Hix Bridge Road by Richard Gifford

The Dartmouth highway records from the early 1700s note the existence of a ferry in the area where the bridge now stands, but do not mention who operated the ferry. By tradition, George Cadman operated the ferry before Mary Hix took it over ca1710. The highway records do state that a suitable crossing point across the East Branch had been searched for, and the location chosen was found to be the best. The highway records noted that “Earle’s stockyard” was on the east side, and the highway proceeded eastward from that point past the homesteads of Valentine Huddleston (north side of Hixbridge Road in the area of the Bone farm) and Samuel Cornell (the Westport Vineyards area).

The ferry operation, which included land, buildings and wharves, was sold by Mary Hix to her son William in 1736. Bristol County Deeds (NB) v. 4 p. 95, where the area is referred to as “Hixes’ Ferry.” By tradition, Willam Hix erected the first bridge in the 1740s and owned it   until his death, when it was inherited by his sons Joseph and Durfee, and daughter Sarah. In 1774 Robert Crossman, whose interest in the bridge property was received through his deceased wife Sarah (Hix) Crossman, sold his interest to Joseph Gifford. BCD  v. 8 p. 566. A house and other buildings are mentioned in this deed.

The bridge property was sold for $3800 in 1804 to William Ross and John Avery Parker, both New Bedford merchants, in three parcels totaling  80 acres. The largest parcel was  located on both sides of Drift Road, with the river on the east and Hixbridge Road to the north, this parcel including a house, the bridge, and on adjoining land owned by the town a barn and sheds. A second 0.75 acre parcel on the west side was located on the north side of Hixbridge Road. A third parcel of 6 acres was located on the east side of the river.

One of the most enduring — and misleading — anecdotes of Westport history is how John Avery Parker was “warned out” by the Town of Westport, whose selectmen anticipated that he would end up bankrupt and a ward of the town. Parker was so outraged by being warned out that he immediately shook the dust from his feet and left Westport, vowing never to return, and settled in New Bedford, where through whaling, real estate and banking he became New Bedford’s first millionaire.

In truth, Parker was warned out not because he was considered a potential financial liability, but because he was an outsider (outsiders are still suspect, in many eyes, in 2021, but the law no longer allows for them to be warned out of Westport). Warning out was a process established by statute, and was common in all Massachusetts towns. If a new resident was not warned out within 6 months of arrival, the town would be liable for all “welfare” expenses for that person in the event they became indigent. In reality the statute made no difference to the indigent recipient, he was going to get benefits either way, and was never escorted out of town by a sheriff, but the process of warning out  allowed the town to claim that the town of origin (for Parker, Rochester) was financially responsible and Westport had a right to reimbursement for all amounts expended.  A remarkably large percentage of the business of selectmen in those days consisted of bringing such claims, and refuting the claims of other towns where Westporters had moved to and become indigent.

Parker resided in Westport by 1793, living where the Stone House now is at the Head, and did not move to New Bedford until a decade later, and continued to own properties in Westport for yet another decade after that, so if he was offended by being warned out his reaction was delayed. Parker was a noted raconteur, and like many wealthy people his favorite story was his own rags to riches tale.  His being warned out formed a critical part of his schtick. One can imagine the Parker of later years, entertaining guests after dinner over cigars and brandy at his Greek Temple mansion on County Street, gesturing to the surrounding chandeliers, paintings, and fine furniture, saying “Look around you, gentlemen — does it look like I ended up in the Poor House?”

During the Parker years of ownership Ross was dropped as a partner, replaced by Parker’s brother-in-law Levi Standish, who the deeds indicate was living in Westport at the time and having the occupation of merchant, perhaps operating the general store west of the bridge. The store/toll house/post office/ house is still in existence at 249 Hixbridge Road, dated to 1710 (although much altered) and attributed to Mary Hix in the MACRIS listing. Compared to his New Bedford real estate ventures, Hix bridge did not work out well for Parker, as after a decade of ownership he sold the property to Dr. James H. Handy for $4050, for a capital gain of less than 10% in 10 years.

