Eleanor Tripp was interviewed by Mary Giles on October 13, 1976. She spoke about her and her husband’s work restoring the Handy House.
Eleanor, could you tell about the ‘Handy House’ and you.
Louis and his wife, Florence, were just riding around Westport and they had in mind buying a boat, and when they came down ‘Handy Hill,’ they saw a sign in front of this house on the fence and it said, ‘Get the key at Mike Coughlin’s.’ He lived across the road. When they saw all the beautiful fireplaces (the house was empty at the time) and woodwork and beautiful construction, they decided to buy the house instead. That was in September 1936. They decided to use it for vacations until they retired. He retired in 1948; she had died before that, and I had married Louis and was living in Washington with him, so in 1948 we came up together on our honeymoon. In 1941 we spent a month here. The first thing we had to do, of course at that time we were at war, and lawnmowers or anything like that weren’t available, so we were using sickles to hack down the grass. The first thing we did was to take wallpaper off and patch cracks to get ready and the windows, hardly any of the windows had much putty left, so that was the big project. We worked together. It was fun and we fell for the whole setup right off the bat, even though I was a Washingtonian and wasn’t used to the country and had just a tiny garden there. So on vacations we had a garden, although all planting and growing things was all new to me. Young Harry Kirby was still living down on Drift Road and his father was one of the few people that Louis remembered as a boy and he came down with his horse and wagon and did our plowing, with an old type plow. Our garden was about the same size as it is now, only we had two gardens. We had corn and tomatoes in one area, that took up a lot of room, and we had smaller things in another area. We canned things and took them back to Washington with us. Our vacation was just a month because Louis was so busy in Washington. I would come up by train. In such a short time I couldn’t can and do any of that sort of thing, just come up to see how the house was and everything. But anyway, after Louis bought the house, well, the roof had dormers and there was a great big old porch on the front and he wanted to restore it to the original house.
There was a picture in the ‘Old Dartmouth’ showing the way it should look. Charles T. Gifford did. He was down on the Horseneck Road, but we didn’t know him. But Mike Coughlin’s job was house painting and papering, and he used to be a caretaker here when Abbot Smith owned it.
George Cadman owned the land when the house was built on it, the first part in 1714, the East end. I have seen a sketch of the original house and it was up to the first door. The middle part, we don’t have the exact date, but it was definitely added after 1714, but it would be anywhere from 1720 to 1790. The middle part was built by one of the Whites. Elizabeth (White) was George Cadman’s only daughter, she married a White. George Cadman was very wealthy and he gave her the house and land. And then after they died, it was inherited by Jonathon White (their grandson, son of Elizabeth White’s son, William) and Humphrey White, 1794, and it was Humphrey who sold it go Eli Handy and he built the West wing in 1821.
I have fascinating records of Eli Handy. He was the first Doctor Handy, 1764-1812. He was only 48 years old when he died and I have part of his records. I have some of his records that date back to 1791. And then James Harvey was his son and he was also a doctor and he died in 1868 at the age of 74. I have his records also.
I have no records of Eli training, but Eli taught his son. He just rode along with him and I suppose someone taught Eli the same way. I have some interesting letters that students in Pittsfield, Mass. Wrote to Dr. James Harvey Handy asking his advice when they were in medical school. So he was evidently well known for his knowledge for students to write him questions.
In the records dating back to 1791, there were a few confinement cases listed at $2.00. All the rest of the deliveries were $3.00. I wondered if something happened to the baby. And a broken leg was $2.00. He pulled out a tooth for 18 cents and his house calls were usually around 50 cents for even less. But in his books, if he put ‘over the ferry,’ it meant paying a toll on the bridge so the charge was a little extra. He went West as well as East. Some of the names he would mention were in surrounding towns. And then some people would say that they saw the doctor gathering his herbs in the field. And then I have some of his books telling what he used the herbs for. I think the herbs are the same as the things I have now, digitalis and some things like that. A lot of people are interested (in the doctor’s records), but the handwriting is such that you could tell some of the things that he used, but most of them you can’t understand.
It’s interesting, you could tell when Paul Cuffee was going to die. (The doctor took care of him). He went almost every day; that was 1817. I was so interested in his first book because he came from Rochester (Massachusetts) and in his first account book he’d put after the name, ‘Son of so-and-so,’ so that he could remember his patients. In his second book he didn’t do that. Evidently he was well acquainted and knew who belonged to whom. That’s a great help to anyone who’s interested in the histories of the families here to know who he’s referring to.
I with that I could remember a lot of these things, but I can’t not being a native. Different people are referred to and I get lost quite quickly because I don’t know the family.
When he went around making his calls, Dr. Eli Handy went on horseback until he was older, and then he had to have a little carriage. I’ve seen a picture of him sitting in his little ‘two seater.’ James Harvey is the main one that I’ve seen in his little carriage.
He married into the Brownell family and they lived at Oscar Palmer’s and that’s where they’re buried (the Handy’s). The two doctors have the beautiful slate stones. Eli married Mary Brownell and the Brownell house (Oscar Palmer’s) with the cemetery is just West of the Central Village Post Office.
Speaking of the dates, it’s 40 years this year that we have owned this house, and it’s been such fun, such a joy.
