“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein
From our bungalow on Birch Street in Portsmouth, I exit to the bottom of the hill on Orchard View and turn left on Middle Road by Escobar Farm. Middle Road to the end, right on Union to just before West Main Road, left on Jepson Street to the end at Oliphant Lane and back is exactly ten miles. I hold dear my bike ride at five or six am past nurseries and fields of corn, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and strawberries. From the top of Middle Road, one of the highest points on Aquidneck Island, on a clear morning the West Bay is clearly visible and to the east in glimpses, the Sakonnet River, which runs fourteen miles between Mount Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound.
If I’m running late, the strawberry pickers are starting to gather. On the weekends, the farm owners drag a small wood framed snack stand out to field with a tractor to sell snacks and drinks to the U-Pick-Them crowd. At this point of the summer, the magnolias, dogwoods, apples, cherries, horse chestnuts, azaleas and rhododendrons have past their flowering splendor, but the hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susans, daisies, hostas, Queen Anne’s lace and an occasional tree of heaven are holding their own. Everywhere, in every direction, is quiet and the smells of summer. Most of the farms are arable, but there are a few chickens, ducks and dairy cows. One field near the reservoir on Union, just past the golf course, hosts four beef critters, lazily grazing their way to qualifying for their purpose as steaks and hamburger in the fall or early winter.
Colonial houses dating back to the revolution along with a collection of center chimney capes and newer colonials and ranches are distributed unevenly along the way. There are several small developments of newer homes with farmer’s porches and attached garages with large lots for the most part, many of which back up to planted fields, reservoir or golf course.
Traffic is light, and almost without exception the few cars and pickup trucks slow and swing wide around the frequent bicycle riders. Unlike last year, which for some reason was a bad year for cotton tails, I greet adolescent rabbits a dozen times on my ten -mile ride. Don’t know their names; they remain reticent and watchful. The red-tail hawks look well fed.
“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Susan B. Anthony
At the base of a short hill on Union Street just past the U PICK blueberry farm, a few wicker baskets of haphazard common garden vegetables are often displayed for sale on the honor system with a metal cash box. They sit on a flat spot atop the stone wall in front of a rambling two story white house with several additions and out buildings, some well-considered, others more like orphaned after thoughts; the house is just this side of neglected with a slate roof and washed-out, chalky paint. The yard is losing a long transition from tended gardens to an encroaching wooded glade of mostly maples. Curious, I investigated its history and found it was registered as a National Historic site as “Oak Glen.” Julia Ward Howe died of pneumonia here at 91 in 1910 where she had spent many summers.
As a young girl in New York City, she met Charles Dickens through her father, a prominent Wall Street stock broker and her mother, the poet Julia Rush Cutler. Of a literary bent, privately educated, she published learned essays, biographies, plays and poetry. Her husband in a less than happy marriage was Dr. Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; they raised their children in South Boston. She spent many summers here in Portsmouth and much time in the “Yellow House” in Gardiner, Maine, apparently to get away from her husband. Well known as first an abolitionist, she outraged many with her unflattering descriptions of blacks in her book, “A Trip to Cuba.” While disliking slavery, she did not believe in the equality of races. Apparently “all men are created equal,” although an admirable ideal, did not mean all that it implies. Her most passionate cause was women’s suffrage and equality; I suspect that the landed gentry were a bit more equal than an Irish washerwoman taking in Mrs. Howe’s laundry.
At various times, she was president of both the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and the New England Suffrage Association, which she co-founded. She also founded and served as president for twenty-one years of the Association of American Women, advocating for women’s education. At some point, she eschewed her father’s strict Calvinist faith in favor of the less demanding, and more fashionable among the literati, Universalist creed.
Mrs. Howe was best remembered for her song writing, and was inducted posthumously into the Song Writers Hall of Fame in 1970. After meeting Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a friend suggested she pen new lyrics to the same tune as the abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body” with the line about “moldering in the grave.” Her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” still rouses many a worship service and patriotic gathering. Four thousand people sang it at her memorial service, as it had been sung at all her speaking engagements for many years. In 1870, she unsuccessfully lobbied for the country to celebrate a “Mother’s Day” on June second. Two of her daughters collaborated on telling her story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1916. Like so many who left a legacy, she was imperfect, an admixture of the admirable and the flawed.
Oak Glen still on its original 4.7 acres sits unnoticed by most next to a similarly neglected small historic cemetery on Union Street in Portsmouth like the faded matron of a once elegant family. Oak Glen has become for me a symbol of ephemeral celebrity, but her signature work, the words of which came to her in a dream, remains. We sang it at church on the Fourth of July as it has been sung for over a century.
“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of human life.” H.G. Wells
2 responses to “Morning Dews and Damps”
Wow, so much hidden history in New England. Thanks for taking me back to summers on Aquidneck if for only a minute. ❤️
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Great piece Jack, really enjoyed a glimpse at the life and
history in your neighborhood. Thank you