Edith Russell Church Burchard

Edith Russell Church Burchard

1868 – 1942

“The Heart of the Summer Colony”: An Essay by John McGrath

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Edith Church Burchard. Perkins Family Album, LCHS Collection. All courtesy of Rod Perkins.

“The Heart of the Summer Colony”: An Essay by John McGrath

Edith Russell Church was born in 1868 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of Carrie and John Church Jr. Her grandfather, John Church Sr. was a prominent Little Compton businessman and a descendant of Joseph Church, one of the First Proprietors. John Church, Jr. founded the John Church Music Publishing Company in Cincinnati. His fabulously successful business published much of the sheet music and church music in contemporary America at that time, as well as manufactured many music instruments at its Everett Piano Company. The company eventually had offices in Chicago, Boston and New York, as well as their Cincinnati headquarters, and John became immensely wealthy.

John and Carrie separated in 1874, when Edith was six years old. She was from then on in her father’s custody, first in Cincinnati, and later in Boston with her Aunt Susan Russell, or at the Church family home at Old Acre in Little Compton. Her only sibling, a sister, remained in her mother’s custody in Cincinnati as part of their parent’s separation agreement until the sister died two years later. At that point Edith’s custody came into question in an ugly public dispute in Cincinnati, which became settled without an agreement when her mother died a few months later in January 1876.

From then on Edith remained for the most part in her Aunt Susie’s care in Boston and Little Compton, while her father ran his various business interests. He did spend significant time with his daughter whenever he could, and they remained very close. Edith often mentioned later in life that she adored her father. He died in 1890 at the age of only 56, when he took sick with a pneumonia-like ailment. This was totally unexpected, as the Church family had been noted for longevity. He left his estate to his then 22-year old daughter. Edith became one of the richest women in America, with an annual endowment of $200,000 (the equivalent of about $6 or 7 million dollars a year in today’s dollars) and an ownership interest in his music publishing business.

Shortly after her father’s death, Edith traveled to Europe to expand her horizons. With a chaperone (Miss Elisabeth Combs of Kentucky) arranged by her Aunt Susan, she departed on her European trip in the early 1890s. The two women spent months in France and Italy and other countries, traveling and familiarizing themselves with European culture, a fairly typical right-of-passage of the young and well-to-do in that era.  Edith however became ill on their return ocean voyage. Miss Combs insisted she see a doctor that she knew in New York City before returning to Little Compton. The doctor was Thomas Burchard, a prominent New York physician. After treating Edith successfully, he introduced her to his brother Roswell, who was considered a very prominent bachelor. Edith and Roswell (or Rod, as he was known to his friends) hit it off almost immediately and a relationship ensued.

Roswell Beebe Burchard (born in 1860) was the son of a prominent Presbyterian minister in New York City and a graduate of New York City College. He had worked as a public school teacher in New York City and then in various businesses. He was a prominent sportsman and had completed several long ocean canoe voyages up and down the East Coast and on the St. Lawrence River. He was an editor of both The American Canoeist magazine and Outing Magazine.

At this time in her life however Edith was convinced that she was meant to be a life-long spinster. Upon her return to Little Compton she undertook a complete redesign of Old Acre as a suitable residence for a well-to-do and cultured single female. This large and spacious New England home at the intersection of Meeting House Lane and West Main Road had been built in 1843 by her grandfather John Church Sr.. It stood in front of the plot of the historic 17th century family homestead of the Church family. Edith had an abiding interest in architecture and strove to expand the estate and incorporate elements that had impressed her on her European travels. She had the house split in two and moved the north entry 20 feet, to install a central hallway with a view of both the church steeple in the east, and the sunset in the west. She also added porches at many levels that still exist today, as well as bay windows and balustrades. The house was refurnished handsomely with furniture built specifically to Edith’s specifications at the Everett Piano Company factory in Cincinnati. At the completion of this work in 1893, Old Acre was described as the most modern home in Little Compton. It had electric bells, speaking tubes, hot and cold water, and two furnaces for heat. In addition, she had gardeners groom and luxuriously plant the grounds, and she had a large stable built with a second floor which doubled as a ballroom.

