Susan Burchard Shethar Whitin

Susan Burchard Shethar Whitin

1903 – 1998

Essay by Keith Crudgington

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Susan Burchard Shethar Whitin, on the day of her wedding to Prentice Shethar. Perkins Family Album, LCHS Collection.

Essay by Keith Crudgington

The founder of Little Compton’s first real estate agency, advocate of historic preservation, and influential proponent of two-acre zoning, Susan Shethar Whitin played a key role in Little Compton’s twentieth-century development. Her legacy includes values and ideas that continue to define twenty-first century debate.

A descendant of Benjamin Church on her mother’s side, she could reasonably feel that Little Compton’s history was her personal history.  The fourth of six children, she grew up in Boston, Providence, and the family house “Old Acre” on the corner of West Main Road and Meeting Street.  Her father, Roswell Beede Burchard, originally from New York, was prominent in Rhode Island Republican politics, serving at one point as Speaker of the House and Lieutenant Governor before retiring to Little Compton in the wake of the Democratic sweep of 1916.[1]

Her mother, Edith Church Burchard, had been one of the founders of the Village Improvement Society, founded in 1913 to address the needs of the rural community during a period of population decline.  It sponsored activities intended to promote local identity and raise awareness of the town’s distinctive history and natural beauty. One such activity was the pageant Susan remembered from her youth in which children and townspeople paraded as Puritans (her sister portraying Awashonks, her brother John Alden, and she John Church on a donkey) in a celebration of Little Compton’s early history.[2]  With deep ties to Little Compton’s past, Susan was attuned to the Society’s goals and later became a board member and active volunteer herself.

After attending Miss Wheeler’s School in Providence and Vassar College, Susan studied in Paris where, in 1924, she married Prentice Shethar, a widower and family friend who had been an usher at her parents’ wedding.  Settling in Little Compton, they started Shethar Real Estate, the first real estate agency in town, primarily focused on providing house rentals for a growing summer vacation market.  After Prentice’s death in 1951, she married Richard Whitin in 1962, continuing to manage the business on her own until she sold it to William Whitmarsh in 1968.[3] 

Six feet tall and formidably intelligent, she was a powerful figure in town both formally and lobbying behind the scenes.  Her authority came from her historical ties as well as her personal knowledge of people and properties. Indeed, as one relative recalled, “half the town called her Aunt Susie.”[4]

As a realtor, she used her network to match properties with buyers, occasionally discouraging some from buying. In an interview later in life she admitted she had been “pretty high-handed” as a realtor, saying “I did have the courage to tell people when they might not be happy.  We did try to fit people into the right niches where they would be happy.”[5]

After the war, the pace of development increased as properties requisitioned by the army were sold and farms were broken up.  As the only realtor in town, Susan played a central role. She along with several partners, planned the development of Quoquonset Lane on land decommissioned from Fort Church.[6] Along with Janice Clark, she was one of the organizers of the Warren’s Point Beach Club, which became a focus of the growing summer community.[7]  As farm land was being sold and developed for vacation houses, she advised the farmers and often finding buyers who would prioritize preserving open space. She later observed that she “helped [the townspeople] make plans so that they wouldn’t make things too crowded, you know, encouraged them to keep it open.”[8]  In this way numerous large farms were preserved such as those which became Bayberry Farm, bought by the Bissingers, and Bumble Bee Farm, purchased by Blanche Borden Frenning. 

In seeking to further her vision of Little Compton, she sought out powerful allies. One of the most significant farms she helped retain as open land was the two hundred acre Davis farm on West Main Road, with one of the oldest houses in town, which came on the market in 1957.  She found a buyer in William Middendorf who later put much of it into agricultural conservation trust thereby preserving one of the town’s most iconic view across fields to the Sakonnet lighthouse.

In Middendorf, a prominent member of several Republican administrations and former Secretary of the Navy, she found an ideal partner for preservation and advocacy.  Together they were able to save a number of historic properties.  As he described it, “she found some lovely properties to buy and I bought the ones which she recommended – and to my regret I didn’t buy half a dozen that she recommended also.”[9]                

Her encyclopedic knowledge of Little Compton buildings was significant for preserving town history. She advised Middendorf to buy the Chace-Cory House, thereby saving the building that became the Tiverton Historical Society. Working with Carlton Brownell, she was instrumental in restoring Wilbor House as the home for the Little Compton Historical Society.  She served as President of the Historical Society in Wilbor House’s inaugural year, 1955, and donated a number of family objects to start its collection.  She also recognized important local landmarks and was involved in the initial efforts to save Sakonnet Lighthouse in the 1970s.  Not all her efforts at preservation were successful, but many historic buildings survive in part due to her efforts and because she knew the built landscape intimately.

