Alton and Isabel Boan

Alton and Isabel Boan were interviewed by Mary Giles on November 4, 1976. They spoke at length about their potato farm and their wartime endeavors.



When my father first came over here, it was a split between vegetables and dairy, and as they cleared the land, the farm gradually got a little bit bigger. Well, my father was here, and then for a while he left the farm. Well, I don’t know whether it wasn’t that productive—that would be in the 1920s, when there was good work in the Crowninshield Ship Yard. My father went there to work—that was in the early ‘20s—World War I. In fact, he was up there in 1918. Then, after about two years, he worked by himself and then he came back here.


Isabel—It was just before I moved out here in ’29.


Twenty-eight or twenty-nine. Well, in the Depression my grandfather went to Scotland, ‘course that’s where he came from originally, and—it’s a little vague now, the years—my aunt went over there—he was in poor health and my aunt went over and brought him back because he was unable to travel alone on board ship. That was around 1934 or ’35. Of course, the hurricane was in 1938. He passed away in 1938.


I was born in the next little house up the road. This was not my father’s home at any time, just my grandfather and my aunt occupied it, and I was born in the next house on the other side, where my daughter lives. I was born in 1907. It’s hard to know why I decided to stay here. When I was small, I came down to the farm, but when I got old enough, I went to the city to work and as luck would have it, I went into the cotton business and, of course, that flourished, as you know, into the 50s.   Then it gradually diminished in Fall River until it almost went to nothing. Then, when I was out of a job for a little bit of a while, I came back here and worked on the farm. When I first came back, I worked part-time here with my father to help him and he was raising potatoes. He had gotten rid of the cattle then—and all of the cattle equipment.


We don’t work that long hours, not today. Years ago they used to get up at half past four in the morning when they had dairy. They worked around the clock; they had to, because they milked again as night. But now, with just potatoes, we run a day similar to a regular workday—from eight in the morning ‘til five at night.


It really occupies the whole year, by the time you plant and take care of the planting and take care of the plants all through the growing season. We start planting about April 15 and then we start to harvest, oh, around the 10th of September—from the first to the 10th—then we harvest ‘til around now—the first of November—takes about two months—as long as the frost will stay.


A great percent of our business is done right from the door here. Every day, endless number of people come, especially on Saturdays. We’re so busy on Saturdays. I don’t pretend to deliver anything; I have everyone come and pick it up—whether it’s a wholesaler or a householder or anything, and that makes it so I don’t have trucking and it works out good. I can tell you because the cost of insurance and trucks and registration is so great. On the other side of the books, what makes it difficult now is that all farmers are subject to the same sort of taxation that business is. I don’t know whether this peanut guy (President Carter) will change it. Do you think so? I don’t think he can change it altogether. I think we’re geared to a certain tax structure that you can’t take away. You can’t keep people on welfare and social security and the benefits that we have (without taxes). It’s hard for people to let go of them. We have a tremendous amount of old people and they’re on social security and there are many, many people now who are over 72 and, of course, they can earn any amount of money it they have their faculties and still get their social security. I have mixed feelings about it. I’m over 70 and I have my Social Security, and I work a couple of days up to Grundys, because there isn’t that much money in farming.


At one time my father could do very well because you know, the wage scale in farming. You could hire a fellow to work; he’d ride a bicycle and you’d give him a dollar an hour ‘til up in the ‘20s. Well, now we’re geared to a certain level on a farm. We have the adult that works; we have the schoolboy that works—there are two levels that you can pay them—then you can have a learner’s rate if you want. What I pay—I try to pay enough per hour so that it’s worthwhile to a youngster. There are plenty of people that get $5.00 and $6.00 and $7.00 an hour, such as plumbers and electricians, but farmers just can’t pay that. I pay $2.30 an hour and to some young people, that means an awful lot. I’ve got some young people who get out of school at three o’clock and come here and work for two hours and it helps me an awful lot. Then, I have other—well, they’re through school and they haven’t really gotten settled—you know, the young people. They’re a lot that aren’t too well settled. For instance, I missed Lloyd Guptill this year. He has a personality that’s unlike anyone else. I think he’s in Chicago now. Mrs. Guptill would like to see him settled. He’s a nice guy and he seemed to like farming. He liked the experience of it and he liked the heavy lifting. Well, I have the Robb boy here now and he likes it because he just likes to swing those heavy bags. Of course, he’s a big boy, and they like it, and I don’t push the help. I let the help enjoy their day and I don’t keep after them. Well, I’ve had some I had to get rid of—they weren’t dependable. When it comes 8:00 o’clock, they’re supposed to be at work. I don’t start them to work ‘til 9:00, but I like to have them there, and, if I get through at night at a quarter of five, I let them go.


