Grace Taylor Armstrong

Grace Taylor Armstrong

1876 – 1967

Grace Taylor Armstrong. Courtesy of the Hawes family.

Grace Taylor Armstrong was the matriarch of the Hawes family. Born in Boston in 1876, she spent her childhood at her parents’ home on Beacon Hill.  Her father was General Charles H. Taylor, co-founder of the Boston Globe and owner of the Red Sox from 1904 to 1911. It was Taylor who started the construction of Fenway Park.

 In 1905 Grace married Matthew C. Armstrong of Hampton, Virginia. The wedding announcement ran in the Globe with the headline: “The daughter of Gen. and Mrs. Chas. H. Taylor Becomes the Bride of a Southern Man.”

So Grace, the quintessential Bostonian, moved south to Virginia. Matthew Armstrong, with his brother Richard, had established the Armstrong Land and Improvement Company in 1902.  They acquired a 600-acre tract of land in Hampton around the turn of the century. Known as Ivy Home Farms, the land was subdivided into residential lots and sold off over the next four decades. Both brothers were prominent in business but Matthew was better known in social circles.  Naturally reserved, Grace attended many social events with Matthew, though she may have preferred her comfortable home life.

On November 10, 1906 their first child, Elizabeth, (known as Bess) was born. Their second daughter, Frances, was born  two years later, on  November 8, 1908. I imagine the two little girls, so close in age, would have been life-long friends.  But  life is full of twists and turns. For the Armstrong family their comfortable home life turned tragic.

Frances contracted pertussis (whooping cough), a highly contagious disease that is especially dangerous for babies and small children. Not yet two years old, Frances died on February 5, 1910. Grace had gone back to Boston to deliver both of her babies. However, even if they had had time to get Frances to Boston, it  is unlikely the outcome would have been any different. Unfortunately the pertussis vaccine was not invented until the 1930s. Grace and Matthew buried their daughter in the Taylor plot in Boston at the Forest Hills cemetery.

Now the social scene was even less her cup of tea.  Grace focused her efforts on helping the community.  She and Matthew were generous supporters of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. It was founded in 1868 by Matthew’s uncle, Samuel Armstrong, for freed slaves after the Civil War.  Today, over 150 years after its inception and renamed Hampton University, the school continues to break new ground in academic achievement, staying true to Samuel Armstrong’s original promise : The Standard of Excellence, An Education for Life.

The couple also supported The Little England Chapel.  It began modestly as a Sunday school in a small section of a private home. The school became so popular that they needed more space to hold the Bible Studies. A local man, George Rowe, set aside thirty-five acres, divided into  thirty-three lots, to be sold to African Americans.  This area came to be known as Newtown.  In 1870, the first six lots were sold at fifty dollars each. During this same period, African Americans also purchased lots of comparable size at the same price from William N. Armstrong, Matthew’s father. Subsequently, “Newtown” was applied to the entire black community.

In 1878 William offered the use of a small piece of land along Ivy Home Road for a larger building if the residents in the neighborhood would contribute toward the support of a day school teacher. The money was raised and the chapel opened in 1879. Students from Hampton Institute not only designed but built the school house. The work was overseen by William Armstrong.  The chapel now serves as a museum with exhibits that interpret the religious lives of post-Civil War African Americans in Virginia.

Grace also wanted to create a living memorial to her father.  In 1925 she donated the land and money for a building to be known as “The Charles H. Taylor Memorial Library.”  Modeled after one of Grace’s favorite buildings, the Courthouse in Elizabeth City, Virginia, the library opened in 1926 for “the use and benefit” of county residents. It was the first free county library in Virginia and served for more than 60 years as the city’s central library.

Many residents recall how grand it was. The children’s room was complete with a majestic fireplace and crown molding. In 1987 when the city of Hampton built a new expanded library next door, the memorial was not forgotten. Thanks to Grace’s farsighted vision the historic building was renovated according to the guidelines she set forth in her bequest and in 1989 the building reopened as the “Charles H. Taylor Arts Center.” Grace served as a trustee for many years.

Both the library, and subsequently the arts center, have been cornerstones of the city;  a vibrant center of learning and creativity. This “recent transplant from Boston” left her mark on Hampton.

But she never forgot her roots. When she came north for the summer the Red Sox games were broadcast locally.  After lunch, Grace would retire to her bedroom for a “nap.” In fact, she was often listening to the Red Sox games on the radio.

