Posted on July 16, 2014 by Jenny ONeill
Everett Coggeshall was interviewed by Mary Giles on November 10, 1976. He spoke at length about his childhood, the changes taking place in Westport at the time, and his status as the oldest plumber in the U.S.A.
Mr. Coggeshall, I know that you have worked hard for many years and that several people have made tape recordings of you. I want to add this one to your other tape recordings for a book for the Westport Bi-Centennial. You have the reputation of being the oldest living plumber in the United States; having worked in homes at the Westport Harbor and on the houses, long ago destroyed by the 1938 hurricane. For years I’ve heard many interesting things about you from, among others, Hartley Howe and Herbert Hadfield.
Mr. Coggeshall, have you always lived in Westport Harbor?
No, I’ve lived here for 85 years the 25th of last March.
Where did you live before that?
I was born in Middletown, Rhode Island.
Then you came here 85 years ago. How old were you then?
I was between seven and eight. I’ll put it this way. I would have been eight years old the 25th of June, and we came here on the 25th of March.
Do you remember, as a child, just coming here, which kinds of things you played with? Did you go to school here for instance?
This house I live in is the school where I went.
This is the school?
Yes Ma’am, I bought it to get all the knowledge. There was no high school in Westport and I went to this school ‘til I finished school and I was 12 years old and that was the end of it. Yes! It was the oldest schoolhouse and I bought it and built it over into a house.
That’s very smart. Do you remember what the schoolhouse was called?
Acoaxet – Westport Harbor in them days. Acoaxet never came into vogue in them days until United States opened a post office down here. Nobody knew it other than Westport Harbor, and then government changed it to Acoaxet.
When you were a child coming here, how were the winters? Did you coast and all that?
Oh gosh! We don’t have winters now – we have summer all winter. I’ve rode over all these stonewalls you see around here with a horse and sled. Many a time the winters were so tough, it would be 10 – 15 degrees below zero for three to four weeks at a time. The snow would be three to four feet deep. We couldn’t even get to Adamsville.
What did you do for food then?
We had plenty of food.
Did you dry food or can it?
My mother was perfect. We had plenty of boarders. All the boarders from the city that came here to work, boarded with my mother. Some of them were shut up here in the winter when they couldn’t get out of the house.
And she could cook and feed them all?
Yes, I bought 15 barrels of flour a year for her. She’d bake all that bread.
We’d buy lard by the fifty pound tubs, besides we had our own poultry and pigs and beef hanging up in the crib froze up – plenty of meat.
You could go out and cut a steak any time you wanted it?
That’s right! It was so good; it was just like a deep freeze. You take it in December – after Thanksgiving, the first cold weather’d come, and you’d take out in the corn crib and hang up a critter, see, and it would last ‘til April. You didn’t need a freezer then. We had plenty of eggs, plenty of poultry, apples, and all kinds of vegetables. We had eight farms going here. We had Dan Maeder’s farm and Borden Tripp’s and up at Adamsville and along Cornell Road.
You coasted – you sledded – did you ice-skate?
Ice Skate? Yes, down on the pond at the harbor. For gosh sakes, there’d be fifty of us sometimes from Adamsville, Little Compton, Tiverton and Westport. We had iceboats—three ice boats where you’d sail all day if you wanted to. That was the most fun of all. Yes, there ain’t no more of that any more—ain’t no ice. Ice would be anywhere from 12 inches to 3 feet thick.
Just to give you an illustration, you know where Brayton’s Point is, I’ve seen the ocean froze over from Brayton’s Point to New Bedford and I saw a man walk from the end of Horseneck there over to Cuttyhunk on the ice and back again. Nothing could move it, the ice was three or four foot thick.
Have you ever thought about what made the difference between now and then?
The weather’s changed, that’s all. I don’t know what made it. Of course, we had no machinery in those days. I got the roads from my father when I was 12 years old and we had to prepare them. All this section from Adamsville down—all this section, you know. We’d take the horses—the oxen I mean—we didn’t have horses in those days. We’d break the rocks as best we could and shovel. We had no machinery of any kind.
What kind of plow did you have? You had oxen and plows too when you were farming, didn’t you?
We had cast iron plows, the ones I had, and they were pulled by oxen. All of the farming was done by oxen. I plowed day in and day out with oxen.
What did you raise?
Everything. My father was a greengrocer, so we raised everything.
Where did you sell them?
Everywhere here, for 43 years I supplied the harbor with vegetables, eggs, cream, poultry, fruit, and vegetables. Umh!
Everything you raised, you sold right here at the harbor?
No. No, I peddled them into New Bedford and Fall River and all that.
Into Providence too?
Yes, way back.
What did you use to take them in – a horse and wagon?
