A HISTORY OF WESTPORT
|Westport in 1900||1|
Westport in 1900. It seems like a long time ago, but really we haven’t changed all that much. The basic rhythms of life are eternal. In 1900, in Westport, 26 young couples got married, 70 babies were born, 91 of us died. A map of Westport at the turn of the century looks strikingly similar to a map of town today. Most of the roads we know now were established long before 1900. Blossom, Pine Hill, Old County, Cornell, Drift, Mouse Mill, Charlotte White - ancient thoroughfares, every one. In the old days, of course, they were unpaved dirt roads, dusty in dry seasons and muddy in wet. Macadamized roads were a rarity in 1900, although this was soon to change. A new technology, the gasoline powered motor, was about to revolutionize transportation. Automobiles began appearing in Westport in 1905, and by 1920, tin lizzies and trucks were commonplace. The horse and buggy or wagon, the sleigh in winter, the ox drawn plow, rowing on the river - all disappeared almost overnight, left behind in the exhaust of the internal combustion engine. Other changes in the way we move around came later. Route 88, our central highway today, started zipping travelers north and south through town by the early 1960s. Interstate 195 connected Fall River and New Bedford, via Westport, by 1965. In 1900, the Westport Point Bridge over the river from Howland’s Wharf to Horseneck Beach was still just being broken in, having been completed in 1894. At the other end of town, a single track railroad slashed across North Westport, and a new electric trolley carried families looking for fun along State Road from the Narrows to Lincoln Park.
In the last century, much more so than today, Westport was a community of separate villages. People very much thought of themselves as being residents of the Point, the Head, North Westport, Central Village, the Harbor, South Westport, Horseneck Beach, or the Factory. Each village was a small, self-contained world unto itself, with a post office and general store at its core, surrounded by a church, a school, and a cluster of residences. This sense of association with one particular village has diminished in this century as the automobile and the freedom to travel it brings has made Westport a smaller place. Some villages today have managed to hold onto their identity, like the Head, the Point, etc. Others have lost their sense of being a distinct, recognizable place. If, for example, you mention South Westport to many of our younger residents, they assume you’re referring to the south end of town, while others of our citizens, mostly with graying hair, remember the community of South Westport, a separate village around the intersection of Hix Bridge, Pine Hill, and Horseneck Roads. Times change. People and places get swallowed up by the past. Another thing - in the old days Westport was dotted with Corners. Davis’ Corner. Gifford’s Corner. People were said to live near Brownell’s Corner, or a school was located at Booth’s Corner. This custom of designating intersections began to fall out of custom in the first half of this century and today Westport’s many Corners are largely forgotten.
The population of Westport in 1900 was about 2,700, as compared to around 14,000 today. At the turn of the century, Westport was a distinctly Yankee community. Most residents were of English or Scotch heritage, with many families claiming a lineage in town stretching back to the sixth or seventh generation. Westporters were mostly hardworking, thrifty, taciturn Yankee farmers. But even by 1900 the ethnic salad was being tossed and our town was losing its homogeneity. New groups were moving in. The Portuguese were settling into farmhouses all over town, drawn by the availability of relatively inexpensive land. Many Portuguese families came to Westport from a small group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean called the Azores. In addition to the Portuguese, up at the north end of town, French Canadians were flowing in from neighboring Fall River. Families with names like Ouellette and Lassonde and Robillard were buying homes and starting businesses in the area around the Narrows and changing the history of that part of town forever. These three populations, the Scotch/English, the Portuguese, and the French, remain the predominant ethnic/cultural groups in town today.
The Westport Selectmen in 1900 were George Handy, Albert Sherman, and Andrew Sowle. Town business was conducted in the new Town Hall, the white wooden building erected in 1890 at the intersection of Main and Adamsville Roads, which today is occupied by the St. John’s Religious Education Center. The annual spring Town Meeting was held in an auditorium on the second floor, while town offices were located on the lower level. In her memoirs, Finis Macomber, who lived in Central Village in the early twentieth century, tells us that no Town Meeting was complete without Town Meeting Cake, a bun with raisins that all the men munched on with coffee while they debated and voted on issues of the day. The buns were sold by Richmond’s Bakery Cart which set up tables on the lawn in front of the Hall during the Meeting. While the men were inside, their wives were visiting friends or relatives in Central Village. In 1900, women were not welcome at Town Meeting, or at any other public meeting, for that matter. Women in Westport, as elsewhere in the United States, would not win the right to vote until two decades later in 1920.
Most of the Town Offices in 1900 were the same as what we have today. We had Selectmen then, but the Board of Selectmen also doubled as the Board of Health. We had a Town Clerk, Assessors, a School Committee, a Landing Commission, Library Trustees, etc. The most prominent board we had in 1900 that we do not have today was the Overseers of the Poor. The welfare of the poor and needy in the old days was a local responsibility managed by each individual town. The state and federal government took over this function in the 1950s.
The total appropriation at Town Meeting in 1900 was $41,100. The largest chunk of money went to maintaining town roads and bridges, about $16,000. Next came the school system which got around $7,000, and approximately $4,000 went to support the poor, elderly, disabled, and veterans. Fifty dollars went to the Town Library, a sum raised from fees paid into the Dog Fund.
Politically, in 1900, Westport was staunchly conservative, rock-ribbed Republican. Edward (Eddie L.) Macomber, who served over 50 consecutive years as Town Clerk, claimed that when he first became Clerk in 1898, there were 500 registered voters in town; 475 Republicans, 15 Prohibitionists, and 10 Democrats. From 1900 to 1956, Westport voters gave the nod to Republican Presidential candidates 15 straight times. Even the ever-popular Franklin D. Roosevelt lost in Westport on all four occasions when he sought the Oval Office. Not until 1960, when Massachusetts favorite-son John F. Kennedy ran was the Republican winning streak broken (Kennedy beat Nixon in town 1,852 to 1,597). In the eight presidential contests since 1964, Westporters have voted for the Democrat five times and the Republican three times.
In 1900, the burning national political issue was the recently completed Spanish American War. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, Dewey in Manila, "Remember the Maine" was still on everyone’s lips. About 75 Westporters had served in the war. Also at the turn of the century, quite a few Civil War veterans were still walking around town. Of the approximately 110 Westporters who served in the Union Army, there were about 30 GAR veterans who were alive and kicking in 1900, although they were mostly in their sixties and growing increasingly gray. The most long-lived of Westport’s Civil War vets survived into the early 1930s.
The schools in Westport in 1900 were pretty fundamental; mostly one room shacks, a few wooden benches, a table and chair for the teacher, a wood stove for heat, a bucket of water and a dipper for drinking, and an outhouse in the backyard. The average number of pupils per school was around 20. Corporal punishment - a ruler applied sharply to the knuckles - was commonplace. "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Whereas today we have four town-wide schools (High School, Middle School, Elementary School, Macomber School), at the turn of the century Westport had 19 small schools scattered from one end of town to the other. School buses hadn’t been invented yet. Children walked where ever they went. Thus the need for so many school houses at so many locations. In the nineteenth century each school was designated by a number. Starting with this century, each school was given a name, usually associated with its geographic location, such as the Point School. Many of our former one room school houses today have been converted to private homes.
As has already been mentioned, the automobile arrived in Westport in the first decade of this century. Another early technology to appear on the local scene was the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell spoke his immortal words, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you," in Boston in 1876. His revolutionary communication system was quickly rushed into mass production and by 1900 many of Westport’s country roads were lined with telephone poles. Other technologies were slower to arrive. Electricity, the most important invention of the modern era, did not become common in Westport until the mid-1920s. Radio appeared at about the same time. My Aunt Mary Medeiros tells a story about how as a little girl her father was the first person on Sodom Road to have a radio. When a big boxing match was broadcast - probably Dempsey versus Tunney in 1927 - her father set up the radio on the front lawn and neighbors came from far and wide to stand around the wooden box and listen to the fight. Still later, in the 1930s, refrigeration and indoor plumbing came into widespread usage in town. And just one more; television, for better or worse, entered our lives in the 1950s.
It’s difficult for us today to imagine what daily domestic life was like for most Westporters at the turn of the century. Most of the modern conveniences we now take for granted simply were not there. The closest we ever come to experiencing what it must have been like is when every so often we lose power. A snow storm brings down a stretch of wires or a car crashes into a pole and all of a sudden the lights blink out and we’re forced to survive without electricity for a couple of hours, or worse, a couple of days. During that short period we get a taste of what life was like in Westport in l900. The absence of indoor plumbing presented a monumental and continuous challenge. Rainwater was collected in cisterns beneath the house and used for washing. A cast iron hand pump was a standard fixture every housewife had beside the sink in the kitchen. Drinking water was drawn from the well, which, in most cases, was hand dug, about 25 feet deep, and lined with field stone. An oaken bucket on a rope was lowered into the water below using a hand-cranked roller. Carl Manchester, in his excellent memoir "Pa and I" informs us that the bucket had a hinged leather flapper in the bottom through which water entered. When the bucket was raised the weight of the liquid held the water in. Some people, Carl tells us, kept fish in the well to eat the insects that inevitably found their way into the water. The bathroom was an outhouse in the backyard, preferably facing south, where it gathered heat from the sun. There were single and multiple hole versions. Inside the house, at night, people used chamber pots, hidden discretely under the bed, which in a wonderfully descriptive term were referred to as "thunder jugs", recalling the loud sound these pots produced when used in a silent house in the middle of the night. Light was provided by kerosene lamps or candles. Heat came from wood stoves or coal stoves; usually one stove in the parlor and another in the kitchen. Registers in the ceiling allowed heat to rise into the bedrooms on the upper floors. In the dead of winter it often got frigid upstairs, so cold that sometimes the thunder jugs froze. People warmed up large soapstones on the stove, wrapped them in a towel or newspaper, and brought them into bed with them for a little warmth. Soapstones were later replaced with hot water bottles. Keeping food cold was another problem. Every kitchen had an ice box that had to be replenished with fresh ice every three to four days. Ice men, like Nason Macomber at the Point, were kept busy all year round, cutting and storing ice in winter and delivering it in summer. Every household attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible. It was common for each home to have a small orchard of fruit trees, a vegetable garden, a few chickens and pigs, a cow. Families supplemented their food and income with hunting and trapping. Everett Coggeshall, the jack-of-all-trades from the Harbor, tells us as a boy he trapped hundreds of minks and muskrats every month to bring in cash for his family. Carl Manchester says when he was growing up as a boy in Westport before World War One, "deer were as common as mosquitoes."
As has been mentioned, each of Westport’s many villages in 1900 had at its heart a general store and post office. These general stores, like Sharrock’s at the Head, or Gifford’s at the Point, or Tommy Borden’s in the North Westport, served a variety of purposes. They were combined supermarkets, hardware stores, post offices, and community centers. People visited the store to buy stuff, to pick up their mail, or to sit around the wood stove to shoot the breeze with their neighbors. Another service most of these stores provided was home delivery. Since housewives didn’t have the luxury of jumping in the car and driving to the market, the market came to them. Delivery men, first in horse-drawn wagons, and later in trucks, made the rounds in the village, going house to house, taking orders, and delivering goods.
And then there were the peddlers. A very common memory among old timers is of traveling salesmen passing through town either in vehicles or on foot, selling everything under the sun. Many carried and sold their wares directly; others showed samples or catalogues and took orders. People remember meat carts and fish wagons and rolling bakeries. Traveling barbers and scissors sharpeners and tin smiths. Finis Macomber wrote of one man who sold nothing but ladders, and another whose specially was salted herring on a stick. Others recall an almost blind old gentleman named Howland who pushed a wheelbarrow around the Head selling eels. Cukie Macomber remembers in the summertime a bagpiper would walk through town and for 25 cents he’d stop in your yard and play a few tunes. Some peddlers didn’t sell things, they bought them. Decades before recycling became the rage there were men in wagons traveling around Westport buying rags and glass and metal and bones. Akin to the peddlers, although much lower on the social scale, were the hobos and tramps people remember walking along the roads moving from town to town. Kids were afraid of the tramps. Women were suspicious of them and kept an eye on the chickens when they knocked on the back door looking for a handout. Farmers were always on watch that the hobos did not sneak into the barn at night to sleep and smoke and accidentally set fires. The town Poor Farm always kept a few bunks open for vagabonds, but if they stayed more than a few days they were put to work.
Traveling salesmen walking from house to house dragging suitcases have pretty much become a thing of the past. Numerous other activities, common in Westport in 1900, are no more. Consider, for example, the practice of hanging May baskets. There was a time in Westport in the spring when almost every lady could expect to receive at least one May basket, and probably more. Milton Borden wrote that once the women in his family received 21 May baskets in a single night. Children would find a small box and color it and decorate it with crepe paper and fill it with candy and fruit and flowers. They would sneak up to the front door of a lady they admired; a teacher or an aunt or a kindly neighbor. The kids would leave the present on the steps, pound on the door, and run and hide. The lady, upon finding the present, was expected to hunt for the young gift-givers, who were never far. Once discovered, everyone went inside and sampled the goodies in the basket. May first was the most popular evening for delivering baskets, although it wasn’t unusual for the custom to be extended throughout the month and into June. Carl Manchester tells us of a variation on the May basket theme in which young boys presented the village grouch with a box filled with a dead rat or a snake or horse manure.
Corn husking bees are another social event that has slipped into the past. By all accounts, our agricultural ancestors in Westport were a fun-loving crowd who were always looking for an excuse to have a party. In the fall, after the harvest, much of the corn was brought to local mills to be ground into flour. In preparation for this, each ear of corn had to be husked, by hand. This was a big job and farmers invited in all their friends and relatives to get the job done. Guests were encouraged to participate by offering heavy doses of eating, drinking, and music, which were always associated with husking bees. One special enticement was if a man discovered a colored ear of corn, he was entitled to kiss the lady of his choice, a moment which was always accompanied by an abundance of good natured wise-cracking and cheering all around.
Eels and johnnycakes, switchel (a drink made with water, molasses, vinegar, and ice), home-made ice cream, beach plum jam - all were a regular part of life in Westport in the early part of this century, and all, for the most part, today are largely forgotten.
Not everything has changed. In 1900, Westport’s sun, surf, and sand had already been discovered, and there were active colonies of summer residents at Horseneck Beach, the Point, and the Harbor. Westporters were getting together to socialize at the Grange in Central Village, and at the Mason’s Hall near Hix Bridge. Many of our houses of worship were the same as today, such as the Point Methodist Church, the Union Pacific Congregational Church at the Head, and the Friend’s Meeting in Central Village. And then, of course, there were the people. Many of the individuals whose unfolding lives would create the story of Westport in the modern era were already on the scene at the turn of the century. Mildred Borden, from Sanford Road, Westport’s oldest living resident today, was six years old in 1900; her younger sister Vivian, also still with us, was three. Also in 1900, Oscar Palmer was a 16 year old farm boy helping his father on their land on Adamsville Road. Alice Macomber was a young woman about to embark on a career in education that would win her local fame. At the Head, a young physician named Edward Burt had just moved into town. At the Point, the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall was summering with his family at his newly completed estate, Synton. Frank Slocum, Westport’s charismatic politician and auctioneer, was a young fellow, 22 years old. In 1900, John Smith, who would go on to become a twelve term Westport Selectman, was a six year old little boy living on his father’s potato farm in South Westport. Over in Fall River, Earle P. Charlton was in the process of becoming a very rich man selling dry goods at his five and ten cent stores. Helen Ellis was an eleven year old girl with an unusual hobby for her gender; carving figures with a penknife out of blocks of wood. In 1900, Everett Coggeshall was 16 years old. Walter "Wally" King was 25. All these players, and many more, were about to step out onto the stage that we know today as Westport in the twentieth century.
On Wednesday evening, February 14, 1906, a group of public spirited individuals gathered in the Town Hall to discuss the formation of the Central Village Improvement Society. The driving force behind the CVIS was the village grocer and postmaster Abram J. Potter and a young school teacher named Alice A. Macomber. The group got quite a bit done that first meeting. They publicly committed to working together to make Central Village a better place; they donated ten cents apiece to demonstrate the seriousness of their intentions; and they elected officers. Edward L. Macomber, President; Alice A. Macomber, Secretary; and Oscar H. Palmer, Treasurer. Charles R. Wood was appointed to a committee assigned the task of writing the Society’s constitution and bylaws. For the next two decades, the CVIS was an active force in Westport, and many of its considerable accomplishments are still with us today. One of the first jobs the Society tackled was to dig a well beside the village tree. The well was hand dug in the fall of 1907, to a depth of 20 feet, at a cost of $171. More improvements quickly followed; a pump was attached to the well; a water trough set in place; curbing was built and a wooden seat constructed around the tree; a lamppost was added and a flower bed. Sidewalks were laid out throughout the village. To pay for these projects, the Society sponsored ham and bean suppers, and chicken dinners, and clam bakes. They put on plays and other entertainments. School children donated their pennies to help the cause. Years later, long after the CVIS disbanded, neighbors came and sat on the bench around the tree and watched the world go by. You can still see the initials CVIS, and the date 1907, chiseled in the water trough at Central Village. The water pump was in use up until about 1980. The CVIS doesn’t meet anymore (the group faded away in the 1920s) but the work they completed has stood the test of time.
The area around the intersection of Main and Adamsville Roads has always been accepted as the center of town. Even today, the stretch of Main Road between Kirby Road and Hix Bridge Road is sometimes jokingly referred to as "downtown Westport." Here are concentrated providers of many of the basic services of communal life: supermarkets, banks, police and fire stations, Town Hall, lawyers, churches, doctors and dentists, gas stations, gift shops, restaurants, pharmacy, social clubs, etc. In the old days, Central Village was also the hub of public transportation. At one time two horses drawn stage lines passed through Westport carrying passengers and mail. Both intersected at Central Village. One stage came from Little Compton, through Central Village, then on to South Westport, Russell’s Mills, and finally New Bedford. The other started at the Point, traveled north on Main Road to Central Village, before continuing on to the Head, Smith Mills in Dartmouth, and then into New Bedford.
The first post office in Central Village was opened in May, 1862. In 1905, a young fellow named Abram Joy Potter was named Post Master. Abe Potter, as everyone knew him, had started out as a carpenter and teacher, but by 1905 he was in Central Village running the post office and grocery store. In the old days, before cars, Abe Potter operated a stable and grain room in the barn that today houses the Lobster Company. One of Abe’s daughter’s, Inez, remembered her father’s barn always filled with horses used by the mail carriers, and how her father hitched up horses to a sleigh in winter when it snowed to deliver the Central Village children to school. Mr. Potter retired as Postmaster in 1944, and the building where his store and post office was located was knocked down in 1955. Abe Potter is remembered for many things. Some say he refused to sell cigarettes or cigars in his store because of his objection to tobacco. Others recall how he served as a Library Trustee for many years and how he worked tirelessly to fill the Library with books. But mostly people remember how Abe Potter loved to dance, and how he was a regular at the Central Village Grange dances for many years. Abe’s wife was named Jennie and together they raised three children, Inez, Miriam, and Lynwood. Lynwood grew up to be Chief of the Fire Department. Abe Potter lived to be 91 and died in 1965.
When Abe Potter retired as Post Master in 1944, the job was taken over by Chester M. Brackett. The post office was relocated to the south side of Adamsville Road where it is today, to a grocery store operated by Chet Brackett and his wife Blanche. Mr. Brackett was a retired Armour Meat Company salesman, and some recall he always sold Armour meat products in his store. Brackett’s also sold gasoline and for many years there were two Gulf gas pumps out in front. During WWII, Chester Brackett served on the town Rationing Board with Charles Brightman and Russell Davis. Mr. Brackett retired in 1958 (after which Eugene Feio became Postmaster), and died in 1963. Blanche Brackett outlived her husband by 30 years and only passed away recently at the age of 98. Mrs. Brackett is remembered as a tall, thin woman who always wore her hair in a tight bun atop her head. Thelma Wood, of Central Village, tells a nice story about Blanche. It seems Mrs. Brackett had a Cocker Spaniel dog named Sally. During World War II when gasoline was rationed, the bus company in Fall River ran a line from the city, through Westport, to Horseneck Beach. In the summer, the bus stopped in Central Village to pick up and drop off passengers. Blanche’s dog Sally would jump onto the bus at Central Village, ride with the driver down to the beach, be away a few hours, and be dropped off at Central Village on the bus return trip.
In the 1930s, on the same spot where the Bracketts later had their store, Elbert "Burt" Brownell ran a gas station and auto repair shop. After "Burt" Brownell, the place was run by Carl Wood. The Wood family has been a part of Central Village since 1901 when Charles R. Wood and his wife Annie bought the land where the Woods still farm today. Charlie Wood was an energetic individual. In addition to fathering ten children, he was a farmer and a butcher; he served on the Board of Health and the School Committee; and he helped maintain the town’s roads. He donated the property where the Central Village Fire Station is today, and after turning over the land, he pitched in and helped the other volunteer firemen construct the building. When Charlie wasn’t tied up with any of the above, he was operating one of Westport’s earliest school bus systems. Charlie Wood was finally laid to rest in 1954 at the age of 86.
Carl Wood, one of Charlie’s six sons, ran the variety store and gas station in Central Village. Carl also operated another store at the corner of Main and Cornell Road where Ellie’s Restaurant is today. Another of Charlie Wood’s son left an everlasting mark on town. When Harold S. Wood graduated from college in 1934, the Great Depression was ravaging the country. Harold worked for his father for a while, around the farm, and driving a school bus. Then in 1935, Harold launched a 40 year long career of public service, as a teacher, a High School Principal, and a Selectman. Among his many other achievements, Harold was the coach of Westport’s undefeated Narragansett Football League Champions of 1939. In 1952, he became the first principal of the new Westport High School on Main Road. In 1976, after he retired as Selectman, the School Committee voted to name the High School auditorium the Harold S. Wood Auditorium as a gesture of gratitude for Mr. Wood’s many years of service.
The Woods remain active in Westport today. Bob Wood is very well known and highly regarded as a former member of the Board of Health and as the BOH agent for many years. And over in Central Village, Jim Wood, and his young son John, are still working the earth, representing the fourth and fifth consecutive generations of Woods to farm continually on the same piece of land.
The old barn in Central Village, where Abe Potter had his stables, has seen many uses over the years. Constructed around 1850, the building served in the late 1800s as part of an undertaker’s business where caskets were made. In the early 1900s, the barn was a social club for dances, basketball games, and corn husking bees. After many years as Abe Potter’s livery stable, the structure was used during the Depression by the Overseers of the Poor as a distribution center where clothes were handed out to the needy. Frank Cassidy, a retired military man, ran an antique shop out of the building in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Around 1968, three area fisherman, Bud Smith, Russ Hart, and Ed Doane bought the old barn and established the Lobster Company, where locally caught lobster and fish were sold. In 1987, a fire burned a hole in the roof and damaged the second floor. To the relief of local preservationists, the building was saved and quickly restored. Today, the lower floor is still used as a fish market, the Lobster Company.
