NOTES ON THE JOHN MACOMBER FARM, EARLY CENTRAL VILLAGE, THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE RHODE ISLAND RED, AND CLARKSON MACOMBER
By Richard Gifford
Central Village, thickly settled and containing numerous commercial, civic, and religious buildings, is of relatively recent vintage compared to Westport’s other villages such as the Head, Westport Point and South Westport A look at the 1852 and 1858 maps shows that from the Waite-Kirby-Potter house near Booth’s Corner (the intersection of Kirby and Main Roads) south to the intersection of Main and Adamsville Roads, there was not a single house on the east side of Main Road. On the west side there were only three houses between Snell’s Brook and the Town House, which was situated at the Adamsville Road intersection about where the fish market is now. The west side of the road in this stretch was dominated, as of the mid-1800s, by the farm of John Macomber.
In 1816 John Macomber (1785-1867) made his first purchase for $1400 from Ichabod Potter III (1758-1821), a farm of 48 acres with buildings, bounded E by the road from the Town House to the Center Meeting House [i.e. the Friends Meeting House north of the old high school), N by John Waite, W by David Allen and Ichabod Potter II and S by Abner Potter. BCD (NB) v. T22 p. 188. Presumably there was a house here that John Macomber occupied for the next two decades, probably the middle of the three houses shown on the 1831 map on the west side of the road between the Town House and Snell’s Creek.
Ichabod Potter III had inherited the northerly part of his father’s homestead farm, and his grandfather had built the ca1720 gambrel just east of the ice cream stand at Wood’s Farm. Under the 1755 will of Ichabod Potter Sr, Ichabod Jr inherited the portion of his homestead farm lying north of Adamsville Road. The parcel sold to John Macomber by Ichabod Potter III was probably part of the 73 acres sold in 1731 to Ichabod Potter Sr by James Tripp, guardian of Stephen Wilcox, non compos mentis. Wilcox lived in the oldest (eastern) part of the house at the Westport Town Farm, which he had built about a decade before this transaction, but his land extended westerly to the area west of Main Road.
By this time John Macomber had married Mary Slade, a Quaker from Dartmouth whose parents are buried in the “Newtown” Friends burial ground on Faunce Corner Road. John was what was called a “market man,” a farmer who raised vegetables to sell in the city at what we would recognize as farmer’s markets. The purchase of this property had exhausted their funds, and according to great-granddaughter Marianna Macomber’s memoir (WHS blog 5/2019), they could not afford a clock. Needing to awake at 3:00 AM to start the journey to New Bedford, a time even before the most diligent rooster would raise an alarm, Mary stayed up all night and turned an hourglass so that she could awaken her husband at the appointed hour.
John apparently prospered enough so that not only could he buy a clock but in 1840 he purchased for $1350 the adjoining “Wate farm” of 60 acres from Robert Wate [Waite]. The house on this portion, the northernmost part of the John Macomber farm, is the one that John & Mary occupied from that point on. It is the house marked J. Macomber on the 1852 and 1858 maps, “Misses Macomber” [i.e. Mary S., Lydia and Olive] on the 1871 map, and Jas. A. Gifford on the 1895 map. This house was demolished in 1904. Long occupied by Robert’s father John Waite until his death in 1834, the house was probably built by John’s father Reuben Waite. Either Reuben’s father (Thomas) or uncle (Benjamin) had built the Waite-Kirby-Potter house located across the road to the northeast. John Macomber in various purchases in the 1830s and ‘40s added parcels at the south end of his farms, below the former Ichabod Potter III farm, these totaling about another 60 acres, mostly bought from other Potters. Thus altogether the John Macomber farm would have measured about 150 acres (John had sold 15 acres at the west end of Waite Farm to Ichabod Kirby immediately after he purchased it, so my rough calculation is 45 net + 48 + 60).
One of the few other market men in the area was William Tripp (1812-1891), whose farm was at the SW corner of Long Highway and William Sisson Road in Little Compton. Tripp and John Macomber became friends, coordinating their New Bedford journeys so as not to flood the market, and Tripp was in the habit of stopping at Macomber’s farm on his way home to chat about agricultural matters. On one of his market days in 1854 Tripp purchased a Chittagong or Malay rooster from a returning whaler at the docks, the whaleman apparently having purchased the bird during an inebriated shore leave on an Indian Ocean voyage, and having returned home, with no intention of rising early on land, he parted with his feathered alarm clock. Tripp let this Oriental barnyard potentate run around with his scrub hens ( a more delicate appellation for the harem than the contemporary alternative, “dunghill fowl”), and noticed that the offspring not only had a darker shading but when reaching adulthood laid more eggs and were larger in size, making them a preferable table bird.
