Buildings and Exhibits

Southermost School 

1716:  Town authorized several schools including Southermost and Northernmost (built     near

Southernmost School

Child Street and East Main Road).  3/4 acre of land donated by William Sanford. Town citizens authorized 20 pounds for construction but actually cost 23 pounds.

1725:   It was built in in the vicinity of present day 102 Union St.  It has simple post and beam structure.  The original frame remains intact.  To save costs it had a pony chimney which extends down part way into the building from the room.  The roof supports the weight of the chimney, so the roof sags.  It had a cellar and chimney with a fireplace.

1800:  Sometime before 1800 the school was moved to the corner of West Main Road and Union Street.  The entry way (as you see it) was added at this time.  A stove was used for heat.

1860:  Around the time of the Civil War the Gibbs School was built and the Almy family bought the Southermost School at auction.  School spent 90 years at Hall Farm (Lakeside) on 559 Union Street where it served as a storage and harness shed.

1952:   Hall family gave it to the Portsmouth Historical Society.

1969:   PHS restored the school house raising funds through house tours and yard sales.

2000:   New restoration with help of Champlin Grant.

Inside are some original student desks along with the top of the original teacher desk.  There are also examples of the primers, copy books and textbooks students would have used in one room schools in Portsmouth.  Some of the school desks and two school bells come from the McCorrie and Bristol Ferry Schools. Entrance way has lunch pails and pegs to hang coats.

Old Town Hall

1840s: This structure was built near the site of the present town hall as office for town

Outside of the Old Town Hall


1895:  It was replaced by the present Town Hall. The building was then used for storage.  Building became first headquarters of the permanent fire department.

1970:  Present fire station built and Old Town Hall used again for storage and meetings.

1975:  Town offered building to the Portsmouth Historical Society and the building was moved.

Today it houses the Society’s vehicle and farm tool collection.

Christian Union Church Horse Drawn Hearse

Christian Union Hearse

This horse drawn hearse originally belonged to the Christian Union Church (the building next door).  Church records from the Board meeting of March 12, 1871 indicate that: “The board unanimously recommended that Br. John J. Brown purchase a hearse of Langley and Bennett at a cost of $162 provided the sum of $200 is raised.”

Later records from December 16, 1871 show that it was voted that:

“Br. John J. Brown who has the care of the hearse, be authorized to charge non-subscribers for its use, the sum of one dollar, said dollar to be added to the fund for keeping the hearse in repair.”

A search of the City of Newport Directory from the early 1870s shows that Langley and Bennett was a furniture maker in Newport that also made coffins, caskets and related funeral items.  They also were undertakers.

The Church had the hearse until it disbanded in the 1930s and the building was given to the Historical Society.  The hearse then went to the Breaker’s Stables in Newport.  There was a fire at the stables in the 1970s and the hearse was then moved to the Little Compton Historical Society.  The hearse was finally returned to the Portsmouth Historical Society in 2009.

 The Last Mail Wagon


Mail wagon ready to roll in the 375th parade.

Mail wagon ready to roll in the 375th parade.

This horse drawn mail wagon dates back to 1902 when Abner P. Anthony purchased it when a post office opened at a house on the corner of Clearview Avenue and East Main Road to serve South Portsmouth.  Abner worked for 43 years, first delivering mail by bicycle and then by horse and wagon. Similar wagons were used throughout Rhode Island.  While well preserved, the paint on the mail wagon was a 21st century change. The dark green color visible on some interior surfaces reflects the original color.  It was hoped that these new wagons would help improve communication and mail delivery between Rhode Island’s small villages.

 The Christian Union Church 

The church was founded in 1810 as the Christian Church of Portsmouth. Members met in private homes until a small meetinghouse was built in 1824 on the site of the present building. At that point they called themselves the Union Society to help unite rather than divide the Christian community.

The present structure was built in 1865 at a cost of $7,000. At that time they returned to the name of the Christian Church of Portsmouth. The basic principle was that the Bible is the word of God. The church was not part of a denomination, but members were sent as delegates to the Rhode Island and Massachusetts Christian and Congregational Conferences.

The congregation seemed open to a variety of expressions of faith.  William Ellery Channing, a noted Unitarian who lived close by, loved to talk with the church members on Sunday afternoons. Women were invited to preach. Julia Ward Howe, another neighbor up on Union Street, would come to “supply the pulpit.”

Christian Union Church

In the 1870s the pastors held open meetings at the Glen and local Methodist pastors and ministers from many denominations were present.  The governing structure of the church revolved around a board which was charged with finding and overseeing pastors and the life of the church. The officers were three Elders, two Deacons, treasurer and the clerk. The activities of the church centered around the official church committees.

The most active of the committees seemed to be Music and Social Life. The church members believed that everyone should have access to a musical education. The church had a singing school and organ lessons were given. The social life group coordinated turkey suppers and Christmas festivals at the church.

The church was an active, thriving congregation for the half century between the Civil War and World War I. It then went through a decline from which it never recovered. The last church service was held in the summer of 1937.  In 1940 the fourteen remaining members voted to give the property to the Portsmouth Historical Society. The church members recognized the church as a historic landmark in Portsmouth and they wanted the building to be used for educational or historical purposes.

Julia Ward Howe Room

Julia Ward Howe’s writing desk.

Tucked into the corner of the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum is a small room dedicated to Julia Ward Howe. Outfitted as a typical Victorian bedroom, the room houses furnishings, clothing and items that belonged to Julia when she summered in Portsmouth (1850s to her death here in 1910) at her home, “Oak Glen”, just up Union Street. When the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) came to the United States to film a documentary on Julia, this room was one of the sites they most wanted to film for their production. Julia is most famous as the abolitionist and poet who wrote the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But Julia was active in many causes – the vote for women, establishing “Motherʼs Day,” world peace, and literacy. Many of the greatest writers of the her day came to visit her at Oak Glen.Many of the items were donated to the museum in the 1940s by Maud Howe Elliot, Juliaʼs daughter. The items reflect her various causes. Among the most precious artifacts is Juliaʼs writing desk.  At the suggestion of Juliaʼs friend – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – the desk was built high enough for Julia to write standing up. It has since been cut down to a more normal height.  Also on view are a shawl, a hat and a lacy cap that belonged to Julia. Next to her shawl are writing implements and a note about how Julia penned her famous poem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” on her husbandʼs stationary in almost darkness. Other items in the room were donated by the family that purchased Oak Glen after Juliaʼs death and may have been in the house during her time there.

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