No. No that was later in the years when automobiles…
You had a truck?
Yes, from there on 1917 – 18, I went to the city, Fall River, every morning and bought fruit and vegetables for my route. I had 110 customers here. You see, in those days nobody had any cows, there were no dairies or anything. The farmers had two cows; some of them three and once in a while some of them had four or five for their own use. They made butter and churned it and sold it to the city. We had pound molds.
Did you have molds that were pretty and had decorations on them?
Those are very valuable now.
I don’t know. I sold them all when my mother died. My father and mother died and I got rid of all that stuff.
When did your father and mother die? Do you remember?
I’ve got it written down in there. I can tell you.
Please don’t bother to get up.
You came from a family that lived a long time?
Too damn long if you ask me! I’m no good for anything. What’s the use of hanging around—can’t do anything.
Well, do you read?
Oh yes, I read.
Well if you can read, you’re doing something to make life interesting.
But I’d rather be out working. Yes! I never was a desk man. I always worked—worked with the tools—had 26 men working for me.
What were they working for you doing?
When did you start the plumbing?
At the same time you were raising the vegetables and taking them around?
Yes, and doing all the things. Had the fishing business and the peddling business and the plumbing business and the bottled gas business. I was one of the first to sell bottled gas to the houses around. I handled that for 51 years.
When was your first bottled gas customer—do you remember?
No, I couldn’t.
Well, who was your first plumbing customer—do you remember that?
Right here at the Harbor? See we’ve got a water works here, the only one in Westport, which is over one hundred years old now. My father took care of that before me and when he gave up, I took it. I was a resident engineer for mains, connected all the houses and plumbed the houses, practically all of them ‘til I got 110 houses from about 6.
You did a lot of plumbing on the East Beach of Westport too?
Oh, I’ve worked all over Westport, Somerset, Swansea, Portsmouth, and Little Compton. Had over a hundred customers in Little Compton. Had over 1300 customers on the book when I quit. I had the same ones to the third generation. Some of them yet. I’ve told them and told them I can’t do the work. I have Albert Fields do it, but he did work with me.
His wife’s father had me pipe all the boats he built.
I don’t see how you had all that energy.
I don’t know why I’m living, to tell you the truth. Sometimes I hardly ever saw a bed. Sometimes from the middle of June ‘til after Labor Day I slept on the truck when I worked. Many a time I’ve pulled up along side the road and slept for over an hour and then when I got rested a little, I started out.
I lived at home; mother put up my lunch every day. As I say, I never worked on the books. I had a bookkeeper, but she died here nine years ago; she lived right with me—me and my wife.
Do you have children?
So you and your wife carried on all this.
Tell me about the hurricanes…
Which ones? There was the ’38, ’44, and ’54.
What did they do to the Harbor?
The ’38 took 56 of my biggest houses. Some of them had seven bathrooms in them and three floors. Course, they ain’t built nothing like that since, and it’s got them down to where there’s only 30 some now.
And what about the ’44 hurricane?
That wasn’t as bad—only took one or two houses. The ’54 hurricane was pretty bad. If the ’54 hurricane had come at high tide…well, the ’38 was a tidal wave, you could see it coming right up to Adamsville and it hit the stonewall right at the pond. It receded the same way, just like a wave coming up the beach, and it took everything with it when it went back. Houses were parking against the wall up there at Adamsville, from down here at Acoaxet, 3 miles, over 3 miles.
Well, if the ’54 hurricane had come on the top of the high tide instead of the low tide, it would have been worse than the ’38. The water was 12 foot high.
Did the Lees own the land where the Santos’ big milk barns are now?
Have you ever traveled very much or have you spent most of your time here in Westport?
Well, what do you mean traveling?
They ain’t had a bus between here and Quebec that I haven’t seen or there ain’t a bus between here and Atlantic City that I haven’t seen. After the 12th of October, I’d take my wife and my bookkeeper and we’d start out. No particular place, Atlantic City, or down to Baltimore or up to Montreal or up to Quebec or St. Ann de Beaupre. No particular places.
What kind of a car did you drive?
A Model T, then a Model A, then a V0-8, always a Ford. I had six of them in the business when I was working—when I had all the men.
Is that thing (tape recorder) on now?
There’s some things I didn’t want it to hear. My father didn’t have no education, see, and I had to do everything. It was a long time before I could teach him to write his name. He was a good businessman. We built stonewalls and did grading and all kinds of work.
Was this all cleared land? You didn’t have any wild animals—like deer and so on?
Sure, we had plenty of them. I think I’ve seen …..of them.
You know where the Bojuma Farm is? Well, that’s where we came and we lived there for eight years. Then we bought the next one, right at the end of the road here, where you go down the road and we were there ever since, ‘til I moved up here.