Macomber and Tripp swapped promising chickens over the next several years and can fairly be appraised as originators of what became the Rhode Island Red breed. In their lifetimes, though, the birds were called “Macomber fowls” or, more commonly “Tripp’s Yaller [Yellow] Hens.” It was Isaac Champlin Wilbour (1831-1899) of Little Compton, who had considerably more capital and political connections than Tripp or Macomber, who made further breeding improvements and popularized the breed on a national level, in the process supplying the Rhode Island Red moniker. For a time around the turn of the century Little Compton boasted that it was “the poultry capital of the world,” and photographs of that era indeed show field after field dotted with “colony houses” where thousands of chickens roosted. In the early days the chickens were only rarely fed grain, as one would expect. Instead, a flour mixture was steamed to the consistency of cookie dough, supplemented by pieces of garden vegetables. Children would pick out pieces of a potato or carrot from the steaming hen dough, and remembered it in their old age to be among the most delectable treats of their childhood.
The Rhode Island Red was realized to be of such importance to Little Compton that in 1925 a bronze plaque, which can still be seen, was erected in Adamsville along the wall at the baseball field. Alas, John Macomber’s name does not grace the plaque, nor for that matter do the names of William Tripp or Isaac C. Wilbour. Only one name is listed, that of Deborah T. Manchester, the eccentric sister of the even more eccentric Abraham & Lizzie Manchester. “Aunt Debbie” was running Manchester’s store by that time, Abraham having passed on and permanently residing at Pleasant View Cemetery (a property owned at one time, like just about everything else worth owning in Adamsville, by Abraham Manchester). Aunt Debbie donated the land for the plaque and apparently envisioned that it would become a tourist attraction, drawing customers who would cross the road to buy soft drinks, a carton of genuine Rhode Island Red eggs and a pound or two of Manchester’s famous cheese. If you could con generations of city slickers into believing that “Adamsville cheese” was made in Adamsville, so Debbie must have thought, it would be child’s play to hoodwink them into thinking that the Rhode Island Red was first bred somewhere between home plate and first base at the Adamsville ball field. History was redeemed, to some extent, when in 1954 — the supposed centennial of the birth of the breed — an additional plaque was placed about 4 miles away at the William Tripp farm. John Macomber, though, is still waiting for his recognition.
John Macomber sold the southern two thirds of his farm to his son Leonard (1818-1873), his only son to reach middle age. Leonard married Esther Austin at the Quaker Meeting House in Little Compton in 1842. Esther would have grown up in the house owned by her father (Joshua), the ca1740 Gifford-Lemunyon-Brayton house in Adamsville, on the mill pond directly across from Gray’s Store. According to Marianna, as a wedding gift John built for Leonard & Esther the Greek Revival house at 843 Main Road (the MACRIS listing for this house calls it the ca1800 John Macomber house, which is too early for a Greek Revival). Leonard Macomber shared little of his father’s appetite for farming, despite adding considerable acreage to his farm on the east side of Main Road (the Town Hall/Milton Earle School area), and instead embarked on a career in politics. He was the first of three generations of Macomber men (his son John Austin and grandson Edward Leonard in his footsteps) to hold local political offices, often as Town Clerk. Edward L. Macomber (1887-1951) built the ca1885 Victorian eclectic at 829 Main Road (across from Lees), and reportedly conducted all his duties as Town Clerk at this location. (The MACRIS estimated construction date for this house needs to be shifted, or an alternative builder proposed, since 1885 predates Edward’s birth).
The house at 843 Main is the one Marianna grew up in, and over the dooryard wall to the north was the location of John Macomber’s tree nursery, another business he had carried on for decades. In Marianna’s time the only remnants of the nursery were a horse chestnut tree in the middle of the field and a shagbark hickory just over the wall. A towering Norway spruce in front of the house had been planted by John, but was snapped in half in the 1938 hurricane.
In John Macomber’s old age he suffered from declining health, and hired James Austin Gifford (1842-1899) to run his farming operation. His father, Gideon Gifford had a carriage shop in Adamsville just across Rocky Delano Brook from Brayton’s Garage. James Austin Gifford must have seemed almost a part of the Macomber family, as his uncle Nathaniel Gifford was married to John Macomber’s sister Mercy, and his aunt Abby was the wife of John’s brother Caleb Macomber. Moreover, James Austin Gifford was a nephew of Leonard Macomber’s wife Esther Austin and he was the husband of Mary Allen, whose sister was the wife of Leonard & Esther’s son John Austin Macomber.
After John Macomber died his three daughters (Mary S., Lydia and Olive) continued to employ James Austin Gifford to run the farm, and in 1875 they sold to Gifford the largest part of the “Wate farm” area of the John Macomber farm. The three sisters built a new house to the south, identified by Marianna (writing in the 1960s?) as the house occupied at that time by Dr. Kirkaldy. The sisters were soon joined at the new location by Lydia’s husband, George Webster, a fellow alumnus of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, who set up a shoemaker’s shop to the south of the house. This is the house marked Mary S. Macomber on the 1895 map.