Of course, I have an apartment upstairs for my boy and, of course, I’ve been able to rent that and that helps me a great deal. If it were just by wife and I, I would never have a house as big as this. I’d have a small, reasonable sized house, but I’m stuck with it. I’ve always liked plenty of room, but it’s expensive—heat wise—but it’s pleasant to live in—you know what I mean. But, everything costs so much. All these trees around here, we have to have them all pruned every three years—for safety. I have a fellow come down from Seekonk. I don’t know whether he would take just one tree—he takes all the trees and figures, and gives you a price on it. In the Sunday paper there has been an ad for a fellow who would like to do tree surgery. If he’s studying to be a tree surgeon, like at Aggie School, or I think Diman (Vocational School) even has a course for that—they would know. These don’t have any fertilization—the roots are everywhere. If it gets bitterly dry, the trees rob the soil of all its moisture around the underpinning of the house. We have to wet it down.


When you’re a kid on the farm, there’s not much you can do because it’s too dangerous. There’s not much you can do until you are a teenager. I can remember when Westport was very much country and South Westport was a little village. We had a store and a post office, which is now all gone because people drive to the supermarket. You can get them a good deal cheaper, so it’s just a community. That’s what it really is, and yet people can live next door to you and you don’t know who they are. It’s not a community in the sense it used to be. You know the people live there and you almost say to yourself, ‘I wish I’d gone up to see them,’ but you just don’t. It seems as though we’re losing a life—well, maybe TV has brought us inside a lot.


Isabel—You picked berries when you were young.


Well, I used to come down here some and help with the cows—help feed the cows—but the work that I really did to earn anything—I picked strawberries and I picked blueberries and stuff like that. That would be for other people. Pierce didn’t have them then, but over here on Drift Road where Mrs. Brownell lives, you know where Maude Brownell lives—well, that used to be a strawberry farm up in back, and we used to wait for spring to come and we would go over there and pick because that’s where we could earn some money. And you were on your own. If you didn’t pick but 50 baskets, you got paid for 50 baskets. As far as picking fruit, there wasn’t any orchards that I know of, when I was a kid. That’s about the only thing that I know of. There was no other work.


Now up at the Head, the Westport Factory, of course the mills, the Upper Mill and the Lower Mill used to hire help and then they hired child labor. Child labor went out in 1914 or something like that. The law prohibited it, which I think was a good thing.


We went to school in this little school up here; we went through the 8th grade. You know, up here at the corner—the little building with two doors that’s all falling to pieces. That was the schoolhouse.


We used to have our 4-H Club meetings in there when I had the 4-H groups.


Well, I was surprised when the town let go of it and didn’t try to preserve it. Well, they didn’t try to save any of these small schools. There used to be one on Pine Hill Road; there used to be one here, and there used to be one on ‘Skunk Hollow Road’ I call it—near Sequira’s farm on this side of the river. Then on the other side of the river, there was one at the Point and there was one right up here on Drift Road across from the Dupont farm. That was made into a home. That was a little school; I don’t think that it was more than 10 children went to that school—one teacher. We had desks and a wood stove, in fact, quite primitive. In fact, my schoolteacher down here for the last four years is still living—Evelyn Weston—she’s a niece of Hunnah Brightman.


I don’t know about the games. We didn’t have any organized sports in schools those days. We used to play ball and skate. Our winters gave us a lot more skating and sliding—we couldn’t wait to get out of school. I wasn’t much for swimming. I like the water, but I wasn’t much for swimming.


Fishing? Well, we used to go fishing down here at the bridge because the bridge was so close. As a youngster, there wasn’t that much fishing as I remember—people had very small skiffs tied up down at the bridge, and you could have them there without them being molested. There was fishing down at the Point.


Of course, they used to bring—I don’t remember it, but my grandfather used to ship the stuff that he raised, at what they call Tripp’s Wharf. Now that would be down here on Drift Road and I can’t think who lives down there. What’s the Doctor’s name—his mother lives down there alone now—Dr. Adler—just this way from Ginger Pierce. I don’t know who bought their house—it’s a doctor. It’s not too far down from the bridge as you look down from Hix Bridge. There was a big wharf down there and they brought the boats down there at high tide. On the old Westport map they called it Tripp’s Wharf, but it was nothing more than a facing of big, big stones that the boats could pull up to and load, and they shipped turnips and potatoes to Providence. Most of them went out of the river and they used to have to open the bridge, they used to bring in coal. It seems to me it was coal they brought. The made something on board each way you know. The old history says they went up to the Head, but how they got up to the Head of Westport, I’ll never know.


The boats they built years ago, I don’t think the draft—I don’t think they needed that much water. They were big and flat—maybe not the right name—but more like a skow, or a flat-bottomed boat, you know.


