Arlene Gifford was interviewed by Mary Giles in the fall of 1976. She spoke at length about her childhood and her late husband.
This morning, in speaking with Arlene Gifford of the Head of Westport, I hope to learn all I can of her life here, her interests and her opinions about our town.
Arlene, were you born here in Westport?
No, but I came to Westport when I was eighteen months old, and in a way, I grew up here, with my grandfather. My grandfather was a farmer, just up the hill here on Old Country Road, just this side of the school, the new Middle School – that was his land, where the new school is, that was my grandfather’s land.
What things do you remember about your life with him?
Well, he had cows, and he did, of course, like everybody I those days, he had his vegetable garden. He raised his turnips and corn and things for the cows and the family chickens – not the chicken business – business was cows. We ate the eggs and the chickens. He sold milk. I remember it. He didn’t sell vegetables. He raised the corn for the cows. That was his business really, milk, ‘cause I remember I was little, not more than three or four years old, and he bought a new cow and she’s been a baby of somebody’s. (He always called me Billy ‘cause there was no grandson, just granddaughter.) He said, ‘Billy, you can have this cow.’ Well, I thought he meant it, so the next day I got my pan and I went out and milked the cow. I was with him all the time (watching) ‘cause I couldn’t do anything wrong, nothing. Whatever I did was all right. Maybe I was spoiled, I don’t know. Gramp said to me then, he said, ‘I’m kinda short of milk, if you will sell me your milk, I think it would be a better idea than for you to milk the cow.’ So I got five to ten cents a week for milk. I’d mix up mud pies with milk. You do funny things when you’re a kid.
I didn’t play any sports. I was one – well, you might say, a loner. I used to roam off through the woods and see the birds, and the flowers and the green stuff. That was my pleasure, more than having some child come in and get my dolls and things and throw them around. At one time, I had thirteen dolls and the dishes and the bedroom set, and a kitchen set with an iron stove, and I used to bake in it. I only liked parties once in a while.
My mother made my clothes, mostly cotton, except in the winter – wool. I had woolen drawers. How I hated them!
I went to school over here at the Wolf Pit School. Well, they never had the seats around the room. I went to school there and I now. They had the seats across, just the same as any schoolroom. I don’t know what they are now. I don’t think they’re even there. I know somebody said they bought some up there when they were cleaning it out.
The fire didn’t used to be on one side. They rented it for a little while.
Oh yes! I went skating and I had a little sled and plenty of good hills around the farm. I had a couple of cousins that used to come out from New Bedford and visit, and the three of us would go together. The girl nearest my age, she kind of liked the things I did, so we got along fine.
Once in a while, I went to New Bedford or to Fall River.
The store was right down here where it is now, where we got food we didn’t raise. To go into town, well, that was a big day. We’d go into town for clothes mostly. I don’t think grandfather bought much. He was a farmer, and he farming clothes were what he wore. I remember he used to go to the city once a week to New Bedford. I don’t know what for. I just remember that he went and he used to go to Fall River one day a week to bring home malt for the cows. They’d come and pick the milk up just the same as they do these days, ten gallon cans mostly. I remember grandfather washing them. He had fifteen or twenty cows, so there must have been quite a lot of milk; but you know, when you’re five or six years old, the amount of milk doesn’t count for anything at all.
We had a dug well and had a pipe that led into a sink in the house, and a pump handle; other plumbing was an outside privy.
Well, grandmother died in 1907.
When we went into town, we rode in a horse and wagon. That’s why it was a day’s journey. We’d drive into town and put the horse up in the stable down town and then go around shopping.
You asked me about how we kept our food and other things, about the way we lived. Well, the food just didn’t spoil. I don’t know. We’d put it down the well where it was always cold. If you had a good well, and we did, plenty of water, never went dry.
We used kerosene lamps, heated with coal in the winter and had wood for the cook stove.
For doctors, we had Dr. Nottage when I was a girl, and then Dr. Tapper, and then Dr. Burt – just up here by the curve, just by the church.
Mother had a little box of medicine, and I can remember if I had a cold, she used to give me aconite and belladonna and I liked it. It tasted good – so many drops in water and I liked it.
The Wolf Pit School down the road, was only the primary school, first, second and third grades. Next, I went over to the Bell Schoolhouse until they built the school up here (Middleboro School) – it went through grammar school, 9 grades, into the high school and then, if you wanted to finish high school, you went to Fall River, B.M.C. Durfee. Yes, I went up and took the test and passed it, but I didn’t go.
