Actors bring history to life at Portsmouth's Glen Farm
PORTSMOUTH — When asked her favorite character from the rich and storied history of Glen Farm, Cindy Killavey went with a four-legged variety.
"I love Missy of the Glen. I just love the cows," said Ms. Killavey of Portsmouth Community Theater (PCT), which presented living history tours of Glen Farm Friday through Sunday.
Missy was owned by Henry A.C. Taylor, a banker and merchant from New York who first established Glen Farm in the 1880s. He bred Guernsey cows and kept meticulous records of their milk and fat production. Missy was his prize bovine.
"She was an incredible cow," said Ms. Killavey's husband, Jim, who played Manny Camara, the farm's foreman during the 1940s and ‘50s. “Missy didn’t jump over the moon, but she was one illustrious cow.”
Mr. Taylor was a serious man, so when a friend challenged his claim that Missy had set a record for producing butterfat, Mr. Taylor took legal action in a suit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“He won $10,000, even though he spent $25,000 in legal fees," said Mr. Killavey.
The point was made, however.
Actors in period garb played the parts of various people from Glen Farm's past during the free tours, which were held in the backyard of the Leonard Brown House on Linden Lane. They shared anecdotes and trivia from long ago, such as Glen Farm's founder's generosity toward his workers.
“Mr. Taylor built his farmhands their own baseball field,” said Mr. Killavey, noting that two teams were formed for friendly games.
The Glen property was a summer destination in the 1800s, with many flocking there to enjoy nature, paint or even write poetry. Mr. Killavey, in fact, played a Guilded Age poet who greeted visitors Friday by asking them, "Are you staying with the Astors?" (The Astors were prominent German-Americans who lived in Newport during that period.)
Another figure from the past was "Mrs. Durfee," who ran a tea house on Glen Road that was famous for its griddle cakes. “I would like to welcome you to the most romantic paths and trails of the Glen,” said actor Denise Betz, who played Mrs. Durfee, also known as "the goddess of The Glen."
A favorite Glen destination was Cundall's Mills, which was called "one of the most romantic spots on the island" by local historian Rev. Edward Petersen in 1853.
But the area had its share of tragedy before then. Joseph Cundall's son, also named Joseph, got lost in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve in 1811 and died on his way home from the mill.
Sharing some Revolutionary War history was Ron Marsh, who played militia leader and farmer Cook Wilcox. “In August 1778, Gen. (George) Washington sent troops to join Lafayette in Tiverton. They crossed over to Portsmouth and occupied Fort Butts," he told visitors.
Trish Culver, as Ann Slocum, told a tale of a maiden “incarcerated” by her family in the smoke house for falling in love with the wrong man.
Richard Schmidt played John T. Brown, who first joined Christian Union Church (where the Portsmouth Historical Society is now located) in 1843. It was a fitting role for Mr. Schmidt, as he and his wife Gloria — she was leading the tours — are both on the Society's board.
Mr. Schmidt shared how the church purchased its own hearse in 1871 from Langley & Bennett in Newport. “It’s a beautiful hearse. I hope you don’t have to use it," he quipped.
Years ago, wakes were commonly held in homes and families were very superstitious, he said.
"The first thing people do is cover all the mirrors, because whoever sees themselves in the mirror is the next to die," he said.
Next up: Rebecca Cornell
Although the event marked the first time PCT had presented its own living history tours, the actors do have some previous experience in this area.
“A few years ago during their Harvest (Social) at the Portsmouth Historical Society, we provided actors," said Ms. Killavey. "'Mrs. Durfee’ was there, Trish played the schoolmarm in the one-room schoolhouse and Ron played William Channing, who started the Congregational Church in Newport. On Sunday afternoons, Channing would drive out here and just sit here and chat with the farmers.”
For its next project, PCT will take on the mysterious case of Rebecca Cornell, a 73-year-old Portsmouth widow who was found burned to death in front of her bedroom fireplace in February 1673. Her son, Thomas Cornell, was tried, convicted and hanged for the crime three months later in a case that's controversial to this day. The incident was the subject of a book by Elaine Forham Crane, "Killed Strangely: The Story of Rebecca Cornell."
“We have the trial transcripts and we’re going to make a play out of it,” said Ms. Killavey, adding that the production will take place in October at the Aquidneck Island Christian Academy. “My thought right now is at the very end, call up 11 men from the audience and have them sit there as the jury, and then have one person who’s the actor stand up and read the verdict.”
Myles Winter of PCT, who also hosts ghost tours in Newport, will play Rebecca.
"I get to die," said Ms. Winter. “It’s the pinnacle of my career."
For more about Portsmouth Community Theater, visit www.aboutpct.org.