Charles Costa was interviewed by Mary Giles on November 21, 1976. He spoke of Westport’s farms and of the difficulties he faced on the Board of Selectmen.
(Charles Costa, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, is thought by most Westport citizens to be remarkably even tempered and fair when other tempers are rising.)
My farming experience was right from childhood days because I was born and brought up on a farm, and my father was farming prior to myself. We started on a farm in Central Village, right across from the cemetery where ‘Fred and Ann’s is now, on land that I worked on as a child. Then I moved to Adamsville Road in 1946. The Main Road farm was a rather small farm. We only had about 12 cows at a time and we did raise some vegetables—vegetables to sell—strawberries, turnips, sweet corn, and potatoes, that sort of thing.
I graduated from high school in ’46. I started off at the Point School for the first four years, the Bruce Corner School for two years, the Factory School for two years and the Milton Earle School, which was the high school, for four years. When I graduated, they had started to build the new high school. I graduated while it was under construction.
My principal was Norman Gifford when I started and, when I finished, it was Milton Earle. There I played football, baseball and basketball all four years. In basketball, in my junior year, we were second place in the Narragansett League championship. I did play a little basketball after I graduated. I always liked sports and I still do. I really don’t have too much time for sports now. I do play, maybe a little tennis in the summer time, but that’s about all.
I get up about six o’clock in the morning and finish by six o’clock in the evening. I have about 70 head of cattle right now. I sell the milk through Gulf Hill Dairy. They pick it up in a tank car and then sell it to “Yankee Milk,’ which is a cooperative. There are now more milk cans. We had the 40-quart milk can – well up to maybe 15 years ago.
When we did have a vegetable farm, most of the vegetables were sold in Fall River in different stores. At that time, my father did most of the transporting.
My mother and father were both born in Westport. My grandparents came into Westport about 83 years ago (my father’s mother and father). My grandparents on both sides came from the Azores. They landed in New York, and then came to, I think, Warren, Rhode Island, where they were just a short time and then came to Westport. They worked out by the day on a farm—for just a day for different people in the town until they could get their own. Yes, I knew them well. My mother’s mother, I didn’t really know very well. I remember her, but that’s about all. On my mother’s side, I remember my grandfather quite well, and, of course, my grandfather on my father’s side. I was eight or nine years old when he passed away, but my grandmother on my father’s side died at the age of 96 and this was in 1952, and she did live with us, or with my folks, and I have more or less lived with her all my life.
She had many interesting stories to tell of her earlier life and I know she tells many at a time, of how—when my grandfather was working on the farm, she would be washing clothes, hauling water, heating the irons on the stove to iron the clothes and taking in washings and doing all that sort of thing. She lived all this time in the home the Normans occupy right now, the house right across from the cemetery at the end of Hix Bridge Road. In fact, that’s where I was born.
When I got older and went to high school, I did help. When I was in elementary school, I didn’t have to help. I helped in the evenings, but I didn’t have to do any work before school.
For me now, hiring help does pose a problem, but I have a full-time man working for me and also a younger high school student, who is taking ‘Ag,’ comes in after school and weekends in the summer months, and I guess I’ve just been fortunate in being able to keep the full-time man. Without him I would not be able to have this type of operation.
I spend on the average, at least twice a week, in the evening, on community affairs—this is, of course, an average. There are some weeks when you have three or four meetings.
There’s naturally the Selectmen’s meeting itself every week, and other than this, we do have union negotiations, which could fall on other evenings. We have meetings when other boards are asking to attend and we have out-of-town meetings. When I say union, I’m talking as far as the town workmen are concerned. The firemen, the police, the clerks, the nurses and we have to negotiate the contracts for their different departments, and this does take a lot of time—sometimes evenings, sometimes during the day. These union meetings are all part of the town function—as Chairman of the Selectmen, I have to go to their meetings.
I spoke of my interest in sports. I haven’t had much time for fishing or hunting with the farm and all this. I do like boating—in fact, I did have a small boat when I was a teenager, but I just didn’t have the time. It was a wooden boat.
I can say one thing, as a child, and right along, I was always interested in politics, and I started attending town meetings when I was a student in high school and we were able to sit on the side and observe. At that time, they were being held during the day and we were allowed to attend these meetings, and since the age when I became 21 and was able to register to vote, I don’t believe I’ve ever missed a town meeting.
I always did have an interest in the town, of course, being born and brought up here. Well, that’s true that there are many people born and brought up here who never attend a town meeting. Yes, that’s true and that is a shame, because the people who do the most complaining, never attend and they just complain when they read the paper, or you meet them on the street. Well, I may try to explain what they’re asking, but then I say, ‘the best place for you would be to be at that town meeting and be able to sit up and give your feelings there. The vote has been taken and the majority rules and that’s what has to be done.’
About speaking in town meeting—as many times as I have done it, I’m nervous about doing it. If you really believe in something, you can just tell it like it is, in your own words. You don’t have to be a real speaker.
