  The coming of the reservoir in the Valley has changed the geography of the area, but its history is still part of Portsmouth’s great past.

Captain George Lawton (Layton), one of the signers of the Portsmouth Compact in 1638 and 1648 is probably the source of the name Lawton’s Valley.  Early records show him as owner of the property by the “Wading River” – now called Lawton’s Brook.  He built a mill on his property which was located on either side of what we call West Main Road.  The valley was the site of two mills.  One mill was for “carding and fulling” – a way to wash and prepare wool for use.  Another mill was for the manufacture of “Negro cloth.”  There were grist mills for grinding corn in the area as well.

Julia Ward Howe by a Lawton Valley Mill

Julia Ward Howe first came to Lawton’s Valley around 1850.  Her first home was right by the ravine on the west side of West Main Road.  After her husband sold that beloved property, Julia and her husband bought another home in the Lawton’s Valley area – Oak Glen on Union Street.

1850 map showing Lawton’s Valley

Lawton’s Valley had been a favorite spot for picnics, gatherings and camping.  When the Norman family (associated with the Newport Water Works) owned the property there were restrictions.  Barbara Norman Cook (known as Kittymouse) bought some of the property (perhaps the original 40 acres that George Lawton had) and opened it up to the public.

During World War II the Navy created a reservoir and pumping station to support the war effort.  Looking at maps from 1907 and today, it seems clear that some of the land on the east side of West Main Road was flooded for the reservoir.  This is now property of the City of Newport for a water supply for area residents.

It is difficult to get down into Lawton’s Valley today, so the days of church picnics and Boy Scout outings may be over.  The whole “Lawton Valley” area  still remains rich in Portsmouth history.

Portsmouth Place Names: McCorrie (McCurry) Point

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McCorrie Point

I live in the McCorrie Point area, so I was curious to know how it was named.  There was even a one room schoolhouse on Schoolhouse Lane that was named McCorrie, so that name had to have some importance.

First I went to old maps, and I couldn’t find a McCorrie connection.  West’s land grant maps list the area as being owned by the Borden family.  Revolutionary War era maps list the point as “Sandy Point” and what we call Sandy Point Beach as “Little Sandy Point.”  Maps from 1870 that list property owners have the point listed as “McCurry Point” and the land as owned by someone named Fales.

So then I began to look up “McCorrie” in Portsmouth History.  One of my first tasks as a volunteer for the Portsmouth Historical Society was to transcribe a document that recorded the vote in 1788 of Portsmouth citizens on adopting the Constitution.  Rhode Island was the last of the thirteen states to ratify it and it was a struggle to get to a “yes” vote.   An “Andrew McCorrie” was one of the very few citizens that initially voted to ratify the constitution.  On a genealogical resource I found the record of a marriage of Andrew McCorrie and Ann Chase.  One source listed 1756 as the date – another 1765.  Both sources have Andrew as being born in 1735.    This Andrew might be the right age to be our Constitution voter.  This Andrew McCorrie held town offices in the late 1780s and through the 1790s.

The name “Andrew McCorrie” was passed down to Andrew (1771-1828) who married Phebe Cook.  A third “Andrew McCorrie” (1803-1878) was married to Susan Borden.  Did Susan Borden inherit the land from her family?  The Borden Family Genealogy “Historical and Genealogical Record of the Descendants of Richard and Joan Borden” comments that the Borden’s son Matthew must have been born on land “since known as the MacCorrie Farm.”

Part of McCorrie Point’s history is that noted Congregational minister Ezra Stiles who lived in Newport during the Revolutionary Era, wrote about a special stone found on the beach.  Edmund Delabarre writes in an article for the Rhode Island Historical Society that in the fourth volume of Stiles’ manuscript “Itineraries” Stiles writes “Visited & copied a markt Rock about half a m above Fogland Ferry on Rh. I on shore against or just below Mr. McCory’s Farm.”  Looking at maps today, that would probably be a half a mile to the south of McCurry Point.  Delabarre states “This Point is part of an estate still known as the McCorrie Farms.  In 1920 Delabarre tried to find this stone.  Stile’s drawing of this McCory’s Farm rock no longer exists, but Stiles recognized the letter Z and the letter S marked on the stone.  Stiles recorded another Indian Cup stone that was located at Arnold’s Point.  You can see this rock outside the Old Town Hall at the Portsmouth Historical Society.  The large rock has what looks like the Big Dipper carved into it.

I can never be certain how McCorrie Point got its name, but I do enjoy walking to the beach and recalling family times there.  When my grandsons visit, it is our favorite place to collect shells.

