William Almy oral history interview 1975

William Almy, Jr.

Interviewed by Mary Giles

October 25, 1975

William Almy – “According to the early records of the Almy family here in Westport, William Almy, the sone of Captain Christopher Almy and Elizabeth Cornell, was born October 27, 1665 and died on July 6, 1747. Job, the son of William Almy and Ezra Cook Almy, was born April 28, 1696 and died in 1771. Christopher Almy, son of Job Almy and Lydia Tillinghast Almy, was born May 29, 1738. Thomas Almy, son of Elizabeth and William Sanford Almy, was born April 22, 1775 and died November 23, 1868. William Almy, son of Thomas Almy and Sally Gifford Almy, was born November 10, 1798 and died December 25, 1881. William F. Almy—that’s my grandfather—son of William Almy and Elizabeth Brayton Almy, was born on January 17, 1841 and died June 14, 1898. William Almy, my father, son of William F. Almy and alice Gray Almy, was born April 9, 1874, and died June 24, 1891. Then comes myself, William Almy, Jr., son of William Almy and Elsie Peirce Almy, born November 30, 1900. My son, William Almy III, was born November 6, 1928, and his son, William Gernsey Clive Almy, was born August 7, 1954.”

Interviewer—I would like to find out a little bit about some of these people who have succeeded each other in such a long procession.

The first William Almy came from England to Sandwich. He didn’t come directly from Sandwich to Westport. He went from Sandwich to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where he lived until 1701. There seems to be a little confusion about when they moved to the Quansett Farm here. Some records say 1701 and some records say 1710. At any rate, from that time on, the Almys have always lived in this house, which we are now in on Quansett Farm, which was built by Job Almy, who married Lydia Tillinghast. He built the house in 1743 and nobody but an Almy has ever lived in this house since. This house was part of an 800-acre property between Horseneck and Barney’s Joy—called by the Indians ‘Mattaquonsett,’ ‘place where you fish at night with spears.’

I have to look up this acquiring. Yes, William Almy—and that is the William Almy, son of Christopher Almy, acquired the right to the 800-acre division from Abraham Tucker of Dartmouth, either in 1701 or 1710. That is between Horseneck Beach and what is known as Allen’s Beach, believed to be Barney’s Joy. That also included Gooseberry Neck.

Christopher is the father of the William Almy who acquired this farm. In this book written by Mr. Henry Howland Crapo, published in New Bedford in 1912, which is called ‘Certain Come Overs,’ Christopher Almy was about ten years old when he moved and settled in Portsmouth (1775) after they lived in Sandwich. Then he became quite a prominent man in Rhode Island. He was sent over by the General Assembly of the United Colonies. They wanted him to be the Governor of Rhode Island, but he refused to accept that and he consented to act as an assistant to the governor and as such, according to Mr. Crapo, he virtually exercised the powers of governor. In 1692 he was sent by the General Assembly to England to lodge a complaint to their Majesties on behalf of Rhode Island against the encroachment of Massachusetts. At the time, the English Government was engaged in a war and consequently paid little head to Almy. He was somewhat discouraged and memorialized Queen Mary, saying that he had come 4,000 miles to lay the grievances of his neighbors before her and his persistence was rewarded when his case was presented fully and he received a decision in favor of Rhode Island on every point at issue.

In the Bristol County records, this effort is described as the Dartmouth Colony pleading a cause against the Plymouth Colony so that the Almys and all of the other Quakers, who were here, wouldn’t have to hire a Congregational minister.

Well, I question that because—remember, he was representing Rhode Island and being sent by the General Assembly of the United Colonies, he was representing Rhode Island—he was trying to help Rhode Island. He returned to Rhode Island, it says in Mr. Crapo’s book, in 1696—to Portsmouth. He was granted the sum of 135 pounds by the Assembly of Rhode Island for his expenses. If this was his sole remuneration, says Mr. Crapo, it was certainly not excessive for a four-year sojourn in a foreign country as minister plenipotentiary and ambassador extraordinary.

