PORTSMOUTH — A few months ago, Robert Pimental, the reference librarian at the Portsmouth Free Public Library, got a call from the curator for the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., home of the famed abolitionist.
The homestead displays a full-length portrait of Douglass dated 1883 and the curator was wondering whether the library had an image of its painter, the late Portsmouth resident Sarah J. Eddy.
Mr. Pimental was flummoxed.
“I’ve lived in Portsmouth my whole life, and I had never heard of Sarah J. Eddy,” he said.
He started digging around and not only unearthed a photograph of Ms. Eddy, but stories about a vibrant, talented woman who was passionate about many causes and had friends in high places.
“I found her to be a really interesting person,” said Mr. Pimental. “She was a friend of Susan B. Anthony, she was a suffragette, she was one of the founders of the Humane Society, she was a philanthropist, she founded a studio, she was a photographer, a painter, a sculptor.”
Gloria Schmidt and other members of the Portsmouth Historical Society were equally as smitten once they learned more about the wealthy woman who lived from 1851 to 1945. Hanging in the museum is a damaged, 1924 painting by Ms. Eddy that depicts an old woman preparing vegetables for Thanksgiving. Members never really gave it much thought until now.
“All of a sudden, something I’ve seen for years has become very important to us,” said Ms. Schmidt, who started researching Ms. Eddy only recently. “I started to fall in love with her. She was such an accomplished person who did so much in the community. She was a Renaissance woman.”
Social Studio was busy
A postcard collector, Ms. Schmidt discovered some cards related to the former Social Studio that Ms. Eddy founded on the west side of Bristol Ferry Road. Now a private home, the studio — featured in a 1906 Good Housekeeping article — was a hub of activity years ago, and it’s included in the Society’s current exhibit, “Lost to Time” (see below for details).
“You know how we talk about wanting an arts center? That’s what it was,” she said. “There were performances there, there were concerts. It was a place where people could come and have painting lessons and sewing lessons. It was a tremendous meeting place. There would be 200 people at a time for events there. It became a social place. All kinds of people came from the Methodist women’s group to the Colored Home in Providence. It was an arts center, a social center and a center for causes, whether it be women’s suffrage or women’s temperance. She has all these circles that kind of radiated out from her.”
The Social Studio, which was visited by Julia Ward Howe, was located across from Ms. Eddy’s large home that still stands at 567 Bristol Ferry Road. “Sarah was a Portsmouth resident for at least 40 years and probably a summer resident for many years before that,” Ms. Schmidt points out.”
The three-story, 4,233-square-foot Victorian, built in 1910, has 14 rooms and seven fireplaces and has since been converted into four apartments. The home is in the process of being sold to local resident John Borden, according to Mr. Pimental.
“He wants to restore it and put it on the National Register of Historic Places,” he said. Mr. Borden already has one local property on the register — Borden Farm at 2951-2967 East Main Road, which features a 1890 English-style barn.
Both the library and the historical society have children’s books authored by Ms. Eddy on the care of cats and other animals, featuring photographs of her own felines. A vegetarian, she founded the Rhode Island Humane Education Association.
“She wouldn’t even cut her grass because she didn’t want to kill any grasshoppers,” said Mr. Pimental.
Teaching kindness to all living creates was a prominent part of her work, added Ms. Schmidt. “That was kind of a thread that ran throughout her life,” she said. “Sarah didn’t just support causes, she lived her life as an expression of the cause. She cared about the lives of the average person around her, even though she was a wealthy woman.”
Ms. Schmidt said the research being done locally on Ms. Eddy may just be the tip of the iceberg, and she hopes the “Lost in Time” exhibit will encourage more people who have artifacts or stories of the Renaissance woman to come forward.
“(Historical society member) Marj Wilkey and I have kind of latched onto Sarah and continue to do research. The net keeps going out wider as we research. I’m sure there are all kinds of attics and nooks an crannies that have her photography or artwork or sculpture,” said Ms. Schmidt. “We’re trying to piece that together. Sarah had no children, so she really didn’t have anybody to sing her praises and she was a humble person. We want to blow her horn.”
Added Mr. Pimental, “All of us should be aware of Sarah J. Eddy.”
‘Lost to Time’ exhibit
Nadeau’s Pharmacy, Thurston Mill, the roller rink, Cashman’s Ballroom, Bernie’s Hardware …
Seeing a familiar thread here? Yup, they’re all gone.
The Portsmouth Historical Society’s new exhibit, “Lost to Time,” will most likely educate younger visitors on the town’s history while jogging some happy memories for the older folks.
“We were looking at things that were around in 1900 or so and later— businesses, institutions, farms, etc.,” said Gloria Schmidt, a member of the historical society.
The exhibit, which features photographs, writings and artifacts centered on places that have since bit the dust, opened Sunday and will continue through Columbus Day weekend.
You can learn everything about Sarah J. Eddy and her Social Studio to our former windmills like Thurston Mill, formerly on East Main Road.
“There is a wind turbine in about the same spot where Thurston’s Mill was,” said Ms. Schmidt, noting that the exhibit includes picture of the mill on fire in 1961. “Two of our windmills are now in Middletown — at Prescott Farm and on Paradise (Avenue).”
The exhibit will also touch upon:
• Farms: Hathaway peach orchards, Anthony seed farm, Sandy Point Farms, Oakland Farms, Briggs dairy farm, Glen Farm
• Social organizations, places and events: Eureka Lodge, Odd Fellows, women’s social club, county fair, Cashman’s Ballroom at the former Island Park amusement park
• Businesses: the roller rink, Sea Fare Inn, Howard Johnson restaurant at Cozy Corner, the aquarium at Island Park
• Menhaden — “I don’t think people know we had such a big fishing industry,” she said.
• Post offices: Bristol Ferry, Newtown, South Portsmouth, Melville, etc. (“Portsmouth had a lot of little post offices,” said Ms. Schmidt.
• Schools: “Vaucluse was a one-room school, but now it’s a private home,” she said.
The “Lost to Time” exhibit runs through Columbus Day Weekend at the Portsmouth Historical Society, located at the corner of East Main Road and Union Street. The museum is open from 2-4 p.m. on Sundays and donations are welcome. For more information, visit http://portsmouthhistorical.com.