Just north of the fish market is the Central Village Fire Station. Prior to the 1920s there was no organized fire department in town. If your house went up in flames you depended upon your friends and neighbors to rush to your rescue and form a bucket brigade. For really serious blazes a call went out to Dartmouth, which sent its vehicles and men across the town line - for a fee, of course. In 1927, after a rash of arson-suspected fires, five men got together to form the Westport Volunteer Fire Company: Irving Hammond, Stanley Gifford, Robert Gifford, Robert Gifford, Jr., and Frank Perry. This core group was quickly joined by numerous other volunteers. In 1943, permanent paid firemen started being hired, backed up by volunteers. Irving Hammond served as Westport’s first Fire Chief from 1927 to 1941. Stanley Gifford took over the reins from 1941 to 1961. More recent Chiefs have included Harold Miller, George Dean, and today’s William Tripp.
One of the first acts of the volunteers in 1927 was to erect the Central Village Fire Station. The firemen themselves built and paid for the station, raising money by putting on suppers, shows, and bingos. To this day, the Central Village station is owned by the Volunteer Fire Company, which leases the building to the town. The fire station at the Head, on Reed Road, currently closed, was also built and owned by the volunteer firemen from that area. Only the Briggs Road fire station is town property. In 1978, an addition was made to the north end of the Central Village station. The new part was built by students from Diman Regional Vocational High School and was paid for largely by donations from Westporters from all over town.
The first piece of fire equipment used in Westport was a small, hand-drawn chemical device. In 1927, Irving Hammond and his buddies converted a 1924 Chevy into a makeshift fire wagon. In 1928, a Maxim Fire Engine, built in Middleboro and capable of hauling 80 gallons of water, was purchased. This vintage piece of Westport fire apparatus is still around at the Central Village station, and is sometimes put on display during Fourth of July parades. In 1931, Stanley Gifford designed a tank truck capable of carrying l,000 gallons of water. Gifford convinced the Mack Truck Company to build his brainchild, and for a while in the early 1930s his vehicle was the first-of-its-kind in use anywhere in the United States. Today, the old l,000 gallon tank truck is rusting away in a field on Pine Hill Road.
In about 70 years, the Westport Fire Department has never lost a man killed in action fighting a fire. This is not to say there have not been some very serious blazes in town. The most tragic fire in Westport’s history occurred in November, 1952, in the north end on Mount Pleasant Street, when a kitchen fire broke out in a two story frame house owned by Mary and Alladin Audette. The fire started around midnight with the family asleep upstairs. Smoke quickly filled the residence. Mrs. Audette and eight of her ten children died of smoke inhalation. Mr. Audette and two of his kids were out of the house working at the time and survived. Over l,500 mourners attended the sacred high mass of requiem at St. George’s Church.
In the grassy median at Central Village stood the Village Tree and the Town Pump. The tree was a mighty elm planted in 1869 by Caleb Macomber. A wooden seat encircled the tree and for decades the spot provided a shady perch for Central Villagers. The years, of course, eventually took their toll. Ravaged by disease and termites, battered by storms, the Village Tree was taken down in 1961. In recent years new trees have been planted to replace the original elm.
The Town Pump was a project completed by the CVIS in 1907. Some residents actually relied upon the pump for water, when their own wells went on the blink or during periods of drought. Mostly the pump provided a quaint backdrop for picturesque Central Village. The pump started to run into problems in the 1970s. Station wagons would arrive from neighboring communities and people would get out and fill 25 to 30 jugs of water. People would pull up to wash their cars. Beach-goers would stop to rinse off bathing suits and sandy feet. For a while in 1977, the pump was diagnosed with a high fecal coliform count. Mostly the pump became a traffic problem. Cars would stop at 1 a.m. to draw water and make a racket. Neighbors started to complain. Then on top of everything, automobiles crashed into the pump so many times the highway department erected cement posts to try to protect it. Eventually everybody had had enough. Around 1980 the pump was removed and the well capped. The pump lives on in numerous old photographs and picture postcards.
A short distance west of Central village lived one of Westport’s more well known citizens of this century, Oscar H. Palmer. By the time Oscar died in 1976, he had lived his entire life of 92 years as a dairy farmer on Adamsville Road. Henry Palmer, Oscar’s grandfather, purchased the farm in 1855 from Nathan Brownell. Oscar inherited the place from his father, Franklin, in 1932. Oscar did not limit himself only to tilling his fields and tending his cows. He served as Registrar of Voters for 37 years from 1906 to 1943. Figuring he hadn’t done enough, he put in 25 more years as Assessor from 1943 to 1968. Add it up. That’s 62 consecutive years of public service. The Selectmen in 1968 voted Oscar Palmer Westport’s Outstanding Town Employee. Oscar is also remembered for his antique collection, mostly items he found in the various nooks and crannies of his own house, which, incidentally, was built in 1700. Wooden kitchen utensils, muzzle loaded muskets and pistols, shoe buckles, engraved powder horns. Oscar would take them out for his friends when they came around. And Indian artifacts, relics his plow uncovered while he worked his fields; arrowheads and tomahawks and pottery shards. Oscar is buried in Beech Grove Cemetery. Even in death he didn’t travel far from home.
Farther west on Adamsville Road lives Charlie Costa. Charlie has been involved with farming in town, in one way or another, all his life. John and Emily Costa had a farm at the intersection of Hix Bridge and Main Road where the Normans live today. Charlie lived there with his parents until 1946, at which time the Costas moved to their current location on the north side of Adamsville Road. Charlie Costa has a long history of community service. He was on the Board of Health for 16 years, and was a two term Selectman in the l970s. In recent time Charlie has been focused on the noble task of preserving Westport’s farm land through his involvement as an assistant commissioner with various state and federal Food and Agriculture Departments. Charlie works with tools such as the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program to save as many of Westport’s farms as possible. There was a time not that long ago when Westport had the most operating dairy farms of any town in Massachusetts. The state funded APR program buys the developmental rights from farmers and then ensures the land will remain for agricultural purpose only. Currently in 1995, there are seven or eight farms protected by APR in Westport. Men like Charlie Costa are trying to make sure that number increases every year.
Not far from Charlie Costa’s, on Sodom Road, are two other well known farms operated by the Medeiroses and the Martins. These two families are representative of the numerous other Portuguese families who came to town early in this century and played an important role in shaping the Westport we know today. Manuel Medeiros was born in l885 on the island of St. Michaels, the Azores. He immigrated to the United States, to Fall River, around l900. With his brothers, Joseph and John, he rented land in Westport and raised dairy cattle, and ran a milk delivery route in Fall River. In l9l8, the Medeiros family bought a piece of land on Sodom Road, and by l921, Manuel was milking 40 cows on his own High View Farm. Manny Medeiros is remembered as a fun-loving, mischievous man, a wheeler dealer who bought and sold land with unsurpassed cunning and skill. He died in l964. Manny’s son, George, and his wife Laura (my in-laws), took over the farm, and, along with George’s sister, Mary, still live on the High View homestead. George served as Westport’s Assessor for approximately 30 years, and Mary is easily one of the most widely known women in town. Michael and Steve, the third generation, operate the dairy farm today. In the spring, in April, crowds of farmers from all over gather in the fields on top of the hill on Sodom Road to take part in the biggest farm machinery sale of its kind anywhere in Southeastern Massachusetts. With father George and son Steve auctioneering, and Mike with his pointer working the crowd, the bids fly back and forth furiously all day long, and by the time it’s all over, hundred of pieces of equipment have changed hands.
Manuel and Antone Martin also started their dairy farm on Sodom Road in l9l8. Soon Antone bowed out and Manuel was on his own. He quickly decided he could make a better profit turning his milk into cheese than he could selling it to a dairy. With the help and guidance of Antone Viera over on Old County Road, Mr. Martin started producing and selling Portuguese Style Fresh Cheese, a soft curd cheese, similar to cottage cheese, but richer. Transforming the milk into cheese is a quick process, taking only a few hours. The cheese made today is sold tomorrow. In a good year, the farm produces l0,000, one ounce packages of Martin’s Fresh Cheese each week. Manuel died in l964, and his son David "Cheesy" Martin, took over the business. Today, trucks deliver Martin’s cheese throughout the region, mostly to customers in and around Fall River, but also to stores as far away as Boston, Lowell, and Connecticut.
Returning to Central Village, the first prominent building we encounter on the east side of Main Road is the old wooden Town Hall. Westport’s first town meeting was held on August 20, 1789, in the residence of William Gifford in Central Village. The following year, in 1790, the people got together and built the first Town Hall. That building stood 100 years, until 1890, when the wooden structure we see today was erected at a cost of $3,008. Old photos show there was once a cannon facing south and a tall flag pole on the front lawn. Town meeting was held in a big room on the second floor, while the various departments were located on the lower level. Town meeting in the old days, like today, could get pretty exciting. When Alton Boan, the potato farmer, and his wife Isabel, were interviewed as part of the Bicentennial Celebration, they said of their neighbors at town meeting, "they’d shout at each other and call one another some real snappy names." The red brick Town Hall we use now was built in 1938. Soon after, the old wooden hall at Central Village was brought at auction by St. John’s Catholic Church. Today St. John’s uses the building as a religious education center.
South of the old Town Hall is the Quaker Meeting and the Macomber Community House. The Friends Meeting in Central Village has an ancient history with roots reaching back to the Apponogansett Meeting in neighboring Dartmouth. In 1699, the Apponogansett Meeting expanded and a new group, called the Acoaxet Meeting was founded in what is now Westport. After a few years of gathering in individual homes for worship, a Meeting House was erected in 1716. This building was used for almost 100 years. The only remnants of that first meeting house are a set of granite steps on the front lawn, The Mounting Rock, which was used in the old days by ladies getting in and out of their carriages. In 1808, Westport’s most famous citizen, Paul Cuffee, applied for and was granted admission to the meeting. Cuffee was a ship builder and merchant who by 1815 was the wealthiest black man in the United States. Cuffee was also a social activist who built schools, fought for black civil and political rights, and led a back-to-Africa movement for freed slaves. Cuffee also helped pay for the second Friends Meeting House in Central Village, the one we know today, which was put up in 1814. This building underwent a major renovation in 1872, which included removing the wooden partition that had separated the men and women in the early days. Just one more note about Paul Cuffee. He died in 1817, and the memorial monument out in front of the meeting was dedicated in 1913. Cuffee is buried with his wife in the back behind the building. Cuffee’s grave appears to be off by itself, suggesting to some that even among Friends in the early 19th century, blacks were segregated away from the rest. This is not true. According to Eleanor Tripp, a member of the Central Village Friends Meeting, and one of our most eminent local historians, Cuffee is actually surrounded by hundreds of other Friends, all of whom, in keeping with simple Quaker tradition, sleep forever in unmarked graves.
In the modern era, one event all the bibliophiles in the area look forward to is the annual Quaker Meeting book sale. The sale started in 1962 as the brainchild of a Mennonite minister, John Ruth, who was serving as a part-time pastor at the Meeting at the time. Ruth suggested the sale as a fund raiser and the idea has been going strong ever since. In 1963, Dr. Stuart Kirkaldy took over the job of running the sale, assisted by a small army of volunteers. All year long donated books come pouring in, piling up in Dr. Kirkaldy’s office, and finally filling to overflowing the storage shed behind the meeting. Members spend hours sorting the books and setting bargain prices. For many years, paperbacks sold for ten cents and hard cover books for a quarter. On the day of the sale, the Saturday after the Fourth of July, most of the books are displayed on tables under a tent on the lawn, while still others fill the pews in the Meeting House. Crowds ring the roped off sale area, expectantly waiting. At 11 a.m. sharp, Dr. Kirkaldy blows his whistle and the rush is on. People fill up cardboard boxloads of books, for "summer reading." Many of these same volumes are donated back to the booksale the following year. The entire affair is based upon the honor system, the morning of the sale, and in the days that follow, when the unattended books remain under the tent, and customers pay by stuffing money into a coffee can. On Saturday, part of the event is always a white elephant and baked goods sale. Some people remember for many years retired SMU Professor Wesley Panunzio selling hot dogs and soda in the corner under a tree. One book sale story tells of the year nobody was interested in paying twenty five cents for a Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Day after day the book sat on the table, unsold. Then someone discovered it was a first edition, which later went to the University of Colorado for $400. Proceeds from the book sale help support the Friends Meeting, and other peace and justice worthy causes.
One activity the friends have been involved with over the years is sponsoring refugee families who enter the United States. In 1956, the Meeting acted as a "guardian" for the Olzewski family from Dresden. Mr. And Mrs. Olzewski and their children, Lotha, Gertrude, and Guergen escaped from East Germany to West Germany and then made their way to the United States. The Friends sponsoring delegation included the much admired and respected surgeon Dr. Frank Lepreau. The Olzewskis stayed in the home of the Westport artist Edna Leuvelink.
Just north of the Friends Meeting is the Macomber Community House. The Friends built the structure in 1934 as a community center where people could gather for lectures, suppers, classes, plays, musical events, and so on; exactly the sort of activities the building is still used for today. In the 1980s, the building was rededicated as the Macomber House to honor the Macomber family for their many contributions to the town of Westport. The family included Eddie L. Macomber, one of our longest serving town officials; Mabel Macomber, who taught Sunday school at the Meeting for 47 years; Sophie, Hattie, and Marianna Macomber, all of whom where involved with community affairs; and of course, probably the most well known member of the family, Alice A. Macomber. Born in 1879, the daughter of John and Esther Macomber, Alice attended Westport Schools, and later went to Moses Brown in Providence. She began teaching in 1906, and before she retired in 1940, she had taught in school systems in Dartmouth, Fairhaven, and Westport. The final 17 years of her career, she was the principal of the Greenwood Park School in the north end of town. Alice is remembered as a kindly lady, always willing to help, who was very active in community affairs, ranging from the CVIS to the Friends Meeting. She passed away in 1956. When a big new elementary school opened in 1955, it was named the Alice A. Macomber School to honor her name. Just to wrap up this topic, today there are two well known buildings in the town named for the same family; the Macomber Community Center and the Alice A. Macomber Elementary School.
Across the road from the Friends Meeting is the Westport Grange, Number 181, Patrons of Husbandry. The national Grange was founded in 1867 as an agricultural organization oriented toward fellowship and service. While the official goals of the Grange include building character, developing leadership, and promoting community betterment, mostly the Grange was a place for farmers to get together to talk about crops and prices, and to socialize. Whist parties, sewing contests, dances, fairs and bazaars, chicken barbecues, clambakes, minstrel shows; the Grange was where farmers and their families went to have a good time. The Central Village Grange was first organized in 1890 with Cortez Allen as the first Master. In the early days the Grangers leased a building called the Union Hall. In 1924, on the same site, a new building was put up, the one we see today. During the World War II when gasoline was rationed and people couldn’t go very far, the Tuesday night Grange dances were extremely popular. According to Mary Medeiros from Sodom Road, "Everybody was always there, from kids in their teens to old Abe Potter." Alton Boan played the piano at the dances. Charlie Costa says he never missed a Tuesday night dance at the Central Village Grange, and then on Thursday night he went to the Watuppa Grange dance in North Westport and did it all again.
One thing the Grange is known for is members who remain loyal and active in the organization over many years. In 1965, for example, George H. Howland had been a Central Village Granger for 60 years, while eight members held 50 year pins, including Abram Potter, Jamie Smith, Carlton Macomber, and Gertrude Wood. Past Masters have included Charlie Brightman, John Smith, Carlton Macomber Jr. and Sr., James Vaughan, and Isabel Boan.
Inside the Grange Hall are many interesting historic artifacts, including the original signed and framed charter hanging on the wall. And then there’s the curtain on the stage at the west end of the hall. In the 1940s and 1950s, during dances, this curtain was lowered and local businesses bought space on the curtain for advertisement. The curtain is still there and a recent look revealed a heavy canvas with a painted scene of an Italian lake, the handiwork of the Hadfield Sign Company in 195l. The ads surrounding the blue lake include Potter’s Funeral Home, Lees Oil Service, Carlton Macomber Auto Repair, Jack Davis Chevrolet, Frank Slocum Insurance and Auctioneer, and Al Lees at Central Village.
In front of the Grange Hall is a granite water trough that is often planted with flowers in the summertime. The trough used to be located near the intersection of Drift and Kirby Roads, where for many decades it collected water from a hand pump and a spring for the benefit of tired and thirsty horses. When Route 88 was built in the early 1960s, a stretch of Kirby Road was eliminated. Milton Borden rescued the trough and had it transported to the Central Village Grange where it stands today. Water troughs for horses at one time were scattered all over town. The trough and pump next to the village tree in Central Village have already been discussed. There were also troughs on Handy Hill, in South Westport, and at the Head, just to name a few. With the advent of the automobile, Westport’s horse troughs became obsolete.
The Central Village Grange is still an active group, although many of its members are getting on in years. Automobiles, television, video games, personal computers, all have taken a heavy toll on grange participation. The Grange Hall is still used for a variety of purposes, including community meetings, dance classes, and as the site of the Westport Food Coop.
A little south of the Grange Hall is St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. The origins of the church reach back to around 1910 when a Fall River priest, Father John DeValles, began gathering Westport Catholics together for religious services. Those first masses were held in private homes, the Grange Hall, and the old Town Hall. In 1913, the original St. John’s Church was built using donated money and labor. The church got along with visiting pastors in the early years until the first regular priest, Father Callaman, was assigned to Central Village in 1930. Priests in recent years have included the Reverends Cornelius O’Neil, Edward Sharpe, and Edmund Fitzgerald. The original St. John’s put in nearly 70 years of dutiful service to its parishioners, including to the author’s wife Linda, who was baptized, had her First Communion and Confirmation, and was married - to me- at the church. Eventually worshippers began filling St. John’s to overflowing especially from July to September when the summer people are in. The strain became too much and the little church was knocked down in 1978. Immediately, a new much larger, St. John the Baptist Church was erected on the spot.
While St. John’s was developing in Central Village, another smaller church was emerging out at the summer colony on East Beach. St. Rose of Lima attended to the spiritual needs of the Catholic visitors to Horseneck Beach. The church was served by visiting pastors and local alter boys, like Charlie Costa. The little chapel by the sea was destroyed by the hurricane of 1938. A remnant of the church created a mini-mystery in the 1970s. A cast iron bell was discovered in a shed behind the old St. John’s. At first nobody was sure where the bell came from, until finally it was determined it was salvaged from the ruins of St. Rose of Lima. A vertical wooden stand was built for the bell (which is still in use today), and for a while, in the late 1970s the bell was rung 20 times before and after mass.
Another church in the area stood on the south-east corner of the intersection of Hix Bridge and Main Road. The little white chapel, called the Third Christian Church or the Knotty Shingle Church, was built in 1842. Although the church was well attended in the 1800s, by the start of this century the place of worship had begun to fall out of usage. The last regular pastor at the Third Christian ended his tenure in 1922, and in 1927 the parish merged with the Central Village Friends Meeting. The building stood vacant for over 20 years, and finally burned to the ground on the evening of March 29, l947.
South of St. John’s Church was the home of Frederick Robinson and his wife Ann. Sometime in the late 1940s the couple opened a small restaurant next to their home and called it Fred and Ann’s. Fred is remembered as a pipe smoking gentleman who was devoted to his business. Originally the place had a soda fountain where customers came in and sat on stools for their coffee and donuts. Later, the soda fountain was removed and replaced with booths. Numerous local women found employment as waitresses at Fred and Ann’s, including Cathy Grundy and Mary McCarthy. Fred and Ann’s has always been known for its regular, loyal customers, many of whom are getting on in years. Some people come in on the same night of the week, for the same meal, year after year. At Fred and Ann’s, in the old days, it was eels and johnny cakes on Tuesday night, pan-fried tripe on Thursday, and ham and beans on Saturday. Ann died of cancer around 1970, and Fred, people believe, eventually retired and moved to Florida. Fred and Ann’s is still doing business, and the parking lot in front of the red, wooden building on Main Road is almost always full.
The origins of Partners Village Store on Main Road go back to the early 1970s when Nancy and Bill Crosby operated a wine and beer making supply company in Westport, Connecticut called Crosby and Baker. In 1979, the Crosbys relocated their operation to Westport, Massachusetts, onto land they bought from Andrew Perry. In the 1980s and 1990s, the business prospered, expanding many times, and adding a full line of gourmet food, toys, books, and gifts. In 1992, Nancy Crosby and Jan Hall formed a new association, and Partners Village Store was born.
Perry’s Bakery started out in the 1920s as a board balanced across a couple of stones where an elderly lady named Mary Perry sold a few vegetables. The Perry family had ten acres of land along Main Road where they raised their own produce. After Mrs. Perry got too old to carry on, her son Frank took over. Frank was a charter member of the Westport Fire Department and is remembered by many as the operator of one of the town’s earliest bus line companies. Andrew Perry and his wife, Gwen ran the fruit and vegetable stand in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In time Gwen started baking a few date nut and banana breads to sell and the items did so well that a full bakery was added to the stand around 1970. Perry’s Bakery became known for its cinnamon buns, chocolate cakes, homemade breads, sourcream cakes and baked beans. For a while, Andrew and Gwen’s daughter Lois ran a hot dog stand near the bakery in the summer when Lois was home from college. In 1982, the bakery was sold to Karen Smith, who kept the Perry’s Bakery name, and who still does a booming business selling baked goods and coffee to townies and summer people. Perry’s has a special place in the heart of this author; my wife Linda and her sister Ann worked in the vegetable stand as teenagers in the 1960s, and my daughter Lauren works the counter at Perry’s today. For a brief period in the early 1970s, Bud Grantham ran a small drug store beside the bakery; the pharmacy later relocated to where Lees Supermarket’s liquor store is now.
South of Perry’s, when you see long, flatbed trailers loaded high with bales of hay you know you’re in the domain of "Hay Ray" Raposa. The Raposa family has had a farm on Main Road for about 75 years where they raised dairy cows, vegetables, and wood for sale to pulp factories in Providence. Around 20 years ago, Ray went into the business of hauling hay, which earned him his nick name, "Hay Ray." At first Ray grew and cut hay on his own land, but now he travels to gigantic farms in upstate New York and Canada to pick up a load. A typical haul involves 800, fifty pound bales, for a total of around 40,000 pounds. Every trip is a little different; sometimes he picks up Timothy hay for horses or alfalfa hay for cows. Ray says he never has any difficulty selling his load; his customers include feed stores, stables, dairy farms, and construction sites which use low quality bales as silt barriers. Ray wasn’t the first hay hauler in our area; the Tripp brothers from Ivy Meadow Farms on Sodom Road were pulling flatbeds loaded with hay long before Ray Raposa got into the business.
