John Hart was interviewed by Mary Giles in 1976. He spoke about his greenhouse.
Your work here in your little greenhouse on Adamsville Road has given Westporters much pleasure. Your flats were always more than a ‘baker’s dozen’ and people loved coming here because you loved them so much. Many places in Westport sell your ‘Stone Ground’ cornmeal – the Johnny cakes it makes are superb. Most summers, your tractor has been busy helping others with their mowing. On this tape, it is hoped that much of you life can be recorded.
I was born in Tiverton on February 26, 1903. I moved to Westport in 1920. I went to school in Tiverton – I grew up there – I’ve known this territory all my life. The boundary lines between Tiverton, Dartmouth and Westport were moved in the past. It is said that if you slept on one side of the bed, you were in Westport – on the other side, you were in Tiverton!
When I first came here, I worked in the store here, and most of the time on the road taking orders and delivering groceries; and grading and terracing. The store was Gray’s Store right here. I started the greenhouse about 1932.
The things we old in 1920 were much the same as the things we sell now, but it was in bulk – beans, rice, and crackers. This road was paved just through the village (of Adamsville) – on the outskirts it wasn’t. It was paved just a short time before I came. We used kerosene lights altogether. My wife’s job was to wash store chimneys.
The store was a good business; when the depression came, we got along alright. We never made a lot of money – of course, in those days, you didn’t think too much about money – just enough to get along and pay your bills. I had my first car about 1922 and it was a 1918 Ford.
My wife’s people owned the store and the mill. They were born in Tiverton; they came to Westport 100 years ago this year (1976). In Tiverton, they lived on Lake Road. My wife’s name was Gray – her grandfather bought this place 100 years ago. That’s why it’s Gray’s Mill. And her father and her brother continued this business until her brother passed away, and that made her the last of the Grays and we bought the property. She was born in this house and lived here all her life. I met her because I came here to work. I hired out to work for two weeks; another man who worked here, wanted to go away for two weeks – so I’ve been here now for 56 years.
The store was heated by a pot-bellied stove, wood and coal, and we banked it overnight.
We sold bread. I recall that I was speaking to someone just this morning about the price of bread. I bought a loaf this morning for 73 cents, and we used to sell it 3 loves for a quarter. I sold tons of it on the road. To deliver, I used the company car. We had a truck – an old truck. In fact, in wintertime we used a horse and sleigh – the winters were more severe. One big business here in the wintertime was filling icehouses with ice. We always had cold winters, so that we got good thick ice. It does act as though this was going to be a cold winter.* I’ve been husking corn this forenoon, and the husks are very thick, and that’s a pretty good sign.
*Coldest on record.
The nearest icehouse was right here, just beyond this shed; (there were) three large ice houses that we’d fill from the pond. We’d put runs up from the pond right across the road. To cut the ice at first, we used a horse marker, it was a plow. We marked it down about three inches, then we went through it the second time, which made a five inch cut, then we’d saw out what we’d call the ‘sluice way’ and break each cake off with a needle. We didn’t have to saw it all the way through. Then we’d put the runs up near the house, close the road to traffic, even if we used this lower way, and we used the horse to pull it up the run into the house. We just used a rope fastened to a big hook on the end. We’d take maybe seven or eight cakes at one time. The cakes were about 300 pounds, 12” ice weighed just about 300 pounds. They were – let’s see – 22” x 44” – 44” long and 22” wide, I would, myself. After the Grays died and we bought the store, I rented the place to Edward Cook, a fellow that worked with me. I rented the store to him, and took over the meal and ice business myself. It was quite a good business at one time, served Westport Harbor and Westport Point. I delivered. This was before very much mechanical refrigeration, of course.
When we were young, the hall, which is now the ‘dish store’, was a very busy place every evening. Either movies or dances, plays from different ones in the village – summer and winter. Oh, yes. Of course, in those days, we had clambakes at the church, and we actually had a lot of private clambakes in those days. My wife’s brother was very apt at making the old fashioned clambakes. We’d do that perhaps on a Sunday. I started to say, we didn’t work 8 hours a day – we worked long hours, and we didn’t need so much socializing.
The greenhouse started from buying plants to sell at the store in the spring of the year – plants from a greenhouse over in Dartmouth, and I’d go over now and then, and I happened to think, ‘Why not raise some plants myself?’ I liked the work very much, so – actually, I built the greenhouse for my wife. She’s very fond of flowers. I built it for her to put house plants in, but they got – there was a lot of lice on them, and it was expensive to run the heat all winter, so the next spring, I thought I’d plant a lot of tomatoes and peppers and flower plants to see if they’d sell, and it just kept building up every year, and I enjoy the work, and so I made a little business of it; it increases every year. I give good healthy plants. I don’t like to do everything for a lot of money. The older I get, the more I like to do for other people. Before noon, I was husking corn for a fellow who has been in the hospital, and had a lot of corn, and I thought I’d help him.
It’s quite a little job to keep the mill going. You have to be a mechanic and an engineer to keep it going. It’s like a small business, and you can’t hire people – in fact, there aren’t many who want to have anything to do with a mill, because they don’t know anything about it. Uh – everything today, of course, is automobiles, and the millwork today is – well, it’s heavy, heavy work, and no one knows anything about it really.
The pond goes dry nearly every summer. In the summertime, years ago, we didn’t do any grinding. We quit for two or three months, but now that we have a motor on, I don’t use waterpower at all – I use the motor altogether.
The mill pays for what time I put in – yes, about two hours a day perhaps. I work the mill and water the greenhouse, and I go out and do odd jobs for other people, and so that everything together, it’s a good life, and a good living, really. It’s the kind I like – I’m not apt to do one thing after another all the time. I like to work and I’m not afraid of dirt – you can tell that by looking at me.
One hundred years ago, my wife’s family did much the same as I’m doing now. They had the ice business and the mill, and they used to have a lot of horses. There used to be a big barn here, and they hauled grain from the city. They also ran a stagecoach into New Bedford years ago. My wife’s father did that – uh – various kinds of work, mainly store and mill and ice business.
The stagecoach was time consuming too. It ran, oh, every day; it carried the mail from Little Compton, as well as passengers, and they used covered wagons – not the old style western wagon, but a covered wagon with a pair of horses, from Little Compton to New Bedford, but they would change horses at Lincoln Park and they had a stable where they kept horses. It was a day’s trip, both ways. The stage drive would do errands for people. I remember that very well.
I wouldn’t know enough to change anything about Westport. I don’t think – in this end of town – the change has been so great – that it’s any different than it has been. I wouldn’t want to see it like the north end of town, although I realize that people like to get out of the city, and life has to go on, and people have to have a place to live. I have a few acres here – something like 11 acres. I’ve raised Rhode Island corn to grind for maybe up to 15 years ago, but I’m not able to do it anymore. I get quite a lot from Little Compton and Mark Gifford is one who helps – and I don’t get enough – I could use more. Most of the farms now are large farms, dairy farms.