Secession – in Westport!
We all learned the word secession in school, and probably associated it with South Carolina’s departure from the Union in late 1860. But the concept is not just about civil war, or specifically related to states. To secede is to withdraw formally from membership in an organization, association, or alliance. And in the 1920s, the Westport Harbor section made two serious attempts to separate from the rest of the town, and form a new town called Acoaxet.
Geography played a big part in this affair. Back when Westport was part of Dartmouth, the land in question had been claimed by Plymouth Colony, but Rhode Island’s 1663 royal charter specified its eastern border as “three English miles to the east and north-east of the most eastern and north-eastern parts of Narragansett Bay.” Since no one could agree whether the Sakonnet River was part of Narragansett Bay, both Massachusetts and Rhode Island contested the border. In the 1740s Rhode Island appealed to the king – and the king agreed. The newly drawn line separating the two colonies ran through Adamsville and straight to the sea, isolating a part of Dartmouth from Little Compton and Tiverton, and resulting in the odd fact that Acoaxet could only be reached by going through Rhode Island. Although the state borders were again revised in 1861, well after Westport had separated from Dartmouth, the geographical peculiarity remained.
Westport Harbor developed in the late 19th century as a summer colony. By 1920, when Westport’s population exceeded 3,000, the Harbor could claim only 127 year-round residents and 33 registered voters, although the Harbor population more than doubled in the summer, as wealthy Fall River families filled the hotels and seaside cottages. The best known of the summer residents was Earl P. Charlton who had made a fortune by merging his “five and dime” stores with the F. W. Woolworth chain. Charlton’s Pond Meadow – still an elegant mansion at the mouth of the Westport River – generated more tax revenue than the Westport Manufacturing Company, the largest employer in town. Charlton and a number of other Harbor residents felt that they were paying too much in taxes for the paltry town services they received. In January 1919, asserting inadequate police protection and poor roads – and after their requests for tax abatements were denied – a group of Harbor residents appealed to the state Legislature to separate from Westport and form a new town called Acoaxet.
The disruptive times of 1919 probably added to the dissatisfaction of the petitioners. World War One had just ended (with 15 million deaths worldwide), and now an influenza epidemic was raging – and would eventually claim 100 million casualties. The divisive issues of Prohibition and women’s suffrage were also decided in 1919. The world, it seemed, had turned upside down.
The Harbor’s secession petition was heard by a state legislative committee in Boston. One important witness was District Court Judge James M. Morton Jr., a summer resident of Acoaxet, who testified that Harbor taxpayers were exploited by the town and that having to pass through Rhode Island posed problems of legality for the police. The Harbor petitioners estimated that over the past ten years they had paid $70,000 in taxes but received only $20,000 in services. The one-room Acoaxet schoolhouse (with 13 students) was woefully inadequate. While this was going on, the rest of Westport had their say: every section of town complained about taxes and anyway it was the state that demanded higher property assessments, mostly on waterfront property. Furthermore, the Harbor was simply too under-populated to be a legitimate town. As for the school, Acoaxet’s was no worse than the others: the School committee reported that they were all deplorable. At a special town meeting in January 1919, the vote was 139 to zero to oppose the secession. But the state committee let the matter rest and Westport Harbor remained in Westport.
From 1920 through 1925 the issue simmered. Tax abatement requests were shuffled between town assessors and Bristol County commissioners, with no relief. A proposed new road that would have connected Old Harbor Road and Adamsville Road, entirely within Massachusetts (thus obviating the legal issue that troubled Acoaxet) was not built. And the surge in Prohibition-era rum running made the problem of inadequate police protection more urgent.
In January 1926, the Acoaxet petitioners again brought their request to the state Legislature. Coincidently, two secession petitions in Dartmouth – one group wanted to form a new town, and another wanted to join New Bedford – were also being considered by the Legislature. In Westport Harbor the grievances were essentially the same as they had been seven years before: inadequate roads, school, and police protection; physically separated from the rest of Westport; and a disproportionate share of town taxes. As the petitioners’ attorney John W. Cummings put it: “Westport looks upon Acoaxet as Rome looked upon her provinces, as a source of revenue.”
Westport’s attorney, Arthur E. Seagrave, rose to the challenge. Any town might have a section that pays more in taxes; in fact, Massachusetts and New York could secede from the Union for paying more taxes than poorer states. “This is false logic and one charged with dynamite.” He conceded that Acoaxet did not get its share of poor relief, because no one there was on poor relief, or as much in school expenditures, because they had only three percent of the total school population. Therefore it stood to reason Harbor would not get back all that it put in.
Furthermore, separation would leave Westport with more than its share of public debt: the town tax rate would climb to $40 per thousand, while Acoaxet’s would drop to $10. Attorney Seagrave concluded with an appeal for Harbor residents to “Remember that Acoaxet was a part of Westport when Acoaxet was a howling wilderness … and other portions of Westport made their sacrifices to provide roads and a school for this meager settlement.” Now, automobiles have changed all that and a newly affluent Acoaxet would “leave her old parent with heavy burdens to bear.”
While the issues were being hashed out at the state level, Westport held a special town meeting on March 9. Over 300 citizens attended – the largest number ever seen. The focus was on taxes. As Dr. Breault put it, “Taxation is a worldwide problem. There isn’t a city, a town, or a hamlet throughout the length and breadth of this land that hasn’t its problems. Acoaxet has its grievances. So has South Westport and Central Village and every other section of the town. There is no spot on earth where the question of taxation is not a problem.”
Added to the dispute over tax fairness was an underlying resentment that had carried over from the World War. It was exemplified in a poem by Bill Potter, which he read at the town meeting. It went, in part:
The boys received a dollar a day
and many lost their health
The rich man stayed at home engaged
in doubling his wealth
And when our lads at last came home
Prepared to settle down
they found the rich men ready
to take part of their town
While it did represent the feelings of many of the town meeting participants, the poem did little to raise the level of the argument. However, it was not up to town meeting to decide: all waited to hear the decision of the legislative committee in Boston, which met on April 1. Again Judge Morton and Richard Hawes spoke eloquently for separation, but the committee reported unanimously against the separation of Acoaxet from Westport. The ostensible reason was that Acoaxet would have too few voters to operate as a separate town. There may also have been a general aversion to breaking up established towns: the two separation petitions in Dartmouth were also denied.
The matter quickly faded from town records (although perhaps more slowly from the minds of the participants). Soon enough there were other pressing issues to worry about: Prohibition and rum-running, the Great Depression, the devastating hurricane of1938, and World War II.
Almost a century later, how should we look at the attempted secession – as a historical curiosity, or as an event that might have some relevance today? Certainly it reminds us that Westport has a long history of village loyalty that is both part of its charm and a potential source of friction. The end result of the 1920s dispute is that Westport held together – despite the resentment and misunderstanding – and perhaps reached a broader perspective across the differences. Westport is richer economically, culturally and geographically for having its diverse villages. And we should all be happy that Acoaxet is still part of Westport – even if we have to go through Rhode Island to get there.