When did you move up here?
When you went to school here, how many grades were there?
And you went here for all nine grades?
Yes, then I went one winter after I got through the term. I was all alone—nobody in the class.
Was it a one room school—one teacher? How many were in your class?
There were about 25 of us and one teacher. She taught everything.
Did you like her?
Oh God, she was sweet! We got along all right. You know the men folks didn’t go to school in them days—the way they do now. You know we had grown people—getting up to 18, 19 and 20 years old. They’d go to school in the winter term and when it came vacation time, you wouldn’t see them again ‘til the next winter. They had to work on the farm. Course the girls come, but the men folks didn’t. Like Steve Howland, George Howland, Melvin Borden, of course they could. We had a full schoolhouse here in the winter.
You must have had many unusual experiences as a pioneer in your field of plumbing here. Could you tell me some of the things about it?
I don’t think anyone else in the United States could say it, but I still have the offspring of my first customers—no one could take them away.
You must have been awfully good.
I’ll tell you another thing now, when I first started in the 20’s there, you see this Acoaxet built up in the 20’s when the depression was on; the people down here had plenty of money from the Mills in Fall River when they was running good. When the depression come on, they drove me crazy. I was working seven days a week. We’d work nine hours a day—not eight—from seven to five, seven days a week to keep up with them. The carpenters come from the city – from Fall River – and the men, they boarded with my mother. They’d life in pup tents around the yard. They’d go to work at 5:00 in the morning and they’d work ‘til 10:00 at night.
Who helped your mother? She couldn’t do all this alone.
Oh, no. We had two or three women working for her. My sister and myself, we had to do our share and two – there were four I guess, four of us besides my mother.
When you were a little child, did you have to help out with things?
Oh yes, I’ve always worked – ever since I was big enough to do anything.
You always did your share – and you like it that way?
Well, it hasn’t done me any hurt. Kept me out of mischief anyway.
Are you sure you didn’t get into any mischief?
No, I didn’t have no black marks against me and no enemies either that I know of.
This is my 62nd year as a police officer—since 1914. I policed the town for years before we had a police department, along with the rest of the town work that I was doing. I offered to bet anybody that the water in my radiator never got cold from the middle of June ‘til after Labor Day.
In the old days there wasn’t any gasoline pumps around or anything like that.
How did you get your gasoline?
Well, I had a man with a horse and team and a truck on it that delivered it every week—50-60 gallons a week come from Tiverton Four Corners. He had one tank with kerosene for the lights. There wasn’t any lights down here or anything.
How ere the roads? What were they made of? Were they dirt roads?
When were they paved?
Well, se started in, I can’t tell you the date but…
Well, was it after the war?
Well it was 50 or 60 years ago. We had water bound macadam.
And you worked on the roads?
On yes, I had a pair of horses and a wagon and went out every day.
Dan Maeder said he worked on the Charlton House down here.
Oh well, that was late. I was around here for years, years before Dan Maeder ever knew where it was. He was out in California or somewhere. He wasn’t born probably.
He lived in Lincoln, Rhode Island.
Well, he was out in California and that’s where he comes from here. He bought the place.
You see, when we come here, this place (on the corner) was all run down. Albert Simmons lived there with his wife and daughter, and he was an old man. He was beyond farming in those days. They used to put out the land to different farmers. The stuff was a prize to us and we planted it, and harvested it, and gave them half. We didn’t pay any rent for it. We gave them half so we had the farm where Dan Maeder lived, the Bojuma Farm and this place.
There was nobody living in the Dan Maeder’s for years. The place was empty. I dug the cellar for the house where he lives.
Who built all these nice stonewalls that are around here?
Oh, we had men right here to do it—Dan Palmer, Dave Palmer, Wilbur Palmer. They’re all dead and gone, see. They used to build for so much a rod.
Can you remember how much they got for a rod?
No, I can’t. Down at the Harbor, we built big walls—eight foot high with three horses—four horses, sometimes a pair or oxen and a pair of horses on one stone. The ’38 hurricane took them all. You can’t find any of them.
How did it work? What did you put the stones on?
We had the low gear and we had three______to hoist them up and put them on the _____gear. We’d use one horse, sometimes two, three, or four horses, and if anyone_____. I had five horses. Before that we had two pair of oxen and one horse. Nobody had two horses. Every farmer had one horse that he could go to the store with—or something like that.
Did you have surries or buggies or anything like that?
One-horsed Preis (?) wagons.
About animals that are here, deer used to be thick. And mink and muskrats—caught a hundred a month—got 10 cents apiece for the skins. Possums, sure…I had 35 hens and the raccoons come and killed them all. And foxes, we have a lot of them.