Edith’s spinsterhood however didn’t continue as planned. Her relationship with Roswell blossomed, and they became engaged to be married. The wedding occurred in Little Compton on June 26th, 1897 at Old Acre, and it may have well been one of the most splendid affairs ever seen in that town. The New York Times sent a reporter all the way to Rhode Island to cover the highly publicized event. It was described as a wedding of nobility, with Edith being the “favorite daughter of this delightful old town.” Part of the Times story is quoted here…

“The attendance of guests was large, over 1700 invitations having been sent out to friends all over the country, many of whom are especially prominent society leaders in the cities and towns where they reside. It had been found impossible to charter the steamboat which runs into Little Compton for the accommodation of the guests, and arrangements were made to furnish them carriages from the depot in Tiverton, the nearest railway station, which is 11 miles away. Never before was such a procession witnessed upon the country roads of these parts, and it may be that such a parade will never be seen again.

The bride was given away by Edward T. Russell of Boston, her uncle. She looked extremely pretty in a beautiful gown of Brussels net, covered with rare old Italian lace, point appliqué…. The kaleidoscopic picture presented by the handsome gowned ladies, as after the ceremony they strolled with their escorts about the spacious and well kept grounds, walked hither and thither over velvety lawns under grateful shade of trees and among the shrubs, was a charming one. The crowning feature of the day’s festivities was a dance in the mammoth stable in the evening. The floors were prepared for the occasion, and in point of fact few country town are so fortunate as to possess public halls which will compete favorably.”

Shortly after their wedding Edith and Roswell departed for Europe and North Africa on their honeymoon. They spent a substantial amount of time traveling and living in France, Italy and Egypt before returning to the States. They also brought back a significant amount of keepsakes and memorablilia, many of which inhabited a room at Old Acre for years, which became known locally as “The Egyptian Room.”

Upon their return they took up residence at Old Acre, where their first child, John Church Burchard, was born in May of 1898. Shortly thereafter they moved to Boston and a home on Bay State Road while Roswell initiated his law studies at Harvard University. They resided there (apart from summers in Little Compton) until Roswell graduated with his law degree in 1903. Three of their eventual seven children were born in Boston at this time, Agnes Leeds Church in 1900, Edith Russell Church in 1902 and Susan Church (later Susie Shethar Whitin) in 1903. All the children suffered from and survived scarlet fever while they were in Boston (and they all also survived the 1918 Flu epidemic in Little Compton 15 years later).

Upon moving back to Little Compton, Roswell successfully ran for political office. He represented the town in the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 1904 until 1912, serving as the Speaker of the House for most of those years. He was elected Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island in 1912 and served in that capacity until 1915. He then retired from politics following an unsuccessful campaign for the US House of Representatives in 1916. He then helped manage the John Church Music Publishing Company in Cincinnati in subsequent years until his retirement.

During these years the family lived in Providence or Boston during the winter months but returned to Little Compton and Old Acre in the summer and over the holidays. Three additional children were born to Edith and Roswell during this time, Roswell Beebe Jr.in 1905, Eleanor Stanwood in 1907 and Caroline Corwin in 1909.

According to contemporaries, Old Acre became a “magical sort of place” then, under the command of Edith. There was always something “going on”: 4th of July parties with barn dances and Japanese lanterns, Easter parties, Halloween parties and Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. There were Maypole dances for local school classes organized by Edith, and school trips visiting the Egyptian Room.  The grounds and stables housed a menagerie of pets and farm animals: Saint Bernards, Great Danes and Bull Dogs, as well as donkeys, ponies and even monkeys, parrots and peacocks. There was a Shetland pony “Diamond” (a gift from Aunt Louise Berryman of Elmendorf Farms in Kentucky) which the kids often rode behind on a pony cart. And there was the usual farm contingent of sheep, cattle and chickens, as well as the horses in the stable and the carriages and early automobiles in the barn.