In the 1870s Leonard Macomber died and his son John Austin Macomber (1849-1898) married Sarah Allen, the young couple at first sharing the old John Waite house with Sarah’s sister Mary Gifford and her husband James. Following the birth of their oldest daughter the couple moved into the house at 843 Main previously occupied by John Austin’s parents. His mother (Esther) and two sisters (Lizzie “Aunt Lib” and Harriet), desired a newer, more commodious house, and they built the house at 855 Main.. MACRIS identifies this as “the Macomber house,” an 1880s Victorian eclectic. Its 14 high-ceilinged rooms provided plenty of space for the three Macomber women, Marianna tells us, but presented an unanticipated problem in trying to keep it heated. Sister Hannah Davis (Macomber) Tripp is probably the H.D. Tripp shown there on the 1895 map, and Hannah’s son Frederick L. Tripp, the founder of Tripp’s Boatyard, occupied this house in the early 1900s.
Another late-1800s house built on the footprint of the John Macomber farm is at 865 Main (Partners). MACRIS attributes this Italianate house to Leonard Macomber, built in 1857, but deeds show it to have been built after 1875 on a 2.5 acre parcel sold by Leonard’s heirs to Phebe (Macomber) Slade and her daughter Elizabeth Slade. Phebe was only distantly related to John, but was the sister of Abraham Macomber, whose gravestone at Friends North was recently repaired by Todd Baptista and crew. Phebe was the widow of Nathan Slade (only distantly related to John Macomber’s wife Mary), and prior to living here had occupied the farm at 1554 Main Road near Dunham’s Brook (which, Marianna tells us was called Slade’s Brook in earlier times). On the 1895 map the house at 865 Main was occupied by John O. Taylor, a teacher from Maine who taught at Westport Point and who had married Phebe’s daughter Elizabeth. The stone wall to the south of the Partners parking lot probably marks the southern boundary of the original John Macomber farm.
One curiosity on the 1871 map is the appearance of a cemetery on the west side of the road, possibly on the footprint of the John Macomber farm but more likely just to its south. The ultimate disposition of the gravesites here is a mystery to me, but a reasonable guess, given that all in the John Macomber family appear to have been buried behind the Westport Friends Meeting House, is that this cemetery at one point contained members of the Potter family, who had owned that area since earliest times.
Other deeds show that the John Macomber farm extended westerly to meet the farms of Gilbert Macomber (Cukie’s 3rd great-grandfather), located on the east side of Sodom Road just north of the S-curve (an area now a part of Weatherlo Farm) and the heirs of Jotham R. Tripp (my 3rd great-grandfather, married to a niece of Ichabod Potter III), who lived down a laneway on the east side of Sodom Road just south of the S-curve. Further south the John Macomber farm was bounded westerly by Angeline Brook.
Marianna Macomber’s memoirs leave off around the year 1910, but the 1930 and 1940 census shows her to be a teacher at Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton. Other teachers at Clarke, founded in 1867, have included the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, whose association with the school lasted over 50 years, and future First Lady Grace (Goodhue) Coolidge. Thus this branch of the Macombers had an association with education for the deaf that lasted a century. Two of Marianna’s sisters were also teachers, including Alice Allen Macomber (1878-1956), for whom the elementary school is named.
A journal of John’s son Clarkson Macomber (1813-1835) has recently been transcribed covering the year 1833, when he was a school teacher. Some of the events recounted in the journal take place at the John Macomber farm, many others took place in the vicinity of the school he taught at, located on the east side of Horseneck Road south of the intersection of Cross Road. Clarkson boarded with Henry Wilcox, a wealthy farmer owning shares in a number of whaling vessels, his house located at 775 Horseneck Road opposite the location of the school house. He also boarded with Henry’s nephew Benjamin Wilcox, who lived on Cross Road, and whose house might be the ell to the house at 94 Cross Road. He also boarded with several Giffords, this branch living in the area of the modern Tuckerman and Turtle Rock farms on the west side of Horseneck Road.
Clarkson was probably named, given the absence of that first name in prior generations of Macombers, for the British Clarkson brothers. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was, with William Wilberforce, the most prominent abolitionist in England. His brother John Clarkson (1764-1828) was also prominent in the abolitionist movement and served as governor of Sierra Leone, where he had assisted in the emigration of freed slaves and their descendants from Nova Scotia, where they had been relocated since fighting on the Loyalist side during the American Revolution. Many of us had a recent face-to-face encounter with John Clarkson — or at least the actor playing his role — as he is one of the characters in Samuel Harps’ play on the life of Paul Cuffe, who grants Cuffe permission to land his party over the objections of the British Navy.
While there is little direct evidence of John Macomber’s participation in the abolitionist movement, the same cannot be said for his Gifford in-laws. Brother-in-law Nathaniel Gifford presided, along with his brother Clother Gifford, at abolitionist meetings in Adamsville, their activities mentioned in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. The Gifford brothers also attended the 1836 Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Convention. Nathaniel was associated with the Underground Railroad, and Clother is mentioned by Frederick Douglass as one of “those who took me into their hearts and homes.” See O’Toole, If Jane Should Want to be Sold pp. 220-21.
While Clarkson Macomber died young, he was not unremembered. A short time after his death, his uncle and aunt Nathaniel & Mercy (Macomber) Gifford named their second son Clarkson Macomber Gifford. The third to bear the name Clarkson Macomber Gifford, a great-grandson of the first, still lives on John Dyer Road in Little Compton on a portion of the Nathaniel Gifford farm.