Let me tell you, that damned Almy down on Horseneck Road, not the one now, but his father, he brought foxes up from down South—we never had foxes before that, for when they used to ride to the Hounds, you know. He had a hundred dogs.
He used to own all the wharfs down at the Point, before they built the electric cars from Fall River to New Bedford. They bought waste. All the houses around Lincoln Park belonged to the Mill. The Mill is there yet—I don’t know what’s in there.
A furniture company.
Beyond the Mill, going toward Fall River, was the store. The road goes down the other side of the Mill – 177.
Of course, the old-timers are all gone—all the men I had working for me are all gone.
Do you feel lonesome?
You stay up late?
Til 11:25 to 12:00—get up for the 7:00 to 8:00 news.
It’s no fun living alone, especially when you get my age.
You know where the Powder House is? There was a harness shop there—all there was on the Hiram Road.
Do you remember where the stone Kirby house_______?
Across from _______.
I run dances all winter.
I put the water on in the houses.
Hiram Reed used to fiddle for me. I run dances.
When we built up the Harbor here, we had a rule that everything had to be done by the first of July, so we went to work by the first of April. Had the water in the street by the 19th of April. We could build houses in the winter. You had to be out of the Harbor by July 1st. You couldn’t paint; you couldn’t carpenter; you couldn’t even put a screen up. If you had a carpenter on the job, he had to take it to his shop and make it. No noise! No building! No nothing! Everything from April to the first of July was just a hornet’s nest. Then from July to the 1st of October—that was the summer people. Of course, they had no automobiles.
Macombers’ stable was down there. They (the summer people) had their own stables, they had their own horses, ‘cause they had to drive from Fall River and back every day to work (15 miles).
Did most of the summer people who came here come from Fall River?
Yes, at that time. Then, before that, we had the Captains Sowles Boarding House at the Harbor – about 65 people, and we had the Howland House over here—on the road over here—that would take care of another 65. We had the Davis House, where the Coaxet Club is now. They took all the boarders they could and all these farmhouses around here took people, some of them two, some four. Well, those people would come here from the West. They would come here in June and stay here ‘til Labor Day.
From New York?
Yes! We had to go to Fall River, meet the boat, get their luggage, and truck them down here.
I suppose that was the Fall River Line?
Yes! We moved them down in the spring and we moved them back in the fall.
Do you know much about the electric cars that ran between Fall River and New Bedford?
On yes! I remember when they was built—don’t ask me when—and the one built from Fall River to Newport over Stone Bridge.
My cousin was the superintendent and my other cousin was the assistant superintendent. They stayed with them ‘til they went out of business and they took the tracks up and sold them.
You see, they had all horse cars in Fall River before the electric cars.
You certainly have had a lot of experiences. I think it must be fun to think back about all the different experiences you’ve had in your life.
Well, I’ve done things in my life that I don’t think anyone else ever done.
I worked for John F. Johnson Company, in 1897, when I went to learn my trade. Of course, I was a country boy and I was handy. The men boarded at the house, and the plumbers done all the work down there. We had 150 men at the shop—just a little small shop you know. We had 10 plumbers, 10 helpers, and 40 steamfitters.
Where was this company?
Right where the B.M.C. Durfee Bank is now on Central and Main.
Have you been in Fall River lately?
I don’t know my way around it anymore. When I worked in Fall River, there was nothing up Highland Avenue beyond New Boston Road—no Truesdale Hospital—all woods clear down to the city. Union Hospital was there then, small, not like it is now, and New Boston Road had very few houses on it.
I worked in Lizzie Borden’s house many a day. I knew Lizzie well and her sister too.
You don’t think she did it, do you?
Andrew Jennings was my customer, the lawyer that got her free.
Do you know much about Hettie Green?
Yes. I’ve sat and talked with Colonel Green by the hour. He had the first radio there and hundreds of people came every evening.
At White’s Restaurant, back in 1966, they gave you a great big banquet. You were 82 years old even then.
I’ll be 93 next June. I belong to the Lions’ Club and I’ll be going there tonight—to White’s. I’ve been going there for years. Borden Tripp and I will go together. Alice, his wife, is here about every day.
Apparently, you were the youngest plumber with a license here in Massachusetts, when you first started.
I was 33.
About 1896, I worked down at Westport Point for Charlie Hammond, boating across from the Post Office. I lived there all summer – $15 a month for my board. Amber Columbia, Bob Wood’s mother, was born while I was there.
I still have a 38-foot boat down at the point. Harold Wood uses it—before that, they was doing alright. None of the boys (fishermen) has done well this year.
How far out do they go?
Our pots were out about 30 miles, I guess. I fish about 150 pots.
Thank you. I’ve enjoyed this very much. Thanks very much for letting me come and talk with you.
Talking is the best thing I do….