Dr. Handy, according to another Westport legend, never sent his patients a single bill — and never paid a single bill sent to him. His account books seem to belie the first part of this assertion, but the second part seems largely confirmed by land and probate records. At the time of purchase, the Hix bridge property consisted of some 62 acres, with 6 acres on the east side of the river and the remainder on the west side. It would be 15 years before Dr. Handy would bother to record his deed in the Registry, and to judge from the land records Dr. Handy remained the sole owner of the Hix bridge property until the end of his life.

The truth about the ownership of Hix Bridge did not become apparent until after Dr. Handy’s death. The Town of Westport decided to take the bridge by eminent domain in order to remove the toll, and a condemnation proceeding established a value of $1800, which was paid into escrow. Dr. Handy’s estate claimed the money, but a new claimant arose — Frederick Brownell (1787-1873), who had operated the store and been the bridge keeper for over half a century. In order to support his claim, Frederick Brownell testified in a deposition that was placed in the land records in 1871.

According to Brownell, then 82 years old with a paralyzed right arm, he reached an agreement with Dr. Handy prior to his purchase of the bridge. Brownell and Handy were first cousins, as Dr. Handy’s mother was the sister of Frederick’s father. Brownell paid Handy $1400 immediately, and agreed to pay an additional $700 over time, In exchange, Dr. Handy would provide a deed to Brownell conveying the bridge itself, the 6 acres on the east side of the bridge, and the 6 acres east of Drift Road on the west side of the bridge, including the toll house/store and a nearby barn and storage sheds located on town-owned land. Dr. Handy was to retain approximately 50 acres located on the west side of Drift Road,   across Hixbridge Road from his house.

It was anticipated that Dr. Handy would “get his pay by taking it out of the store” until the $700 remaining due was paid. Dr Handy rang up large bills at the store, and incurred other expenses paid by Brownell over the remainder of his life totaling $3,648. The other expenses including paying real estate taxes on the whole parcel (Brownell was town treasurer and tax collector for much of this period), letting Dr. Handy cross the bridge toll-free,  and paying Dr. Handy’s postage for newspapers and mail while Brownell was postmaster. (In those days, postage was not prepaid with stamps — the recipient paid postage at the post office when he picked up his mail). Brownell testified:

  1. What was Dr. Handy’s habit about settling up unfinished business?
  2. Very slow.
  3. [asked whether he requested Dr. Handy deliver a deed]
  4. I asked him quite often, until I got tired of it, and he used to say “Oh the devil, that will do [i.e. get done?] any time.”
  5. [asked if he was friends with Dr. Handy]
  6. We were good friends — too good.

Hix bridge was not the only financial imbroglio Dr. Handy was involved in. He had inherited his father’s house and farm, where the Handy house is, and in addition his wife Hope appears to be have been the sole heir of Cornelius White (whose homestead farm on Horseneck Road, the Howe farm in modern times,  was in the late 1800s the homestead of Hope’s son William White Handy) and of her mother Elephel (Almy) White, making Hope one of two surviving heirs of the William Almy estate (the other heiress being Frederick Allen’s mother Molly, Hope’s aunt). Over time, all of the Handy properties save one small cedar swamp lot in Dartmouth were sold off or seized to pay debts.

The first to go was the Handy house property itself. By tradition, George Kirby’s two unmarried sisters had loaned Dr. Handy large amounts of money over the years. George Kirby (who built the farmhouse that is now WLCT headquarters on Adamsville Road, formerly the St. Vincent de Paul camp) found out about it and brought suit against Dr. Handy on his sisters’ behalf, recovering in 1861 a judgment of $3695.95, which was satisfied in part by setting off to Kirby the Handy house and farm. George sold the Handy house property to his first cousin Stephen P. Kirby, a prominent cattle dealer then owning the Stone House, and Stephen later sold the property to Dr. Handy’s unmarried sister for $1.

Other properties, including the half interest in Cadman’s Neck, was sold off over the next few years. By the time of his death administration papers show that Dr. Handy possessed personal property worth $394.35 and a corrected real estate value of $80.00 (the original valuation had included Hix bridge and adjacent property, which if true could have brought Dr. Handy’s estate within hailing distance of solvency, but the administrators discovered belatedly that the property was actually owned by Frederick Brownell). These meager assets were a small fraction of the  estate debts of $3,993. 34, not including the costs of administration and funera