We had more winter—we had snow from November through. I remember you could go skating all over the walls—everywhere—when I was a teenager.


That’s when you used to play the piano two nights.


We had a small orchestra, three pieces at first, and five pieces afterwards. They played at the grange and public dances, and the Masons—the fellow that managed it came from over in Adamsville and he needed a piano player, so I took the job. Well, I earned a little money on the side. I started playing the last year in high school. Milton E. Earle was the school. I can’t remember who the first principal was, but the principal that stands out in my mind was Cox. I don’t know whether you talked with anybody else about him—John B. Cox. I liked the guy. He was a good principal, but they had differences with the school committee and we had what they called the first strike. The kids walked out of school. They were supposed to have fired the principal, and we didn’t like it, so we walked out of school. We didn’t stay out long, but anyway they reinstated him. I know it was in the New Bedford paper; I don’t know whether I’ve got that newspaper or not. But the fellow was—he was a good guy. The school committee we had then—I don’t know who it was—but there were differences and there was something that they had raked up about him, really politics. I think you have to call it that.


I always went to Town Meeting. I haven’t been to the last two. They sent all the kids that took shorthand in high school down to take shorthand. Town Meetings in those days were very, very primitive.


They were very exciting.


They’d shout at each other and get up and call one another some real snappy names. Our decisions were big, considering. They weren’t big dollars and cents wise, but they were big relative to the town. I thought that this year they would introduce the representative type of government. There are so many things coming up now, and so many people who are eligible to sit down and decide on a thing. I think Westport has outgrown this type, which is the old fashioned type. When we used to have Town Meeting with 80 people, or something like that, that’s not uncontrollable, but in the present, you get six or eight hundred, or maybe even more. You know, the percent that goes to a Town Meeting, it’s down less than 10 percent. It’s not fair because I think they can railroad things through. I think a certain group can and don’t allow the other group anything. I thought—I didn’t know, but what this year Carlton Lees would introduce that (representative type government)—brought up in the Town Meeting and then it can’t go into force for another year I think it is, but I don’t think anything like that was in the warrant this year.


We’re up to date in our police department, our fire department, our ambulance and all those things. We’ve got planning boards and water boards, and river commissions; we’ve got so many commissions now, that I don’t know who’s on them.


When did we get married? In 1935. Things were quite different in 1935—I mean the standard of living. They raised potatoes here then, and on the basis of the unit (they used to call them bushels)—now they’re bags—they are not any more, now then, they were 15 to 20 years ago. Yet, the cost of what you use to put them in the ground, the labor, the fertilizer, the seed, etc. is twice or three times. I don’t get a tax break. The only break that I get is on my machinery. There are so many different things between planting and digging—cultivating and harrowing, and we’re always trying to make our rows straight. Well, I don’t do very much of that. My boy does it and my father used to pride himself that he could make a very straight row and he’d start down here by Cadman’s Neck lane and he’d put a bead on a tree up here at the other end, and he’d keep his eye on that tree because the first row you make, all your other rows follow. I think potato fields do look so pretty after they become about so high. Afterwards they look just like a big green marsh when they’re in flower.


Primarily, what we grow here are Katahdins and the Green Mountains—a type (of potato) quite well adapted to this area. We don’t raise Russets. We tried it one year. We’ve been growing Green Mountains this year, but I think the Katahdin has been the most disease free type. Katahdin is an old potato, primarily from Maine. In other words, when you get out in Michigan and the West, they have other varieties that fit their soil. Our soil isn’t too scientific. There are not too many minerals in the ground. We have to replace them every year. The nitrogen holds on good here in New England because we have good rainfall and a lot of sun, but the potash and other chemicals we have to get in the fertilizer to keep the pH, up you know.


This lagoon is right in my back yard. It’s unfortunate that all these things become so argumentive. It’s something we’re stuck with. As a town, we have to find some place for it (sewage) to go. When they first came here, they wanted to go in and take it (the land) by eminent domain, but they couldn’t do it because we are what they call a working farm—but I didn’t think—I thought they wouldn’t find a place that would perc, you know. Of course, this land up in back here is quite porous—by that I mean it’s a sand base. But, when they did, the people against it rose higher and higher and higher. For myself, I’m quite a ways from it. As to the others on the other side—the abutters, on the North side, like Mr. Thomas and Mr. and Mrs. Gates, their property comes next to it. I wouldn’t like to have it right next door. I know Randy Wood and I know others on the Board of Health. I think there were so many accusations, that when you go on a board and serve, for what little you get out of it, you do the best you can and not only that, but I don’t think that Fall River treated us fairly. When the Federal Government federated that in Fall River, it was to be able to take care of Westport. It’s supposed to if they run both units.


