Laura Winter Dean

Laura Winter Dean

1871 – 1968

This photo, circa 1950, shows Laura Winter Dean standing in front of the Gatherem south steps. Courtesy of Bob Read.

Her name is Laura Winter Dean.  I knew her as my grandmother.  She came to Little Compton in 1903 as the daughter of Edwin Winter who had just built “Gatherem”, an iconic shingle style house on Warrens Point.  She was then 32 years old, and the oldest of six siblings.  Married to William Dean, the owner of a heavy hardware business in St. Paul, Minnesota, they eventually had eight children all of whom were to spend summers in Little Compton.

Laura and her family lived in St. Paul, and spent summers in remote Little Compton.  How did they discover Little Compton from such a distant location as St. Paul?   Her father was responsible for that.  He had retired from his job as president of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1895 and had taken a position as president of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, living in Manhattan.  During this period he was invited to Little Compton by his friend, Col. Clough who owned a house on Warrens Point.

Edwin Winter, Laura’s father, was a widower whose wife had died of pneumonia at the age of 42, and he was looking for a place where he could bring his children and grandchildren to visit him in the summer.  He saw an empty field across the road from the Clough property that was for sale, within walking distance of the beach, and big enough to hold the type of house he needed.  So he bought it, built the house that has remained there, and continued to enjoy the company of his children and grandchildren until he died in 1930.

Laura Dean, his eldest child, was given the house and property because she had the largest family, had spent the most time there, and really had served her father as his hostess for the years since he built the house.  Laura spent her winters in St. Paul raising eight children and brought them all at various times to Little Compton each summer. That operation of moving a large family and their luggage from Minnesota to Rhode Island in the early 20th century took some careful planning.  It involved a train trip from St. Paul to Chicago, a night spent in a hotel there, a train trip from Chicago to Boston, a trip by carriage or train to Fall River and finally the trip by steamboat or carriage to Sakonnet.  All this took place accompanied by two maids and a cook to help at Gatherem, the family house in Little Compton.  The name Gatherem came from one of Anthony Trollope’s popular nineteenth century novels.

Life on Warrens Point at that time was an adventure – no telephone, kerosene lamps, chamber pots in the bedrooms, water hand-pumped from a well.  No automobile at first, no club at the beach existed yet.  There was no telephone, but they borrowed one for emergencies at Manuel’s farm across the road at some distance.  Eventually, when telephone service was installed, it consisted of a two-digit number.  Food was acquired from a vegetable truck that arrived daily with its scales hanging off the back.  Later, when they acquired an automobile, Laura arranged for a chauffeur to drive her car from St. Paul and stay in a room in the back of the garage that had been built by then.

The next generation of life at Gatherem arrived as Laura’s children came of age and her father had died.  The beach had become a club with bath houses and life guards, and the children were constantly making good use of it using their mother’s bathhouse number 1 to change into bathing suits.  My sister and brother and I, three of Gram’s 25 grandchildren, remember swimming in the waves, diving off the rocks and playing with our friends, but then having to interrupt our stay at the beach to rush back to Gatherem with our parents in time to meet the strict 12:30 PM deadline for lunch imposed by our grandmother.  Lunch was served by the maids in a formal setting and there were even finger bowls.  When WWII came there were practice air raids and rumors of German submarines right off shore and test firings of 16 inch guns installed up the road.  All of this was taken in stride by Laura Dean who followed the war’s progress closely on her radio.                                                                                                                                          

I can remember when my family of four children came to Little Compton a generation or two later, we stayed in a rented house and would stop at Gatherem on our way to the beach to visit my grandmother and hear stories of her life in St. Paul such as with her neighbor James J. Hill, one of the “robber barons” we had read about in school books describing the westward expansion of the railroads.   When the weather was right Grandma would occasionally venture into the waves at the age of ninety with the help of the head life guard.   After lunch there were games to be played – croquet on the front lawn or a game of backgammon by the large window in the dining room looking south or a baseball game with young and old from around Warrens Point.  The prevailing southwest wind offered ideal conditions for flying kites made by our grandfather in his workshop.

Laura Dean with her straight posture and commanding presence was thought of in those days as one of the “grande dames” of Warrens Point together with her friend Mrs. Cooke, the owner of Onadune, the neighboring house just to the south, and the grandmother of current LCHS board member Randy Byers.  They both would talk to each other daily and have tea together enjoying the wonderful views to the east of Cuttyhunk, to the south of passing sailboats and ships headed for Boston, and to the west of Newport. Of course she never allowed cocktails in her house, to the consternation of her children, but then I remember serving her in her late eighties a carefully measured ounce of whiskey for “medicinal purposes.”

Laura Dean’s children remember in the early 20th century walking over fields that lay between Gatherem and the Sakonnet Golf Club to get to the club where they played tennis or golf.  Laura’s father, Edwin Winter, had been one of the early presidents of the club in 1916.  There is a photograph in the golf club bar taken in the early 1910s of Laura sitting with a group of women having tea in the front yard of the club, all with floor length skirts and wearing hats.  Laura is known to have played golf at the club well into her seventies and eighties.

September of 1938 brought the devastating hurricane of that year with no warning.  Laura Dean and her husband William were caught alone in Gatherem and sat through the fierce wind and driving rain that toppled trees and blocked roads.  She remembered the leaves being stripped by the wind from her privet hedges surrounding the porch and being plastered against the windows so you could not see through them.  But they bravely survived without power for several days.  After her husband died in 1941 Laura often hired young boys locally, including Bill Steers, brother of current board member Mike Steers, for summer jobs to help with chores around the property and do errands for her.

For her whole life from the age of 32 in 1903 she always looked forward to the summer journey to Little Compton and the two or three months she could enjoy at Gatherem on Warrens Point.  She enjoyed being host to her children and grandchildren and absorbing the beauty of this remarkable haven.  In her nineties she had to give up the trip to Little Compton and returned to St. Paul where she died in 1968 at the age of 97.   

Bob Read, Grandson

February 2020

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