1881 – 1970
Our Rhode Island by David Patten: Annie Dyer Sticks by Her Red Hens
Ladies of Maple Avenue
My memories of being raised in Little Compton and attending grade school and high school at JF Wilbur are vivid even though many decades have passed. The women of our town were, and still are, the heartbeat of the community.
Today, Little Compton has many neighborhoods developed over time from Sakonnet to Adamsville. My neighborhood, my boyhood epicenter, was Maple Avenue, a street close to the center of town. The avenue had several adjoining family farms from one end of the street to the other. Husbands, uncles, brothers, adult sons were usually busy from morning til night with either dairy or poultry farm chores. The wives, aunts, sisters and adult daughters kept the households together.
The children of my era were outside children helping with whatever chores needed to be done and playing games as a group any place and every place on Maple Avenue. The women of each family supervised these activities.
Several women stand out in my memories as bringing life lessons to us as we grew:
First and foremost was my mother, Virginia Rogers, wife of Lewis Rogers. She was one of eleven children of the Roy family in Fall River, Mass. A modest, shy, loving, bilingual (French) mother who was ever present supporting family and my circle of friends and participating in town organizations. She was proud to be a member of the Ladies Aid Society, the Red Cross and the Little Compton Volunteer Fire Department. Virginia also worked in the JF Wilbur school lunch program for many years. The families on our street would often see my mother in her garden growing vegetables (and many would partake of its bounty), picking her blueberries in the field behind our house, putting her pies in the open windows to cool, happily tending to her roses by the stone walls or swinging on her barn door swing at the top of the knoll. Mother was a quiet lynch pin on the street and in the community and could always be counted on to hand out equal amounts of discipline and treats to the children who gathered at our home. I was one lucky boy to be her son.
The Wordell family lived directly across the street. The diminutive female head of that family was Edith Wordell, wife of Otho Wordell. Edith was the mother of three boys and a constant neighborhood monitor of our “boys will be boys” antics. She was also a school teacher at a time when women were not encouraged to be working professionals. Edith substituted and taught all subjects ranging from basic math to English history. Edith had a great love of books and reading which she shared with us and worked as a librarian at the Brownell library well into her eighties. One of my fondest memories of Edith is the wood stove in her kitchen where she had a stack of Johnny cakes warming and ready to go for family and visitors at anytime during the day. According to the book “Johnny Cakes and Cream”, the book’s title was derived from Edith telling her story of the role Johnny cakes played in her life.
Another strong woman on Maple Avenue was my aunt, Anna Rogers, wife of my father’s brother, Anthony Rogers. Anna and Anthony lived next door to us and we interfaced freely throughout each day. Aunt Anna was born in County Cork, Ireland and immigrated to the US early in her life. She had two girls and one boy – actually you could say that she had two boys because I spent considerable time at her house under her watchful eye. Aunt Anna was a strong supporter of the various organizations in town but her favorite volunteer efforts were for the Catholic Church and the Village Improvement Society. She survived her husband’s passing by many years but continued to watch out for the men working in the back fields by bringing them afternoon snacks and her famous mint lemonade for sustenance. Quick to laugh and joke with the many youngsters congregating on her front porch, Aunt Anna would say that she didn’t need to wear the color green on St. Patrick’s Day because she wore the map of Ireland on her face.
The Raymond and Elsie Hathaway family lived across the street just south of our farm. They had one boy and one girl. Elsie helped her husband run their restaurant, Ray’s Place (which became Sneakers), and, later, a well drilling business. Elsie was of Swedish extraction which added to the multi-ethnic character of our street and town. Her consistent participation over many years in the annual Congregational Church Fair (knit goods table) was one for the record books. She could be seen in her fair tent chair helping with sales and knitting new goods well into her eighties. Elsie lived four months shy of a hundred. She was an avid Boston Red Sox fan who postponed her passing on one occasion because she had to cheer her team to victory from her hospital bed. The most memorable image that I have of Elsie is her smile. Elsie was never without one. She was a positive force on Maple Avenue during all my growing years and well into my adulthood.
South of the Hathaway home there was a poultry farm. This farm belonged to the Dyer family. Presiding over that farm in my era was a single woman named Annie Dyer. She never married and lived her ninety plus years in that farmhouse. A true Yankee with a strong sense of right and wrong, Annie was fiercely independent, frugal and a good neighbor. You would see her traversing Maple Avenue in her 1920s black Model T Ford in the spring, summer and fall. Not wanting to risk driving her “T” in hazardous weather, she always had it on jacks during the winter season. As a testament to her frugality, there is a story of Annie discussing town events on the five-party telephone line. She said that she would no longer purchase her nightly dessert five cent candy bar from Wilbur’s store because they had the audacity to raise their price to ten cents. “I shan’t be buying those anymore at that price!” It was an adventure to look in on Annie. The families on Maple Avenue made sure that she had what she needed whether it be her driveway plowed or her groceries delivered. With her sense of fair play, Annie returned our affection with eggs, grit and many stories to tell.
