Fannie DeWolfe Cooke

Fannie DeWolfe Cooke

1865 – 1964

Portrait of Grandmother Cooke, Artist unknown. Courtesy of her grandchildren.

Grandmother Cooke

And “Grandmother Cooke” she was, to eight grandchildren, twenty-six great grands, and innumerable great-greats, most of whom spent some time in Little Compton and many of whom now live in the town year round or visit every summer   So, if you know anyone in Little Compton named Richmond, Byers, Ladd, Stone, Wood, Hassan, Craver, Moore, Webb, Arkins, Truslow, Scheussler, McSweeney, Statmore, Morris, Goodnow, Reynolds, Arnold, Nightingale, Sullivan, Webber, or Isaacs, they might have a little touch of Grandmother Cooke in their bones.

For some fifty years she presided over the wide and welcoming porch at “Onadune.” on Warren’s Point.  From her vantage point, rocking on her glider, working on needlepoint, or entertaining callers and family, she could look up Grinnell Road and catch the comings and goings of visitors to the Point and to the nearby Warren’s Point Beach.  Across the street (Atlantic Drive) she could wave at her friend and neighbor, Laura Dean, whom she visited daily, addressing her as “Mrs. Dean” and being addressed similarly in return.

Fanny DeWolfe Pinckney was born in New York City in 1865.  She was one of four orphaned sisters who were supported by various relatives, and it is said, her marriage to John Swinburne Cooke in 1883, at the age of 17, was arranged by her relations.  She was often quoted as saying “Wasn’t it lucky that John Cooke turned out to be such a nice man?”   At that time John was managing the Cooke Locomotive Works in Paterson, NJ, a business he had inherited from his father.  The couple settled in Paterson and produced three children: Helen, Jack and Margaret.  In 1902 Cooke sold the locomotive business and went into banking.  In that same year, their house on Warren’s Point appears on the town tax rolls.

How did John and Fanny Cooke ever find Little Compton?   They were looking for a summer place and headed for Cape Cod to look at properties. For some reason their travel brought them to visit the Kemptons (ancestors of Warren, Nancy and Susan Clark) on Warren’s Point on their way to and from the Cape. On their return, they announced that there was no place on the Cape as beautiful as the fields and ocean they were seeing right there in Little Compton.  They bought four acres on Warren’s Point (“one for us, and one for each of our three children,”). 

To design his house, John Cooke summoned Harry Thornton Stephens, an architect who had designed many public buildings in New York and New Jersey.  For the Cookes’ new seaside home, he designed a house in the American shingle style with an unusually flowing and open interior, and a very large, sheltered porch.  Named “Onadune,” in reference to its location by the sea, the house continues to attract admiration for its graceful style, and it remains in the extended Cooke family as the property of Peggy (Byers) Wood and her children.

Travel from Paterson to Little Compton was not easy in the early years.  It took two days: train from Paterson to Hoboken; ferry from Hoboken to New York; the steamer Priscilla overnight to Fall River; then another steamer from Fall River to Sakonnet Point where they were met by horse and buggy and driven to Warren’s Point. 

The first recorded celebration in Onadune was the wedding of Helen Cooke and Carleton Richmond in 1912.  This connected the Cookes to a family with a longstanding historic presence in Little Compton.  The family spent summers in various Richmond properties in Little Compton until the late thirties, when Carleton inherited the farm on South of Commons Road.  The Richmonds had four children, Helen, (married Robert Ladd) Carleton Jr., Jean (married Henry Stone), and Joshua, who later inherited the farm and passed it on to Bill Richmond, who has made it the year-round home for his family.

John Cooke, after building his house on Warren’s Point and playing a part in the founding of the Sakonnet Golf Club, became deeply involved with his bank in New Jersey.  He spent little time in his summer home, but we know that he played many rounds of golf with his daughter Margaret (Byers) and left her with a substantial skill in the game.  She held the record score for women Club members for many years, and she did it, in the words of Roy Grinnell “with them old hickory clubs!”  John Cooke passed away in 1915, and Grandmother moved her winter quarters to Boston to be near her Richmond daughter and son-in-law.

