Mary Ellen “Ella” Gillis Barry
1894 – 1989
Excerpt from Liz Peckham’s Three Generations
The history of Little Compton women is filled with those who felt like outsiders or newcomers even though they had spent much of their lives in town or made a big impact on our community. I am the 5th generation to be raised in the same farmhouse on the corner of Peckham and West Main Roads. The “outsider” label seems irrelevant. Many of our greatest Community Leaders moved to town from elsewhere and we are better off for their contributions. I am recording 2 such women in my life. My mother and her mother.
Mary Ellen Gillis Barry (Ella) and her daughter Mary Jane Barry Peckham came to live in Little Compton from Providence RI in the early 1950s. Mary Jane, a graduate of Providence’s prestigious Classical High School, had met Albert R. Peckham while both attended the University of R.I.. By 1953 they were married, with 2 children and living in a run-down rental at the top of Peckham Road, while her husband returned to work on the family farm. Mary Jane lost her idolized father during this transitional period and her mother struggled to cope with widowhood. Ella moved to LC to be near her daughter and bought a small house not far away. We understand that she lived there for less than 2 months when a violent thunder storm scared this urban senior over to Al and Mary Jane’s place…and she never left.
As descendants of Irish Catholics, mother and daughter were devout members of that faith and got used to the more modest Catholic church at The Commons, compared with the cathedral-like St. Matthew’s Church in Cranston where they had been Sunday regulars. Mary Jane made her new husband promise that she could raise her children in the Catholic faith and she tried all her life to direct her brood in the direction of Catholicism. She also came to this very Republican town as an urban Democrat. These 2 predilections handicapped her efforts to blend with the local social scene, but in time she found like-minded and tolerant friendships. Two of husband Al’s childhood friends were married in the Catholic church; subsequently, Rogers Almy’s bride, a teacher nicknamed “Gubby” became Mary Jane’s friend for life.
The beach habit during Little Compton summers actually began in Buttonwoods, Warwick, R.I. where Mary Jane learned from her mother to love the water and became a competent swimmer. Ella loved to be at the shore and this fascination filtered down the generations. Brigg’s Beach became a habitual summertime destination for Mary Jane and her kids. She and we met many summertime friends there.
Al Peckham had a contemporary split-level home built across the road from the Peckham Road rental in 1956. Al’s father objected to the project, having offered the old rental house to his son, but Mary Jane could abide neither its run-down condition nor its mouse infestation. She was a city girl, after all, and had grown up with a certain level of civilization. The final straw may have come when Al stabbed a mouse to death in the silverware drawer, using a fork. So the split-level was built on a patch of hayfield where the underlying rock ledge came to the surface, and patriarch Raymond settled into an uneasy peace with his daughter-in-law.
Mary Jane’s mother Ella came into the United States with her Gillis parents from Nova Scotia as a 1-year old in 1895. She was raised in Providence along with 6 siblings but her mother’s death broke up the family shortly after Ella reached her teens. The children were placed in various Nova Scotia homes and remained there several years. Ella spoke of a stint in a TB fresh air recovery camp in Nova Scotia. Following that, she worked at a candy factory in Pawtucket, RI as a child laborer. Ella told us that a kind doctor and his wife took her in after an abusive stay with another family. When WW1 broke out there was a great need for nurses and this doctor enrolled her into St. Joseph’s Hospital training school where she received her nursing badge. She eventually sent for her other siblings still in Canada and they shared an apartment together in Providence until all were married. Ella was last to wed and had her only child at age 38. The loss of her husband at age 58 was too much for Ella and she took shelter with her daughter’s growing family in Little Compton. She found work as the first Visiting Nurse in town. Her office was in the Brownell House next to the school, sharing the building with Maggie Boddington, who lived there as a very elderly caretaker. Ella Barry was given a “Company Car” to visit and treat patients around town, also working closely with Dr Rupert VonTrapp.
Daughter Mary Jane sought extra income shortly after the birth of her 6th child. Ella retired from the Visiting Nurse Association and stayed home to help with her daughter’s family while Mary Jane’s substitute teaching job in Fall River turned into a full time reading specialist position. She and Lou Pieri both found themselves teaching at Watson Elementary School in the mid/late ‘60s. She loved her work and the children she taught but kept wondering what could bring her closer to home.
By 1968 a long-planned transfer of the family business to Mary Jane’s husband finally took shape, but it required moving into the abandoned farmhouse attached to Peckham’s Greenhouse. Frances (Peckham) Walker of Walker’s Stand owned the house and very generously turned it over to Al and Mary Jane, providing Aunt Frances could keep proceeds from an auction of the big house’s antique contents. Months of convincing finally brought Mary Jane on board; seeing even more work added to her non-stop obligations. This old home needed everything: electricity, plumbing, heat, insulation, storm windows and of course an upgrade in the 1920s decor. There wasn’t time or money for any of this, yet the necessary work got done. Mary Jane enjoyed hunting for bargains in the Fall River design shops. “Look at this wallpaper! Two dollars a roll!”
At age 12 I was encouraged to play a major role in the old house renovation along with my older brother and sister. We cleaned and painted endlessly for over a year. I knocked down a wall and a chimney in the attic, creating a spacious room for myself with a river view. The results gave us all a deep feeling of pride, and a whole lot of new living space in the house’s 3 stories.
The family, including Ella Barry, moved into the renovated farmhouse, now sporting Mary Jane’s favorite color (yellow), in May of 1970, during the annual spring rush at Peckham’s Greenhouse.
My grandmother Ella and mother Mary Jane taught me the value of pride and respect for family and history. I am happy to have come from a line of hard working, resourceful women.
Addition by Barry Peckham
Ella was famous for fudging her birth year. Only rarely did this catch up to her. I just reviewed Ella’s Petition for Naturalization, filled out in 1922. She claimed to enter the US from Nova Scotia in 1896, when she was one DAY old. A different form I found shows that she came into the US in 1895, when she was one YEAR old.
Liz stated (in the story) that Ella retired her position as town nurse in order to allow her daughter to work outside the home. That is not quite true.
Ella was financially supporting her daughter’s oversized family. The nursing wages paid for the family car, paid rent and bought groceries shared with her grandkids. Ella also owned the only TV in the house until the mid-’60s. Around 1967, the management of the town’s Nursing Association discovered that their primary employee, Ella, was 73 years old. A retirement party came together within 2 weeks, and Ella was out of a job. This loss of income may have triggered her daughter to seek employment outside the home… so you can see this gives the mother/daughter dynamic a different twist.
April 21, 2020