Portsmouth Place Names: The Glen

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A “glen”is a secluded narrow valley. That is an apt description of the heart of our Glen district in Portsmouth. The “Glen” and Glen Road appear on colonial maps of Portsmouth. Early land grants gave the Glen area to William Brenton. His large farm grant stretched from just below McCorrie Point (they called it Sandy Point) to Hutchinson land at our Sandy Point (they called it Little Sandy Point). He called his farm “Middleford Farm” and Glen Road was the approach to it.  Early town records show a land sale by Brenton to Thomas Cooke on October 25, 1649. Brenton reserves the right to a “cart way” through the land to carry hay from the water to his farm. Cooke and his family had moved to Portsmouth in 1643. In 1648 Cook is listed in the Town Council records as receiving 30 acres of a land grant on which he built his house in the area we call “The Glen.”  This property ran

toward Mr. Burtun’s ferry which may be an early name for the Fogland Ferry near the foot of Glen Road. In 1649 Cooke bought the adjacent land from Brenton.  In 1655 Thomas Cooke Sr. builds his home on the site of the present day Glen Manor House. Cooke’s son and grandson bought land around it and the family was very active in Portsmouth life.  In 1657 Thomas Cooke, Jr. sold part of his land to Giles Slocum. The border of that property was called “the brook” and we know it as the stream that runs through the Glen.   John Randall also sells Slocum a piece of land he had bought from Thomas Cook Jr.  This land is around the Slocum graveyard and current Glen barns. In 1668 records show that the Cooke family ferries cattle, sheep and horses daily for grazing from what is now the Glen Manor House dock area to

Cook Lands and Ferry

The Cook family began to ferry their animals to Fogland to graze during the day.

Fogland in Tiverton.

The Glen’s first settlers, the Cooke family, gradually moved away and sold their land, but many of the Cooke daughters married into local families. It is hard to trace all the ownership of what is now the town owned Glen land, but we did discover information on some of those landowners. In 1720 John Cooke sells a portion of his land to James Sisson. By 1745 Sisson had a water powered grist mill to grind corn on the brook in the Glen. Revolutionary War era maps show the location of that mill as just east of Glen Farm Road and the barn complex. James Sisson then sells his mill and 46 acres around the brook to Joseph Cundall. What we call “the Glen” becomes commonly known as Cundall’s Mills. In 1706 Joseph Cundall had left his native England to become an indentured servant in America. Becoming an indentured servant was a way a young person could learn a trade and get an education in exchange for working for seven years or more. Cundall seems to have learned his trade well and was in a good position to buy land as an adult. Water from the stream powered the carding and fulling mills to wash and pull woolen fibers. Joseph Cundall added almost a hundred more acres to his land around the Glen before he died in 1760. Old local history books tell the tragic story of his son Joseph who got lost in a Christmas Eve snowstorm and died on his way home in 1811.

By 1815 the mills and the land are in the hands of Judge Samual Clarke, whose wife Barbary was a Cundall. The mill was still known as Cundall’s Mills and he advertised that he bought a new carding machine and could dye wool. He advertised that he could manufacture cashmeres, flannels and satinets. The land transfers are hard to follow, but by 1823 the mills were on the auction block and the inventory lists a gristmill and clothier works with looms and spinning machines.

Currier and Ives print of the Glen as picnic area

Local historian Rev. Edward Petersen wrote in 1853: “Cundall’s Mills is one of the most romantic spots on the island, and has become a general resort of strangers, who visit Newport in summer, to enjoy the salubrity of its climate and its picturesque scenery.” Artists Currier and Ives even illustrated a picnic at the Glen in 1860. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s diaries record an 1852 visit.: “Then we drove to the Glen, and walked down a lovely little valley, with a brown brook threading it and a silent mill, to the sea shore; a charming secluded nook.” The Glen was a popular spot to enjoy nature, take a walk, paint and even write poetry. Visitors would often enjoy a stop at Mrs. Durfee’s Tea House on the way home.

Down in the Glen today. Remains of Glen Farm power station in view.

The Glen land was divided and re-divided into small farms. On September 28, 1882 Halsey P. Coon sold his “Glen Farm” to H.A.C. Taylor. The land evidence records note that it was a parcel of land with “two dwelling houses, a grist mill, two barns, two cribs and other out buildings.” The tract of land was about 111 acres of land. The “Glen” is a traditional name for the area and Taylor continued to call it “Glen Farm.”  In the hands of the Taylor family, the farm grew in value, prestige and land area. What H.A.C. Taylor did in his land purchases, was to make a large gentleman’s farm from all the smaller farms in the area.  The Taylors would go on to buy the farms or house lots of Howard Smith, Harriet Smyth, Frank Smith, Wm. Ware, Mary B. Field, Frederick Field, Charles Slocum, the Cundall family, Leonard Brown, William Coggeshall, William Chase, William Sisson and the Durfee Tea House lot.  H.A.C Taylor’s son Moses and daughter-in-law Edith Bishop Taylor would continue to grow the property until it was 1500 acres. After H.A.C. Taylor’s daughter-in-law Edith Taylor Nicholson died in 1959 the property was again broken up and sold. Much of the land is in housing developments. Other pieces are planted with nursery stock but the Glen brook area itself remains in private hands.  Thankfully the people of Portsmouth are the owners of two very special pieces of Glen. The Glen is still a popular recreation site for our town.

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