As recalled by daughter Susie Shethar Whitin, “when we were children, the house was always full of kids. We were always bringing friends home from schools in Providence. So the house was always full of children and my mother was a marvelous general! She had lots of help but she managed it so awfully well. I can remember that every evening after we’d gone to bed she’d organize our clothes for the next morning on chairs with straight backs. Mom and Dad organized a big Field Day with Puritan costumes in the fields near Walker’s Stand one year, with Dad in a coat of mail on his black horse Eclipse, my brother John as John Alden, sister Agnes as Aweshonks, and the rest of our tribe in appropriate Pilgrim gear!”

There were typically 14 or so people working at Old Acre at any one time: farm workers, maids, cooks, and gardeners. The servants were especially reportedly fond of Edith, as she was very caring of them all. There was even a French Governess and a music teacher. The kids all took music lessons and had to speak French until lunchtime.  When Edith was once asked why she had so many servants, her answer was “because I have so many children!”

Roswell was also one of the founders of the golf club, even though he never played golf or tennis himself. He became involved because he reasoned it would be healthy activity for their children. He was the first President of the Golf Club, and still held that office upon his death in 1931. Edith was described at the time as the heart and soul of the Golf Clubhouse, and most of the furniture there was loaned from Old Acre. She supervised the grounds and gardens around the clubhouse, designed the architecture of the north “L” end of the porch along with the patio on the north side, the Pro Shop, and designed and supervised the construction of the Playhouse herself.

There were many visitors at Old Acre every summer: Aunt Bertha Russell, Aunt Julia, and Susie Russell, whom the kids called their “Grandma,” among many others. Everyone always dressed immaculately and put on formal clothes just to go to the Common. Roswell became a serious photographer and constructed his own darkroom in an old ice house at Old Acre. He took most of their family pictures as well as many of the historical photos from the early years of the Sakonnet Golf Club.

The Church Fair was held on the lawn at Old Acre then, and even later when it moved to the Church grounds at the Commons, it didn’t officially start until Edith visited and made the first purchases there every year. She was very active with the Congregational Church and considered the “Lady of the Manor” in Little Compton at that time. She hosted a dinner every year at Old Acre for the Deacons of the church, and was chairwoman for the fundraiser to repair the church steeple after the Hurricane of ’38.

Edith Russell Church Burchard died in a Boston hospital in August 1942 at the age of 74, after a three-week illness. During her lifetime she was considered by most the center of social life in Little Compton, and Old Acre was the “Heart of the Summer Colony”.

John McGrath

April 2020

Outdoor exhibit panel from the 2020 special exhibition, The Little Compton Women’s History Project.

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Edith Church’s wealth did not save her from childhood heartbreak. Her parents separated when she was six. An ugly and very public custody battle ended with her mother’s death. Her father also died young, making Edith, at the age of 22, one of the richest women in America. Her annual stipend was approximately six million in today’s dollars.

Edith toured Europe with a chaperone in 1890 and upon her return completely redesigned Old Acre, the Church family home, making it the most modern house in Little Compton. The second floor of the massive stable doubled as a ballroom. In 1897 Edith married the dashing New Yorker Roswell Burchard at Old Acre. They sent 1700 invitations, and a New York Times reporter wrote about the splendid event. Their honeymoon souvenirs equipped Old Acre with an Egyptian Room.

Edith’s diaries show her delight in settling into family life. She adored her husband and their seven children and made Old Acre “a magical sort of place” for her family. She was an attentive and hands-on mother, hostess, homemaker, and community organizer, though her staff of 14 was a help.

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1 thought on “Edith Russell Church Burchard

  1. Fascinating! Thank you, LCHS for this history. “Aunt” Susie became my step-grandmother in 1962 when she married my grandfather, Richard Courtenay Whitin. I have since learned that there are quite a few LC summer and year-long residents who also called her “aunt.” She was a generous lady, and was loved by many!