Grandmother loved gardens and she ensured her place in the town’s annals of gardening by hiring Lloyd Lawton, then in his early twenties and an aspiring landscape designer, to design and maintain her grounds, including a lovely garden on the east side of the house.  During Grandmother’s time as President of the Garden Club, Mr. Lawton would arrive early in the morning on the day of Club meetings with fresh flowering plants to be staged in Grandmother’s garden for the benefit of the Club members.  Late in the afternoon, club ladies gone, he would retrieve the salt-and-wind-battered lilies and hollyhocks to be revived in his sheltered yard in Tiverton.

A needlepoint bench top by Grandmother Cooke. Courtesy of Randy Byers.

And her needlepoint labors on the Onadune porch yielded some extraordinary pieces, particularly covers for fire benches.  Pictured at left is a fireplace bench made for her daughter and son-in-law, Margaret and Randolph Byers and now gracing Randy Byers’s home on West Main Road.  Ellie and Jim Craver are proud owners of another of these, as are Debbie and Carl Ladd, who went to the trouble of having the needlepoint reproduced as a painting when it had worn thin and become detached from its bench.  Other specimens can be found in the McSweeney home in Newport, the Schuessler home in Bristol and doubtless many other homes where Cooke descendants live.

When the 1938 hurricane came out of nowhere and ravaged much of Rhode Island, Grandmother was in Onadune with a lifelong, rather portly, friend known as “Cousin Sadie.” As the storm increased there was concern for the French doors leading from the dining room onto the porch, and Grandmother directed Cousin Sadie to sit in a wing chair against the doors to secure them.  Miraculously, this worked, and the doors held against the storm.   When the 1944 hurricane arrived, our very slender Aunt Ethel was similarly deployed, but was, in the words of Carleton Richmond, “more easily airborn.”  The doors flew open, and a small rug was blasted through the fanlight over the front door.  Otherwise the house has withstood countless storms without batting an eye or losing more than a few shingles and a porch window.

As her family multiplied, Grandmother Cooke saw to it that her grandchildren got around.  Randy Byers remembers his turn at “the trip” to Washington, D.C., an excursion she arranged for many, if not all, of her grandchildren, two or three at a time.  A chauffeur drove the car to Washington, while grandmother and grandchildren traveled by train and were met at the other end by the car and driver.  They stayed at the Wardman Park Hotel and from there were chauffeured to all the important sites in the nation’s capital.  Grandmother would stay in the car while driver and children climbed monuments and toured museums.

She was resourceful in many ways.  Randy remembers a Fourth of July when the family went on an excursion, leaving him alone with Grandmother. Anxious not to have this grandchild completely miss the national celebration, she found some caps (“caps” as in “cap pistol”) and a hammer and managed to explode them on the concrete apron of the porch for Randy’s benefit.

The house acquired new technologies slowly.  Kerosene lamps were the principal light source until electricity came to Warren’s Point in the 1930s, and heat was provided only by kerosene and electric space heaters.  Water, until the late thirties, was collected through downspouts leading from the roof to three large underground cisterns.  From there it was pumped into a holding tank in the attic from which it ran down through the taps in the kitchen and bathrooms.  This water could be used for bathing and laundry but not for cooking and drinking.  For those purposes, someone (Peggy Byers remembers doing this as a small child with the cook) went out to the well and drew up buckets of fresh water and carried them into the kitchen.  This system was replaced in 1938, when Grandmother Cooke built a house for the Byers family on another one of those “four acres,” and an artesian well was dug which now serves three houses: Onadune, its former garage now known as “The Barn,” and “White Cap,” now owned by Franny Byers Hatch’s four daughters and their families.