For the purposes of this essay, the southern edge of Central Village will be called the Wing Carriage House. This building has an interesting history. The Wing Estate on Mount Pleasant Street in New Bedford, of which the Carriage House originally was a part, was constructed around 1860. In this century the estate came into the possession of the Holy Name Church, which demolished the main building and had plans to tear down the Carriage House to make room for a parking lot. In stepped two local preservationists, Ann Baker and Norma Wilbur. They negotiated with the church and Norma finally bought the building. Aided by an assorted crew of carpenters and contractors and other volunteers, the Carriage House was taken apart piece by piece, transported from New Bedford, and reassembled on Main Road in Westport. Norma eventually converted the structure into a working place for craftsman and artisans. For a while in the late 1970s, painters, woodworkers, potters, and photographers set up shop. One occupant of the Carriage House at the time was the Cuffee Bookstore, which was operated by a young former textile engineer named Tom Perkins. Tom went on to become a Selectman in the 1990s, at which time he engaged in a battle royal with Town Counsel Carl Lees. Today the Wing Carriage House houses a variety of enterprises, including the main office of the town’s most influential environmental activist group, the Westport River Watershed Alliance.
Returning to the intersection of Main and Adamsville Roads, and heading north, we encounter the Westport Social and Athletic Club. This local watering hole, a favorite among many townies, got its start in the 1920s with a gentleman named Luther Bowman. Luther was born in 1904 and grew up in Central Village. In 1916, when he was 12 years old, Luther was walking along Main Road when a lady named Mrs. Barrett called him over and asked if he could help her fix her flag holder. Luther, being an agreeable boy, said he could certainly try. And he fixed the flag holder just right. From that moment forward Luther’s life was changed. The Barretts were a wealthy New Bedford couple who kept a grand house in Westport. Luther started working for them, doing odd jobs, and eventually became their chauffeur. The relationship continued for over 35 years, and the Barretts, who were childless, came to treat Luther like a son. When the Barretts died in the 1950s, Luther moved in to the big house on Main Road with his wife Elizabeth, where they still live today. Getting back to the Social Club- in the late 1920s, Luther purchased a former dance hall from Jack Oliver, the fellow who used to run the telephone exchange in South Westport. The dance hall stood beside the river on Drift Road south of Hix Bridge. Luther had the building cut into three pieces and transported to its current location at Central Village. Luther tells a story of how he rode on the roof of each section of the building as it was hauled up Handy Hill. Luther converted the old dance hall into a three lane duck-pin bowling alley. Customers paid 25 cents to bowl two strings, and another ten cents for a cup of peanuts. Local pin boys, who set the pins between frames, were paid two cents a string. Luther’s brother, John, managed the place. Eventually, Luther rented the building to George Kent, who obtained a liquor license and started a bar. In time the bowling lanes were moved out, George Kent went over to Route 177, and Bill Pearson and his Social/Athletic Club moved in.
Bill Pearson was born in Fall River in 1915. He came to Westport after being seriously wounded in World War II. In 1948, Bill established his private, members-only club in Luther Bowman’s former bowling alley. Over the years the Social Club has been the location of a lot of activities; from fiddling and square dancing, to game suppers. Mostly it’s a comfortable place for the men in town, and a few ladies, to get together with friends for a drink, and to play cards. Bill’s is particularly busy on Monday night after the Town Hall meetings end and many of the local politicians drop in to unwind. It’s not always easy to keep track of all of Bill’s nicknames. Many people know him as "the Mayor of Westport." In his younger years, he was known as "Lover Bill." And for a while in the early 1960s, he was called "Painless Pearson - Tooth Yanker." This last refers to Bill’s practice in the old days of extracting teeth from his customers between setting up rounds of liquor and beer. He kept a pliers in an old cigar box under the bar, and a sign over his head explained, "We use Seagram’s pain killer, exclusively." This unusual combination of bartending and dentistry gained for Bill a certain renown - the National Enquirer did a story on him - and eventually attracted the attention of the Massachusetts Dental Association, which frowned on Pearson’s pliers and ordered him to hang them up, which he did. Bill is known to one and all for having a big heart. Anonymously, he helps a lot of people down on their luck. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas he puts on a big feed. Turkey and dressing and all the trimmings. No charge. People who find themselves without a family or a place to spend the day, go to the Social Club and have dinner with Bill.
Not far from the Social Club, on the same side of Main Road, is the brown shingled Milton E. Earle School, which today houses many of the town’s administrative offices. The building was constructed in 1917 as a high school; was significantly enlarged in 1935; and was converted into a school for grades one to six in the early 1950s. After the new Elementary School on Old County Road was opened in l977, classes in the Earle School came to an end, after which the building was occupied by the School Department. In 1952, the building was officially designated the Milton E. Earle School to honor one of Westport’s most outstanding educators. Milton Earle was born in New Bedford in 1893 and came to Westport with his family in 1906. A graduate of Brown University, he landed his first job as a teacher in the Westport school system in 1920. An extremely intelligent and energetic man, Milton was named Principal of the Westport High School in 1925, and was appointed Superintendent of Schools in 1928 at age 35. Earle is considered the Father of Westport Sports, having founded the High School sports program in the 1920s. By the time he finally retired in the late 1950s, Milton Earle had served Westport’s schools for approximately 40 years, as a teacher, coach, principal, and superintendent. When he wasn’t busy at school, he was down at Horseneck running Baker and Earle Beach with his partner John Baker. One of Milton’s four sons, Richard, is Westport’s Harbormaster today. Milton Earle died in September, 1966.
Just north of the Earle School, where Country Woolens is today, lived Charlie Brightman. In 1938, Charlie worked as a carpenter’s helper putting up the new Town Hall. When the building was complete, Charlie stayed on as the Town Hall custodian, a job in which he served for many years. Aside from his sunny, cheerful disposition, Charlie Brightman is remembered for his tenure as the Chairman of the town Rationing Board during World War II, for his skill as a chair caner who saved many an old chair from the junk pile, and for his three decades as the organist at the Central Village Friends Meeting.
Our current red brick, colonial-style Town Hall was constructed in 1938 as a PWA (Public Works Administration) project. The structure cost $73,000 to erect, with Westport kicking in $40,000, and the federal government contributing the remaining $33,000. All told, Westporters were provided with 12,801 hours of employment by the project at a time during the Depression when the work was sorely needed. The 20 room building was the creation of architect Israel T. Almy of Somerset, and until this day, some people see a remarkable resemblance between the Westport Town Hall and the Somerset High School. The three Selectmen representing the town at the ceremony officially opening the building in November, 1939, were John Smith, Clifton Dwelley, and George Russell. Just as an aside, George Russell was the Selectman who in 1930 announced a competition for a Town Seal. The winning entry, the seal we still use today, was designed by Edward Coyne, and depicts agriculture, fishing, and the Waite-Potter House. In the competition, a jokester submitted a design that included burning ice houses, short lobsters, rum running, and financial difficulties.
One activity people remember occurring at the Town Hall were meetings of the Westport Rationing Board. Early in the Second World War, the U.S. government created the Office of Price Administration (OPA) to try to control the availability and distribution of goods and resources. The fighting men at the front were given top priority and everybody else had to tighten their belts. The OPA established 5,600 rationing boards across the country to make local decisions about whom should get how much of what. In Westport, the Rationing Board was made up of Chester Brackett, Charlie Brightman, and Russell Davis. The board met at the Town Hall, but had satellite sites scattered throughout town, mostly at schools, where student volunteers frequently helped out. Decisions by the board were based upon the principles of equal sharing and special need, family size, and occupation. Especially at the beginning of the war, everything was scarce. People accepted the shortages with relative equanimity. They believed in the war effort, and the long Depression had gotten everybody used to doing without. The most commonly remembered form of rationing involved booklets filled with little stamps that had to be presented to purchase an item. Sugar, coffee, butter, meat, nylons, shoes - if you wanted to buy it you had to produce a coupon. Of course if you had enough money and had a few contacts you could get just about anything. The black marketeers did a booming business. Driving presented a particular set of challenges. New tires were virtually impossible to get and everybody made do with recaps. Gasoline was tightly controlled. People had to go before the Rationing Board to apply for a gasoline sticker to affix to their car. There were A, B, and C stickers. Anyone with a car got an A sticker, the basic ration of about three to four gallons a week. The highly coveted B and C stickers were given to those whose businesses depended upon a greater amount of gasoline; farmers, fisherman, doctors, etc. People kept an eye on each other to make sure higher sticker holders really deserved them. Nobody wanted to get caught with a C-stickered vehicle at a dance at Lincoln Park, for fear of losing the sticker. Mostly people were pretty tolerant of each other, assuming a live-and-let-live attitude toward rationing. A few more zealous individuals reported their neighbors to the Board for suspected waste and cheating. Toward the end of the war the United States economy was booming. The shortages feared by the government had not materialized, and many of the rationing restrictions were significantly relaxed.
South of the Town Hall is the new police station; new in the sense that it opened in 1976. Prior to its completion, the police headquarters were on the ground floor of the Town Hall. In the old days Westport had no organized police department. We relied upon part-time keepers of the peace called constables, one of whom was Everett Coggeshall. For most of this century we have had a formal department manned by paid officers. One early Chief of Police was Norman B. Hopkinson, "Hoppy" Hopkinson’s grandfather. In Norman’s era, in the late ’20s and early ‘30s, the police station was in his house and offenders were locked up in his cellar. Other Westport Police Chiefs have included Charles Dean, George Dean, Fred Palmer, and of course, today’s Charlie Pierce.
North of the Town Hall is the most well known business in Westport today, Lees Supermarket. The roots of Lees go back to 1951 when Al Lees, Sr. purchased a former International Harvester Farm Supplies store at public auction. At the time Lees Sr. was operating a fish market at the Point and a small hardware store on Main Road across from where the Santos barn is today. The Harvester store, which sold tractors, plows, and other farm equipment, and which was owned by Lynwood Potter and Babe Pettey, went out of business and the building and land were put on the block. Lees Sr. went to the auction expecting to pick up a few gears and nuts and bolts and other miscellaneous small items for his hardware store. When the auctioneer was having a tough time getting a bid for the building out of the crowd, Lees Sr. put up his hand, the auctioneer pointed at him and shouted "Sold!" and the rest is history. Lees Sr. moved his hardware store to his new location in Central Village and put his 22 year old son Al, Jr. in charge of the place. In the late 1950s, Lees Sr. began the transition from hardware to groceries. In 196l, Al Lees Jr. took over ownership of the store completely, and by 1970, the hardware was gone, and Lees Supermarket was solidly in place. Since then Lees has grown and expanded so many times we’ve all lost count. Al, Jr. and his son Albert, run the store today. The two men are highly regarded in town, with unparalleled reputations for hiring local people (the sons and daughters of Westport), and for their unstinting support of numerous community projects.
My wife Linda tells a story about Lees Supermarket that illustrates the kind of philosophy that keeps loyal customers coming back. The day before Thanksgiving Linda was at Lees doing her last minute shopping. The store was mobbed with shoppers loading up for the big holiday meal. After Lin picked up everything she needed, she fell into line at the crowded check-out counters to wait her turn. Suddenly the crowd started buzzing. The store’s computers had overloaded and crashed. All the cash registers were silent - shut down. What to do with all those frenzied shoppers lined up waiting to check out? Suddenly the line started moving forward again. When it was her turn the check out clerks quickly bagged all my wife’s groceries. "What do I owe you?" Linda asked. "You don’t have to pay now. Take your stuff home and the next time you’re in pay us what you think you owe." My wife was amazed. The Lees had decided to allow all the shoppers to leave with their groceries and to pay on the honor system. Lin came home and sat at the kitchen table with a calculator and added up what she owed. The day after Thanksgiving she returned to Lees and paid her bill. The trusting attitude of the store towards its customers brightened the entire holiday season. Only in Westport. Only at Lees.
Across Main Road from Lees is the home of Dr. J. K. Stuart Kirkaldy and wife Francis (known as Frankie). Dr. Kirkaldy first hung out his shingle in Westport in 1959 and has been the town’s primary medical care provider for the past 35 years. Prior to Dr. Kirkaldy, most people remember kindly old Dr. King from Adamsville. Throughout most of the 1950s, Westport was without a resident physician, and things got so bad the town mounted a campaign to attract a new doc. A native of Scotland, Dr. Kirkaldy received his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, and practiced in England and Nova Scotia before coming to Westport. Dr. K, as he is called by many, is an avid birdwatcher, and is known for his close association with the Central Village Friends Meeting, particularly his work with the annual July Book Sale. When Dr. Kirkaldy first came to town he saw patients in his house. Then he built a building in his yard and used that as an office. This structure is later where George Akerson published the Westport News in the later 1970s, and where today Attorneys Dorothy Tongue and Richard DesJardin have their law offices. In January, l977, the Westport Family Medicine Center, so familiar to townspeople today, opened. Dr. K’s early colleagues included Dr. Frank Lepreau and Nurse Practitioner Charlotte "Boots" Fleschig. Dr. Lepreau, aside from his solid reputation as a surgeon, is widely admired for his humanitarian work in poverty stricken Haiti and Appalachia. Everybody in town knows Boots. She started as a nurse with Dr. Kirkaldy in l964, and later was trained as a Family Nurse Practitioner at Mass. General and Harvard School of Medicine.
The house where Dr. Kirkaldy lives now used to be the residence of one of Westport’s most well known public figures, Edward "Eddie L." Macomber. Eddie L. is remembered mostly for his lengthy service as Town Clerk - 53 consecutive years from 1898 to 1951 - but his list of accomplishments extends far beyond that. Eddie was born in Central Village in 1877. His illustrious younger sister, Alice, was born in 1879. Eddie’s father, John A. Macomber, first was elected Town Clerk in 1874, an office he held until 1898 when Eddie took over. Together, father and son, had a lock on the position for approximately 75 years. Eddie claimed never to have missed a single night of Town Meeting during his long tenure. This was an active man. The next time your life seems frenetically full, pause for a moment and consider the following list of Eddie L. Macomber’s various activities: Town Clerk (53 years), Board of Health (35 years), Chairman School Committee, Board of Registrars, Library Trustee, Finance Committee, Chairman Town Republican Committee, President Central Village Improvement Society, active Friends Meeting, board member Old Dartmouth Historical Society, Board of Directors Moses Brown and Lincoln Schools, member Fall River Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - and you think you’re busy. At 74 years of age Eddie L. was still going like a house afire when he was struck by a car and killed racing across a street in New Bedford in March, 195l. When Eddie died it was springtime and the town elections were coming up. The ballots had already been printed for the Town Clerk race between Eddie L. Macomber and Elmer B. Manchester. Elmer B. won, of course, but even from his grave Eddie L. went down fighting. 774 Westporters cast their votes for the deceased Eddie L. as a gesture of respect and appreciation. Elmer B. got 1012. The conventional wisdom at the time went something like this - it’s a good thing Eddie L. didn’t have a pet because if he did his dog could have won that election.
In this area are a number of well known business, including Silas Brown, the Westport Apothecary, and the Central Village Commons. Norma Judson started the Moby Dick Gift Shop in 1953 on Horseneck at the south end of the old Westport Point Bridge. In the late 1960s Norma relocated to Central Village. She called her new venture Silas Brown, a name she borrowed from her father-in-law. Silas Brown adds a touch of class to downtown Westport. The Westport Apothecary was founded by James Harb in 1970. Originally the Apothecary was where Cumberland Farms is today. For a few years, in the early 1970s, there were two drug stores in the area directly across the road from each other; Jim Harb’s Apothecary on the west and Bud Grantham’s The Medicine Chest on the east. The "duelling pharmacies," as my sister-in-law describes it. The Medicine Chest disappeared from the scene, and the Apothecary moved to its current location in l972. Sadly, Jim Harb died in l984 and since then his wife Joan has run the place, assisted by pharmacist Roger LeClerc. The Central Village Commons shopping center was developed in the early 1970s. For years, Jack Dolan owned the complex, including the Westport Paint and Hardware Store, where Jack could always be found behind the counter. Over the years, the businesses have come and gone. People remember Schwartz’s Package Store, Crespins, Kate Corey’s Gallery, Sissy’s, a number of banks, Video Replay, Independent Dry Cleaners, and Village Pizza.
Turning our attention north to where Main and Kirby Roads intersect, there used to be an automobile showroom on the west side of the street. In 1913, John H. Davis started selling Ford automobiles, trucks, and tractors. In 1928, John shifted to another company and Davis Chevrolet was born. After Mr. Davis died in 1953, his son Jack took over and ran the Chevy dealership until 1958. The house where the Davis family used to live is today occupied by a well known public figure, Carlton Lees. Carl Lees first entered town government in the l950s as a Selectman. He later served many years as Town Counsel. In the early 1990s, Attorney Lees was at the center of a political firestorm when he was fired as Town Counsel by one Board of Selectman, and then reappointed by the next. Lees voluntarily stepped down as Town Counsel in l995. Just south of Carl Lees’ house is Gerry’s Gift Shop. The marvel of this little business is that a mind-boggling selection of stock is jammed, apparently haphazardly, into a very small space. Yet the proprietress of the store, 93 year old Carrie Potter, can instantly and unfailingly locate any item you might want to see. The Gerry in Gerry’s Gift Shop refers to Carrie’s daughter Gerry who helped her mother start the shop in l950s.
Across from Davis Chevrolet stood the House of Curtis Restaurant. In the early 1930s, Mailon Curtis and his wife Helen built the structure, where they lived, and later established the restaurant. The House of Curtis is best remembered for its quahog chowder, which in addition to being a specialty at the restaurant, was frozen and distributed in stores throughout the area. The House of Curtis was only in operation a few years. In l959, the building was sold to the Knights of Columbus, who still use the place as a hall today.
Frank Petty started the Village Garage. Mr. Petty worked for Davis Chevrolet for a long time before he broke away and set up his own automobile operation across the street. Frank is remembered for, among other things, raising sheep. In the years since Frank Petty, a number of individuals have run Village Garage. In the 1970s, two young fellows took the reins; Bruce Galloway and Mark Pierce. These two men were killed in a tragic accident at Horseneck in l978. The accident occurred on Cherry and Webb Lane near Tripp’s Boatyard when Mark and Bruce were moving a catamaran they owned from the water to the shore. Somehow the aluminum mast of the boat came in contact with overhead high tension wires and the two friends were electrocuted. My wife and I knew Mark and Bruce socially. They were widely known and liked and when they were suddenly taken away the whole town went into mourning. At the memorial service at Horseneck Beach for Bruce, hundreds of his friends formed a semi-circle in the sand to listen quietly to the service and the music and to somehow try to say good-bye.
Before we move on to our next topic, we would be seriously remiss if we failed to pay homage to Westport’s most significant historic structure, the Waite-Potter House. The building stood for almost 300 years on the east side of Main Road in the vicinity of Snell Creek. Battered by storms, broken and crumbling, unable to attract an eleventh-hour salvation, the Waite- Potter House was taken down in the mid-1950s. All that remains on the site today is the vine-covered great fieldstone chimney. Scholars disagree regarding the exact date of the building’s construction; either 1667 or 1677. There is no dispute that in 1940, the Waite-Potter House was the oldest standing structure in southeastern Massachusetts. The name refers to Thomas Waite, the first owner of the house, and the Potter family, the last. After being seriously damaged in the hurricane of 1944, the first steps were taken to try to preserve what remained of the building. In the early 1950s, a rescue team consisting of, among others, Dick Paull, Eleanor Tripp, Helen Ellis, and Rosamond Pierce, made a last ditch effort to try to save the house. Their efforts failed. All was not lost. It so happened at the time in nearby Little Compton, the historic Wilbur House was being restored as a museum and headquarters for the Little Compton Historical Society. The Rhode Island restorers rummaged among the Waite-Potter House ruins and salvaged ax-hewn timbers, wide pine floor boards, and hand wrought hardware, and incorporated these elements into the renovated Wilbur House. So even though the Waite-Potter House is gone, a little bit of it remains forever over in Little Compton.
South Westport, the village, is not to be confused with south Westport, the part of town below Central Village on a map. The village of South Westport was a distinct community centered around the intersections of Horseneck, Pine Hill, and Hix Bridge Roads. People who grew up and lived there did not doubt that they resided in a special place, that they had an identity all their own, that they were South Westporters.
As was noted earlier, each of Westport’s villages was defined by having a post office, a school, a church, and a store. South Westport had them all. But the heart of a village is the people who live there. One family closely associated with South Westport is the Macombers. Clarence R. "Bert" Macomber started out as a farmer but is mostly remembered for his many years managing the local general store, and for being the village Postmaster from 1931 to 1946. Bert’s son, Carlton D. Macomber, known to some as C.D. Macomber, ran the South Westport garage and gas station at the corner of Pine Hill and Hix Bridge Roads for 45 years. And finally, there’s Carlton "Cukie" Macomber, C.D.’s son. Cukie could easily win a contest for being the friendliest man in town. He’s readily recognizable with his white beard and red suspenders. Cukie is a man of many and varied talents; among other things he’s a welder, a leader of the Grange, a bakemaster, and a skillful writer of local history whose articles regularly appear under the by-line "Lookin’ Astern" in one of the town newspapers, Shorelines. In 1948, Cukie tied the knot with Alice Davoll, a sweetheart of a lady, whose family owns the historic Davoll Country Store over at Russells Mills in Dartmouth. Incidentally, Cukie got his well known nickname when as a little boy, his schoolmates discovered Macomber rhymed with cucumber. He’s been Cukie Macomber ever since.
When you pass through South Westport today, on the north side of Hix Bridge Road, you see a heap of wooden boards, the remains of a structure that has collapsed in upon itself. These ruins are what is left of the South Westport general store and post office. Charles Cornell constructed the building in 1865. In the years that followed the store had numerous owners and proprietors, including Clarence Tallman, Richard Wright, and Charlie Miller. Charlie Bowen, the last owner, operated the business for about ten years, from 1926 to 1935, when Charlie died and the store closed. Bert Macomber was the clerk/manager of the place for 26 years. For most of the store’s existence it also served as the village post office. When the general store closed in 1935, the post office was moved to Bert Macomber’s house just to the west, where it remained until the mid-1960s. Then the post office closed too. Many villagers mark the beginning of the end of South Westport as an identifiable place with the closing of the post office.