This is my sixth year as a member of the Board. This is my second time as Chairman of the Board. Prior to that, I was an elected member of the board, which I was on for 16 years. When I first went on the Board of Health, I was on with Harry Morrison and Norman Gifford—not the former principal but the contractor. I’d have to think of those who served in between. We always had a doctor as advisor to the Board, and, of course, the nursing department—we also had them as advisors, more or less.
I’m right in the middle of the controversy about the ‘Poor Farm.’ I’m aware of the problems. Many of the people concerned with town problems are ‘committee watching.’ That is a good thing. I think people should have more interest in what is going on.
I do want to express myself about this problem (Nursing Home in the old Poor Farm). I know we’ve always been worried about it. I know the Fire Department has been, because it’s an old wooded building. There are elderly people on the second floor and narrow, winding stairways, and if there were a fire, there would be no way of getting them out-especially if they panicked. It’s just a worry to us as officials, and what is even worse, the State will not approve this as a nursing home—the State will not license them as such, because of the conditions, and to just go along and license this as a lodging house, just to more or less circumvent the law, we just didn’t feel that this was right.
I think that really, we will have to—this farm was rented to this woman by a vote of town meeting, and before anything else is done with it, I will see that an article will go into this year’s town meeting, because I would hate to see the town ever sell that property. It goes right to the river and it’s a beautiful location, and has real nice value. I realize that if you leave the house vacant, the insurance will lapse after 60 days.
I would think that maybe the most practical thing would be to rent it to a family or something—just to keep the building up. As far as the actual land and barn, it’s being leased to Howard Tripp, another dairy farmer, right now and there’s no problem as far as that’s concerned. I think the town should keep it until maybe someday they would have a specific use for it.
Many uses have been suggested for it. I know that this is one place that they’ve talked about for housing for the elderly, but the only thing there that was a detriment was that it was out of the way as far as stores and anyone getting out of the place.
Speaking of this house (the old Allen homestead), I remember coming here with my mother when Mabel Ball lived here, when I was a child walking down from our home in Central Village. This was when I was about five years old. She was weaving. I remember her still—sitting in here weaving, and I remember her off there, milking the goats and trying to raise feed and doing this all by hand to feed the goats.
I’d think it would be good to explain some of the activities of the Board of Health over the years. When I first came here, it was under the charge of the Nursing Department. Then there were a lot of cases of T.B. There were reimbursements and arranging for hospitalization and checking out cesspools and well locations, etc. The Board of Health still has to approve the perk (percolation) test and the well location before a building permit is given. Of course, with the larger lot size regulations, it’s better too. For the years I was on the Board, perk tests weren’t required and we didn’t have state regulations as such. We had our own town by-laws to go by, but as I say, we had lots of houses crowded together because there weren’t regulations.
The town dump always came under the Board of Health, and this has always been a problem; it’s certainly one now. I think something could be done on a six or seven town basis, which would make use of this waste. Other places the dump by-products are sold. I’ve forgotten where this plant is located, out in the mid-west, where it’s paying for itself. Again, I say six or seven towns would have to get together, but I think it would be much more feasible than going into a ten million dollar sort of thing like the City of Fall River did. It’s shut down half of the time, and it still isn’t working, and with that incinerator, you still have maybe ten percent of that ash that has to be taken somewhere.
When the proposed lagoon site was voted down, I felt that maybe we just got a little bit excited about deadlines with the City of Fall River. I agree that E.P.A. has more or less put a stop on Fall River’s taking any more of this, but I just couldn’t see because you were polluting the Taunton River. I don’t know. I’m glad we didn’t go into it.
As far as my other activities in town are concerned, at the age of 16 – 17, I joined the Juvenile Grange. Of course, at the age of 18 when you were eligible to join the Subordinate Grange, I became a member of that. I’ve been a member ever since. I received by 35-year pin a few years ago. I became a member of the Westport Volunteer Fire Department at the age of 16-‘course I lived very close to the Fire Station at that time. During World War II, most of the men were away in the service, and they really had a problem, especially during the daytime hours, because most of the men were working. So they made an arrangement with the school department. I think there were four of us that, at any time, when there was a fire, could just drop our books and leave classes. If the fire truck was coming north, we would run out and wait to meet it. If it was going south, we’d run down the road and the fire engine would back up and we’d meet half way in between, and then we’d take off because it meant either this man going to the fire alone on the truck, or wait a couple of minutes. Stanley Gifford was the Fire Chief at the time, but this wasn’t a full time job, so that whoever was on at the time—Joe Santos was one of the permanent men who was on during the day. And the four of us went down to the station about once a week, and we had fire drills so that we knew what we were doing, and as I say, the teachers all knew this, and the minute the sirens blew, we could run. The siren was on top of the fire station, and the number of rings let us know which direction it was heading, and we could drop our books. Being a teenager and being in school, this was just great. We did get paid fifty cents an hour, but I think that every fire we did go to, especially brush fires cost us six or seven times as much for shoes and pants. I hung around the fire station as a young boy and got my 25-year membership as a volunteer fireman.