You know, I liked school very much. I had nothing in it but ‘E’s’ for Excellent, but I couldn’t afford it.
Instead of going on, I studied music with a woman here in town, and all my life I’ve taught music, and I studied the Boston Conservatory Method. I taught. I started teaching between 1915 and 1920, and I taught until I lost the sight of my eye five years ago; but I have taught a little since; some of the children come in and want some help or something. I taught little folks. I didn’t like teaching high school children as well. They know so much more than you do, but I had a very nice group of children, very nice. Here’s a picture of my pupils. Seventeen are in the picture. I know they came every day after school, and all day Saturday, starting at nine Saturday mornings. The lessons were half an hour. I liked the children and never had any trouble. I love children. I charged fifty cents for a lesson. Well, I got a dollar later on, that’s the most. Maybe in the 1920’s and 1930’s I got a dollar.
People were neighborly. The Coggeshall house back here was my husband’s grandmother and grandfather. I was sick when they tore it down and I put a picture of it in the book, torn down. They had the place perfect. I have some nice pictures of the village as it used to be, but I won’t loan them. (We look at pictures, beautiful pictures of the Coggeshall house.) That’s the way they should have put it in the book. (She means the Bi-centennial Book.) Here is the Westport Brass Band playing in front the H.A. Reed, Harness Maker. The stores and bridge and river and Kirby House, the way it used to look. There’s the Wolf Pit School, so neat, every stonewall perfect, flag flying. I’ve got a picture of Harold when he was a little fellow riding up the road to his grandmother Coggeshall’s. You see, his mother was born here at this house. She was married here and he was born here in the Coggeshall house.
The way things are going, and have gone, it kind of makes you sick. Talk about old time, – well, they were certainly a lot better than the new times. Now like New Bedford – how silly they were. They tore up paving stones and now they’re paving the streets with them again, and if that isn’t perfectly ridiculous.
This beautiful picture of Coggeshall house, well, they didn’t want it, at least, they didn’t ask anyone who ever knew anything about it. (‘They’ is the Bi-centennial Committee.) Hopkinson is the last one who ever owned it, and my husband sold it to him, perfect condition, fence in front of it and everything.
I won’t say anything. If I do, I’ll say too much. I get so provoked when I think of that book. All they show is the walls and them torn down and everything.
(‘They’ is the Bicentennial Committee and the book is ‘A Look at Westport Through Four Centuries.’)
If you swear that it will come back just as it is, you could have this picture with the tape. I may have another copy of it.
I just lost him (Mr. Gifford) a couple of years ago. That’s a snapshot that was taken right here. I guess I’m foolish. People think so anyhow. This was his chair. I don’t want to see anybody else sitting in it. I sat over there in the corner with my light and he sat here. When I sit over here, I don’t want to look over here and see somebody else sitting in his chair. Now that’s nonsensical, but I can’t help it – I can’t help it.
You asked me about Mr. Gifford. Well, one thing I remember about Mr. Gifford that is important is he put on clam bakes at Lincoln Park – anywhere from fifty to two thousand people. Of course, we had help, plenty. He made the bakes. He laid the fires.
He always worked for himself, always. He transported with a horse and wagon ‘cause there was no way of getting from here to the park where the cars went in those days, and he didn’t – he had nothing to do with Lincoln Park. He just carried them up there – that was his job.
He never went away to work. He had chickens and some eggs. We didn’t have room for a farm, but he had a lot up this side of the cemetery, and he had chickens up there, and he carried passengers. He never went out to work. Then, in later years, he had an antique shop in the barn. He liked it. He liked meeting people. People always said he sold cheap, but he looked at business in this way: You get a chair and you have a chance to sell it, and maybe you make two dollars on it, or possibly three dollars. You’d better sell it for three dollars profit and get something else in its place, than to try to get five dollars profit and keep it for a year or two. That was his idea – then people would come and say: ‘The same old things here.’
I always went to church up here, but I didn’t join.
We lived here with his mother for five years, and then we went to Freetown. Then she got sick. She had cancer and we sold the place and came here and took care of her as long as she lived.
He was one that was friendly with everybody, but he wasn’t intimate with anybody. He sold Jewett cars before he went into the antique business. He just had a lot out here and he bought and sold and traded. You see, he never went into a job to work steady. He worked for himself. Well, he had cows at one time, but oh, dear, that didn’t last too long, ‘cause people wanted the land for building and he never was very well. Years he had an upside down stomach, they used to call it, and he went and had an operation for it, but it never proved successful.