South Westport and its village store were a daily stop on the stage line that carried mail and passengers through the area. The stage started at Little Compton, then passed through Adamsville, Central Village, South Westport, Russells Mills, Padanaram, and New Bedford. In the old days two horses pulled the coach, with another two added when the roads were muddy or covered with snow. In time, the horses were replaced by a motorized vehicle, which was still called "the stage." The coach started every morning in Little Compton at 6:30 a.m., and arrived in New Bedford at 10:30 a.m. The return trip departed New Bedford at 3:00 p.m. Frank A. Brownell was the driver for about 30 years in the early twentieth century. Mr. Brownell was a jolly, accommodating man, who liked to race his horse-drawn stagecoach at break-neck speeds, taking corners on two wheels, careening down Handy Hill, giving his passengers the ride of their lives. Brownell was replaced by Ed Kent. Since the driver had a few hours to kill every day in New Bedford, people along the route would give him money and a shopping list of items to purchase while he was in the city. The driver also carried written and verbal messages back and forth. Or he would drop off people’s laundry to be washed in New Bedford, and then return it to them in the afternoon. The laundry came back wet and had to be hung out on the line to dry- the "wet wash" it was called.
Just west of Bert Macomber’s house was the Westport Telephone Exchange. Virtually every telephone call that went in or out of Westport passed through the Exchange. The Exchange was located in the house of Jack Oliver, and Jack himself was the operator on the night shift from around midnight to early morning. The telephone had come early to Westport, relative to other modern technologies, and phones were already becoming part of daily life in the l890s. Each telephone consisted of a wooden box and handpiece, two bells, and a crank on the side. You couldn’t make a call directly; you had to crank the handle and ring up the operator at the Exchange who put you through. Party lines, with multiple families sharing a single line, were commonplace. Only the well-to-do could afford a private line. Everybody else got by with a four party or an eight party line. If someone else on your line was using the phone, you had to wait your turn. Although you could quietly pick up the handpiece and listen to your neighbor’s conversation, people insist this practice was rare, limited mostly to kids having fun and snoopy old ladies. Every home had a number such as 53-2, which was stated as five, three, ring two, or 15-5, which was stated as one, five ring five. The first part of the number identified your party line; the second number was your individual phone. When the phone rang in your house you had to listen carefully to know if the call was for you. A short ring represented one, while a long ring meant 10. Within your own party line, you could crank the handle and ring a neighbor without going through the Exchange. Party lines disappeared when Westport’s phones were upgraded to a modern dialing system in 1954. As has been mentioned, Jack Oliver was the night shift operator. People recall having to crank the handle many times to awaken Jack in the middle of the night. During the day there were two operators on duty and one in the evening. Many local women filled the job over the years, including Inez Gifford and Ruth Howland. In addition to putting calls through, the operators had the heavy responsibility of contacting all the volunteer firemen when there was a fire in process. And then there were the many messages townspeople left with the operator. Ruth Howland says her switchboard was always plastered with little notes. Some messages were important, such as Dr. King calling in to tell Ruth where he was going to be. But others were simply small town stuff. Mrs. So-and-So would call to tell Ruth she was going to the store for a few minutes and if her cousin from Taunton called could Ruth please let her know she would be right back.
At the eastern edge of South Westport, on Hix Bridge Road, stood the Second Christian Church. At one time there were four Christian Churches scattered throughout town, at the Head, Central Village, South Westport, and on Sanford Road. The Second Christian Church was organized in 1838 and its first pastor was Mathias Gammons. In the early days, church members were baptized by being lowered into the water of the Westport River next to Hix Bridge. The structure we see today, on the north side of the road, was built in 1876. By the early 20th century, membership in the Second Christian had dwindled. Services had to be discontinued, although Sunday School classes were conducted into the 1930s and 1940s. Today the old church has been converted to a private home.
If we travel west along Hix Bridge Road from South Westport, we encounter two of the best known farms in town, the Boan farm on the north and the Smith Farm on the south. The two farms share a number of similarities, in that they were both founded by hardy Scotsmen in the 1880s, and, in this century, both were closely associated with raising potatoes and turnips.
John Smith arrived in Westport from Scotland in 1882 and a few years later purchased 110 acres of farmland overlooking the East Branch of the Westport River. For the next 40 years, Mr. Smith labored diligently, rearing cattle, planting grain, and raising potatoes and turnips on his rolling piece of land. When Smith died in 1935, he left behind three sons to keep working his beloved Long Acre Farm; John, William, and Stuart. The three brothers continued the business, aided by their own children, into the early 1980s. Two small asides. In 1940, the Long Acre Farm was awarded an agricultural trophy, a bronze potato, for producing a record-breaking 613 bushels of potatoes on a single acre. That’s a lot of spuds. And finally, what Westporter with small children does not have happy memories of sledding on Smith’s Hill? After every snowstorm, cars quickly line up along Cadman’s Neck Road, and parents stand atop the hill, trying to keep warm, watching their shivering children racing and bouncing their sleds down the slippery slopes.
John Smith grew more than just potatoes and turnips on his Long Acre Farm; he also raised town officials. One of his sons, Stuart, was a member of the Finance Committee for 15 years. Another son, John A. Smith, served twelve consecutive terms as Selectman from 1925 to 1960, and 35 straight years as Moderator from 1930 to 1965. John A. also held 50-year membership pins at the Central Village Grange and the Noquochoke Masonic Lodge. He died in l975.
In 1980, the Smith family was offered a huge sum of money to convert the Long Acre Farm into a 65 unit housing development. The Smith family, to their everlasting credit, turned the offer down. They were looking to sell, but wanted, if possible, to turn over the land to another farmer. Along came Bob Russell. Bob grew up in what was then rural New Jersey. Before his eyes, the farmland he had known was converted to sprawling houselots. Bob decided if he ever had a chance he would do what he could to preserve open space and agricultural land. After earning a couple of college degrees, including an MBA from Harvard University, Bob went to work at a Pawtucket, Rhode Island company that manufactured parts for computers and tele-communications systems. The information age was just taking off and Bob Russell did well. In the early l980s, when he found out the Long Acre Farm was for sale, Bob seized the opportunity, left his job, and bought the farm. Bob’s wife Carol’s father had grown grapes in upstate New York. Together the couple decided to establish Westport Vineyards. The first grapevines were put into the ground in 1986. Today Westport Vineyard wines are much in demand and are sold in stores throughout the area. Bob and Carol Russell have quickly established a reputation for effective hard work and community spiritedness. And those beautiful grapevines laid out along the hillsides. What a sight to see.
Across from the Westport Vineyards is the Boan Farm. Joseph Boan emigrated from Scotland to Westport in l887 and established his potato farm next to the familiar dip in Hix Bridge Road that came to be known as Boan’s Hollow. Joseph was succeeded by his son Sam, his grandson Alton, and his great-grandson John. The Boans raised potatoes; Chippewas, Katahdins, and Green Mountains. An average year saw the Boans harvest 600 tons. The farm also raised the famous white-fleshed Macomber turnips. In the old days, much of what the Boans produced was shipped out to wholesalers in Providence. There used to be a stone landing called Tripp’s Wharf just south of Hix Bridge. At high tide big flat bottomed barges came up the East Branch to pick up Boan’s potatoes and turnips. The bridge at the Point had to be cranked open to let the boats in and out. Sam Boan is remembered for serving on the town Board of Public Welfare for over 50 years, from 1913 to 1964. Sam is said to have been a very tough welfare agent, instructing able-bodied applicants to show up at his farm at 7 a.m. the next morning for a day’s work. Sam died in 1964 at age 88. Alton, Sam’s son, is remembered for being the piano player for many years at the Central Village Grange.
The small finger of land in this area that juts out into the East Branch of the river is called Cadman’s Neck. In 1911, a woman named Susan Gammons from the Head wrote a poem that included the question, "But who was Cadman, and where did he get, the neck that claims him for owner yet?" The Cadman family owned the land in question around 1700, with three Cadmans most frequently mentioned in the historic record: George, William, and Richard. Which of the three gave the neck its name is unclear. The Cadmans moved out of Westport by 1750. The name remains with us still.
The next time Cadman’s Neck escapes the veil of obscurity is in the l870s. At that time, evangelism was very popular in America and outdoor camp meetings were all the rage. In 1873, representatives from a variety of Westport churches met at the Pacific Union Congregational Church at the Head and formed the Union Sunday School Association. A few years later the group decided to hold a four day revival at Cadman’s Neck. The first outdoor meeting was held in August, l878, with the Reverend L. P. Atwood presiding. The meeting turned out to be a huge success; a joyful combination of prayers and fun. Refreshments were served and the attendees camped out in tents rented from a local entrepreneur named G. R. Wordell. The affair was so well received that a new group, the Westport Camp Meeting Association, was formed, and plans were laid to make the outdoor meeting an annual event. Right from the beginning the meeting was held at Cortez Allen’s grove on Cadman’s Neck. Every year bigger and bigger crowds were drawn to the revival. By 1892, 6,000 people were present at the "Big Sunday" meeting. The hollows on the Neck provided natural open air amphitheaters, with the meeting goers covering the hillsides all around, and the preacher at the bottom of the slope sending his message of piety and faith up to his devoted flock. The worship at Cadman’s Neck was often loud and fervid. Some cynical locals dubbed the attendees at the meetings "Holy Jumpers." By the 1930s, the religious meetings began to fade away. The Neck became a small summer colony where visiting families from New Bedford and Fall River and beyond came to enjoy the fishing and boating, and the cool refreshing breezes from the nearby Westport River. During this period, one regular visitor was a young woman named Dorothy Locke from Brooklyn, New York. Ms. Locke was a world class fencer who represented the United States in fencing in the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932 and again in Berlin in 1936. The summer colony at Cadman’s Neck existed until recent time. Today, most of the cottages have been converted to permanent, year-round homes.
One of the more memorable residents of Cadman’s Neck was a colorful gentleman named Frank Slocum. Mr. Slocum was an insurance agent, a town official, and an auctioneer. Mostly remembered for his witty, congenial personality, which he used to disarm even his harshest critics, Slocum was a Selectman for 25 years and an Assessor for 20, mostly during the period between the wars. He was elected Tax Collector in 1928, but soon resigned the post claiming he was "too soft." Slocum’s most lasting reputation is as an auctioneer, a job he enthusiastically performed all over southeastern Massachusetts for 60 years. The sight of Frank Slocum at an auction, perched atop a ladder, cracking rapid fire jokes, taking bids a mile a minute, is a fond memory shared by many Westporters. Frank was married to Agnes Allen, the daughter of Cortez Allen, another prominent resident of Cadman’s Neck. Slocum died in 1966 at age 88.
West of Cadman’s Neck on a hill high above the West Branch of the river is the Noquochoke Lodge, number 161, A. F. and A. M., which refers to Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. The lodge is named in the memory of Cortez Allen, who many years ago donated the land upon which the building stands. The Masons are the oldest and largest fraternal organization in the world, with roots reaching back to the Scotch and English builders’ guilds of the Middle Ages. Some Masons believe their organization goes back even further to the ancient craftsmen who erected King Solomon’s temple. The Noquochoke Lodge isn’t quite that old. The first Masonic lodge in Westport was started in 1878 with Lawrence S. Smith as the first Master. Our local men had originally attended Masonic lodges in New Bedford, but the distance proved a burden and the Westporters decided to start their own. The aim of Freemasonry is to promote brotherhood and morality among its members, many of whom are often active in their community’s civic, social, and public affairs. This has been very much the case in Westport. In the latter part of the 19th century, meetings were held on the west side of the river near Hix Bridge in a building that housed Brownell’s store, and where later Remington’s clambakes were held. The Noquochoke Lodge we see today was built in 1901.
Down the hill from the Lodge is Hix Bridge. In the early 1700s, a lady named Mary Hix ran a ferry on the spot carrying travelers across the river. Her son, William, built the first Hix Bridge in 1738 and made a living collecting tolls. In 1871, Westport purchased the span for $1,800 and eliminated the tolls. The Hurricane of 1938 brought the bridge’s 200 years of existence to a sudden a violent end. A new, cement bridge was constructed by the Montaup Sand and Gravel Company of Fall River in 1939. The new bridge cost $80,000 and was paid for by the state of Massachusetts. In the old days, when whale boats were built at the Head, the completed ships were floated down river on a high tide, and when they reached Hix Bridge, were hoisted out of the water and rolled around the western end of the bridge. Nothing nearly so dramatic happens any more in the area. The shoreline around the bridge is popular for people going crabbing in the summer, and fisherman can often be found lining the rails.
At the southeast corner of Hix Bridge, where the town landing is today, a man named James "Swampy" Vaughan in the ‘50s and ‘60s operated a small boatyard where he built and repaired boats. Vaughan leased the land from the town next to a gravel pit where he rigged up a system of railroad tracks for hauling boats in and out of the water. Vaughan was said to have "lived off the river," that is he was a fisherman, oysterman, clammer, and crabber. He was also well known for dressing eels. At one time not that long ago, a meal of eels and johnnycakes was a cheap basic staple in many a Westport household. The johnnycakes were fried on a griddle, thin for breakfast and lunch, and thick for supper, and were served in a variety of ways, such as with maple syrup and butter, or with thick cream and sugar, or, of course, with eels. The eels were served either "rolled," that is skinned and fried in short, tubular lengths, or "split." Split eels, with the skin on, first had to be "slimed." Eels are covered with a protective coat of jelly that makes them very slippery to handle. The live eels are tossed into a bucket of wood ash where they slither around removing the slime. They are then split, cleaned, and fried. Eels were caught all over the river, year round. They were either trapped in nets called "eel fikes" or they were speared. Some of the best eel grounds were north of Hix Bridge, or between Cadman’s Cove and the Spectacle Islands. It was common in the winter when the river froze, for men to chop holes in the ice and probe the soft mud below "jabbing for eels" with a eight to ten pronged spear. A blacksmith on Pine Hill Road named Peleg Collins was famous throughout the area for his eel spears which were just flexible enough not to break and just stiff enough not to bend. Sue Smeaton remembers as a girl ice skating in the river above Hix Bridge and always having to be on the lookout for round eel holes in the ice. Sue also remembers a blind peddler at the Head named Howland pushing a wheelbarrow selling eels. Eels have an interesting life cycle. They spend most of their existence in fresh water but return to the sea to spawn and then die. This pattern is just the opposite of many other fish, like herring and salmon, which live in the sea and return to freshwater to reproduce. Eels reach maturity at about age ten. At that time they swim out of the Westport River and begin a long migration to the Sargasso Sea, a seaweed clogged area in the Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda. There the mature eels spawn and die. Their offspring, tiny eels called elvers, begin their year long, 1,000 mile journey back to the Westport River to start the entire cycle again. In recent years eels have fallen out of culinary favor. A few people still eat them but not that many. People say eels are slimy and they look like snakes. Even Fred and Ann’s Restaurant in Central Village, where eels and johnnycakes were served for many years, recently withdrew the once popular item from its menu. You still see a few eel traps on the river, but the eels are sold to fishermen for bait and are not used for human consumption. The days of eels and johnnycakes are pretty much gone.
At the west end of Hix Bridge, on the North side of the road, stood Remington’s Clam Bake. For about 40 years, Remington’s was the most popular clambake pavilion in the Westport area. A retired pharmacist from Providence named A.E. Remington started the popular eatery around 1915. Before Remington’s the building had housed Fred Brownell’s general store on the first floor and the Mason’s Hall on the second. Remington’s had a solid reputation as a classy place to eat. Although people of all backgrounds enjoyed going there, Remington’s was the clambake pavilion of choice for the ritzy set, who frequently arrived in chauffeured limousines. Waitresses decked out in snappy white uniforms, and a location set beside the picturesque Westport River, all contributed to Remington’s overall attraction. The bakes were held on weekends and Thursdays throughout the summer. The bake was prepared in your basic New England style. First a quarter cord of wood or so was burned on top of a foundation of loaf sized rocks. The burning wood caused the stones to become superheated. After the fire was consumed the ashes were raked away. Wet rockweed, collected at the beach earlier in the day, was spread over the hot rocks. On top of the steaming seaweed was arranged wooden trays loaded with food, which in turn were covered by a cloth sheet, and finally three or four layers of heavy canvas The whole pile was tightly secured and allowed to bake. After an hour or so, after the bakemaster gave the official okay, the canvas was removed and the meal served. The meal at Remington’s was consistent with a traditional bake; soft shelled clams, sausage, tripe, onions, potatoes, dressing, corn in season. Sometimes half a lobster per person was tossed in for good measure. Sliced brown bread, melted butter, coffee. Watermelon for dessert. Part of the fun of eating at Remington’s, as at any bake, is standing around on a bright summer afternoon, watching the preparations, with nothing more pressing to do than to wait for a pile of clams to cook. The Hurricane of ‘38 damaged one of the buildings at Remington’s, although the main pavilion survived and was used for another 20 years. Remington’s was finally demolished in 1959.
Up the hill from where Remington’s was is the Handy House, one of Westport’s most historically well known structures. Built in 1714 by George Cadman, the house became the property of Dr. Eli Handy in 1794, and later, Dr. James Handy in 1825. After all these years, the house still bears the Handy name, as does the hill upon which the structure sets. Today the house is occupied by Eleanor Tripp. This irrepressible octogenarian is Westport’s most highly regarded local historian. Mrs. Tripp became interested in Westport history in the 1950s when she became part of the effort to save the old Waite-Potter House. This initiative stimulated Eleanor’s interest in Westport’s past, and by the 1960s she was driving around town, taking photographs of, and talking to people about, Westport’s oldest structures. She wrote everything down. Word spread that Eleanor was interested in local history and before long people were sending her scrapbooks and diaries and other things they found in the attics. Eleanor spent years organizing and cataloging all the materials sent to her, and ended up creating what we know today as the Eleanor Tripp Collection. As part of Westport’s Bicentennial in 1987, Eleanor donated her collection to the Westport Library, where it still remains today informing and educating people like you and me. Eleanor didn’t always live in Westport. In her younger days, she lived and worked in Washington D.C. In 1941, she married Louis Tripp, an engineer who worked as the Director of Construction for the federal Veteran’s Administration. Louis had grown up around the Head, and when he retired in 1948, he returned to Westport with Eleanor. Together they began the restoration of the Handy House, and Eleanor commenced compiling her Tripp Collection. Eleanor is still spry and fit, and can be found every July doing something helpful at the Friends Meeting Booksale.
West of the Handy House is the Town Dump. At one time we had three dumps in town; one on the north side of Briggs Road; another in the saltmarsh off John Reed Road heading toward East Beach; and the dump on Handy Hill. Incidentally, Handy Hill used to be much steeper; the road was widened and leveled in 1958 as part of the construction of Route 88. The dump on Handy Hill came into existence around the 1930s. Dumps weren’t used as much in the old days as they are today. We weren’t a highly packaged, throw-away society then and we generated far less rubbish. Most of the trash people did produce they took care of themselves, either burying it or burning it in their own backyards. Older folks today recall they visited the dump only a few times a year to get rid of the big stuff. Now most of us go faithfully once a week. Frank White used to be the caretaker at the dump. He and his wife Myrtle lived on Charlotte White Road. Frank died in l978. In Frank’s day the trash was burned, but that smelled a lot and the state put an end to it in 1971. 1971 was the same year the Board of Health voted to set aside a corner of the dump for recyclables. Now recycling is big time, with Westporters sorting their trash for newspapers, cardboard, glass, plastic jugs, and tin cans. After Frank White, George Kirby ran the dump for many years. In George’s time the trash started being buried in huge, deep holes. Before long we ran out of places to dig so we started going up. Now we’ve got Mount Westport. The view looking across the river over to Pine Hill Road gets prettier every year. We started paying 40 cents a trash bag in the early 1990s. There’s a lot of discussion these days about what ought to be done about the landfill. Everybody’s got an opinion. As of this writing, there’s no clear solution in sight.
We’re going to talk about the Point next, but before we do we should say a few words about two places on Drift Road, the Poor Farm and the Fireside Restaurant. Until the 1950s, Westport administered its own poverty programs. The Poor Farm on Drift Road was part of this effort. For many decades, the elderly, widows, mentally disabled individuals, young mothers with small children with no where else to go, hobos and tramps, these, and many others, found comfort and shelter at the Poor Farm. Between 1930 and 1954, the town also operated an Infirmary on the site where medical care was provided to the sick and needy. People remember one old gent named Bertie Peckham, a harmless sort of fellow, who often stood on the side of the road in a straw hat directing traffic. For a while in the 1970s the town leased the building to the Dea Rest Home but the Fire Department became concerned about the safety of the elderly residents and the Selectmen closed the place down. In recent years the town has rented out apartments in the building, and leased the surrounding fields to local farmers.
Farther south on Drift Road stood the Fireside. This building, with such spectacular views of the Westport River, is dear to this author’s heart because it’s where my wife Linda and I had our wedding reception in 1971. Built in l927 by Edwin Potter, the place was first known as Potters on the Noquochoke. Later, when it was called the Blue Goose Inn, there were a couple of highly publicized gambling raids there. In the 1940s, John Perry remodeled the building and opened it for dining and dancing. By l970, Brian Crete’s Fireside was a popular hall for banquets and wedding receptions. Later the collage artist Flora Fusaro lived there. Today the former Fireside is a private home.
And one last story about Drift Road. In l976, a brouhaha erupted over a plan to relocate a Tripp family cemetery as part of the development of Fallon Drive. It seems the La France family planned to subdivide an area next to the river into large house lots when they ran into a high mound atop which they located 40 to 50 graves, all containing remains of people named Tripp. The La Frances got permission from the authorities to move the graves, but when the relocation plans were made public, the Tripp clan in town got stirred up and collectively shouted foul. Now, as every Westporter knows, there are a lot of Tripps in town, and when this group gets riled, you’d better watch out. The Tripps vehemently objected to their ancestors being disturbed. The protesters included Lincoln and Audrey and Eleanor and Norris. Eventually the La Frances and the Tripps came to an understanding. All the graves were dug up; the hill was lowered from about 20 feet to three feet; then the remains were reinterred on the same spot. Today the Tripp cemetery is nestled quietly and unobtrusively in the center of Fallon Drive.
The two parts of town that figured most prominently in Westport’s early development were the Head and the Point. The Head was a center for rudimentary industrial activity where mills were operated and ships were built, while the Point was the location of Westport’s 19th century sea faring whaling fleet. More than any other of our villages, the Point, with its ancient houses crowded together along Main Road, retains the look and feel of what Westport was like 150 years ago. In the early 1970s, the Point was designated a Historic District, a status the area richly deserves.