It sometimes amazes visitors to learn that during World War II, Little Compton was the site of a substantial military base, housing 16-inch guns located adjacent to the Golf Course and at other sites in town.    For Grandmother, this meant a two-story barracks housing soldiers right across the driveway on what is now Ben Carpenter’s front lawn.  There was also a cinder-block house, designed to look like a summer cottage from the air, but, in reality, one of two stations for directing fire from those huge guns. *

(Note:  an aerial photo of this set-up can be seen on page 172 of Little Compton: changing Landscapes, by the Historical Society.  A corner of the Onadune porch is visible in the lower right hand corner of the picture.)

The war years brought other changes.  In September 1940, three English children: Jennifer, Bridget and Tony, appeared on the Onadune porch: refugees from the blitz.  Jennifer’s mother was a Cooke cousin, and the Richmonds had agreed to provide a home for her and two friends for an indefinite period.  Grandmother took them in for the summer months of 1941 and 1942.  In 1943, the children mysteriously (“loose lips sink ships”) disappeared from their American friends and returned home as the seas became safer and shipping space became available. 

Onadune also housed two Ladd grandchildren, Rob and Carl, for part of a war-time summer.  They remember the black felt curtains they were obliged to hang over the windows at night, as were all coastal houses, to prevent the light from outlining merchant ships and making them easy targets for U-Boats.  (No kidding! Eight ships were sunk off the East coast during 1942.)  The Ladd boys also chatted with soldiers patrolling the property.  None of these things seemed to faze Grandmother, and by 1947, her world had pretty much returned to normal.

Grandmother had her standards:  She was always “Grandmother,” never “Granny” or “Granma.” Liquor was an occasional glass of sherry.  She played cards, but never on Sunday, and all family members were expected to be dressed “appropriately” even when visiting her on the porch.  This meant skirts for girls and long pants for boys.  No shorts!  Determined to maintain Rhode Island residency, she stayed in her unheated house for six months and a day of every year and took pains in every election year to vote in Little Compton.

Josh Richmond wrote in a memoir: “She was quite tall…very erect and impeccably dressed.  When asked what made her stand so straight, she replied ‘my pride!’” Actually, he tells us, she wore a steel bound corset because she had been bedridden for several years with what must have been a slipped disc.  Her knees were also constantly bandaged.  If she ever complained, few ever heard of it, but we all understood why she never played sports or went to the beach and why she stayed in the car while the grandchildren climbed monuments and toured historic sites on those trips to Washington.

She also wanted us to know she was no “nervous nelly.”  Roger Wordell, her driver/grounds keeper in the fifties, remembers driving Mrs. Cooke, Aunt Ethel, and Mrs. Dean to Boston for a visit.  On the way up, Grandmother leaned forward from the back seat and asked Roger to slow down a bit.  He did.  When they got back to Little Compton and let Mrs. Dean off, Grandmother confided in Roger, “You know, I wasn’t the one who wanted you to slow down.  It was Mrs. Dean!”

The house on Warren’s Point still has many reminders of Grandmother Cooke.  Besides the pictures of herself, children and grandchildren, and, yes, Cousin Sadie, there are furnishings and art works from Italy, Mexico and Japan which she bought on her travels.  There is no record of where and how often she took her trips, but a place card for her seat at the annual family Christmas celebration in 1946, right after the war, might sum up some of her spirit.  (When you read this poem be sure to pronounce the initials in the first line as “ef-dee-double-u-cee.)

A very travelled lady is F.DeW. C.

To stay put here in Boston gives her the heebeejee

When gasoline was rationed and trains, alas, taboo

A little run to Providence was all the fun she knew.

But now the sky’s the limit; airlines beg her trade

So long, good-by. Where to this trip? Chungking or Adelaide?

The Richmonds, Byers and Ladds celebrating Grandmother Cooke’s 75th birthday. Courtesy of her grandchildren.

Peggy Byers Wood, granddaughter and Randy Byers, grandson

April 2020

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