In summary, the ladies of Maple Avenue were a diverse group of strong, loyal, capable women who provided a harmonious blend of talent, humor and common sense to everyone who lived there. My childhood and sense of safety was shaped by them. My curiosity of the world was supported by them. My concepts of appropriate behavior were honed by them. There were other women who lived on Maple Avenue who I did not know well and I’m sure their contributions to family and neighbors were just as compelling. But, Virginia, Edith, Anna, Elsie and Annie were woven into the fabric of my life and it is a joy to share bits of them with you here.
Gardner Rogers of 61 Maple Avenue
Our Rhode Island by David Patten: Annie Dyer Sticks by Her Red Hens
We stopped at Annie Dyer’s place on S’cunnet and she came to the door and asked if we would wait while she dressed up. She said she had just finished doing her chores.
In about 10 minutes she came out of the house dressed up. She was sorry we had caughter her in her chore-clothes. She said her rheumatism had bothered her through the winter. She said there wasn’t any money in the hen business these days.
Who would think of driving down S’cunnet way without stopping in to see Annie Dyer? She is 74 now and she lives there alone in the heart of the old Rhode Island Red land. Her house is only a mile or so from Cap’n Tripp’s place where the Reds originated, and perhaps three miles from the Isaac Wilbour farm where they were named.
We asked Annie if she would toss a little more grain to her Reds so that we might take a picture of them gathered around her. She got a dipper of scratch feed and we went out past the barn and into one of the hen lots. Annie said the Reds weren’t used to seeing her dressed up and she didn’t know if they would come when she called.
Bought an Auto
You can see from the picture that they did come. And you can see one of the colony hen houses that were spread all over the pastures of S’cunnet fifty years and more ago when it was the biggest poultry town in the country. There aren’t many of these houses left now; they are getting to be curiosities. The motorized age ended poultry keeping on a large scale because it was easier to keep cows and run the milk up to Fall River once autos came in.
Annie Dyer bought a car, but she couldn’t very well tend to a herd of cattle, so she stuck with her hens. She still has the first car she owned. It is a 1924 Model T Ford. It’s a bit cranky with age, but Annie keeps it shined up just as she keeps her house and everything about the place spic-and-span. Everything neat as a pin, just as Horace, her father, used to keep them.
I remember Horace Dyer welkl and how he kept his meadows clear of wild carrot and his walls well patched and all his buildings trim and snug. And how during the entertainments after church suppers he would sit on the platform in the vestry tapping his foot as he sawed on a fiddle and Sarah Church, daughter of Nattie the stagecoach driver, thumped the piano accompanying him.
It was an overcast afternoon when we took these pictures and you can see from the way Annie’s skirt is blowing that the wind is from the sou’west. She opened the door of one colony house where she had about 100 young chicks. An old kerosene parlor lamp was sputtering to keep them warm. She said she didn’t know why she kept at it, because the price of grain was much too high considering what you could get for the eggs.
A year ago quite a few of her chicks sickened and died.
“Was it the roup, Annie?”
“No, there’s no such thing as roup these days. ‘Twas a new disease with a long Latin name that I can’t bring to mind.”
It Started All Right
We asked her if she would drive her Model-T out of the shed so we could take a picture of her beside it. “Well,” she said, “I’ll try but don’t know as it will start.” When people asked why she kept the Tin Lizzie jacked up all winter she told them, “I have trouble enough starting it in warm weather, say nothing of cold.” But it started all right and she drove it down to the gate for the picture.
When the summer folks come, Annie chugs around delivering eggs and dressed chickens to her customers. She’s been doing that for 30 years now, but she doesn’t know how much mileage the Tin Lizzie has rolled up because she never had a speedometer. Winters she sells her eggs and old fowls to dealers who call at her place.
Before she had the Ford, Annie drove a horse to deliver her stuff. When Will Briggs bought his Stanley steamer, the first auto in town, the horse was scared to death of it. Annie would be out delivering and when the Stanley came toward them the nag would stop, shiver all over and get ready to bolt. The only thing Annie could do was get out, take the horse by the head and lead him by. She would get a good hold on the bridle and then the nag would let out a terrific snort and make a mighty bound that sometimes lifted her clean off her feet. But she would hold on and yank on the bit as hard as she could and somehow get the cuss by.
“Folks vowed I oughtn’t to do it, that he’d get away from me,” said Annie, “but he never did. Everyone in town was having the same trouble. People would hear a car coming and they’d go out to the gate to watch it go by. And most likely as they swallowed its dust they’d say things under their breath. Or mebbe they’d holler right out.”
It was in the ’38 hurricane that her big elm went. She was in the house and heard something but couldn’t see what it was because the wind had plastered her windowpanes with sea-scum and dirt. Then last year Carol and Edna whipped a good many limbs off her trees, which she piled up as neatly as she could, waiting for someone to cart them away. She still fears her peach and plum trees are done for.
Annie hopes to never see another hurricane. But if one comes I’ll wager she will clean right up and get things in apple pie order again as soon as she can and go right on with the hen business. Of course she’ll keep on complaining that grain is too high and that if it isn’t one thing it’s another. That’s only natural. But you can be mighty sure that whatever the price of eggs and despite all the furies that hurricanes may fetch out of the skies, there’s one among S’cunnet’s old Yankees who will stick by her Rhode Island Reds.
David Patten, Former Editor of the Providence Journal
June 13, 1955
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