Up until the early 1960s, an important part of the Point was the wooden, manually operated drawbridge that people used to cross the river over to Horseneck Beach. The Westport Point Bridge was completed in 1894 at a cost of around $20,000. The Bridge included a hand-turned swing span draw, similar in design to the Padanaram Bridge today. The draw section rested upon a stone pier and rotated around a central point to provide a passageway for boats. To make the draw swing open, four to six men walked in a circle pushing a long wooden pole attached to a metal key that connected to a system of gears and rollers under the bridge. As the men walked in a circle pushing against the pole, the draw slowly swung open. Many older men today have fond memories of being young and turning the key to open the Westport Point Bridge. John Kenney was one of the Bridge’s early drawtenders. From about 1930 on, the drawtender was old man Al Lees, Sr. Some people remember the Bridge as one of the area’s most popular fishing spots. Others recall the Memorial Day services conducted there every year. James H. Sowle, a Civil War veteran who died in 1931, would get all dressed up in his blue uniform and give a little speech and throw a wreath into the water from the bridge to honor our servicemen, and to memorialize local mariners who were lost at sea. Young Al Lees, who was just a little boy at the time, blew taps on a bugle. By 1950, the Point Bridge had grown old and rickety and was straining at every seam beneath the endless lines of cars destined for Horseneck Beach. A modern concrete and steel span was erected to handle the traffic. The old Westport Point Bridge was demolished in l963.
The building on the wharf at the end of the Point, which houses a fish market today, has been the site of one enterprise or another for hundreds of years. Built around 1740 as part of the William Howland estate, the place served as a ship repair shop and cargo storage area during Westport’s whaling era. Around 1900, a man named William P. Whalon rented the wharf and the building upon it from the Howland family and used it as a base for a fishing and lobstering operation. Whalon started selling gasoline to his fellow fishermen, and in time he established a store where he sold fuel, general hardware, clothing, and fish and lobster. Will Whalon’s store was a going concern at the Point for approximately three decades, from around 1900 to 1930.
In l922, a teenager named Al Lees came to work at Whalon’s store. Lees was the youngest of six children of Hannah and Andrew Lees, whose farm was located atop the hill where the picturesque, triple-siloed Santos barn stands today. Lees brought the business from Bill Whalon in 1929. Lees’ market sold a little bit of everything, to the Westport fishing fleet and the nearby village, including gasoline, groceries, fishing gear, and fresh seafood. Al Lees is remembered as a grand old gentleman who served as a drawtender for the Point Bridge for many years, and who established the business that evolved into Lees Supermarket, described earlier in this essay. Mr. Lees passed away recently in l995.
Several other businesses operated in the general vicinity of Lees Wharf. George "Shorty" Leach operated a marina on the west side of Main Road where he sold and repaired boats and outboard motors. Shorty’s son, George, who runs the shop today, went on to become a Westport Selectman in the l980s and l990s. South of Leach’s was the Wharf House, with four apartments, where, among others, the Leach family lived. On the east side of Main Road was Laura’s Restaurant, a popular seafood eatery. Laura’s flourished at the Point from the 1920s until the building was destroyed by the l954 hurricane. North of Laura’s was the Paquachuck Inn, a building whose history reaches back to Westport’s whaling days. The Paquachuck stood vacant for most of the first half of the twentieth century, and only sprang into life briefly as an inn between around l950 and the mid-l960s when George and Millie Reis refurbished and opened the building as a bar and restaurant. Today the Paquachuck is a private residence.
Two old salts whose names will forever be associated with the Point are John Kenney and Bill Head. John Kenney is said to have looked like a pirate. According to local legend - and there are many variations of the story - John Kenney was cast adrift on Horseneck Beach one winter night in 1910, and was discovered, passed out drunk, half frozen, under a pile of burlap sacks in the bottom of a skiff. John was rescued and carried in a wagon across the Westport Point Bridge where he was dumped at the doorstep of Bill Whalon’s store. Whalon took Kenney in, sobered him up, and gave him a room to stay in above his store. From that day forward, so the story goes, John Kenney never touched another drop. Born in Deer Isle, Maine, in 187l, Kenney began his life as a "coaster," that is, he worked the freighters moving up and down the Atlantic seaboard, hauling grain and fuel and gravel and such. The last 40 years of his life, Kenney spent as a jack-of-all-trades, never venturing very far from the Point. He worked at Bill Whalon’s store, cleaning fish, sweeping floors, pumping gas. He helped as a drawtender for the Point Bridge in the 1920s. He was a shucker of clams and a repairer of fishing nets. Kenney saved his money and eventually lived in a house on the east side of Main Road at the Point. People remember him sitting there, in a bay window next to the sidewalk, knitting nets for lobster pots, puffing on a corncob pipe, his bare feet propped up on the sill, showing off for the world the missing toes that froze off the night of his inauspicious arrival in Westport. John Kenney lived to be 77 years old. He died in l948.
Bill Head is remembered for being large, noisy, boisterous, and gruff. His cursing is said to have been able to peel paint off the walls. Like his nearby neighbor at the Point, John Kenney, Bill Head did a stint in his youth working as a crewman on the freighters along the Atlantic Coast. Back in Westport he was a fisherman and a lobsterman. In his latter years, he captained a party boat, the Cora, named after his wife, which he hired out for fishing excursions. Bill Head’s painted portrait, holding a shotgun, by local artist Herb Hadfield, hangs above the shoppers at Lees Supermarket. Bill’s father, Frederick "Burt" Head, who built the first structure on East Beach - a boarding house for duck hunters in 1876 - was found dead in the marshes by the Let after the Hurricane of ‘38. Bill Head died in l956, age 8l.
Moving north up Main Road to where the Point Market is today, in this area have always been stores and post offices on both sides of the road. Early in this century, the Tripp brothers - Alfred, Albert, and Herbert - ran a store on the east side. Across the street was William Gifford’s and Edward Howland’s, two grocery stores. The Tripps and Giffords traded the post office every four years. At Eddie Howland’s, all sales were on the honor system. Howland was a farmer and far too busy to stand around idly in his store. He left his door opened with all the items marked with prices. Customers entered, selected what they wanted, made change from a box filled with cash on the counter, and departed, never having set eyes on the trusting Howland. By the 1920s, the Point stores were operated by John Fish, Charlie Hammond, and Charlie Gifford. John Fish’s store, where the market is today, sold groceries and sundry items such as buttons, thread, and shoe polish. This market was later run by Bill White, and still later, the Rapoza brothers. Some of our seniors think Charlie Hammond’s started out on the east side of the road; most recall Hammond’s on the west. (You have to remember these little grocery stores changed owners and locations with breakneck speed.) Mr. Hammond was assisted by his wife, Lulu, who in addition to tending the store, was the Point Postmaster for many years. Amber Hammond followed in her mother’s footsteps. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Alfred and Marion Pineau ran the Point Post Office for around 20 years. Getting back to Hammond’s, Leonard LeValley remembers a huge black spider - a tarantula? - Charlie Hammond discovered in a bunch of bananas, speared with a lady’s hat pin, and kept in a jar on the counter for many years. Others remember the men in the village hanging out in Hammond’s for hours, lined up on benches, chewing tobacco, shooting the breeze. North of Hammond’s was his rival, Charlie Gifford. According to Hartley Howe’s Bicentennial Memoirs at the Westport Library, "If you went to Hammond’s, you didn’t go to Gifford’s." Gifford’s was a picturesque little country store, with a white-pillared porch and colorful boxes of fruits and vegetables displayed out front. Carl Manchester remembers Gifford’s selling Nabisco cookies in bulk from tins, dispensed in brown paper bags, and a huge wooden meat block in the rear of the store. In the 1920s, Charles Gifford served as Westport’s tax collector and treasurer. People came into the store to pay their taxes. In the late 1920s, Gifford found himself unhappily at the center of a major scandal involving alleged rum running schemes that went bad, unaccounted for town funds, and a fire that burned his store to the ground. The charred cellarhole of the former grocery was visible for many years, about the same length of time local tongues wagged about the whole affair. After the fire, Charlie Gifford and his family left town. And just one more. Further north on Main Road, on the west where a seashell shop operated briefly in recent times, a fellow named Harry Sowle in the 1930s, ran a little variety store where he sold ice cream and candy and a few groceries.
The beautiful Westport Point Methodist Church has been glorifying God since 1884. The tall steeple has served as a landmark for seafarers for generations, and in the graveyard next door many of the early settlers of the Point repose in eternal sleep. In the old days near this spot a windmill turned slowly in the breeze sawing wood as part of a lumberyard run by the Brightman family. That same wind, whipped into a frenzy by the Hurricane of ‘38, shook the church to its foundations and toppled the steeple. Howland Hall, to the rear, was constructed with funds donated by the Howland family, an ancient and prominent clan at the Point who in the mid-1800s made casks and salted hams at Howland’s Wharf for Westport’s whaling fleet. In 1900, inside the church, the faithful adhered to the old New England custom of men all seated together on one side of the central aisle and women on the other. The Methodist Church for many years stood as a dividing line of sorts between two different kinds of Westporters who resided in the area; the two groups described by one Pointer as "the Heathens and the Christians." On the high ground north of the church lived ministers and school teachers and professional types. They tended to be upright and staid in their lifestyle and decidedly teetotaling in their attitude toward drink. South of the church toward the docks lived a rowdier, saltier breed. They were fishermen and tradesmen and earned their living with their hands. They often were loud, hard-drinking, and fun-loving; a trifle disreputable and proud of it. There tended to be little mingling between the two mutually wary groups.
Just north of the Methodist Church, on the same side of the road, is the Westport Point School, built as a high school in 1904. Continuing on to the north side of what today is still referred to as Hotel Hill, stood the Hotel Westport. Starting as a trickle after the Civil War, and in rapidly increasing numbers up until the end of the 1800s, summer visitors were attracted to Westport’s sandy shores. East Beach, Horseneck, the Harbor, the Point, all developed flourishing summer colonies. The nearby Fall River Line, the famous train and steamship route between Boston and New York, carried pleasure seeking travelers to our neck of the woods. Some of the wanderers stumbled upon Westport, saw what they liked, and stayed. The Hotel Westport at the Point was built in l889. Originally the place was managed by Henry A. Brown, although by the early part of this century John Baker had taken over. In its advertisements, which were published as far away as New York City and Washington, D.C., the hotel boasted spectacular ocean views and easy access to numerous delights, such as bathing, fishing, and sailing. Visitors were invited to relax on the resort’s spacious verandah, refreshed by the breezes, exhilarated by the sights. Every day a horse drawn wagon transported guests across the recently completed Westport Point Bridge, over to the sun and surf at Horseneck Beach. Katherine Hall described a big clambake around the turn of the century held in a field at the foot of the hill behind the hotel. The Hotel Westport burned down around 1920. A private home occupies the site today.
One of the more prominent families in this area of the Point was the Halls. The Reverend Charles C. Hall got his start as a Presbyterian minister in Brooklyn, New York. After serving as the President of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, Dr. Hall lectured in colleges across the United States, and was sent by the University of Chicago on a speaking tour that carried him twice around the world. Reverend Hall and his wife Jeanie had four children; Katherine, Basil, Eleanor, and Theodore. The Halls first visited Westport Point from their home in Brooklyn in the mid-l880s. By 1889 they had purchased land on what was called Eldridge Heights overlooking the Westport River, and had constructed a summer home the family dubbed Synton. The history of this interesting and distinguished family is well documented thanks to the extensive writings of Dr. Hall’s descendants. Of particular interest is "A Joyful Noise," by Janet Grindly, Reverend Hall’s granddaughter, which offers a highly entertaining account of family life at Synton. Charles Hall died in 1908 and is buried, surrounded by his family, in the cemetery next to the Point Methodist Church.
A number of C.C. Hall’s descendants became well known in town. Katherine, Reverend Hall’s oldest daughter, taught Sunday school for many years at the Point Methodist Church, and co-authored, with Mary Sowle, a short history book entitled "The Village of Westport Point." Katherine is also remembered as the librarian at the Westport Point Memorial Library, a small building across the street from Helen Ellis’ house. Katherine’s father had donated many of the books that formed the core of the library. Old timers today recall the Point Library was open on Saturday afternoons in the summer, and on Wednesdays in the winter when many students from the nearby Point School dropped in to read and borrow books. Speaking of borrowing books, according the Leonard LeValley, Katherine was extremely trusting regarding her librarian duties; books were neither checked in nor out. No records were kept at all. You were expected to return all the books you borrowed the next time you came around. Katherine lived out most of their life quietly on Scotch Pine Lane and died in 1970. Her younger brother, Basil, was also an author. A graduate of Harvard, Class of l909, a student of theology at Edinburgh University, Scotland, Basil published a biography of his father, Charles Hall, and a book called "Early Days at Synton." Basil died in 1978. Eleanor, another of Dr. Hall’s children, married the Reverend Robert Wicks, from Holyoke, Massachusetts, a Dean of Chapel at Princeton University, and a highly regarded minister and lecturer. Robert and Eleanor Wicks raised five children; David, Robert, Janet, Margaret, and Alden, about as talented a group of individuals as you can find anywhere in Westport. The Wicks family devoted themselves to education, art, writing, and community service. Dr. Hall and his wife Jeanie would be proud.
Just south of the Halls’ was the Southard estate. In the late 1800s, George H. Southard was a bank president in Brooklyn, New York. He was a parishioner in Charles Hall’s church, and through his contact with Hall, Southard started visiting Westport. He must have liked the scenery because by 1899 he had purchased a tract of land extending all the way to Cape Bial Lane, and had built a magnificent house, barn, and watertower. Southard called his summer home "The Junipers." Janet Grindly, one of the Wicks children, remembers the neighboring Southard place as extremely elegant, complete with manicured grounds, outdoor concerts, and garden parties. The tall watertower is visible for miles at sea and served as a navigational aid for fishermen and bootleggers alike. One of the Point’s more well known black residents, Warren Stevens, worked as a caretaker at the estate. Generations of Southards summered in Westport. One, named Harry, had a passion for raising fine horses. The most recent proprietor was George H. Southard, 3rd. George was a retired Lt. Colonel with the Army Corps of Engineers. He was active in town affairs and served as the Chairman of Wesptort’s Planning Board before his death in 1968. Some years later a fire swept through the Southard estate destroying most of the buildings. The watertower remains till this day, its capped top just clearing the forest on the western, wooded slope of the Point.
Another well known family at the Point was the Paulls. Merle H. Paull was a country doctor from Barre, Massachusetts who began summering at the Point around 1915. Dr. Paull and his wife Blanche, who was an accomplished musician and watercolorist, raised four children; Peter, Thomas, Richard, and Suzanne. Richard "Dick" Paull is fondly remembered by many people as a highly intelligent, unassuming man who came to be regarded as Westport’s unofficial town historian. Dick Paull was struck with polio as a little boy and was left physically disabled the rest of his life. The young Paull didn’t allow his disability to keep him down. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1938, and went on to earn a degree from Harvard Law School. He started practicing law in New Bedford in 1942. One of the more notorious cases in which he as involved was the John Baker murder trial in the early 1960s. Mostly Dick Paull is remembered for his work with historic preservation. He was a founding member of, and a long-time secretary for, WHALE, the Waterfront Historic Area League, which saved so many of New Bedford’s historic structures. Locally, Dick Paull was on the committee that worked to have the Point designated a Historic District, and was part of the group that tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue the Waite-Potter House. Attorney Paull died in 1994. His sister Suzanne Carter, and his brother, retired Obstetrician Dr. Tom Paull, still live in town. His niece Dorothy Tongue, practices law in Central Village.
One of the Point’s most famous residents was the sculptress Helen E. Ellis. Ms. Ellis’ woodcarvings have been displayed in galleries and museums from New York City to Boston. Recently the New Bedford Whaling Museum mounted an exhibition of New England women artists, with Helen Ellis’ work as the centerpiece of the show. Helen was born in North Attleboro in l889. As a little girl she passed the time whittling with a penknife in soft blocks of pine. She eventually developed the skill of carving beautifully rendered figures in graceful motion in wood. Her pieces are characterized by an antique look Helen achieved by rubbing oil paint into the surface, and then lending luster to the wood by applying beeswax and turpentine. Ms. Ellis died in l978 at age 89, having enjoyed a long and productive life. Aside from being an artist, she was a teacher, a bookstore operator, and a newspaper columnist. In the early 1940s she worked as a curator for the Old Dartmouth Historical Society. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, she was a driving force behind the establishment and growth of the Dartmouth Children’s Museum near Russells Mills. Ms. Ellis acquired her home in Westport on the east side of Main Road, just south of Hotel Hill, in l916. She summered there until the end of her life, tending the trees and gardens at her home which she called "Five Elms." In her latter years she lived with a companion, Rosamond Pierce. After Helen’s death, funds from her estate went to establish the Helen Ellis Trust Fund, which supports artistic and cultural activities throughout the area.
Another artist from the Point was Herb Hadfield. Herb’s father, Jonathan Hadfield, was a Fall River Pediatrician who started summering in Westport early in the 20th century. Herb got his training and education at the Swain School of Design and the Bradford Durfee College of Technology. He was a oil painter and scrimshawer and a carver in ivory. His work often found its inspiration in marine animals, such as leaping porpoises. When he wasn’t creating art he was teaching it, and his painting classes at the Point were well attended. Herb was also interested in public affairs. He served on the Landing Commission for many years and was an advocate for open space and controlled growth in town. He ran unsuccessfully for Selectman in the early 1970s. Herb was a big man, 220 pounds, 6’5", with a bushy beard. A gentle giant of a fellow with a soft spot in his heart for all animals. In the early l970s, he built a log cabin in the woods off Cornell Road near Mosher Brook and lived there, Thoreau-like, without electricity for 15 years. His companions in the woods were mostly animals; cats, dogs, goats, horses, hawks, owls, foxes, snakes. If you found an injured animal on the side of the road, you brought it to Herb who did what he could. Herb Hadfield moved to Maine in the later l980s where he passed away in l989.
Westport Point has attracted so many interesting people over the years it’s a little difficult to list them all. Take Marge Robb. When Marjorie Newell Robb died in l992 at the age of 103, she was the oldest living survivor of the ill-fated ocean-liner Titanic. Marjorie, age 23, along with her sister Madeline, and her father Arthur Newell, a Boston banker, boarded the Titanic in France in April, l912, for the vessel’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic to New York. The ship slammed into an iceberg and sank in three hours. Marge and her sister survived in a lifeboat. Her father died, along with l,500 other passengers. When searchers discovered the Titanic on the ocean floor in l985, Marjorie argued, quietly, that the vessel should be left undisturbed. Marge and her husband Floyd Robb built their home in Westport in l952, where she summered at the Point for 40 years.
A couple of black families carved a niche in the history of the Point. The Stevens brothers, Warren and Leland, were chauffeurs and caretakers for wealthy residents in the area. The Essers ran a boarding house and restaurant. There is much romantic mystique associated with the Stevens. According to the lore of the Point, John Stevens, the founding father of the family, was an African Chieftain who, due to local tribal treachery and intrigue, had to flee his homeland, sought refuge aboard an American whaling vessel, was carried across the ocean, came ashore at Martha’s Vineyard, where he met and married a lovely Gay Head Indian maiden, Minnie. Another version of the story has John kidnapped by slavers from his native village, taken in chains to America, where he jumped ship on the Vineyard and later married Minnie. How ever it all began, there came a time in the early twentieth century when John and Minnie Stevens were living on the east side of Main Road a few houses north of Hotel Hill with their two sons, Warren and Leland, and a daughter, Ida. The boys grew into tall, handsome men who are remembered by all who knew them for their courtly manners and dignified demeanor. Warren was a chauffeur and caretaker for the Southards, while Leland worked in a similar capacity for over 45 years for the Dunham estate. Warren, the older brother, died in l955, age 78. Leland outlived Warren by almost 30 years, passing away in l984, age 92. The Essers were a black family, originally from Providence, who lived next to the Stevens, just south of the Methodist parsonage. The Essers operated a boarding house in the summer, and a small restaurant, called the Gull’s Nest, which some of the locals referred to, jokingly, as the Crow’s Nest.
Ed Yeomans Sr. first stumbled upon Westport Point in the l880s when he sailed into the harbor seeking refuge from a storm. Soon thereafter, he purchased land at the Point for a summer home. Yeomans was an educator, an author, and a sailor. In the mid-1920s, he built the 42 foot schooner Amberjack. Ed Yeomans Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps. A Harvard graduate, Class of l933, Yeomans went on to become a widely acclaimed figure in education. He was the headmaster at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge from 1949 to 1962. Upon retiring, he devoted himself to writing and sailing. He authored a biography of his father "Nurturing the Spirit," and an account of his own sailing experiences "Amberjack." In the early 1970s, Yeoman skippered Amberjack to three consecutive east coast schooner racing championships. The Yeomans attracted artists and poets and musicians to their summer residence at the Point. Not that long ago the Yeomans barn was used for theatrical performances and lively evenings of square dancing. Ed Yeomans Jr. spent over 80 summers at Westport Point. He died in l995.
The Yeomans family created an everlasting legacy when, in 1971, a family member, Elizabeth Yeomans Booth, donated the plot of land upon which the Westport Art Group stands. In l955, a collection of local artists got together and started painting in each other’s kitchens. That early founding group included Ethel Gifford, Alice Danhauser, Helen Wilkinson, and Dorothy Robbins Gifford. The following year, l956, the Westport Art Group was formed, and WAG’s first organized art show was held that summer in the Westport Point School. After the School closed, the group moved around for a while, meeting in members’ homes, local halls, etc. In the early l980s, building upon the generous donation of land from the Yeomans, the artists bought a house on Drift Road and moved it to the Main Road location. Fund raisers were mounted and enough money was brought in to construct the gallery where much of WAG’s activities are currently conducted. Today, hundreds of local artists participate in the group’s year round program of classes, lectures, meetings, and shows. The high point of the year is the annual summer art exhibit which has been offered continuously every year since l956. The show, under the direction of Jean Cassidy and her hardy band of coworkers and volunteers, draws local artists from all over the area and is always well attended.
A few Westport artists have already been mentioned in this essay: Helen Ellis, Herb Hadfield, Alden Wicks, and Blanche Paull. There have been many more. Clifford Ashley, the well known painter of whaling scenes and New Bedford’s waterfront. worked mostly out of his studio in Fairhaven but he summered on Drift Road with his wife Sarah (later Delano). Mercy Etta Baker, a fiery redhead from the Point, produced small exquisite watercolors and wrote poetry. Mary Hicks Brown, the wife of Dr. Percy Brown of the Point, painted scenes of Westport. Mary’s father, William Hicks, was a whaler who eventually settled on a farm on Main Road, the same farm which was featured in a scene from the silent film "Down to the Sea in Ships." John W. Howland was an early twentieth century photographer who snapped many pictures of the Head. Louis McHenry Howe, Franklin Roosevelt’s confidante, summered at Horseneck Beach and passed the time painting local scenes. The list goes on and on. In l987, the Westport Historical Society organized an exhibition of numerous Westport artists. In recent years, creative spirits in town have included Edna Leuvelink, Samuel Hadfield, Ruth Edwards, Betsey MacDonald, and photographer Ted Mead.
