Westport Women Taking Care of History
Written by Jenny O’Neill and Betty Slade
It is striking how many women have been leaders in the effort to preserve Westport’s history. This series of profiles celebrates the contribution made by Westport women towards historic preservation, whether through documentation, education, building restoration, artistic expression, writings, and activism.
A common thread that links many of these individuals is their shared experience living in, having reverence for and restoring historic houses. Most had a broad interest in artistic expression, decorative arts, and traditional handiwork. Some were educators, teachers or writers.
These individuals were not from the world of professionally trained historians. Many, over time, were motivated to save specific historic sites, or as newcomers to Westport, were driven by a curiosity to learn about their adopted home, participating in committees, forming local organizations and working behind the scenes as volunteers for many decades.
We welcome suggestions of other Westport women who have contributed to local history and preservation. Our criteria include: must have lived in Westport and please note that although there are many women currently active in this field, for the purposes of this project, our focus is on those who are deceased.
Anne “Pete” Watson Lewis Baker (1929-2011) was born in Providence, R.I. She married Duncan Doolittle and had 4 children. She later married Robert Howe Baker (grandson of Louis Howe, chief of staff to President Franklin Roosevelt and boat builder) and had 2 children. She had a passion for the “soul” of old houses, falling in love “with crooked stairs, rain-soaked floors, rusty hardware, paint peeling door, the mystery of it all….I knew that a life dedicated to the study and preservation of our architectural heritage had just begun.” (Collecting Houses). As she became ever more entranced by the hands-on, dusty, dirty process of restoring old houses, she recalled the negative reaction of her first husband who informed her: “those are not the hands of a wife.”
Pete was a self-taught architectural historian who throughout her adult life saved more than 200 historic buildings in Westport and elsewhere. She organized conferences and workshops, was a consultant for WHALE, the Whaling Museum, Newport and Martha’s Vineyard historical preservation society. She was the key person helping Eleanor Tripp preserve the Handy House. She was a long-serving active member of the Westport Historical Commission, and worked hard to preserve the Westport Point Historical District and to save the chimney of the Waite-Kirby-Potter House (Westport’s oldest house) on Main Road. She received many awards for her work.
Like many of Westport’s women preservationists, she was also a talented artisan known for her ceramic pottery. During her life working with old houses, she collected many unusual architectural fragments such as molding samples, hinges, shingles and nails which are now part of the historical society’s collection. In 2002, she published a memoir Collecting Houses which chronicles her intense connection with old houses as well as a deep understanding of construction methods and craftsmanship. She was always willing to share her experiences with owners of historic homes, persuading many not to tear down a problematic old house but to choose instead the option of preservation.
Glenda Taber Broadbent (1918-2014) was the daughter of Andrew Taber (housewright) and Helen G. Kirby. She was the wife of Walter P. Broadbent. She lived in Westport Point her whole life. She graduated from Hyannis Teachers College and taught in several different schools in Westport. She was also town librarian from 1963-1967. She was an avid reader and historian, especially interested in the history of Westport Point. She wrote a book on the history of Westport Point United Methodist Church. A member of the Westport Historical Society (WHS) and the Westport History Study Group, she contributed much to history. She was given the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, the highest honor of the WHS. Her stories of her experiences of riding with President Franklin Roosevelt in her grandfather’s hay wagon and meeting the soldiers at Gooseberry during WWII are a couple of the delightful memories she shared. Several interviews with her are available on the Westport Historical Society’s website.
Mary Hicks Brown (1894-1990) could trace her Westport familial roots back to the 1700s. Born in 1894, she was the child of William B. Hicks and Caroline Davis Hicks. Following her marriage to Dr. Percy Brown she moved to Barre, Massachusetts but returned to Westport in the 1970s as a widow, residing at her family homestead, 1603 Main Road (Captain Barney Hicks property). An interest in genealogy grew out of an appreciation of her own roots. Like many of our female caretakers of history, she had an interest in antiques and traditional handicrafts such as needlework and hooked rugs. Her primary contribution to our understanding of local history was as an artist and photographer, leaving us with a visual documentary of her hometown.
Mary Hicks Brown was an accomplished and sensitive artist, whose deep affinity for Westport’s natural environment and historical scenery is evident in the Impressionist oil paintings of fields, dunes, river and landscapes. Her paintings depict a simple cottage with well sweep, an ice house, hay ricks, farmhouses, summer and winter seasons. Some scenes are familiar to us today, others have captured sights that have long since disappeared from our landscape.