William came here and he built the house. He acquired it (the land) from Abraham Tucker. Crapo goes on to say that William Almy ‘devised’ his farm—meaning he left his farm—to his son, Job Almy, who was probably living here at the time in one of the three mansion houses which he built. It isn’t the house we’re sitting in now which was built in 1743, which is known as the homestead. It was one of the three ‘mansion houses,’ according to Mr. Crapo, which I think was built by Job. That was built before this house and that was on the northern end of the property here at Quansett, sometime during the 17th century and it was occupied by the head farmer and my great, great grandfather thought that the farmer was too far away from the source of things, being way up at the north end, and he decided to move the homestead down nearer the barns and farm buildings and they did move it down sometime about the middle of the 1800s. For years you could see where they built the walls up again after they tore them down when they moved the house. I’m told that the farmer’s family and children lived in that house all the time they moved it and that they had a clock on the shelf in the dining room which never stopped going all the time it was being moved. It was probably moved very little distance each day and, of course, the rollers were pulled by oxen going very, very slowly. I showed you the clock the other day. We won’t run it much now, but I think you could. The oxen could move it this way. They’d get a stone out in front, a great big boulder, and they’d take a rope and take a turn around that and then the revolving wheel. The oxen would pass under that. They didn’t pull it directly. That’s the way they moved things in those days.

Do you remember hearing that one of your ancestors was said to have found an Indian in his well?

I don’t remember that. No.

You told me about a letter from John Hames Audubon that one of the Almys received from him, thanking him for his hospitality.

Yes, do you want to see it? I don’t know much about it except that I’ve always heard that Mr. John James Audubon as a great friend of my grandfather and that he visited here many times because he was so interested in the shore birds and the birds that were native to this part of the world. I have here a framed bottom of a letter which says, ‘I pray you to accept my thanks for your civilty, and I beg to subscribe myself to you. Ever Affectionately, John J. Audubon.’ It contains his seal with the bird on it. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it that some of the plates of shore birds he made were made here. I imagine he would probably have some particular species on his mind and I don’t know what it was, but all sorts of birds lived here in those days. Even when I was young, before the law was so you couldn’t shoot shore birds, and I shot my first winter yellowleg when I was seven years old. There used to be quite a thing of shooting here for years.

I can tell you quite a few things about Gooseberry Neck. It was part of the original grant that William Almy obtained when he got all the land from the Westport River to Allen’s Beach, along with Barney’s Jot. I used to, when I was a very young boy, drive with my mother in a meadowbrush cart. There was a bar, which went from East Beach to Gooseberry Neck and at very low tide it would be exposed. There were three ponds on Gooseberry Neck, and in them grew the most beautiful flowers known as Marsh Mallows, and my mother was crazy about them. She would pick the tide, and, usually late in August when they were in bloom, she would drive across. We children had to watch it carefully, because if the tide came up too much, you couldn’t get home. Anyway, in the old days, my great grandfather used Gooseberry to turn sheep out on and the sheep would be turned there all summer and the tides, of course, would keep them from coming back. They put them out in June just after they had been sheared, with their lambs, and there they stayed. Well, the story goes that he did this one June and there came up a terrific northeaster and that lasted three or four days, and it was cold as it could possibly be, and a lot of those sheep, just sheared, and their lambs died in this storm. And that made my ancestor very, very mad and he vowed he was never going to put another animal on Gooseberry Neck. In fact, he was going to sell Gooseberry Neck as soon as he possibly could. And he did, very shortly—for the price of $75.00. Inasmuch as the government is said to have paid three million for it, including the defenses, which were put on it during the last World War, it wasn’t a very good deal.

The brig Almy sailed out of Westport, I believe. None of my direct ancestors followed the sea. The uncles—and there were captains and there were whalemen and there were all kinds of people who did, but—my direct ancestors were all farmers. But then William Almy, my great grandfather, decided that he was going to be a merchant. He walked with his shoes in his hand, as a matter of economy, to Russells Mills—about six and a half miles away—and he obtained a job in Mr. Barker’s store, and he—going again to History of Bristol County—was thirteen years of age and a few years later he removed to an accounting room of John Avery Parker in New Bedford and then he went to Boston and was in the employ of the well-known textile people, N.A. Lawrence. And, after that he formed a partnership with another fellow and he started in business for himself jobbing white goods. He pursued that for 50 years. I really don’t know whether the textile business started in Boston and moved down here or the opposite.