Moving north on Main Road from the Westport Art Group, we encounter the home of one of Westport’s most well known public officials, Elmer B. Manchester. Known to his friends as "B" or "Elmer B", Manchester was a familiar face at the Town Hall for decades, serving as Secretary to the Selectmen (1922-1963), Town Accountant (1929-1967), and Town Clerk (1951-1975). Elmer B. claimed the distinction of having prepared 44 consecutive Warrants for Town Meeting. In addition to taking care of the warrant, Elmer was responsible for recording Westport’s Vital Statistics - births, deaths, and marriages, distributing beach stickers and dog licenses and shellfish permits, and keeping an eye on our old town records. When he wasn’t occupied doing any of the above, he was performing his duties as Justice of the Peace, that is, marrying people,. Over the years, Elmer tied the knot for over 3,400 couples, with many of the ceremonies taking place in his living room with his wife Althea as a witness. Elmer B. and Althea were married in l931, and were together until his untimely death in l981. (In a tragic coincidence, Town Clerk Elmer B. Manchester and the Town Clerk he replaced, Eddie L. Macomber, were both killed in pedestrian/vehicular accidents 30 years apart.) After Elmer B. died, Althea was voted in as Town Clerk, a position she held until her retirement in 1993. Elmer B’s brother, Carl Manchester, wrote the highly entertaining account of early life at the Point, "Pa and I," a must read for anyone interested in local Westport history.
A little ways north of the Manchester house was the homestead of the Macomber family, whose name will live forever in Westport history for having developed the famous Macomber turnip. Israel Macomber, who lived at 1678 Main Road in the mid-19th century, raised four sons: Isaac, William, Aden, and Elihue. Two of the boys, Isaac and William, had wander dust in their boots and liked to travel (among other destinations, they dropped everything and joined the Yukon Gold Rush in l898). According to Macomber family lore, Isaac and William visited Philadelphia in l876 to participate in America’s Centennial Celebration. While in the City of Brotherly Love, they picked up some turnip seeds at an agricultural exhibit. After returning to their farm on Main Road, they began crossing the yellow turnip, or rutabaga, they brought from Philadelphia, with locally grown white radishes, and what came out of the ground was a sweet and mild tasting, white turnip. Year in and year out they selected and replanted the seeds from their sweetest, whitest turnips, until finally they had created what we call today the Macomber or Westport turnip. They started distributing their new product in Westport and Dartmouth, and before long farmers all over Bristol County were raising, and improving, and selling, Macomber turnips. Public demand grew rapidly and by the 1920s a steady stream of trucks carried the tasty rutabaga to markets in Providence and Boston. The Smiths and the Boans from South Westport were big planters of Macomber turnips, as was Russell Davis on Sanford Road. Turnips aren’t nearly as popular today as they once were, but the tankard shaped, white-fleshed Macomber turnip is still available in the vegetable departments of supermarkets throughout the area.
Another Macomber is still remembered by many old timers at the Point. Nason Macomber, Isaac’s son, operated an ice business at the bottom of Dunham’s Hill. Nason had a couple of ponds on the west side of Main Road where he harvested great quantities of ice every winter. Carl Manchester in "Pa and I" describes in detail how Nason employed numerous Pointers cutting the ice and storing the frozen blocks in houses on his property. In the warm weather, Nason did a booming business delivering ice to natives and summer residents alike at the Point and all along Horseneck Beach. By the beginning of World War II refrigeration had come into widespread usage in Westport and the many ice houses scattered all over town, like Nason Macomber’s, quietly slipped into the past. Many of the wooden ice houses burned to the ground. Nason Macomber is also remembered for his many years of service as a Library Trustee.
And one last topic before moving on to our next area of town, the Harbor: who was the Dunham of Dunham’s Hill, the long, steep incline you must climb on Main Road as you head toward Eldridge Heights and the Point? Everett A. Dunham operated a very successful insurance company in Providence, Rhode Island in the early 20th century, before coming to live in the big house with the beautiful sun porch on the west side of the road atop the hill that bears his name. Dunham died in the early 1930s. His nephew, also Everett Dunham, an engineer and architect with the city of New Bedford, later occupied the house before he passed away in l980.
Westport has always been blessed with more than its share of scenic vistas, refreshing ocean breezes, and long sandy beaches. These stunning natural features have long attracted visitors from out of town, especially during the summer season. Even today, Westport’s population roughly doubles from July to September. Summer residents started appearing at the Harbor in the l870s. They came because the Harbor was quiet and secluded, an out of the way place where a family could sail and fish and golf and socialize away from the heat and hectic pace of the crowded city. Almost all the earliest colonizers of Westport Harbor came from nearby Fall River. They were mill owners, cotton brokers, merchants, bankers, and lawyers. They worked together in the city, then sought each other’s company for fun and relaxation in Westport on the weekends. The Harborites tended to be clannish, sticking tightly together. There wasn’t much mixing with the "teachers and preachers" across the river at the Point. The Harbor was popular because a man could work all week at his office in Fall River, drive a short distance to Acoaxet on Friday afternoon, spend time enjoying his family and friends on Saturday and Sunday, and be back at his desk on Monday morning. In time the Harbor drew vacationers from far and wide, at least in part because of Westport’s proximity to the Fall River Steamship and Train Line. Once the word got out, people came to the Harbor from a corridor stretching from New York City to Boston and beyond. But in the early days, the original tight knit summer colony at the Harbor had its roots in the textile industry in Fall River
Those first pioneering vacationers at the Harbor needed a place to stay. Some native Acoaxet farmers, looking to supplement their incomes, began renting out rooms in their homes to visitors. Later generations of summer people built elaborate "summer cottages", stately structures that still grace the Harbor today. And then there were the boarding houses, small hotels that took in roomers on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis. The two most well known of these were Sowle’s Boarding House beside the river at the mouth of Westport Harbor, and the Howland House on the high ground overlooking Cockeast Pond.
The gravestone in the cemetery beside the Point Methodist Church tells us Captain James M. Sowle walked the earth between 1825 and 1898. In l837, age 12, James Sowle took to the sea. By the l860s he had risen to the position of Captain, and claimed to have sailed on no less than eleven whaling voyages. In l869, Sowle acquired a strip of riverside property adjacent to the Point of Rocks, (called the Nubble by Westporters outside the Harbor), which looked across the harbor to Horseneck Beach. There, at the river’s edge, with the help of his second wife, Phoebe, he established in l873, Sowles Boarding House which boasted accommodations for 65 people. For the next 40 years or so, Sowle’s was a magnet for the early summer colony at Acoaxet, many of whom were drawn by the excellent stripped bass fishing that could be had off of boats leaving from Sowle’s Wharf. In addition to rooms, Sowle’s offered a large hall for social gatherings and religious ceremonies. The boarding house did not survive very long into the 20th century. In l911, Sowle’s daughter Elizabeth sold the property, including the hotel and wharf, to E. P. Charlton. The Charltons saved the wharf, renaming it Charlton’s Wharf, and knocked down the boarding house, or at least most of it. One wing was salvaged and transported to Charlie Macomber’s General store and stables, where today it forms the north end of the Harbor Inn.
Aside from the tall water tower that stood in the area for so many years, there is certainly no more distinctive and recognizable visual landmark on the Harbor horizon than the Howland House. This regal building, with its white lower sections and dark roof and widow’s walk, is an architectural presence that totally dominates the high ridge running west of Cockeast Pond. In l900, the Howland House was the place to stay at the Harbor, with guests from near and far vying for a reservation. Early accounts tell of masquerade balls and elegant garden parties on the lawn. Mostly visitors came for the breathtaking views, looking out over Cockeast Pond, toward the Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, and the Point in the distance. The vistas are just as good today, except now the panorama begins with the green rolling fairways of the Acoaxet Country Club.
Every summer, visiting families began arriving at the Harbor around Memorial Day and by the Fourth of July the busy social season was in full swing. In the early days many of the get-togethers took place at Jim Sowle’s boathouse. In l903, a community center was built at the southeast corners of Cockeast Pond and called the Casino. For roughly 30 years, until the Acoaxet Club overshadowed it, the Casino was the focal point of the Harbors social activities. Saturday night dances with live orchestra, Sunday morning church services, theatrical performances with the Harborites and their children making up the cast, barbecues and clambakes and summer socials - a nearly unbroken stream of entertainment was to be had at the Casino. By the early l930s, the resort’s social center of gravity began to shift to the more elegant Acoaxet Club, and the by-then rustic Casino began to fall out of usage. The building eventually became a private home, with its last owner being Bill Miller, who served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve under President Jimmy Carter. A few years ago the Casino was struck by lightening and burned down. Miller recently erected a new structure on the original site of the old Casino. Another building that figured prominently in the history of the Harbor was the Pavilion which stood beside the ocean where the Elephant Rock Beach Club stands today. The Pavilion was a large, popular bath house, built in 1894 and destroyed by the Hurricane of l938. For a couple of generations of Harborites, the Pavilion was an important part of their happy, sun-soaked youths. In the l920s, the Pavilion was the location of the Harbor’s Annual Field Day organized by Mr. James F. Jackson, in which local boys and girls competed in sporting events, such as foot races, sailing, and swimming.
Boating and yacht racing have always been a part of life at the Harbor. In 1913, the Westport Harbor Yacht Association was formed and for years men like W. Frank Shove, John S. Brayton, Jr., and Richard K. Hawes, and their sons, raced boats with names like Octopus, Capelin, and Bonito, from the mouth of the harbor down to Elephant Rock and back. E. P. Charlton was always at the center of the racing activities, offering winning cups to the victors, and acting as judge from his own yacht, the Edamina. There was also lots of fresh water sailing. Bill Barker, an octogenarian who lives on Cornell Road today, and who summered all his life at the Harbor, remembers an idyllic boyhood, spending afternoons being swept by the wind across the surface of Cockeast Pond with his brother Jack. Barker also remembers old salts bringing boats over from the Point to Charlton’s Wharf and picking up passengers for a day of fishing and sailing on Buzzard’s Bay and around the Elizabeth Islands.
It wasn’t all uninterrupted gaiety and frivolity at the Harbor. Early on, around the turn of the century, the religious customs of the day called for a strict observation of the Sabbath that everyone obeyed. On Sunday, fun was not allowed; no swimming, no going out on boats, no laughter, no games. Children were particularly hard hit by the restrictions. Richard K. Hawes, Sr., the noted attorney and sometime local historian, has passed down to us a wonderful story of how as a boy at the Harbor he spent many long Sunday afternoons in his church clothes sitting alone on the Point of Rocks, quietly reading books. Janet Grindly, one of Robert Wicks’ children, tells us that over at the Point the same kind of Sunday restrictions were in force, and that the children there, like their counterparts at the Harbor, reacted with a similar absence of enthusiasm. By the 1920s, these Sunday customs had started to relax.
When Earle Perry Charlton was growing up in his father’s blacksmith shop in Connecticut in the 1860s, he never dreamed he was destined to become one of New England’s wealthiest men. His first job as a salesclerk in Boston earned him a rather ordinary $7 per week. Then his fortunes began to change. In l889, at age 26, he started a five and ten cent store in Fall River, Massachusetts. The store did well so he opened another, and then another. By 1910, there were over 50 E.P. Charlton five and dime stores scattered throughout New England and Canada. In 1912, he merged with the gigantic F.W. Woolworth chain, an enterprise in which he became a first vice-president. Always using Fall River as his base, Charlton became a director of banks, a runner of railroads, an operator of mills - in other words, a classic American business tycoon. He gave away money in heaps, including to the health care facility we today call Charlton Memorial Hospital. He married his sweetheart, Ida, in l889, and they raised three children: Ruth, Earle P. Jr., and Virginia. They all lived in a big house on Rock Street in Fall River but they wanted a place to take their leisure in the summer. In l918, Charlton built a castle at the Harbor called Pond Meadows. The 24 room house on 22 ocean-front acres included six marble fireplaces, an eight car garage, and a bowling alley. From his palace by the sea Charlton summered in splendor for a dozen years. He died at Pond Meadows in l930 at age 67. The Charlton Estate remains the grandest structure in Westport today.
In l977, a New Bedford attorney and real estate developer, Robert Xifaras, purchased the estate from Charlton’s daughter, Ruth Masson. (Mrs. Masson recently passed away, age 104.) Shortly thereafter, in August, l977, the contents of the mansion were auctioned off. Over 3,500 people participated in the sale. Everything went. Paintings, antique furniture, oriental rugs, sterling silver, fur coats, and fine crystal. An autographed, leather-bound set of Charles Dickens’ works. The auctioneers were brought in specifically from New York City. The highest single bid they managed to elicit from the crowd was $16,000 for an l8th century coromandal screen. All told, the auction reportedly brought in over $500,000.
The Charlton Estate wasn’t the first mansion on the spot overlooking the entrance to Westport Harbor. An earlier house, owned by the Steers family, had stood on the same location until it burned down around 1915. The Steers were an interesting family in their own right. James and George Steers were wealthy New York bankers. One of their sidelines was designing, building, and racing yachts. In 186l, the Steers brothers entered a boat into, and won, a first-of-its-kind international sailing competition. Their yacht was named America, and the prize they carried home to New York has been known the world over ever since as the America’s Cup. Sailors still try every three or four years to capture the cup. Henry Steers was James’ son. Henry was also a racer; he won the first ever sailboat race across the Atlantic Ocean in l866. Henry, around l890, built the house at the Harbor which later burned down and was replaced by the Charlton Estate. His father, James, built the white house on the hill to the north, which was later occupied by the highly respected jurist, Judge James M. Morton, the federal judge who heard and denied the final appeal in the famous Sacco and Vanzetti case in l927. The Steers family pretty much disappeared from the local scene after 1904, the year in which Henry Steers drowned while fishing near the rocks at Westport Harbor.
Numerous prominent Fall River families began summering at the Harbor before the turn of the century. Some of the earliest settlers included the Bassetts, Braytons, Grinnells, Truesdales, Hawes, Remingtons, and Barkers. Harold Remington Barker was a Spindle City yarn broker who started summering at Acoaxet with his wife Edith Hawes Barker in the l890s. The Barker boys, Jack and Bill, were well known and admired throughout the area for their great skill as sailors. Philomene Truesdale was born in Quebec in l874 and first came to Fall River in l879. In l905, at the tender age of 31, he founded Truesdale Hospital, where he became famous for his success performing upside-down stomach surgery. The Truesdales had a summer cottage at the Harbor, near the Pavilion, not far from the Barkers. Oliver S. Hawes was a Fall River cottonbroker who was one of the earliest guests at James Sowle’s boarding house beside the river. Oliver’s son, Richard K. Hawes, was a distinguished Fall River attorney, financier, and civic leader, who authored a riveting second-by-second account of the impact of the Hurricane of ‘38 on Westport Harbor.
Of course not all the residents of the Harbor were summer people who came from outside of town. A core of native Westporters had lived at Acoaxet for generations, mostly Yankee farmers whose gently rolling fields were carefully delineated by well kept stone walls. There were also local tradesmen and merchants. One such individual was Charles D. Macomber, who ran a store and post office where the Harbor Inn is today. Starting around the turn of the century, Macomber also operated a livery stable where natives and summer folk alike kept their horses, and where the stage coach stopped on a daily basis. Charlie Macomber is remembered fondly as a friendly, cheerful man who was always ready and willing to help. In the l920s, Charlie’s daughter Miriam started working at the store, and after marrying Herbert Ogden, was in charge of the place for many years. Ogden’s store sold staples to the Harbor community, like sugar, coffee, bread, milk, and gasoline. Miriam Ogden also served as the Acoaxet Post-master from 1945 to l972. She passed away in l974.
Another well known Harbor native was Everett Coggeshall. Coggeshall was a bit of a character, outspoken and gruff, and toward the end of his life he was much sought after by newspaper reporters and local historians for his irreverent recollections of early Westport life. One noteworthy interview appeared in the fourth edition of Spinner Magazine in 1988. Coggeshall was a jack-of-all-trades. Over the course of a lengthy and varied working life, he was employed as a plumber, a policeman, a farmer and green-grocer, and a supplier of bottled gas. Because he got around so much, he was said to have known all the Harbor’s secrets, all its sin and scandals, where "all the bodies were buried." In one of his memoirs Coggeshall said he remembered a time when no outdoor work was allowed at the Harbor between July l and October l - no noisy hammering of nails or clanging of machinery - nothing that might disturb the peace and tranquillity of the summer residents. If a roof needed repairs or a well had to be dug, the workmen rushed to finish the job by July l because after that everything shut down until the fall. Coggeshall was a contrarian who frequently expressed unpopular opinions. In the l920s when Acoaxet attempted to separate from Westport, the secessionist movement enjoyed overwhelming support among Harborites, natives, and summer people alike. Only two locals worked in the opposition to the plan - one was Everett Coggeshall. During Prohibition, Coggeshall was a police officer in town and he complained he had to wage a one-man battle against the bootleggers because everybody else in the area was part of the illegal traffic or on the take. Such broad pronouncements, of course, did not endear Everett to all his neighbors, but he didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, he didn’t seem to mind. Everett eventually outlasted most of his friends and critics. He died in l982 at the age of 98.
In one of the more interesting episodes of the area’s history, in the early l920s, the Harbor attempted to separate from Westport and form a new town. The big complaint of the Harborites was that they were overtaxed and weren’t getting enough services for their money. The secessionist movement was led by E.P. Charlton, who for many years was the biggest taxpayer in Westport. In l9l8, Charlton was at the very top of the tax rolls with a levy of $4,240, with the Westport Factory in second by forking over $3,992. The folks at the Harbor produced all sorts of facts and figures to support their claim that they were being neglected and exploited. They pointed out that while the population of Acoaxet represented only one-twelfth of the town total, they ended up paying one-sixth of the total taxes. They did a study that they said showed they paid $8,000 per year in taxes and only received $2,500 back in improvements and services. And then there was the argument that it made no sense for the Harbor to be politically part of Westport since the two areas were geographically separated from each other by the Westport River and the state of Rhode Island. The Harborites were dead serious in their intentions, going so far as to have secessionist legislation introduced into the Massachusetts General Assembly, a step that enjoyed the overwhelming support of people in the area. Of 33 Acoaxet registered voters, 31 signed a petition in favor of separation. The town fought back - hard. The Assessor, Frank Slocum, scoffed at the idea that the Harbor was being treated unfairly, and pointed out that the area in question was filled with large expensive houses in which resided wealthy people. Of course they should be expected to pay high taxes. The Selectmen, George Russell, Clifton Tripp, and Charles Lawton vociferously protested the separation plan. They saw the conflict as a class struggle, a battle between the rich and the poor. At one point they took out a paid newspaper announcement, exhorting opposition to secession, and describing the effort as "millionaire aggression." The state legislature, recognizing a hot potato when they saw it, tossed the whole controversy back into the town’s lap. Let the locals decide. At a jam-packed tumultuous town meeting in January, l926, the issue was debated. Toward the end of the meeting, William Potter stood up and read a poem he had composed, "On Separation," which included the lines, referring to the recently ended First World War: "The boys received a dollar a day, and many lost their health. The rich man stayed at home engaged in doubling his wealth. And when at last our lads came home, prepared to settle down, they found the rich men ready, to take part of their town." Someone shouted out to call the question. A tally was taken. The vote came out 28l to zero, against secession. The issue was dead and hasn’t come up again since.
The Acoaxet Club came into existence around 1920 on land that had once been the farm of Esther and Benjamin Davis. As soon as it opened its door, the Acoaxet Club became the center of the area’s busy social scene, offering golf, tennis, sailing, and dancing. The well-heeled wives of the Harbor organized elegant dinner parties in the building’s commodious spaces, and travelers who needed a place to stay could arrange for overnight rooms. The picturesque 9-hole golf course overlooking Cockeast Pond was always a major draw, attracting men and women golfers to its tournaments from all over southern New England. For two decades or more, from the 1930s to the 1950s, the club’s golf pro was the ever-congenial Ed Phinney.
Moving right along, the Acoaxet Chapel was built in 1872, was destroyed by fire shortly thereafter, and rebuilt in l883. Although the small church on Howland Road is non-denominational and open to followers of all faiths, many of the parishioners in recent years have been Methodists and Baptists. Gray’s Grist Mill, at the entrance to the Harbor near the Rhode Island line, was constructed in l750 by Philip Taber. Philip Gray bought the business in the l870s and gave it the name we know today. For a couple of hundred years the mill’s grindstones were powered by the water from the pond across the road, although since the l940s an automobile engine has turned the wheels that grinds corn into flour. For the greater part of the twentieth century, 60 years or so, the proprietor of the mill was John A. Hart. Another name many people associate with the Adamsville section of the Harbor was old Dr. King. Doc King was one of those old fashioned country physicians, making housecalls in the middle of the night, delivering babies in the upstairs bedroom, sleeping in his car on the side of the road, getting paid for his services with a fresh killed chicken or a sack of potatoes. He was highly regarded and loved and his passing was noted with sadness by former patients throughout the area. And finally there’s the osprey, or fish hawk, colony on the West Branch of the river. In the spring you see cars parked along Old Harbor Road and people with binoculars watching the weary ospreys, who have just returned to Westport from their long migration from South America. The large colony of ospreys we enjoy today is the result of the labors of Gil Fernandez and his wife, Jo, who almost single-handedly rescued the fish hawk from extinction, in Westport, starting in the l960s. For almost 30 years the Fernandez have erected the nests and banded the young and did whatever else was necessary to protect the colony. For their many efforts on behalf of the ospreys, the Fernandez deserve our thanks.
Other than the Point, there is no part of town about which more has been written than the Head. While the salt air at the Point was a magnet for whalers and sea captains, the rushing waters of the upper Noquochoke attracted aspiring industrialists. By the early 1980s, the woods around the Head were abuzz with the noise and clatter of water powered mills. When the whaling trade in nearby New Bedford suddenly accelerated to a world dominating pitch, the frenzy overflowed all the way to the Head of Westport, where the mill owners and merchants brought in money hand over fist. Then oil gushed from a field in Pennsylvania and the whaling industry died. By l900, the Head’s heyday had come and gone, and the area settled into the quiet domesticity for which it is known today.
