South Coast Massachusetts is Rich in Living History
By Karen Rubin
Fairhaven, which shares the harbor with New Bedford, is a village by comparison to the “city that lit the world” but, as we discover, is packed with history and a heritage of over-achievers. It is, as they say, a little town with a big history.
Our appreciation for the charm and significance of this place is enhanced because of our good fortune in staying at the Briar Rose Bed-and-Breakfast.
“Bed-and-breakfast” is more than a place to stay – it is a distinct style of travel, affording a completely different way of experiencing and knowing a destination. Rather than a spectator – like looking through a glass of a sightseeing bus window – you are a participant, an instant, if only temporary, member of the community. And your guide is the BnB proprietor.
Each one is a distinct personality – the proprietors, who come to their avocation with their own set of experiences and motivations – and the house, itself. BnBs can be purpose built and they can be inns, but very often they are private homes. Our favorites are homes that are historic, or in some way have an important connection to the community’s heritage.
For all these reasons, we could not be more delighted with our stay at the Briar Rose Bed-n-Breakfast – a gorgeous Queen Anne Victorian built in 1891 on the Joseph K. Nye estate. It turns out that this family has an important part in the New Bedford-Fairhaven whaling story: the family owned Nye Lubricants, called “the last American whale oil company” (there is a book about it on the Briar Rose mantel). I subsequently learn that William F. Nye, 824-1910, who founded Nye Oil Co., began refining whale oil in the kitchen of his Fairhaven home in 1865; today the company, now Nye Lubricants, provides oil for NASA’s space shuttles.
The house is located a stone’s throw from Bedford Harbor and literally across the street from the Fairhaven Historical Society and the unbelievably gorgeous high school built a century ago, as we learn, by a self-made millionaire, Henry Huttleston Rogers, who made his fortune in Standard Oil Co. (1840-1909) and became Fairhaven’s benefactor, along with providing support to Mark Twain when he was down on his luck and Helen Keller.
The Briar Rose is not just an exquisite architectural jewel, magnificently furnished in period pieces, but it offers a true rarity in BnBs: a 30-foot granite in-ground swimming pool with water views, big enough to swim laps (available June-September).
The gracious host, Linda Jones, whose family has lived in Fairhaven for 60 years (and traces its ancestry back to Samuel Windsor, Roger Williams who founded Providence and religious freedom, and Seneca Indians) sets out beach towels.
The Briar Rose offers three guest accommodations: the King Room has a huge, finely carved King Canopy bed (so high, you need a step ladder), a massive Master Bath with heated whirlpool tub and separate shower, air-conditioning, remote-TV with DVD, and Internet access.
The Queen Room offers a Queen Canopy bed, windows overlooking the New Bedford Harbor, an adjoining bath with corner, heated whirlpool tub and shower, AC, TV/DVD and internet.
The Princess Room, decorated in white and white satin, offers a Queen bed and private bath (across the hall), AC, TV/DVD.
Breakfast is always a matter of pride and distinction in a BnB, and Linda does something we had not seen before: she offers a menu (much like room-service) where you get to order what you would like – eggs, omelette, waffles, pancakes, bacon or sausage, muffins, toast, juice, coffee, a selection of teas- and the time you would like it served, between 8 and 10 a.m.
Within a few minutes of sitting down to the dining room table, breakfast is served very elegantly. There you are apt to make the acquaintance of fellow travelers – part of the charm of staying in a bed-and-breakfast. In our case, we met a couple visiting from the State of Washington – we compared notes and traded travel stories.
They had spent the day in Martha’s Vineyard – just an hour away by the fast-ferry from New Bedford.
Linda also provides a refrigerator and microwave (even popcorn ready to be popped) for her guests, right by the old-fashioned parlor with state-of-the-art flat-screen television.
(The Briar Rose prefers adults guests 18 and over; or families with children can rent all 3 rooms. Rates vary by seasons but discounts are offered to military personnel and teachers, and there are specials. Brian Rose Bed and Breakfast, 146 Main Street, Fairhaven, MA -2719, 508-994-ROSE, 866-975-ROSE, www.briarosebandb.com, email@example.com.