To escape the heat and humidity of a Virginia summer, Grace would return to New England every year to join her parents and brothers on Buzzard’s Bay at the family compound on “Taylor Point.” There were several houses on the property, as well as a 9-hole golf course. Grace and Matthew stayed in the small guest house behind the main house. The hurricane of ‘38 destroyed one of the other houses and things were getting more crowded each succeeding generation.

In addition, the family saw what was coming and didn’t like what they saw; more development, more traffic, more tourists; in other words too tacky.  Grace had heard mention of Little Compton from a friend. Maybe it was the word “Little” in the town’s name or maybe Grace was charmed by the open fields and stone walls. In any case, in 1946 Grace and her then 11 year old granddaughter, Hat Hawes, drove over from Buzzard’s Bay and looked at just two houses; one on Taylor’s Lane (no relation) and one on Warren’s Point,

They both agreed on the Taylor’s Lane house. It still remains in the family; a large summer “cottage” without heat or insulation in the main part of the house. To this day, Hat’s children, grandchildren and assorted nieces, nephews and great nieces and nephews give Hat grief for not choosing Warren’s Point! The bike ride to all their activities was SO much longer.

Summers in Little Compton were idyllic. Grace moved up from Virginia kit and caboodle and stayed for the season. Her daughter, Bess Hawes, lived in Washington D.C. and she and her four children did the same. Husbands showed up on weekends. Those were the days when many women were able to stay for the whole summer. Today more women work outside of the home and have limited vacations, but Little Compton’s “summer” people keep coming back whenever and for as long as they can.

Grace’s youngest grandchild, Sandy Hawes, has managed to come every summer except one since he was 6 weeks old. He has fond memories of his grandmother, especially their frequent trips to the Bluff Head for ice cream cones and to the little cafe near the old post office on the Commons for lobster rolls.

On weekends you could find Grace watching the sailboat races from her car. She parked in the lot at Sakonnet Point for the best view. Everyone in the family was an avid racer, though in the heat of the battle it could get quite tense in the cockpit.  Bess and her husband Alex frequently had  “frank and open” discussions during races. Their voices were often loud enough to be heard from quite a distance, but not from Grace’s parked car!

One family activity Grace really enjoyed was helping to fold the spinnaker and pack it back into its bag.  It was all hands on deck as the sail was spread out over the entire living room floor, in order to be ready to sail their Alden, the Malolo and later the Blue Angel, the next race day.

Grace also loved to sit outside in the sun, though she was NEVER seen in a swimsuit or even shorts.  She didn’t worry about getting sunburned as she was always completely covered from head to toe.

While the grandchildren were always busy; sailing, playing tennis, golfing, biking to the beach, jumping off the high board at Warren’s Point, they still had to adhere to their Grandmother’s schedule. The household was a fairly formal one. It goes without saying that you didn’t come to the dining table in a swimsuit or bare feet.

Dinners were always in the dining room and for certain days the menu was set and never changed. Sandy can still recite the order.  When Grace’s son-in-law, Alex Hawes, was up from Washington DC. for the weekend they had swordfish Saturday night and standing rib roast for Sunday lunch. On Mondays, the staple was home-made roast beef hash from the left-over roast. On Thursdays when the cook had the day off, the family had to fend for themselves. Occasionally they took this opportunity to boil lobsters.

Little Compton was and has remained a wonderful place to vacation or to raise a family.  Grace was correct about the changes that were coming to Buzzard’s Bay. Taylor Point is now the home of the Mass Maritime Academy. Traffic is a nightmare. The beaches are overrun by tourists, and many of the open fields have disappeared under the pressure of development.

Grace Taylor Armstrong came to Little Compton in the summer of 1947 with her daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren. The family now number 39, all of whom return to Little Compton at some point during the summer.  It is true that they have added to the ranks of “summer” people.  But whether summer or year-round, we all love Little Compton. I believe Little Compton has handled the pressure of development far better than other seaside towns and that Grace would still find it charming.

Grace Taylor Armstrong died in Hampton on November 21, 1967. She is buried at the Forest Hills cemetery in Boston next to Matthew and Frances Armstrong.

She may have been a “transplant” to Hampton, but she had a lasting effect on the educational, cultural and spiritual lives of its residents that endures to this day. And her numerous progeny, each in their own way, contribute to the life of our beloved Little Compton.

Piper Hawes

March 10, 2020

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