Concerned with retaining the low density and rural character of the town, she saw two-acre zoning as essential to future development.  With a network of connections that reached to the highest level of state politics, she was able to influence town policies.  The slogan “Little Compton. Keep it Little” which appeared on bumper stickers and in public discourse perfectly captured her ethos. Working with Middendorf and Jane Cabot, she actively lobbied for the zoning law which represents one of her most enduring effects on Little Compton.[10] Enacted in 1968 by the Town Council, this landmark law had a significant impact on development and helped ensure the preservation of the town’s character.  In 1972, she became a founding director of the Sakonnet Preservation Association, the first private, nonprofit, tax-exempt land trust in Rhode Island.  She then left a conservation easement on a four-acre parcel on the Sakonnet River with the Association adjoining her house, “Robin’s Roost,” at the bottom of Taylor’s Lane.[11] 

The call to “keep Little Compton little” continued to be a galvanizing call in perennial debates over development.  Notably, it was invoked during the controversy over using the Congregational Church (of which she was a deacon) for the filming of “Witches of Eastwick.”  Indeed according to one account, Susan “chased the Witches of Eastwick out of town, almost single handedly by talking to the powers that be in government.”[12]  The same refrain has been heard in more recent disputes over the use of the Vineyard and The Stone House. 

The cost of preservation was not lost on her.  She recognized the difficulty of balancing the preservation of the town’s open spaces with affordability as land prices increased – and especially the toll this took on townspeople, and “young marrieds.”  However, what mattered most to her was to preserve Little Compton’s rural character in the future.  To this end, she believed  “the only two practical ways are to raise taxes and keep the zoning restrictions tight – and that’s not easy as the generations go on.”[13]

Thinking back on her long life and her role in town development, she said “I feel I started Little Compton in the right direction.”[14] With her deep connection to its pastoral and historic past, she sought to preserve her Little Compton and provide it with tools to face the ongoing pressures of development and growth that come with generations.

Keith Crudgington

April 2020

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

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Six feet tall and formidably intelligent, Susan Shethar Whitin was a powerful local figure. She was the welleducated daughter of Roswell and Edith Burchard (also in this exhibit). While studying in Paris, Susan married Prentice Shethar. Together, they started Shethar Real Estate, the town’s first real estate agency in 1925. After Prentice’s death, she married Richard Whitin, and managed the business on her own until 1968.

Susan excelled at matching people with properties, occasionally discouraging some buyers. In an interview she said, “I did have the courage to tell people when they might not be happy.” An early advocate for open space, she ensured the preservation of several historic farms as intact properties by finding just the right buyers. Susan also worked for two-acre zoning, which passed in 1968. She was instrumental in saving the Wilbor House as well as other historic buildings. In 1972 she became a founding director of the Sakonnet Preservation Association, the first organization of its kind in RI. Thinking back on her work, Susan said, “I feel I started Little Compton in the right direction.”

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[1].Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, ed. Little Compton Families (Little Compton, RI: Little Compton Historical Society, 1968) 129.

[2]. Her sister dressed “in Indian costume as Awashonks,” her brother as John Alden, and she as John Church upon a donkey.  “Susan Whitin,” in Jonnycakes and Cream:  Oral Histories of Little Compton, RI, ed. Lucy A. O’Connor(Newport, RI: America House Design & Communications, 1993), 132.

[3]. Shethar Realty was subsequently sold to Rhonda Marvel in 1979. Interview, Charlie Whitin and Frances Middendorf, LCHS. Obituary,“William Whitmarsh,” . https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/bostonglobe/obituary.aspx?n=william-frost-whitmarsh&pid=124699940

[4]. Interview with Charlie Whitin and Frances Middendorf, 9/1/19, LCHS.

[5].O’Connor ed. Jonnycakes and Cream. 132.

[6]. Interview on “Susan Shethar Whitin” with Charlie Whitin and Frances Middendorf, by Keith Crudgington, 9/1/2020, LCHS.

[7]. Obituary,  South Coast Today, posted 8/21/1998.  https://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/19980821/news03/308219995

[8]Jonnycakes and Cream, 133.

[9]. Interview with Keith Crudgington, 9/15/19, LCHS

[10].“Zoning” ed. note,  Municipal Code, Town of Little Compton, ch. 14. https://ecode360.com/35244527

[11]. Ellie Hough, “Susan Burchard Shethar Whitin 1903-1998” Little Compton Landscapes, Newsletter of the Sakonnet Preservation Association(SP 2000) 4

[12]. interview with Charles Whitin and Frances Middendorf, 9/1/19, LCHS.

[13]Jonnycakes and Cream:  Oral Histories of Little Compton, RI, ed. Lucy A. O’Connor, 133.

[14]. ibid.