As with all of Westport’s villages, the beating heart at the center of the Head was the country store, where commerce and congeniality generously mixed. People stopped in to buy groceries and to play a little checkers. At the beginning of the 20th century, J. M. Sharrock and Charles Gifford ran stores at the Head on the north side of the road. As time passed, the store owners in the area came and went, including Walter Kirby, Ellis Hammond, James Woodcock, Louis Correia, Frank DeAndrade, and Walter Grundy. For the past 20 years or so, Ronald Meunier has been the man behind the counter at the Head Store. On the south side of the road there were also a string of businesses. Around l920, a Mrs. Frank Frances ran a tea room near the river where she sold homemade ice cream. Later on the spot, John T. Montle operated a combination candy and ice cream parlor and antique shop. Montle was assisted by a lady named Louise Stacey. Louise lived close by on Drift Road near the Bell School, in the home of Mrs. Kate Tallman, who taught disabled children at the Special Needs school on Gifford Road in the l930s and l940s. Andrew Sherman ran an auto repair shop east of Montle’s. On the other side of Montle’s was the post office. The Hurricane of ‘38 washed the building into the middle of the road. After that, for a while, the post office was moved to the Triangle, where Alice Hammond was the Postmaster for many years.
The Triangle, or Green, at the Head has changed in appearance over the years. Ann Sherman Duffany, who grew up in the area, recalls a time when the patch of ground was surrounded by a metal fence. Others remember the lawn decorated by rose bushes and flowering trees, and a water pump and horse trough facing Old County Road. There used to be two large cannons guarding the north corners of the Triangle. The cannon were sacrificed to the scrap metal drives of World War II. The historic Powder House which stands on the spot today was built around l812 and was used by the Home Guard to store ammunition. For many years the Powder House stood in a grassy field behind the Head garage, where it contained the equipment used by the town Sealer of Weights and Measures. In l965, the Westport Historical Society moved the building to its current location. Just to the east, on the town landing next to the river, was a structure that saw many uses over the years. Built around l840 as a temperance society meeting place, the building was later used as a community center called Riverside Hall. In the l930s, Arthur Reed bought the hall and turned it into a restaurant he called The Landing. Later still, the building was moved to its current location at the northwest corner of the bridge next to the Westport River where it’s occupied as a private home today. In the l950s, people remember a wooden walkway with rails on the north side of the bridge which was used by pedestrians to get across the river. The walkway disappeared when the new bridge was constructed in l966.
Schools have always played an important part of life at the Head. In the l9th century there were two small schools in the area, the Bell School and the Little School, serving children on each side of the river. The Greek revival-style Bell School on the west side, was built in the l840s and originally was called the Sandy Hill Academy District 14. By the early l900s the Bell School had ceased to be a school, and had been reborn as Alumni Hall with a library on the second floor and a community center on the first. In the mid-l970s, the building became the headquarters of the Westport Historical Society. The Little School, east of the river on Wolf Pit Hill, was built around 1833 on property donated by Nicholas Little. The tiny one-room schoolhouse is the oldest standing school in town and can still be seen on Old County Road just east of Calvin Hopkinson’s house. Over the years, the building has been used as a library, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) Center in the l930s, and a site where ration stamps were distributed during World War II. In l9ll, the structure became the property of the well known Head resident, Wally King. Still a third school at the Head was the High School on Reed Road, which in recent times has served as the Westport School Department Administration building and as a day care center.
The Head has always been associated with fairs, fireworks, and festivals. The first really big bash of this century occurred in l908 when the Head threw a party for itself called Old Home Week. Large crowds assembled on the grassy landing beside the river for the purpose of welcoming back former residents of the Head. Dr. Edward Burt was chairman of the committee that organized and ran the week’s activities. The festivities, which are described in detail in a booklet available at the Westport Library entitled "Old Home Week at the Head," included speeches, sermons, parades, fireworks, concerts, and sporting events. Organizers of more recent town gatherings might be chagrined to learn the entire Old Home Week in l908 cost $64, most of which went for the fireworks display. The Week went over so well that the organizers decided to make it, or at least something like it, a regular, annual affair. Beginning in September, l9ll, and continuing into the l930s, the Westport Fair and Cattle Show was held at the Head, first on the landing on the west bank of the river, and later at the fair grounds on the east side. In the early years, because Edward Burt was such a key player, the activities were referred to as Dr. Burt’s Fair. Every September, for four days, area farmers and their wives and families, gathered at the Head, with everybody entering something in the numerous contests, such as the largest egg, prettiest pig, tastiest pie, fattest pumpkin, or most gorgeous quilt There were horse and cattle exhibitions, antique displays, and flower shows. A very popular event was the horse and oxen pulling competitions, in which farmers vied with each other to see whose animals could pull a sled loaded down with the heaviest stones. And then there was the tug of war across the river with one team on one bank and the opposing team on the other. The losers got dunked. According to some farmers, whose memories might be biased, every year the farmers took on the fire and policemen and the farmers always won. One local legend was a strongman named John Vincent, a Hercules who always served as the "anchor" on the farmers’ team. In a display of strength, John would pull across the river against four or five men - and never got wet. The Farmers’ Fair lasted into the l930s when it came to an end. Some say the fair just kind of petered out; others remember an injury to someone that hastened the fair’s demise.
For much of the mid part of the 20th century, the Westport firemen organized a big Fourth of July parade every year that ended at the fairgrounds at the Head. The firemen’s Fourth of July parade was always well attended by people of all ages lining the route along Main Road and down the big hill to the Head. The parade included marching bands and decorated floats, uniformed drum and bugle corpsmen representing the armed services, antique cars and jittery horses, firetrucks blaring their earsplitting sirens, and hard candy tossed out the windows of the passing vehicles to the scrambling kids on the side of the road. After the parade, there was always a big fireworks show at the Head. (Some people may recall in the early l980s, the fireworks were set off at Horseneck Beach with the townspeople scattered on blankets on the sand throughout the dunes.) Sometime around the mid-l970s or so, the Westport Lions Club took over the job of organizing the Fourth of July parade from the firemen. The Lions have been running the show ever since.
In the l950s, the Westport Farmer’s Fair was resurrected. Under the leadership of High School agricultural instructor Thomas McGarr and Principal Harold Wood, and supported by numerous area farmers, the new Westport Agricultural Fair was born in the summer of l955. Originally staged in the fields and parking lots around the High School, the Fair moved to its current location on Pine Hill Road in the mid-l980s. The new Westport Farm Fair carries on many of the old traditions of the original, early twentieth century Fair, with its farm animal tent and agricultural exhibits, and its setting as a meeting place where people get together to be reunited with old friends they haven’t seen all year. Horses and oxen hauling stones have been replaced with tractor pulls, with fair-goers crowding the bleachers, eating sugary fried-dough, watching the fire shoot skyward from the straining machines, with little kids covering their ears from the roar of the engines and everybody jumping to their feet to see if the tractor will pull the sled the whole distance. The Saturday night chicken barbecue, prepared under the watchful eye of Ronnie Potter and his assistants, is always a big hit and never fails to fill the tent with hungry people. One memorable part of the Fair for my family is the cake auction on Saturday night when my father-in-law George Medeiros, a Westport dairy farmer and one of the original organizers of the Fair, steps into a bulldozer bucket and is raised high into the air where he auctions off cakes and brownies and raisin squares to the highest bidder. Some of the items sell for hundreds of dollars, with all the proceeds going to help the Fair. The Fair is the culmination of a year-long effort supported by many hands. Some of the families who always help are the Potters, Medeiroses, Tripps, Azevedos, Costas, Butlers, Hopkinsons, Sampsons, Woods, Fagundez, Souzas, and Oliveiras.
In recent years the landing at the Head has been used as the location of a summer festival called River Day. People come together to celebrate the beauty and productivity of the Westport River. The day is a pleasant combination of educational exhibits, sunshine, music, food, and fun, with something for everybody, from canoe rides on the river to the life cycle of compost pile worms. River Day is sponsored by the Westport River Watershed Alliance (WRWA), the largest and most active environmental group in town. Formed in the mid-l970s, the WRWA is similar in philosophy to another environmental coalition, the Westport River Defense Fund, that came together briefly in the ‘70s in reaction to a plan to construct sewage lagoons near the river. By the l990s, the WRWA had become an influential force in towns, with activities that include the publication of a monthly newsletter, testing for pollution on the river, advocating on behalf of open space, and generally promoting a message of environmental protection and concern.
Much of River Day takes place beneath the steeple of the Bell School, the building that serves as the headquarters and meeting place for the Westport Historical Society. The Historical Society was organized in the mid-l960s for the purpose of collecting and preserving important Westport historical artifacts and documents. At the Society’s first meeting in June, l965, Louis A. King was elected President, and Mildred E. Porter, Vice President. One of the group’s earliest projects was to salvage the nineteenth century Powder House and move it to its current location on the Triangle. Today the Historical Society has hundreds of members, and sponsors a year-round program of exhibits and presentations. Since l973, the Society’s President has been Lincoln Tripp, a lifelong resident of the Head, a teacher, and a tireless collector. Lincoln’s lectures on postcards and ephemera, and his walking tours of the Head, attract large audiences drawn by his well deserved reputation for knowledge and wit.
In the first half of the 20th century, no couple was more well known at the Head than Dr. Edward Burt and his wife Roby. Dr. Burt was born in Providence in l876 and came to Westport around 1900. Before Dr. Burt, Dr. John B. Parris practiced at the Head. In addition to his medical degree, Dr. Parris was a minister at the Head Congregational Church. It is said of Dr. Parris that he nurtured the physical and spiritual needs of his neighbors from beginning to end; he delivered them into the world, took care of their belly aches when they were kids, taught them at Sunday school, married them, cared for their babies, held their hands in their old age, and spoke words over them at their funerals. Dr. Parris died in l909. Dr. Burt and Roby lived atop Wolf Pit Hill in the big house at 576 Old County Road. Burt was an orthopedic surgeon who practiced mostly out of St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford. He served on the Westport Board of Health approximately 30 years, including being chairman of that Board from 1928 to 1947. But Edward Burt was more than just a physician. He was an eminently civic minded man. He organized and ran the Old Home Week at the Head in l908, and later the town’s agricultural fair. He was a librarian and playwright who wrote and directed plays produced at the Bell School. In l9l4, he was the Chairman of the town Progressive Party, and in l9l9, he was the first Commander of the James Morris Legion Post. He died in l95l. His wife Roby outlived him by almost 30 years. Roby Cushman was a registered nurse who came to Westport in l912 to take care of the victims of a typhoid fever epidemic. She met Edward and they were married on Christmas day in l912. In l925, Roby Burt was elected to be one of the town’s Overseers of the Poor, the first time a woman was voted onto an important board other than the School Committee. Altogether Roby served approximately 25 years on various town boards serving the elderly and the poor. She died in l979 at age 92.
Other well known residents of the Head were David W. Allen and the Hopkinson family. David Allen is remembered as a friendly man who delivered mail in and around Westport and Dartmouth for 40 years from 1920 to 1960. He preferred Chevrolet automobiles to make his daily postal rounds and claimed to have logged over 500,000 miles on one favorite l936 Chevy. David Allen died of a heart attack while driving a vehicle in the l961 Fourth of July parade. In the l930s, the pre-Revolutionary War Coggeshall House on Reed Road was owned by Westport Chief of Police Norman B. Hopkinson. Hopkinson served almost 40 years as a police officer in Westport, and was for many a living symbol of law-and-order in town. At one time, it is reported, Hopkinson ran the police station out of his house and wrongdoers were locked up in his basement. Norman’s grandson, Calvin "Hoppy" Hopkinson, is well known around town today for his work with the Westport Conservation Commission, and his job every year as the starter/flag man for the tractor pulls at the Westport Fair.
Hoppy Hopkinson lives in the same house on Old County Road where years ago his father-in-law Walter "Wally" King used to live. By the time Wally King died at age l0l in l976, he had, in addition to holding the town’s honorary oldest- resident Gold Headed Cane, lived a varied and interesting life. In his younger years King was a farmer, ran a poultry business, and was a milk delivery truck operator. For 40 years he was Westport’s Sealer of Weights and Measures. More than anything King is remembered for managing a very popular clam bake pavilion at the fairgrounds at the Head. From around l930 to l960, the place to be for many Westporters on summer weekends was King’s Clambakes, where the food and drink were plentiful, and there was always more than enough good fellowship to go around.
The Pacific Union Congregational Church at the Head was built in l855. The steeple and bell tower - which when flooded with light on dark winter nights presents such an eye-catching sight to drivers descending the hill into the Head - the steeple and bell tower were added in l870s. The church was built on land donated by Stephen Howland, and the first pastor was the Reverend Isaac Dunham. In the l930s and l940s, there was a women’s group that met at the church called Wimodausis, a name that combines the terms wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. The women of Wimodausis got together for sewing bees, socials, and pot-luck suppers. Not far from the Pacific Union Congregational Church, near where the big gravel pit is today, in the nineteenth century, stood the First Christian Church. The First Christian was one of several Christian Churches scattered around Westport, many of which have already been described in this essay. By l900, the First Christian had failed to attract new parishioners, and had faded away.
Potter’s Funeral Home, one of Westport’s most long-standing businesses, was founded in l892 by Harry L. Potter, with a partner, Jonathan Hix, on Old County Road. Mr. Hix soon dropped out of the picture, and Potter’s moved to its current location on Reed Road in the late l930s. Since its inception, four generations of Potters have run the place, including the third generation Donald L. and Jonathan H. In the early part of this century, burial customs were much different than what we know today. The dead were "waked out" in private homes, usually in the parlor, and guests arrived in horse and buggy to pay their respects to the dearly departed under candlelight. Burials often occurred on the homestead in private family plots. In the l930s, things started to change. Viewings and calling hours were shifted to funeral parlors, and most people were buried in large cemeteries.
And finally, a sad tale of murder and suicide at the Head. On a hot, summer evening in July, l909, Robert M. Fanning murdered his wife Albertina by crushing her skull with an ax. The Fannings lived with Tina’s father, Captain George W. Hall, a salty, old "coaster," at l27 Drift Road, on the spot at the Head where Westport’s first English settler, Richard Sisson, built his house in the seventeenth century. On that terrible night, Robert Fanning killed Tina - some say in a drunken rage - and left her body among the reeds and rushes beside Lyons Brook. Robert then drove to the New Bedford central police station, walked up to the front desk, handed the officer in charge a written confession describing his tragic deed, and then, before anyone could stop him, placed a .38 caliber pistol in this mouth, pulled the trigger, and killed himself. The police raced to Westport where they found Albertina’s lifeless body exactly where Robert’s note had said they would.
North Westport has always been an interesting mix of farm land, residential development, and commercial use. The area’s proximity to Fall River and New Bedford, and to the transportation links between these two cities, has had a profound impact upon the evolution of this part of town.
A good place to begin to describe North Westport is at the Narrows, the strip of land between Fall River and Westport around where White’s Family Restaurant is today. This area has a unique history completely different from any other village in town. Before Route l95 came through in the early l960s, the Narrows was a vibrant mosaic of nightclubs and seaplanes and fishflys and showgirls and rowing on the South Watuppa and ice skating under the stars.
Much of the Narrows’ story goes back to the l870s when the Old Colony Railroad laid down tracks across the north end of the South Watuppa Pond, and created a protected lagoon that came to be known as the Middle Pond (middle in the sense that it was between the North and South Watuppas). Around the Middle Pond a flurry of activity commenced immediately. Two boathouses were built; Robillard’s on the Fall River side and Napert’s toward Westport. These boathouses were extremely popular, for boating and fishing in the summer, and ice skating in the winter. Numerous Westporters have happy memories of renting a boat at the Narrows and rowing under the railroad trestle and out onto the South Watuppa Pond, or ice skating, to music, with friends, all day and into the night. Not far from the boathouses, a man named Red Desmarais ran a sea plane operation where he taught young pilots to fly, and where he took anyone brave enough to climb into his plane on aerial excursions high above the Watuppas. People remember in the spring at the Narrows there was an explosion of fish flies. These insects would suddenly hatch by the millions and cover everything. The bugs would crunch underfoot and had to be shoveled off the sidewalks like snow. Thomas Borden ran a county store and grain supply business on the Westport side of the Narrows, and nearby there were big ice houses operated by the Lassondes and the Ouellettes. The ice was harvested in January, stacked into grand mountains inside the wooden ice houses, and distributed to area homes and businesses throughout the rest of the year. And then there were the clubs; Ruth’s, the Lamplighter, Lou Martin’s Martinique, White’s Family Restaurant. The nightlife at the Narrows was second to none, with large crowds drawn to the area by the Narrows’ reputation for good food and drink, and first class entertainment. In its heyday in the l940s and l950s, the Narrows was a haven for singers and comedians and exotic dancers. There were Howard Johnson’s Restaurants on both sides of the Narrows, and from around l950 to l980, the Westport Drive-In Theater provided inexpensive family fun at a couple of bucks a carload. Businesses prospered at the Narrows; the Kerr Mill Discount Center, Sterling Beverage, Chace Grain, Carnival Drive-In, and then overnight with the arrival of the highway, everything changed. The Middle Pond was filled in to make way for Route l95. By the late l960s, it was all gone; the boat houses, the ice skating, the nightclubs, the fish flies. Young people drive through the Narrows today without a clue. All they see is a six lane highway. Older folks in the area remember how the Narrows used to be.
One of Westport’s most prominent families are the Bordens who live atop a hill on Sanford Road overlooking the south Watuppa Pond. The Borden clan first came to Westport in the l630s, and since then nine generations of Bordens have called North Westport their home. Around the turn of the century, Christopher "Kit" Borden, and his wife Alice, occupied the Sanford Road homestead. Kit worked mostly as a farmer, with sidelines cutting wood and pressing apples. Christopher and Alice’s daughter, Mildred, is today Westport’s oldest citizen, having recently sailed past the great chronological landmark of l00 years. Mildred spent much of her life as a teacher. Along with her younger sibling, Vivian Borden Brightman, age 95, the two Borden sisters, both of whom are fit and lively, are considered by all who known them as town treasures.
Transportation linkages, especially between Fall River and New Bedford, were always a part of everyday life for the people of North Westport. Important east-west thoroughfares, like the ancient Old Bedford Road, State Road (Route 6), and finally Route l95, cut straight across the area, bringing change and diversity, commercial development, and residential growth. If you want to understand a place, start by studying its roads. The railroad also helped shape the destiny of North Westport. In l875, the steam-powered Watuppa Line was opened between Fall River and New Bedford. The "Farmers Railroad," as it was sometimes referred to, had four stops in North Westport; the Westport Factory on Highland Avenue, the Hixville Station on Reed Road, the Hemlock Gutter Station on Davis Road, and the North Westport or Juniper Station on Sanford Road. All the stations were located on the south side of the track, and the line was a single track railway which could accommodate only one steam train at a time moving in one direction. Passenger train service through North Westport was pretty much rendered obsolete by the arrival of the electric trolley in l890s. Trolleys ran down the center of Route 6 for the next 40 years. By l920s, the trolleys were being nudged toward the scrap heap by more flexible cars and buses. The last trolley rolled across North Westport in l933.
Traveling east along Route 6, we encounter a number of enterprises worthy of note. The Westport Housing Authority’s Greenwood Terrace, was built in the early l970s. Early movers and shakers who were influential in getting the state aided project off the ground included Al Dyson, Tony Gracia, Mary Medeiros, Newell Robb, and Cliff Brightman. The land upon which Greenwood Terrace is built was originally owned by the Rodericks family, who also developed Zulmira’s Plaza. Today the Housing Authority manages 48 units for the elderly and handicapped, and there’s usually a waiting list to get in. Executive Directors have included Jerry Coutinho and James Coyne.
Al Dyson, who lived in the North End off Route 6, was many things, but fundamentally he was a union man, a friend of organized labor. Starting out from humble beginnings as a weaver in a cotton mill in Fall River, Al rose throught the ranks of the local Textile Workers Union of America, and at one point in time served as an Assistant Commissioner for Labor in Massachusetts under Governor Michael Dukakis. Active in local affairs, Dyson was a four term member of the School Committee in the l950s, a three term Selectman in the l960s, and, as has been already mentioned, an active force in the early development of Greenwood Terrace. Socially, Al and his wife Emma were a very popular couple in town. They celebrated their 50 wedding anniversary in l985 They both passed away in l988.
The W.A. and R. Ouellette VFW Post 8502 on State Road was built in l946 as a memorial to three members of the Ouellette family who sacrificed their lives for their country during World War II. Wilfred Ouellette was a sailor who was killed while serving aboard the Navy Destroyer USS Monsen in l942. His brother, Arthur Ouellette, was in the U.S. Army Artillery Corps and died in Germany in l944. And finally, Raymond Ouellette, a cousin to the two brothers, Arthur and Wilfred, was in the Army’s elite l0lst Airborne Division and gave his life in the European theater. Three boys from one family. That’s a lot to give.
On the subject of veterans, people should know that every year, in preparation for Memorial Day, Town Veteran’s Agent Ron Costa places flags upon the graves of over 900 servicemen buried in 45 cemeteries scattered throughout Westport. Ron says Westport has veterans from every one of our nation’s wars, with the oldest graves going back to the American Revolution.
North Westport was always the location of much of the area’s best nightlife and entertainment. As already has been mentioned, the clubs at the Narrows afforded more than ample opportunity for anyone looking for action and fun. A short distance east on Route 6 could be found what many still consider Westport’s premier nightspot, the Hiway Casino. The origins of the place go back to the l930s, to a dining, dancing, and gambling establishment called the Cedars. The Cedars drew sports from far and wide, with big boards on the walls upon which were posted the latest thoroughbred horse racing results from tracks as far away as Hialiah Park in Florida, and Santa Anita Park in California. A great time could definitely be had at the Cedars, as long as you didn’t get swept up in one of the periodic police raids for which the place was known. Mac Andrade, the legendary nightclub owner and manager from nearby Fall River, acquired the Cedars and renamed it the Hiway Casino. This was around the time of the Second World War and the heyday of nightclubs was about to begin. The Hiway Casino packed in the largest crowds to see the biggest name acts. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Totie Fields, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickels, Sam Vine. And then there were the "exotic dancers": Sally Keith, Jean Adair, Sally Rand, and many more. Ownership of the Casino changed hands many times. Sam Mark probably brought the club to its greatest heights. Sam and his brother Sharky were well known sporting event promoters in the area. Sam sold the Hiway Casino to Roland Chouinard, who established a furniture store and a nursery on the spot. Today, Roland’s son, Pete, runs Pete’s Nursery in the building.