She was also a keen photographer, whose snapshots document many visits to historic sites, and especially providing a visual record of Westport’s oldest house, the Waite-Kirby-Potter House before it suffered irreparable damage by hurricanes.
The Westport Historical Society is fortunate to have acquired many of her paintings and an extensive archive of Hicks family papers, including many of Mary’s photo albums and scrapbooks. Sadly, she did not leave a written record of her local history knowledge, but her passion for the special beauty of Westport provides an equally valuable visual document of her mid-20th-century hometown.
Sarah Delano (1904-1994) is an example of a Westport woman whose impact was felt throughout the Greater New Bedford region at a time when history was under constant threat from development during the 1970s. She famously said: “If you bulldoze your heritage, you become just anywhere.”
Sarah was born Sarah Rodman Scudder in Chicago in 1904, but she summered in the area as a child. In 1932, several years after graduating from Vassar College, Sarah married New Bedford artist Clifford Ashley. Sarah and Clifford restored a Westport farmhouse and had two daughters, Phoebe and Jane. During her marriage to Clifford, Sarah’s interest in local architecture grew. After the death of her husband, Sarah remarried in 1951 to New Bedford native Stephen C. L. Delano, one of the founders of the Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE (WHALE).
In 1966, Sarah became WHALE’s president, for 16 years through 1982. This was an era during which significant portions of New Bedford were demolished in order to make way for Route 18. Under Sarah’s leadership, the Waterfront Historic District became a National Historic Landmark.
Former mayor John Bullard has said, “Sarah Delano had more foresight and courage in her frail, elderly body than 20 CEOs you could find in any Chamber of Commerce meeting.”
Her name continues to be associated with historic preservation in the form of The Sarah R. Delano Preservation Awards which are given annually by WHALE to individuals or groups for projects that preserve the historic character and environment of Greater New Bedford.
Helen E. Ellis (1889-1978) is perhaps more notable for her contributions to historic preservation in New Bedford than here in Westport. She was not a historian in the traditional sense, but her appreciation of the past and her skills embraced a wide-range of interests such as woodcarving, music, books, antiques, decorative arts, nature, and education. She typifies the broad range of interests that women often brought to their community. However, her financial independence, entrepreneurial drive, and exceptional artistic creativity set her apart from her contemporaries.
A teacher by profession in woodcarving and physical education at Milton Academy in the 1910s, she found her way to Westport in 1916, purchasing an 18th– century cottage at Westport Point. Located at 1874 Main Road, it became known as FivElms, an homage to the five magnificent trees lining the front.
She never married. Her life in Westport brought many roles: noted woodcarver, curator of decorative arts at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, owner of a book store, and a tearoom in her own home! She was devoted to innovative forms of education, founding the Children’s Museum in Dartmouth in 1952. She was among the founding members of the Westport Historical Society and active in many other organizations such as the Women’s Club, Land Trust, and Westport Art Group. Her influence is still felt strongly locally many years after her death. With the establishment of the Helen E. Ellis Charitable trust, her name is linked to many local projects, cultural, educational and, of course, historical!
Mary Albright Giles (1909 – 1996) lived in Westport many years, was born in Ohio, and lived in New York and Washington, D.C. She was a university teacher and painter. She is known for founding an artist’s cooperative in the Wing Carriage House (later owned by Norma Judson) and completing an oral history archives project for the Westport Art Group. She completed 60 oral history interviews of “old timers” for the Bicentennial celebration in 1976, which were preserved on tape. Her deep, melodious voice can be heard in these interviews, gently teasing out responses from old-time Westporters. These recordings are now available on the Westport Historical Society website. She is an example of a person coming from outside Westport, falling in love with it, and trying to make her contributions to its history.
Katherine Stanley Hall (1886 – 1970) was born in Brooklyn, NY, the daughter of Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall, who brought her to Westport on his first trip in 1886. In 1888 her family built the house named Synton and the whole family spent all their summers there becoming very much a part of the Westport Point community. She attended Miss Spence’s School in New York and finished Wellesly College. She traveled extensively with her family. She and her mentally handicapped brother, Theodore, lived full time at Synton eventually. She was known for her active schedule in running the small library she set up, teaching Sunday School at the Methodist Church, and generally being helpful in many ways to children. She wrote two books Children at Play in Many Lands and The Village of Westport Point with Mary Hannah Sowle which included many stories of people at the Point. Published in 1914, the history of the Point captured the adventurous maritime heritage of Westport which was still within living memory of a few. “As year after year passes, there are fewer who remember the village in its days of prosperity, but still there are some who dream not of the dust shrouded automobiles, but of the full sails of the whaling fleet!” (The Village of Westport Point).