The location of the Briar Rose could not be more perfect for our purpose – tucked into this tiny neighborhood of Fairhaven, where we begin our exploration, and then gravitate outwards, in a hub-and-spoke fashion, to explore the other attractions in the county, in New Bedford, Fall River, Westport and Dartmouth.
For one thing, we love biking, and the BnB is just about a quarter of a mile down the most charming street (Main Street) to the beginning of a 3.5-mile paved bike trail, the Phoenix Bike Trail which takes us past marshes and to rural sections where there are still a few remaining farms.
But biking also is the best way to really explore and savor Fairhaven, a charming village with an out-sized history.
We first go by Fort Phoenix – a fort originally built in 1775 (rebuilt twice between the Revolutionary War, when it was destroyed by the British, and the Civil War, when it was actively manned until the end of the war). It was the site of the first naval battle of the Revolution – cannons hoisted on the promontory were able to repel the British, at least for a time. (I subsequently learn about Fairhaven native, Nathaniel Pope, 1747-1817, who on May 13, 1775 commanded a group of villagers aboard the sloop Success in the first naval battle of the American Revolution, fought in Buzzard’s Bay).
Members of the Fairhaven Village Militia act as guides (Thursday and Sunday afternoons, June-September), and there is a free, 75-minute, “Fort Phoenix Minuteman Tour” on Thursday afternoons at 2 p.m., from June through September, when an authentically dressed colonial militiaman tells about the Fort’s history from Revolutionary War through Civil War, unpacks his haversack and explains the equipment a militia volunteer carried while on alert. You’ll also see a musket firing demonstration and find out why Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his hat and called it “Macaroni.”
You see the cannons, still, and can walk or bike along a paved portion on top of an incredible 3-mile long Hurricane Barrier, built in 1965 after horrendously destructive hurricanes of 1938 and 1954. It provides a stunning view of the Palmer Island Lighthouse and back to the New Bedford harbor, and of this amazing piece of engineering – massive doors made to swing shut in the event of a hurricane.
Indeed, it was the 1938 hurricane that brought tragedy to the Palmer Island Lighthouse. Six-acre Palmer’s Island, in the Acushnet River on the west side of the entrance to New Bedford Harbor, has been the scene of great heroism and tragedy, and its lighthouse, built in 1849, was once considered one of New England’s most picturesque. The island got its name from one of the first settlers of Dartmouth, William Palmer. Like Boston Harbor’s Deer Island, Palmer’s Island was used as an internment camp for Indians during King Philip’s War in 1675-76. Most of these Indians were later sold into slavery in the West Indies. In the 1938 hurricane, lighthouse keeper Arthur Small’s wife Mabel Arthur Small, was swept away as she tried to bring a rowboat to aid him. He managed to get to the lighthouse, climb the tower and light the lamp, and was trapped there until the end of the storm.
Notably, the Fort Phoenix State Beach, popular since the 1880s, is a public beach offering swimming, picnicking, tennis courts, playground, restrooms and parking – which turns a stay at the Briar Rose BnB into a beach resort!
Biking around, we also discover an old-time general store with the original glass signs, but selling modern items. We see a sail rigging shop, candlemaker, and marinas, all the legacy of the harbor’s marine heritage, which continues today with the New Bedford’s fishing fleet the first in the nation for the cash value of its catch.
Linda tells us of these important people and it makes us more conscious of what we see as we bike around and see the structures.
Henry Huddleston Rogers, a multi-millionaire from the oil business, used his own money to build the school, Millicent Library (named for his daughter who died at the age of 17 of leukemia), town hall, and the Unitarian Memorial Church – each one an architectural jewel.
The Unitarian Memorial Church, dedicated in 1904, is an English Perpendicular Gothic style “cathedral” designed by architect Charles Brigham and built by Henry Huddleston Rogers in memory of his mother, Mary E. Rogers (guides are available to describe the architectural details).
The Academy Building Museum (12 Huttleston Ave., at Fairhaven High School) houses artifacts collected by the Fairhaven Historical Society in the 1798 schoolhouse (open Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. from late June through Labor Day).