The Grange isn’t as active today as it was before TV and cars. It used to be a place to go evenings. Weekends they had dances and suppers. They still do a little, but I know as a teenager, they were very, very active and they did have agricultural fairs in the fall where you could bring in your different vegetables and compete for prizes. It was a form of entertainment and community help. The social life of the community centered around the Grange at the time. There’s a Grange up on Old Bedford Road in North Westport. As a matter of fact, the Grange dances here were on Tuesday night’ the dance at the Watuppa Grange were on Saturday night and the Acushnet Grange dances were on Thursday. I went to them all. I wend dancing a lot.
Years back, not so much in later years, but years back, we found a lot of arrowheads. I kept them, but they’ve been lost somewhere along the line. I haven’t found any in several years. The Grange also had a couple of clambakes a year.
You asked me about traveling. I’ve not been away from the farm too much. I’ve been to Florida, Canada, Maine and New York State. Recently I’ve traveled more because I was appointed to the State Agricultural Conservation Committee, an appointment that comes down from the Secretary of Agriculture. I have to go to Washington occasionally and then to Virginia and that sort of thing. It’s really interesting because at least once or twice a year, they hold a convention, from all the 50 states, for two or three days. With the part-time help, I have been able to go. We’re trying to convince the government what kind of help we need to solve some of the problems in the different counties.
Each county in Massachusetts has a three-man board that goes over the problems. It’s not really a subsidy program, but it there is a program that helps in conserving the land, conserving forestry practices, etc. I was on this county committee for nine years before I was on the state committee. We meet at least once a month at Amherst. In fact, I’m going there tomorrow. We advise locally, and this committee, which is between the county and Federal Government, is effective because it is right at the grass roots. The funding, of course, comes through Congress.
It is interesting to know, as Mr. Medeiros said, that Westport has the largest number of going dairy farms of any place in the state. It used to be that Dartmouth was second. Amherst was first at one time, and Westport third, but now Westport is first. We do have quite a number of going dairy farms in this town. This was not the case years ago. Practically everybody had a cow and sold whatever milk they could. Vegetables and wood were the farmers’ other products. Unless they sit down and think about it, people don’t think of wood as an agricultural product.
There was a lot of wood in Westport, and a lot was hauled into Fall River for fires, so I think that wood and vegetables were our products, and milk was a sideline.
Town Meetings are a problem. The question of what type of government to have is a question. The Town of Dartmouth has a population of 20,000, and they have an elected representational form of government. When I talk with people there, they have problems too. Just as people don’t come to our town meetings, the representatives maybe don’t attend—so I think our town meeting is the way. If we have just one item that people are interested in, they will get out to a town meeting, the voting on the lagoon just proved it, and before that, also when the zoning came up. They filled the auditorium and the hallways, and everything else. We had to have microphones connected into the other rooms. I think this is the most democratic way.
I’m not criticizing Fall River and New Bedford, but some of these administrators can go out and spend so much, and now the people are paying for it because they are in real financial difficulty. Their way leaves it up to just a handful to make the decision as to where every dollar is going, while in a town like this, every department has a line item budget, and you have to live by that budget. If you want to change, and the finance board can give reason for any transfer, and this is more or less an emergency situation, it can be changed. This way every individual living in town has the right to help control the budget.
The only bad part is that when people come (to town meeting) and pick up the warrant, it’s the first time they’ve looked at it. There might be 50 or 60 items on it’ they don’t fully understand it—so.
I know that years ago they had a taxpayers’ association, which held meetings and asked the various department heads to come and explain their recommendations—a pre-town meeting type of thing. The only trouble was that the people who went to this were the same people who would find out anyway, and those who weren’t interested didn’t make the effort. You have to be involved the year ‘round, and then you know what’s going on.
I like it that my phone rings a lot and people ask questions. I’m not saying anything about pressure groups. I’m talking about legitimate questions.
I think they are trying to be fair and protect the homeowner with the lot sizes, and the perk tests, so that they don’t have a headache over the years. I don’t think anyone in town is trying to give anyone else the business in any way.
Mr. Costa also said: “The cost of the equipment for a dairy farm is very expensive today. Years ago, you could start up with maybe a half dozen cows and maybe an old tractor, but today you have to have volume. You have to buy a great lot of equipment that you may only use two or three weeks out of the year. In any dairy farm today, that is going to be profitable, you would need at least/$100,000 operation and an investment of several thousand. The only way a young person, just out of school, could start, would be to have it handed down, or go into partnership, or there is someone who is eager to retire and will phase out his business gradually, letting the young person take over. You can’t borrow this money to get started, and if you did, you wouldn’t live long enough to pay it back. This is why the young folks just can’t get into the business today. I don’t know what the answer to this is.”