On the other side of my family, my mother’s side, Mr. Andrew G. Peirce, my grandfather, started the Wamsutta Mills and was in the textile business in New Bedford all of his life. I think the textile business started in this area before New Bedford.

Anyway, in the History of Bristol County it says about William Almy, my great grandfather, ‘he was cool, clear-headed and sagacious and no man stood higher in the confidence of his fellows and he achieved a handsome fortune for his time. He had a reputation for spotless integrity and unblemished honor.’

I have here his will all written in longhand, which I’m not going to read to you by any means because it would take a long while. I’ll show it to you for what it’s worth. His signature is here and every single thing that he owned is mentioned, everything including pieces of harness for his horses and everything else—all written out. He unfortunately went blind. I think I can read it better than I can remember it. Around 1830’s a gradual failure of his sight obliged him to give up a measure of his business. He went to Europe to seek a cure, but he received no benefit from the advice of the most eminent foreign oculists. In 1858 he became totally blind.

My grandfather, William F. Almy, died a young man before I was born. He lived here in summers, but you see, after William Almy, my great grandfather, whome we’ve just been talking about, became in business in Boston, he lived in Boston all the time and only kept this house as a summer house. They did that until I was almost 21 years old. Then they moved down with the horses. I can remember this even now. They’d drive all the horses and all the carriages and everything over the road, and of course the family would go ahead and this procession would start out from Brookline, Massachusetts, where we lived, to come all the way down here. I think it took them three days and as I say, they moved down every summer. As I understand it, the house was completely closed when they went back. The farmer who was headman and lived just up where my brother lives now, which was the old homestead house, was near enough. Life was different then. You didn’t need everything locked up so people wouldn’t steel.

I think it might be well to talk about Thomas Almy, if it wouldn’t bore you. He was the father of William Almy who married Sally Gifford, who went to England. He was born in 1775. Here it says that Mr. Almy had much to do with town affairs and the state militia. He took much pride in a good horse and was always seen on horseback, a recreation he continued until within a short time of his death.

There must be something in heredity because I have been on a horse almost every day of my life since I was five years old, and, of course, every day now that I possibly can and I hope to be able to do as well as my ancester did.* It shows you that it must be hereditary, this love of horses. My grandfather loved them and my father loved them and my sisters and my daughter, and we’ve always had horses and I’ve recently given a stable to Susan, my daughter, and she has always been devoted to them (horses) all of her life and I think she has as many as thirty horses there.

Some of the horses here that I’ve bred have done pretty well nationally. You see that painting over there? That’s a horse called ‘Hard Banking’ and he won the National Hunt Cup in 1941 and that was a very famous race. They jumped the steeplechase, of course. I had a horse called ‘Red Bud’ that won the Maryland Hund Cup and that is the greatest steeplechase in this country—was and still is. It’s one of the very few from Massachusetts that ever has won the race. We’ve enjoyed breeding horses in a very small way here. Mr. Tuckerman (Bayard), my closest friend and neighbor who recently passed away, just about a mile up the road here, has bred some horses here in Westport too—good ones they are, and he’s won some races and Little Sedgewick Farm, his place, has become quite a byword for horses. I told you ‘never mind Kentucky and Virginia and all that. If you take care of them, you can breed them just as well here as anywhere.’ My wife, Letitia, bred a horse that has won several races all the way from here to California. Her horse’s name is ‘Hasenagh.’ That’s the Indian pronunciation for ‘Horseneck’ and we have high hopes for him. My daughter has a yearling she took to the big show where they showed all the yearlings bred in New England and that colt finished fourth of about thirty colts. Hope springs eternal in the heart of a horseman.