Gladys (Gifford) Kirby (1887-1936) was the daughter of Charles Albert and Mary (Burrell) Gifford. She grew up at the Head of Westport where her father was a storekeeper and probably lived in the house at 476 Old County Road. In 1922 she married Walter Scott Kirby. She pursued a career as a teacher and librarian and was appointed principal of Westport Factory school.
She is the author of many articles on Westport’s history which demonstrate her abilities as a local historian and writer with an appreciation of how local history can inform a broader understanding of national history. In 1925, she wrote a paper on the history of Hix Bridge which was presented at a meeting of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society. In her introduction, she outlined her perspective on the value of local history:
“It has been said, “The great object of local history is to furnish the first elements of general history, to record facts rather than deductions from facts. In small settlements dotted over this country were found many of the first moving causes which operated upon and revolutionized public opinion. Many facts, minute in themselves, and regarded by many as trivial and unimportant, are really of great service. The details, which it is the appropriate province of the local historian to spread before the public, are not so much history itself as material for history.” This evaluation of the worth of local history is reaffirmed and then doubly reaffirmed by the incidents which transpired in this region in the earlier days of our history and even before the white man ever stepped his foot upon the soil of Old Dartmouth.”
She completed an eight-year project to chronicle the evolution of Westport schools, from the early days of one-room schools into the 20th century. Her articles, which were often published in local newspapers, include the following topics:
- Some Interesting Facts from Westport History
- Building the Wharf
- King Philip’s War
- The Importance of the Tariff to Westport
- Appointment of Surveyor of the Port and Receiver of Customs at Westport Point
- A Children’s History of Westport
Norma K. Judson (1932-2015) was a well-known businesswoman who owned the Moby Dick shop in 1953 and the Silas Brown Shop in Central Village in 1969. She graduated from Bates College and did graduate work at Boston University and taught for a while. She was active in Westport in history and historic restoration, receiving several awards for her work on New Bedford houses and the Bell School, the Wolf Pit School and the Earle School. She designed numerous homes. She served on several town committees: Community Preservation Committee, Historical Commission and eight terms on the Landing Commission. She was active in the Historical Society, being involved with the Bell School Fair. In 2004 she formed the Westport History Study Group which continued for several years with meetings most months and which included those interested in history, and provided many important tidbits of Westport History recorded on tape and now available on the website of the historical society. She conceived of and worked for many years in the History Room of the Town Library which is now named for her. She brought together materials on various aspects of Westport history, including maps, photographs, Eleanor Tripp’s work, and folders about people and places. She was Westport Woman of the Year in 2011.
Marianna Macomber (1889 – 1970) was born in Westport, November 6, 1889, the youngest and last to die of the eight children of John A. Macomber 2d and Esther A (Allen) Macomber. Not much is known of Marianna’s activities in her life except that she was very observant of what was going on around her and wrote in detail about it probably in the 1960s after her siblings had all died. Marianna wrote of important people in her life and in Westport; she described historic houses; she talked about funny events; she praised people she found to be exceptional like Mary E. Allen Gifford (wife of James A. Gifford) who she said was the most respected person in town; she described teachers, schools, doctors, town officials and others who had made an impression on her. She should be remembered for giving us a glimpse on the late 1890s up to the 1960s in a changing Westport. She wrote: “It is quite possible that nobody will care to read what I am writing, but yet it may be of interest. Who knows?”
You can read her entertaining account of the Macomber Family of Central Village here.
Geraldine Buckley Millham (1948-2020) was born in San Francisco, and received a BA in design from UC Berkeley. She was a textile artist for ten years and created stunning wool tapestries. She and her husband, Tony Millham, moved to Westport in 1973. Her interest in history was motivated in part by the desire to connect to her adopted home town. History was for her, a pathway for someone from ”away” to feel at home in a new place.