Not too far from the Hiway Casino, on the same side of Route 6, was an extremely popular business, Macray’s Clam Shack. For 35 years, starting in l957, Macray’s earned a well deserved reputation for serving the tastiest fried clams to be had anywhere in southeastern Massachusetts. The founders of the little eatery were Tom "Mac" McGreevy and Ray Therien. They combined their first names to come up with Macray’s. Ray only stayed a few years, and was replaced by Eddie Haskell, who remained as a partner with Mac McGreevy until the clamshack closed in l992. Macray’s was opened on weekends throughout the summer, and did a large part of its business with families visiting nearby Lincoln Park. Like every other successful enterprise, Macray’s found just the right formula ands stuck with it; the fried clams, French fries, and clam cakes were delicious, the prices were reasonable, and the atmosphere was informal, with crowds sitting in their cars in the parking lot enjoying their dinners.
Further east on Route 6, where Westport and Dartmouth meet, stood the venerable Westport Factory. The business was organized in l812 as the Westport Cotton Manufacturing Company. The factory’s first wooden building burned down in l826 and was replaced in l828 by the granite structure most Westporters remember today. The granite used in the building came from the nearby quarry called the Ledge where recently so many drownings have occurred. By the l850s, the Westport Factory was booming, turning cotton waste from Fall River’s cotton mills into a whole array of useful products, such as twine, mop yarn, candle wicks, etc. Many owners ran the business over the years, with the most prominent families being the Lewises and the Traffords. The Upper Mill, on Route 6, originally drew its power from Lake Noquochoke, and the dam and mill pond still exist today. The Lower Mill, on Forge Road, which later became Hoyt’s Manufacturing, was added to the operation in l872. For almost 75 years, the Westport Factory was the single largest business in town, employing hundreds of people, many of whom lived in the village surrounding the plant with its country store and little factory houses. The local textile industry went into a nosedive in the l920s, and by l937 the Westport Factory had closed its doors. For decades the building stood empty, growing increasingly decrepit, until it was finally demolished in the early l980s. The Lower Mill on Forge Road fared better. Around l950, a gentleman named Harry Hoyt established a business, Hoyt’s Manufacturing, that is still with us today. The company produces and sells commercial laundry and dry cleaning equipment, as well as pollution control and chemical recovery systems.
Moving back toward the Narrows, on Old Bedford Road, we encounter the North Westport Grange, known as the Watuppa Grange No. 365. Organized in l921, a few decades later than its Central Village counterpart, the Watuppa Grange’s first Master was William Young. Charter members included Eldridge Wordell, Macie Borden, Ida Sampson, Vivian Brightman, and Mildred Borden. Mrs. Evelyn Bedard served as the pianist at the Watuppa Grange for many years. Throughout the entire mid-part of the twentieth century, before television and fast food restaurants and all the other seductive distractions of modern life, the Grange was the center of social activity for the village of North Westport, sponsoring musical entertainments, whist parties, lectures, dinners, and the ever popular Thursday evening dances during World War II. The Grange is gradually fading now, but it wasn’t that long ago that it was young and vibrant and full of life.
Not far from the Grange, at the intersection of Blossom and Old Bedford Roads, is one of Westport’s most well known agricultural plots, Sampson’s Potato Farm. Like the other big potato farms in town, Boan’s and Smith’s in South Westport, the Sampson’s family roots on the land go back to the latter years of the l9th century. By the early 20th century, Alice Sampson was the driving force behind the place, which, at the time, raised cattle, vegetables, and horses. By around l920, Sampson’s began growing potatoes, and for all the years that have followed, under the able hands of Henry and Wordell Sampson and their offspring, the farm has prospered.
The area around Sanford Road has numerous interesting individuals and places. The James Morris American Legion Post No. 145 was established in l934 when the town donated a former schoolhouse to the Legion for use as a home. The Post had been organized in l9l9, with Dr. Edward Burt as the first Commander, to honor the memory of James Morris, the first Westporter killed in the First World War. Driving along Sanford Road, you notice a number of streets named by letters: B Drive, O Drive, R Drive, etc. These streets were named after J. Douglas Borden, a well known Westporter who developed the area. Dougie Borden was a policeman, a car salesman, a real estate developer. He was also an influential figure in town politics for many years, serving long terms as Selectman and Assessor. He passed away in l978. Russell Davis, from Sanford Road, is considered by many Westporters today as one of the last of our old time farmers. In his eighties now, Mr. Davis is still healthy, and regularly attends town meetings. Over the years he has grown a variety of products on his piece of land, including Macomber turnips. Russell is remembered for his service on the Rationing Board during World War II, and for his unusual nickname, "Nightcrawler," for the late night hours he sometimes likes to keep. Butler’s Colonial Donut House - which makes the best donuts in the world, period - was started by Bill and Jeanette Butler in l955 to cater to the traffic heading out of Fall River to Horseneck Beach along Sanford Road. In l979, the business was sold to Alex and Chris Kogler. Alex is a former hockey player who worked with the New York Ranger farm team system. Butler’s is open on Friday, Saturdays, and Sundays, and everything they sell is homemade, including the to-die-for real cream filled donuts. Grundy’s Lumber and Hardware store on Route l77 was founded by Albert Grundy in l946. The family owned and operated business has been at the same spot ever since. In l979, Albert’s brother, Walter, and his son, Walter Jr., took over the operation.
And finally, a little south on Sodom Road, is the Holy Ghost Club. The Club is a continuation of long-standing Portuguese and Azorean traditions, brought to America by immigrants early in this century. In Westport, the Holy Ghost Club, was originated on Drift Road in l920. In l933, Manuel Martin, whose family today operates Martin’s Cheese, donated the land on Sodom Road to the Club. Early members included the Martins, Medeiroses, Costas, Santos, Vierias, Corrieras, and Azevedos. The men cleared the land, and built the pavilion and chapel. Today the Club’s big annual event is the Holy Ghost Feast held in early summer. The weekend celebration includes a cacoila supper on Saturday night followed by music and dancing, and a busy Sunday, including a parade, a mass, an auction, and a free dinner of Portuguese soup and roast meat. At the center of the Feast is a golden crown, which is displayed in seven houses for seven weeks prior to the Feast, and which is placed on the head of an honored little boy or little girl at the mass on Feast Sunday.
Westport’s long sandy beaches have always been irresistibly attractive to people from outside of town. Beginning in the l870s, summer colonies started to develop along Horseneck Beach, reaching a heyday in the l930s. By the l950s, interest in our shorelines had grown so intense that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts seized most of Horseneck Beach outright and claimed it as state property. Route 88 was constructed as an access road, and ever since, tens of thousands of visitors travel to Westport every summer to enjoy our sun, surf, and sand.
The taking of Horseneck Beach by the state in l955 is probably the single most important development at our beaches in this century. Another major occurrence was the calamitous Hurricane of l938 which transformed Horseneck Beach, sweeping it clean in a few short but extremely violent hours. Prior to l938, large, vibrant communities stood upon the sand all along Westport’s southern shore. At East Beach alone, from Horseneck Road to Reed Road, there were approximately 120 structures, including numerous summer residences ranging in size from palatial mansions to little shacks. There were hotels and restaurants, an A & P Supermarket, dance halls, a skating rink, a bowling alley, a Catholic church (St. Rose of Lima’s). There was Plante’s Pavilion and the Midway Pavilion. (The summer colony at Horseneck Beach is described in great detail in Joan Lother’s essay, "Footprints in the Sand," available at the library.) The hurricane of the century slammed into Westport on September 21, l938. 23 Westporters died and almost everything at the beach was completely and utterly destroyed. (The Hurricane of ‘38 has been exhaustively written about in books such as Everett Allen’s "A Wind to Shake the World," and in essays by local writers such as Richard K. Hawes’ "Westport’s Deadliest Storm".) Needless to say, the Hurricane of l938 changed everything, and nothing at out beaches has ever been the same.
For most of its existence in the last couple of hundred years, Gooseberry Island, or, as old timers refer to it, Gooseberry Neck, was an isolated spit of sand off of Horseneck Beach, a sheltered domain for shore birds, a few duck hunters, and an occasional grazing flock of cattle or sheep. The only way out to the Neck was at low tide across a sand bar that all too quickly disappeared beneath the waves of Buzzards’ Bay. Visitors to the island had to keep a sharp eye on that sand bar at the risk of spending an unexpected night on the island. Things started changing in l924 when a stone causeway was constructed. People started arguing about the causeway immediately, and the fighting has continued uninterrupted ever since. Critics insist that the stones interfere with the natural flow of water and sand along the shore, and that erosion, particularly at East Beach, has dramatically increased since the causeway was put in. Proponents of the causeway argue exactly the opposite is true: that the stones have slowed down the natural, but inevitable, disappearance of East Beach. Each side has its experts and studies, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for the dispute. In the l930s, the United States Army took control of a good chunk of Gooseberry and constructed an Artillery Fire Control base there as part of a nationwide coastal defense system. Although some people believe the deserted towers we see today were used to spot for submarines in WWII, this sub detecting function was secondary to the towers’ principle purpose; calling in artillery fire in the event of an enemy invasion along Horseneck Beach. Huge l6 inch guns at Fort Church at Sakonett Point were aimed to rain deadly steel upon an attacking force at Horseneck, with the shelling directed by the observers in the towers on Gooseberry Island. During the war, the Army put into place an elaborate security system, protecting the towers, barracks, supply sheds, etc. At one time the towers were disguised with wooden facades to resemble beach front homes. After the war, Nicholas Saliveras, and his brother Kostos, owned the island, where they operated a campground and a rough-and-tumble pavilion called Nick the Greeks. Today Gooseberry is controlled by the Commonwealth as part of the Horseneck Beach State Reservation.
Not too far from Gooseberry, to the west, on the Westport River side of the dunes, was Tripp’s Boatyard and the Prelude Lobster Company.
Tripp’s Boatyard was founded by Frederick L. Tripp in the l920s on Main Road about a half mile south of today’s Westport High School. Fred built and repaired wooden boats. In l931, he was hit by a terrible fire that pretty much sent him back to square one. He started to rebuild and in l933 moved the whole show down to Horseneck. Fred and his wife Freda raised six sons, all of whom, at one time or another, worked with the business. Today Tripp’s Boatyard on Cherry and Webb Lane is a major operation in town, employing dozens of people, building and repairing fiberglass boats, and managing Westport’s largest marina.
Another important business on Cherry and Webb Lane was the Prelude Lobster Company. Bill Whipple started the business in the early l960s by pursuing a number of simple but revolutionary ideas. Prior to the Prelude Company, lobstering was done in small boats in shallow water close to shore going after small catches. Using modern technology, Whipple turned everything upside down. He sent big ships in deep water far off shore after huge catches. And it worked. At least for a while it worked. Whipple tapped into an abundant population of lobsters in the great depths of the Continental Shelf that had never been touched before. Beginning in l962 with the 48 foot Prelude I, he soon had four, l00 foot plus vessels hauling in massive amounts of lobster and shipping them all over the country. In the early l970s, the Prelude Company was the center of a lot of attention by getting caught up in an international "Lobster War" with the Soviet Union over damaged gear. At one point in November, l971, a delegation of Soviet negotiators came to Westport and a settlement was eventually reached. By the mid-l970s, Prelude had discontinued its lobstering operations, and had shifted completely to seafood distribution. The Prelude Company in Westport ceased to be. Today the building is occupied by luxury apartments.
Among the sand dunes at the western end of Horseneck Beach, where the Cherry and Webb Conservation Area is today, lived one of Westport’s most famous summer residents, Louis McHenry Howe. Howe was a confidant and advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, especially when F.D.R. was the Governor of New York in the l920s. Louie Howe was a newspaper reporter who became close to Roosevelt while covering the New York state political scene. Howe’s wife, Grace Howe, was a Fall River native who eventually became the Spindle City’s first woman Postmaster. The couple started summering in Westport around l9l0. F.D.R would sometimes visit Horseneck to be with his friend. Hartley Howe, Louis’ son, remembers F.D.R being driven in a car along the beach at low tide. Carl Manchester tells a wonderful story in "Pa and I" about transporting Roosevelt to the Howe cottage in a horse drawn cart. The Howe family owned Ship Rock in the Westport River, and Louis is remembered for having built a wooden staircase up to the top, and for fishing from a platform at the base of the rock. Mr. Howe died in l936, and his cottage among the dunes was destroyed by the Hurricane of l938.
The Cherry and Webb Conservation Area was donated to the town in l964. The name refers to two previous owners of the property Oliver Cherry and Frederick Webb, of Cherry and Webb Department Store fame. In recent time, the unofficial guardian and caretaker of the preserve of sand dunes and marshes and beach plums and cranberries has been a man named Benjamin Guy. Ben Guy protects the dunes with loving care, advocating on their behalf, leading volunteers on clean up drives to collect trash and glass, and conducting walking tours to educate people about the importance of preserving wild places. When the sand dunes were blowing away in the l980s, Ben was a major player in an effort that resulted in tens of thousands of sprigs of beach grass being planted over seven acres of sand. The beach grass took like crazy and today is doing the job of beautifying and stabilizing the dunes. So many people give of their time selflessly to make Westport a better place. Ben Guy is one of them.
One of Westport’s most controversial crimes occurred at Horseneck. In l96l, John Baker shot and killed John Straker at Baker’s Beach. The tragedy commenced when a 43 foot sloop, the Dora, ran aground onto Baker’s Beach in heavy fog. A number of individuals, including John Baker, began exploring the possibility of salvaging the abandoned vessel. On the afternoon of June l0, l96l, a party of four men, including Herbert J. Straker, who was called John, went to Baker’s Beach to take a look at the Dora. When the men arrived at the gate they were confronted by John Baker, the proprietor, and ordered to leave. The men ignored Baker’s protests and proceeded toward the Dora. Baker went to a shed, got a .32 caliber pistol, again insisted the men leave his property, and fired a warning shot into the sand to make his point. John Straker left his comrades and went face to face with Baker. A heated argument ensued and harsh words were exchanged. Straker punched Baker in the face and sent his eyeglasses sailing. At which John Baker pumped two bullets at point blank range into John Straker’s chest, killing him instantly. Baker was picked up by the police and charged with murder. At his trial the following year- he was defended by, among others, Attorney Richard Paull - Baker claimed he had acted in self defense. The jury disagreed. He was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Subsequently, on appeal, the charge was reduced to manslaughter, and the sentence to two and a half years. Baker was paroled in l963, having served 14 months behind bars. He was eventually granted a pardon in l970. There were sharply divergent opinions around town regarding the entire Baker/Straker affair. Some people believe to this day John Baker got away with murder. Others feel, given the circumstances, his manslaughter conviction and 14 months jail time were reasonable and just.
The last topic in the beaches section of this essay will be Westport’s rum running days. From l9l9 to l933, the federal Volstead Act prohibited the production, sale, or distribution of alcoholic beverages in the United States. According to many old timers who remember Prohibition, the Volstead Act enjoyed very little support in town. The law was widely perceived as a misguided idea forced upon the country by an over-zealous band of teetotaling activists. In reaction to the unpopular statute, a flourishing rum running trade quickly developed all along the coast, with Westport right in the thick of it. By all accounts, many Westporters got involved. When former Westport rum runner Fred Healy was asked how many of his fellow townspeople took part, Healy laughed and answered, "One hundred and five percent." When it comes to rum running, overstatements abound. Probably a more accurate assessment is that there was a small percentage of Westporters, mostly young men, who actively and directly participated in the illegal trade, while many more townspeople simply looked the other way. People tell stories of opening their front doors in the morning and finding a bottle of whiskey on the porch, a gesture of appreciation for minding their own business. Or there’s the old woman who grew up in a home on Main Road at the Point who remembers some evenings her father would pull down all the shades on the windows facing the road and instruct the children not to look outside. More than one senior citizen today recalls cases and sacks of liquor being unloaded off boats in broad daylight. No part of town was unaffected; there was activity at the Point, the Harbor, all along Horseneck Beach, and up and down the river. The most active players were fishermen and farmers. The fishermen hired out their boats for handsome sums to transport the hootch from the supply ship to the shore. Then the farmers took over, carrying the bottles overland in their trucks, and hiding them in their barns and sheds. And then there were the moonshine stills scattered throughout the woods all over Westport, tended by individual families mostly to provide for their own "hard stuff."
The way rum running was conducted out of Westport changed over time. At the
start of Prohibition, in the early l920s, boats left Westport Harbor and
traveled hundreds of miles north to Canada where they’d load up with whiskey and
then turn around and head home, hoping to avoid detection. As the United States
Coast Guard became more efficient at interceding and seizing boats, the whole
process of rum running was modified. From around the mid-l920s on, large mother
ships would take on tens of thousands of cases of hootch in Canada, and then
travel south along the coast, distributing their cargo as they went. The mother
ships would anchor about 25 to 40 miles off shore, outside the legal limit, in a
zone that came to be known as Rum Row. The rum runners, usually local fishermen
in modified boats, would motor out to the mother ship, take on as heavy a load
as they could carry, and make a mad dash for shore. The rum runners preferred
moonless nights and concealing fog. Of course, the Coast Guard knew where the
mother ships were anchored, and it was really a game of cat and mouse to see how
many of the small boats the Coast Guard "chasers" could intercept before they
made it to shore. The Coast Guard took its mission very seriously and commonly
opened up with machine gun fire against vessels they were pursuing. It was a
dangerous game, with many rum runner boats sent to the bottom by the fog or
federal bullets. Once the liquor made it ashore the danger wasn’t over. Bands of
hijackers preyed upon the vehicles transporting the bottles inland. One timer
claims there are plenty of trees in town filled with lead from the gun battles
that occurred along
Westport’s dark country roads in the middle of the night. As one gray haired gentleman recalls, "Those rum running days weren’t all fun and games. People got killed."
Two incidents illustrate the kinds of rum running activities that were common in our area. One happened at the Harbor, and the other at the Point. First, the Harbor. On a foggy night in February, 1925, the schooner Marcella went aground on the beach not far from Cockeast Pond just over the Rhode Island line. The Marcella was carrying 600 cases of Scotch whiskey. It had just visited a mother ship anchored off shore and was making for Sakonnet Point. The captain lost his bearings in the fog and ran aground on the beach. This was the middle of the night, in February, yet according to the newspaper accounts, word spread like wildfire that a rum boat was stranded near Cockeast Pond, and within hours, over 70 men were swarming all over the Marcella, stripping it of its valuable cargo. By the time the federal customs agents arrived in the morning, the 600 cases on the Marcella’s manifest had shrunk to 75. The rest went hither and yon. Sometime during the night, Westport Constable Everett Coggeshall got wind of what was going on. He jumped into his vehicle and from a vantage point at the Harbor observed the frantic activity on the beach in nearby Rhode Island. One truck started heading toward Westport. Fred Hall of Central Village must have been a happy fellow that morning, contemplating the windfall that had come his way. As he crossed the line into Massachusetts, events took another unexpected turn. There was Constable Coggeshall blocking the road. Mr. Hall was hauled into the Fall River District Court and charged with keeping and transporting 30 cases of Canadian White Horse Scotch whiskey.
Probably the most notorious Westport rum running incident occurred in early April, 1932, when the boat Yvette June was chased up the Westport River by the Coast Guard and run aground. The Yvette June was first spotted by the Coast Guard around 3 a.m. off Horseneck Beach. Ordered to halt, the boat disregarded the command and made a beeline for the Westport River. The Coast Guard cutter followed in hot pursuit and opened up an earsplitting fusillade of machine gun fire. Old man Al Lees, Sr. remembered the night well. Mr. Lees was asleep in his bed above his store at the Point. He said he was awakened by the loud crack of gunfire and when he went to his window he saw colored tracer bullets streaking across the night sky. The skipper of the Yvette June purposefully ran his ship aground not far from the Westport Point Bridge to allow his crew to escape. No sooner had the keel scraped the sand when 20 men scampered off. This wasn’t the first time the 60 foot Yvette June had had a run-in with the feds. A few mouths earlier the ship had been fired upon by the Coast Guard in Rhode Island and sunk. She was raised and quickly put back into service by the rum runners. The morning after the chase, Westport Point was swarming with local police, Coast Guard officials, and Federal Custom Agents. William J. Fitzgerald, the chief Customs Agent out of New Bedford took charge of the investigation. Fitzgerald is remembered as an implacable enemy of the southern New England rum running trade, a zealous enforcer of the law, a sort of local Elliot Ness. A search of the bullet riddled Yvette June uncovered l,800 cases of champagne, whiskey, and ale. The search also turned up something else; in the hold of the ship, hidden under a pile of sacks, the agents discovered Mr. Arthur Cornell. Art Cornell was a horse trader and peddler who lived at Westport Point. Somehow when the others jumped ship, Art had been left behind. He was the only member of the Yvette June’s crew who was ever charged.
Just a couple more topics that didn’t fit neatly into any particular village, but are worth noting.
The first Westports of the World Convention was held in Westport, Ireland in l985. The idea of gathering together people from all over who lived in towns named Westport was the brainchild of a man named Robert E. Regan from Westport, Kansas. At last count there are 23 known Westports scattered around the globe; l7 in the United States, three in Canada, and one each in England, Ireland, and New Zealand. After the first celebration in Ireland, the second was in New York, the third in New Zealand, and the fourth, in l989, in Westport, Massachusetts. When the festivities were here, altogether about fifty people came, from three foreign countries, and five states. The group went to a clambake, had dinner at White’s, visited Newport, New Bedford, and Fall River, and marched in our Fourth of July parade.
A number of Westport newspapers have served the town over the years. In the l970s, first we had Poor Bill’s Almanac published by William Stovall and William Ferguson, and later the Westport News published by George Akerson. More recently we’ve had the Chronicle and Shorelines.
In l976, a big controversy erupted in town over the banning of four books by the School Committee. The novels removed from the English department’s reading list were Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, The Sting, and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. After a noisy hue and cry went up, including a protest by the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, the books were put back on the schools’ library shelves, where they were available to students, whose interest and curiosity about the books had been mightily aroused by all the fuss.
And finally, the Westport Harvest Festival, where the book you are holding in your hands will first go on sale on October l4, l995. The idea for a Westport Harvest Festival initially came to Jerry Coutinho in the mid-l980s when he was traveling in California and stumbled upon a pumpkin festival at Half Moon Bay just south of San Francisco. The locals told Jerry the festival had done great things for their town and the idea stuck in Jerry’s head. He started visiting other country fairs in New England, learning as we went. In the early l990s, Jerry started talking up the concept to Bob and Carol Russell of Westport Vineyards. The Russells were enthusiastic and before you know it one thing led to another. The first organizational committee meeting for the Harvest Festival was held in March, l99l. Volunteers from all over town started gathering once a week to pull the whole thing together. In October, l99l, the first Westport Harvest Festival opened its gates to the public. Since then, the festival has become wildly popular, drawing tens of thousands of visitors, who drink apple cider, take a chance on the cow-flop casino, see the giant pumpkins, and generally, spend a bright fall day with friends and neighbors, enjoying Westport, and having a wonderful time.