One of the main things we had to do when we came up here permanently, was to put heat in. On this end, the West end, was a one pipe furnace and there was a great big register in the hall and the heat would just pour upstairs. If you were going to dress, it was a good idea to stand in the hall where the heat would be. Anyway, the water system was over on the other side (East), so Abbot Smith had a pipe put in our beautiful North room that ran along the ceiling and condensation would form along the pipe and it would be dripping constantly. And so, we wanted the water over here anyway and Louis, being an engineer, was doing all these projects himself. And he was pushing a pipe from the East side to the West side through the area that had no cellar, a crawl space, just a little hole at either end of the house. So he had these plugged so he wouldn’t fill it full of dirt. There were all sorts of animals that lived under the house, and stones, but he worked for days and days, and when he thought he was getting somewhere near this end, I was in the backyard watching to see if I could see the end of the pipe. Finally, it came through and we really celebrated.
And then we put in the kitchen. It had an old dry sink and everything had to be changed. We put in a great big long regular porcelain sink like today, white enamel.
Of course, all the plumbing, painting, papering and patching of cracks had to be done, and the wiring, all of the wiring was very poor and that had to be done with BX (cable) so we wouldn’t have any mice chewing or anything like that so it wouldn’t be dangerous.
When we lived in Washington, my Louis wrote Louis King, who taught in the Vocational School in New Bedford, and so he wrote Louis (Tripp) that he would help him if he would let him go fishing any time he wanted. (Handy property ran down to the East River). So the two of them worked together doing the job on the house.
Our property goes one-quarter mile north from Hix Bridge Road and one-quarter mile west from the river. Louis bought the river lot in 1938 because he just could visualize a hotdog stand on that corner. Altogether we have about 37 acres. The dump comes to the end of our property, one-quarter mile up to the West. I would change its location if I could do anything I wanted to. It’s not a good location for the dump because there are two brooks on my land. One is really a runoff from the marsh right below the dump and then there’s another big brook over further. Really, the dump shouldn’t be there.
When we were talking about restoring before we moved up, Louis gave Mike Coughlin the job of shingling to have done by Andrew Taber and his boys, the parts that needed shingling around the house and stairs to go down to the cellar. They were the old stone stairs, you just couldn’t get up and down. That’s where the furnace was going to be. Well, one of the things Louis was going to do was replace the front doors. Of course, the porch had been taken off. The original doors had been cut off. So they had a negative of a picture of the original doors and they had a print made and sent it to Louis. He copied them. It had to be done with a magnifying glass to count all the dentils from the original doors. And then he built the doors and put them up in pieces, not the door itself but the frame. Then Mr. Taber and his boys worked on the other doors and put up what are copies of the original doors and they’re just beautiful.
I think the prettiest cupboard is in the South middle room. It has such beautiful dentils around it too. Henry Worth has written these articles and one of the articles will give us one date and a person and another article will give us another date and will say the Handy’s built it. I really don’t know. I imagine it might have been Humphrey White that built this portion.
Cooking in the fireplace is lots of fun too. I have the things we have today. I have a waffle iron and you just put it down in the coals. I have a trammel with ratchets, which raises and lowers the pans and I make Johnny Cakes in an old Johnny Cake pan. For stewing, there’s a big pot and little spider pots for over small coals, but I’m sorry we don’t have a reflector oven, but I have a modern one from L.L. Bean. And so we can bake biscuits and things like that too. I think the fireplace is about seven feet long and four feet high. I have to duck my head. I’ve painted and spattered the floors. Mike, the gentleman across the road, who used to paint for us, taught me how to spatter. The big room has a real deep green floor. Some are other colors.
Louis wasn’t too well for a number of years before he died in 1963. In his youth Louis lived at the Head and his father was a Sea Captain.
When we first came here, I remember that Florence Coughlin told me that they had a Woman’s Club and she thought that I would be interested in joining. She thought that would be a good way for me to get to know Westporters and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Mary David was the president; Grade Babbitt was the vice president and she said that she wouldn’t become president unless I would be her vice president. Really, it was so worthwhile, because there wasn’t anything else in those days. People came to the Woman’s Club because that was ‘the thing.’ We met at the Community House. The Quakers, who own it, built it to be used for community projects. There were no scholarship funds at that time.
I remember one time when Grace Babbitt was sitting waiting for her husband, Frank, who was in some place doing business, and she had the idea that we needed a woman’s club in Westport, so we started a lot of ‘firsts.’ That was our big money making project. We stitched aprons and did all sorts of things. Then it wasn’t long after I was in there (Woman’s Club) when Mrs. Grace DeAndrade, town nurse, came and asked if our club wouldn’t form a ‘Well Child Clinic.’ We worked on that for years and years. Grace Babbitt, Money Lepreau, Lucia Paull and I were the first.
Yes, I worry about the growth rate of Westport. It’s a shame if people can’t buy and build, yet if you have so many houses crowded in, it means more schools. And, so often I feel glad that I’m as old as I am; I can’t face the changes. I’ve seen them coming since 1941. In some of my old notes that I first made, I kept talking about an occasional automobile would go up Handy Hill and things like that. We went to clambakes and auctions looking for antiques. Of course, we brought what we had from Washington and we had to find a lot of things for this house.
I remember before they widened Hix Bridge Road, I used to take my wheelbarrow and walk up Handy Hill, picking up tin cans and rubbish to try and discourage people from dropping more. And I could go all the way up and all the way down and there wouldn’t have been one car that would have seen me. The road just wasn’t used; they used Main Road, not much on Drift Road either, but more than on Handy Hill, I think. Buy anyway, there were wild grapes all over my path and I’d go up with my wheelbarrow and – Concords and some pink. Before we moved up here, we’d take probably a whole bushel basked back. So the changes do bother me, I don’t want it go grow. I’m real selfish, I’m afraid. As a friend of mine has said, ‘You shouldn’t feel guilty having your land the way it is, because keeping your trees, etc. is what is supporting these people who are building.’