After studying graphics at UMass Dartmouth, she embarked on a remarkable career where her services were in great demand. She had a successful career and never seemed to be able to say no to pro bono designing. Her style became well known in Westport and beyond. She served on the Westport Historical Commission for more than 35 years, spent countless hours in research on the history of historical buildings in Westport, single-handedly saved the Town Farm, taking care of it until her death. She was instrumental in the expansion of the Historic District in 2006. She and her husband dismantled and moved a 1720 house to Westport where they reconstructed and raised their two children it. She helped preserve the Handy House and was active in the preservation of the Wolf Pit School. Her service on the Historical Commission helped build that organization from its initiation. She was Westport Woman of the Year in 2009.
Agnes Oliveira Potter (1929 – 2013) was the daughter of Manuel and Sophie Fernandes Oliveira and born in Westport. She was the wife of Alton Jones Potter, Jr. She was co-owner of A.J. Potter, Jr & Sons, Inc. She always found time to volunteer for her church, the Charlton hospital, the Women’s Club, the Westport Fair, and the town as a poll worker and warden at Precinct B. She learned to refinish furniture and was a painter. In the mid-1970s, she painted a picture of the Waite-Kirby-Potter house from details her husband related to her which fortunately gave us a notion of the oldest surviving house at the time. She also painted the old St. John the Baptist Church. She collected news articles of historic interest and shared them. Her love for the Portuguese culture manifested itself in her planning a tour to the old country for her family to see and appreciate their grandparents and great grandparents’ home in St. Miguel in the Azores. She was determined that the Azorean food culture and traditions she grew up with would be transferred to her family by having the whole family prepare meals and bake together using the old family recipes. She was a woman who was able to combine two cultures comfortably and pass that gift to her six children.
Mary Hannah Sowle (1893 – 1955) lived at the Point most of her life and was related to prominent families especially in the whaling industry. Her ancestry includes Joseph Hicks Sowle and Clementine Manchester (her parents), and sea captain grandfathers, Captain George Manchester and Captain Edward Sowle. Her uncle was the master of a whaling ship and her great grandfather was the famous Captain Barney Hicks. Mary Hannah went to Moses Brown School in Providence with her roommate Mary Hicks (Brown). She lived in her parents’ home and cared for them. She never married but continued throughout her life to care for old people. She wrote the book The Village of Westport with Katherine Stanley Hall in 1914.
Eleanor Swanteson Tripp (1910-2003)
At one time, Eleanor liked to claim that she knew everyone in Westport, both above ground and below ground. The daughter of Swedish immigrants, Eleanor grew up in Washington D.C. Following her marriage to Westporter Louis Tripp, she moved to the Handy House in 1948, triggering her lifelong interest in local history.
“The first thing we did was to take wallpaper off and patch cracks to get ready and the windows — hardly any of the windows had much putty left so that was the big project. We worked together. It was fun and we fell for the whole setup right off the bat…” (Interview with Eleanor Tripp, 1976).
Eleanor truly understood the value of the Handy House as an architectural artifact. She was also notable for her lifestyle, which harkened back to the previous century. She learned to cook over the fireplace and even though a bathroom was installed inside the house, it is said that she preferred to use the outhouse. She was able to ensure the preservation of the Handy House through a legal historic preservation restriction. It is thanks to her foresight and efforts that visitors are able to explore the Handy House today. She loved to give tours of the house, opening the doors of this special place to architecture buffs, local organizations, Boy Scouts, and anyone else who expressed an interest.
Her role as a local historian extended far beyond the Handy House. Eleanor developed a deep interest in the history Westport. She visited every historic house in Westport, snapping photos with her brownie camera and collating her work in scrapbooks. Her interests included documenting cemeteries and Paul Cuffe, as well as collecting an extensive miscellany of all things relating to Westport’s history. Using her typewriter, she painstakingly copied each document whether a newspaper clipping or an 18th-century will, creating copious scrapbooks or notes. These records exist in hard copy at the Westport Historical Society and Westport Library or digitized copies can be accessed at https://www.westport-ma.com/historical-documents-and-oral-histories/pages/eleanor-tripp-1936-–-2003
Like many of our women historians, she became involved in community organizations, and she was an active member of the Westport Quaker Meeting. Those who knew her were “charmed by her personality, enchanted by her flowers, warmed by her generous hospitality and informed by her historical interest and acumen.”
Written by Jenny O’Neill and Betty Slade