While I didn’t really belong to the church, but went up to the church, oh, yes. I had a class up there, about thirteen girls. We used to put on little plays to raise money for the church, and I was always working for the church, but I didn’t join.
We never belonged to any clubs or groups or anything like that. If he didn’t care, I didn’t. I was always satisfied with him. Up here on the organ at the church, I played for about fifteen years up there. They didn’t pay me for playing the organ for the church, but I felt that that was something I could do where I might not be financially able as some of the others were, but now they pay to have an organist – pay plenty.
I remember when I was a child, there was more snow. I’ve been sleighing many a time with grandpa on Thanksgiving Day, and the snow would be to the top of the walls. We don’t have anything like that now.
I remember in the summer we had thunderstorms. There were three of us, and a storm came up and we got up on the featherbed and were perfectly safe.
We didn’t do much traveling. We’ve been to New York, Boston, Plymouth, but not to go off on many trips. We stayed in New York about a week, and sometimes we drive back and forth to Boston. I have a very close friend in New Bedford, who said she wouldn’t drive to New York if they paid her $1,000.
When we were young, the roads were dirt road. Reed Road was macadamized about 1910, about the time I was married, and that was 1910 – I don’t know, the year before or the year after, but it was very close to 1910. Reed Road was done before Old County. It must have been some time near the same time, because as a child, it was a dirt road. Drift Road wasn’t done for a long time.
I remember that when I was a child, we always had the ‘Youth’s Companion!’ Now, I like mostly books, but I can’t get to the library anymore. I can’t get that far. I can’t walk that hill. I take four heart tablets a day.
I’m reading a wonderful story by Henry Allen of New Bedford. He was on television: ‘The Rise and Fall of New Bedford’ and ‘Whaling’ and ‘The Death of the Artic’ and ‘Children of the Night.’ He was on television the other night, pure white hair, white and fluffy. I sent for this book and a friend of mine picked it up for me at Saltmarsh’s. I don’t like magazines as well as books. I read the ‘Readers’ Digest’ and ‘Yankee;’ the rest of it is books. I don’t care for these true stories; it’s trash to me.
Always we had cats – once in a while a skunk or woodchuck. It was cleared off pretty well around the house. The trees were just the fruit trees, so we didn’t have many animals around.
People didn’t fish much in the river – herring in the winter. A friend of mine, her name was Gifford too, no relation, had a sailboat and we used to go every day when the tide was right. I used to like to go sailing.
I remember George Tripp ran a meat cart, twice a week, I guess, and grandma used to buy beef. Pigs and chickens we raised ourselves. I don’t remember grandma ever having a piece of lamb on the table, more apt to have chickens than turkeys. I don’t think there was anybody around that raised turkeys. We used to usually have roast pork at Thanksgiving and a fowl at Christmas. I don’t think we had anything particular at New Year’s. I don’t think we celebrated.
Oh, Mother and grandma had a nice flower garden. I wasn’t much interested in it because of my piano. I got home from school at quarter to four and at four I was at the piano, and I played ‘til half past five, and then I had my supper and afterward school work. We had geraniums out here – well, I did this summer, but not to do gardening. My piano was my main…,
He like to watch television, but he didn’t want to sit in front of it as some folks do all day long.
I keep my kitchen radio, stereo on WLKW and that’s music, nice music too, not trash. I went to SMU last year to the Boston Symphony. I don’t get Channel 2 – it’s snowy.
Westport’s home. I’ve been called up from California. There would be somebody to stay with me and somebody to take care of me, but I wouldn’t be home. This is my home and all the things in it. People don’t seem to understand that today, do they? They have no ties at all.
If I could change anything about Westport, I wouldn’t sell every piece of land and stick a house on it. I like to see land and trees and flowers growing better than I do to see a lot of shanties stuck up somewhere. I know I’m old. They say the Giffords are odd. I’m a Gifford by name and a Gifford by nature. My grandmother was a Gifford.
I didn’t know whether I could give you anything. I told Lincoln – he wanted to know about captains that lived around here and what their names were. I don’t know whether he made any use of it or not.
According to the neighbors, I’m very odd and stuck up. I didn’t know that I was. But the neighbors say so.
‘Course, I knew Norman from a kid almost, and Harold went down there two or three times for something – antiques, I guess.