I believe that ‘Hasenegh’ (Horseneck) refers to the big stone house or big stone meeting place. There must have been one there to give it that name. I read that the Indians all congregated at Horseneck Beach and had all kinds of horse races and clam bakes and had a big time. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, that this was a summer residence for the Indians; that they didn’t live here in the winter. Here it’s wonderful in the winter. It’s even warm here when there’s snow up in Boston. That’s what enables us to hunt all winter with our hounds. Much later than anywhere else, in Westport the roses are all blooming, the zinnias are blooming, all the flowers, and I picked—I don’t know how many—tomatoes this morning right out of the garden (October 25). We haven’t had any frost at all and here it is almost the first of November.

I don’t know much about Indian lore, but I do know that we have a boathouse right down on the beach and in that boathouse are two very old boats that must have gone back into the early 1800’s I think. They were very sturdy. Apparently, they used to go sword fishing right off here; they had a lot of equipment in them. The harpoons were there in the boathouse. They were lapstrak boats. That’s one board over another like a clapboard house. Back in the old days, they always used to build them that way and then they would fasten them with copper nails so they wouldn’t rust in the water. That’s supposed to be the very sturdiest way, so we have two great big boats. When I was young, I had to recondition one of them and I used to go offshore out here in it, and it sailed beautifully. As some time they probably used to go way out sword fishing in these boats—in those two boats down there.

Over on the Cummings place was what some people considered to be the only house left here after King Philip’s War. That was known as the Richard Almy farm and that was on the west of the road and according to the division of the Job Almy’s sons—he had four sons—two took the west side and it afterwards belonged to this fellow, Ben Cummings, as I told you, and that was a gambrel roofed kind of ell in the back of that house and it was the third of the mansions Mr. Crapo refers to that Job Almy built and on the back of this ell there’s there’s the ell that was said to be the only house left standing after King Philip’s War. Of course, the house burned down about 30 years ago. That’s that chimney standing alone you see when you drive up the road. It was different from any of the others. That’s part of the house. There are so many things you think of.

I think in this house, this was the original kitchen. There’s the oven to cook the bread in and everything. Course, we call it the ‘mudroom.’ I come in in my boots and the dogs come in and everybody comes in and it doesn’t matter how much mud and stuff you bring in. That’s a custom from Virginia. They always had a mudroom. You sat in your boots or anything you had on and the dogs came in and it was very comfortable, but all the kitchen and the servants and everything is on the other side. That must have been built afterwards. I presume that the original house wasn’t as large as the present one, though you can’t see now, except for the ell, where things were added. You realize this house is four stories high. This is one level and the second story is all bedrooms and all, and the third story is all bedrooms and the fourth story is attic. It’s a big house. It doesn’t have as many bedrooms as you think—nine now, more originally. It doesn’t have much closet space, yet there’s a closet in every room. They must have put them in afterwards, into the rooms. The master bedroom is a great big room. You saw the dining room and it’s (the master bedroom) right over it and it has two very god sized dressing rooms with it. I’ve always thought it is a lovely place to live. I know that I went into the Royal Flying Corps (I was too young to go into the American Army) which afterwards became the Royal Air Force and as soon as I got out of that English Army, I wanted to go back here and I’ve been here every since.

I go to Florida on business and you’ve got to be businesslike. The taxes are getting terrible, you know. It’s more and more difficult to keep a place like this. I don’t think we do very well. But I love it and I’m going to try.

I question how grand the social life was right here in Dartmouth. I think New Bedford was very gay and had all kinds of things. At the height of the whaling industry, New Bedford was one of the richest cities per capita in the United States. They had wonderful things there and they had wonderful parties. They had a great tradition in New Bedford. Westport and Dartmouth—I question.

You have objects here from the 17th and early 18th centuries, which are not poor man’s fare.

I’ll tell you it’s a wonder to me there’s anything left. There were five of us children and there are four of us still living, and we all had large families and they came and helped themselves to whatever they wanted and it’s a wonder there’s anything left at all. I’ve put a limit when I finally took over myself, but for years I didn’t have any more right than anyone else. We never bought anything. These have all been left over from the past. Some of the family thinks that the things that are in the house at Quansett should stay here. They do think that.

I wish we had more time, Mrs. Giles, I could probably go on forever, and I’ll be glad to make a note for you of things that may come to me.

William Almy, Jr. died four years later. He died suddenly and he was on horseback up to the time of his death.