Well, what are they doing with it now?


Well, that’s what was brought out by Mr. Akerson, who has the Westport News. He said, only two or three loads of it made Brockton. And there are many loads picked up.


There’s a lot of work to being a farmer. When you get through with your day’s work, there’s a lot of paper work to do and closing up and all. And people who work, come after five to pick the potatoes up because they can’t come before.


Some are here at seven o’clock in the morning before you get your clothes on.


I don’t keep open on Sunday because I made that a rule two or three years ago, because we need a day—we both get pretty tired. I put a sign up and they drive in the yard and read the sign and go out.


The rock men came down every fall. Due to the fact that the Indians did live along here, close to the river, a lot or arrowheads have been found. And, I lease land, which is on the other side of the lagoon, and they’ve found quite a lot of arrowheads down there. My grandfather found quite a few—slate, white quartz, granite. They were well shaped, long and narrow. We have one of the rollers, a rock that was used in a bowl to grind corn, and Al Lees has one half of a pestle and we have the other half. And, there was a lot of Indian things when my grandfather lived down there in Little Compton—right there where old man Church had his estate down there on Sakonnet Point. That’s near the golf club there.


And there were many Indians down at Horseneck Beach and Gladys Gifford made a history of the many different tribes that lived here, or went through on their way between Plymouth and Acoaxet. Actually, this isn’t too far from King Philip’s stamping ground. The rivers were a great place for them to settle, because they got their fish and shellfish and stuff, and then we have the islands in the rivers.


The country store up here would deliver and we had a rolling grocer and a butcher and a fish man.


This was a mail route that went from Adamsville to New Bedford. Somebody else picked it up in Adamsville. This wasn’t a paved road until 1918-19, before that it was a dusty, old, wet, muddy road. It was shoveled by men with shovels. Old man Waite would start his route in Adamsville, and I can see him now, coming through with a sleigh, and then he had a horse and wagon with three seats where they used to take passengers. They’d take them to New Bedford in the morning—whoever wanted to do an errand or something—and bring them back in the afternoon. When my mother wanted to go shopping, she went to New Bedford, never to Fall River.


Well, I went to Fall River, because I worked in Fall River.


My dad had a car as soon as I can remember that anyone had a car. Once he forgot to put his brakes on, and he went through the back…


My father’s mother was born and grew up in Westport. I didn’t know that until just recently.


Dr. Burt didn’t practice too much in town—he was on the hospital staff. You see, the mothers in those days died quite young, and the men married again, and there were two or three sets of children. Dr. King was here in Adamsville and Dr. Burt was at the Head.


Yes, but he (Dr. Burt) was not a doctor that practiced too much in the town—he was on the St. Luke’s staff.


During the war I was on the Extension Program; I worked for a good many years in the Extension Program and I had a doctor practically ready to come to Westport because Extension was working on it at the time. Of course, it wasn’t known in town, but he (the doctor) went over and visited Dr. Burt, and after his visit with Dr. Burt, decided not to come. But he’s in town now, in the north end of the town. He and his wife are both doctors and they live and practice there, the Doctors Radovsky. This was before he was married. He was planning to be married and looking for a place to settle, and I thought he was such a wonderful person.


When they bought that place, it belonged to the Lewis family that owned the mills. I remember going up there (to the Mills). They were very active and they gave employment to many people here in town. ‘Course, the Lewises and the Traffords—it was a sewed up thing family-wise—you now what I mean? Mill Village—was that the upper mill or the lower mill? You see the Lower Mill is where Hoyt’s is now and the Upper Mill had the power (water).


They had the store and the post office.


Most all those houses on St. George’s Church side of the road were either Traffords or Lewises. If a daughter married, there was another house. You know what I mean? It was sort of family like. ‘Course the Mrs. Lewis who used to take in sewing was part of that family.


And the Lawtons…


The Lawtons married into the family.


The Lawtons that are Mrs. Field’s family, aren’t the Lawtons that I mean’ that’s another Lawton. Those are the Head of Westport Lawtons. Her (Janice Field) family had a farm up on Sanford Road; that’s that Lawton. These Lawtons worked in the mills.


Then there were the warehouses; those were weird place to come by. They were there in back of the store—now it’s where Danny has his boats and trailers and things. There was the store and then these huge warehouses that came down Union Avenue. They were for storage. They were on Union Avenue—well, just above the old factory church there—a ways up toward the State Road. There were these warehouses and then across the street there, on the corner store, and across the street was a little post office and that’s where Israel Hall used to …


That was too bad that the Coggeshall house was taken down—too bad, because Mrs. Hopkinson tried to preserve that as long as she lived. I’m sorry they tore it down.


You can’t blame the people; it was old, that and Oscar Palmer’s and the Potter house.