The First Congregational Church & Fairhaven Heritage Church offers display panels about Fairhaven’s important personages, including Henry Huttleston Rogers (who funded the construction), John Cooke, Capt. Joshua Slocum (the first to sail around the world solo, which he described in his book “Sailing Around the World Alone”), Manjiro Naka-hama, Henry H. Rogers, Warren Delano II and others.
There is the Fairhaven Fire Museum (2 Spring Street, by appointment only), which offers a collection of firefighting equipment and memorabilia, housed in the old “Contest Engine No. 3 Fire House,” dating from 1891.
The Old Stone Schoolhouse (40 North Street), built in 1828, shows history of education in the 19th century. Volunteer guides are on hand (Wednesday and Friday afternoons in July and August) to explain the history.
River-Side Cemetery (274 Main Street), was created in 1850 on land donated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather, Warren Delano II (there is still a Delano living here). The rural style cemetery, like an arboretum, is used for walking, bicycling and studying local history. The Delano family, the Henry H. Rogers family, Captain William H. Whitfield, artists Willliam Bradford and Lemuel D. Eldred, are buried here.
The Fairhaven Visitors Center provides a free walking tour Thursday mornings at 10 a.m., June through September (about 90 minutes), that outlines the life of Fairhaven’s benefactor, Henry Huttleston Rogers, Standard Oil Co. millionaire (1840-1909). It includes visits inside two Rogers buildings – the Town Hall and the Millicent Library- as well as exterior viewing of the Unitarian Church, the Masonic Building, Our Lady’s Haven, and Rogers School. Anecdotes about his life include stories about his friend Mark Twain. Fairhaven Visitors Center/Office of Tourism, 43 Center Street, Fairhaven MA 02719, 508-979-4085,http://hometown.aol.com/fairhaventours).
Many of these sites are also associated with another personality of Fairhaven:
In 1841, Capt. William H. Whitford of Fairhaven rescued five shipwrecked Japanese fishermen who had been stranded for six months, and placed four of them in Honolulu, but 14-year old Manjiro Nakahama decided to return to the U.S. with the captain. In 1843, Fairhaven became the home of the first Japanese person to live in America. He took the name John Manjiro, attended school, learned and traveled on whaling ships, studying navigation and engineering. When Whitfield took Manjiro to the Congregational Church and was told he would have to sit in the “negro pew,” Whitfield left the church and joined the original Unitarian Church, where Manjiro was allowed to sit with the Whitfields.
In 1847, Manjiro returned to Japan where he was imprisoned as “a corrupted foreigner.” But after Commodore Perry opened Japan to trade relations in the early 1850s, he rose to prominence in Japanese governmental circles because of his familiarity with American customs and the English language. Manjiro promoted the acceptance of American ideas and technology, and has even been credited with introducing the necktie to Japan.
Ever since, there has been close cultural ties between his city, Tosashimizu, and Fairhaven, and the two are now sister cities. Crown Prince Akihito, who has since become Emperor of Japan, visited the city in 1987, and each year, Fairhaven holds a Manjiro Festival. The Millicent Library has a collection of Manjiro memorabilia (www.millicentlibrary.org).
Because I had spoken to Linda at the bed-and-breakfast earlier about Manjiro, when I am at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, looking at a wall display profiling dozens of immigrants who came because of whaling, my eye hones in on his picture.
Lizzie Borden BnB
Bed-and-breakfasts usually provide a distinctive connection to their community. But probably the most unusual bed-and-breakfast experience is to stay in the actual house in Fall River, even the actual bedroom, where Lizzie Borden is said to have hacked her parents to death – though she was never found guilty. Was it because people at the time could not accept the idea of a woman as a murderer? Was it because there wasn’t any actual evidence tying her to the murder? And was someone else to blame – perhaps her sister, the maid, the uncle?
Hearing the story – how she took her inheritance and purchased a fine mansion, Maplecroft, but lived the rest of her long life in the town despite the continued taunting, and never manifested any further psychosis – I wondered (as others have) whether she had done the crime at all, of if she did, whether it might be because she was somehow pushed to it, in a way that would not have been proper to discuss in those days.
You can take a half-hour tour of the Lizzie Borden house – even requesting “high gore” or “low gore” – which is given from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., but at precisely 4 p.m., all tourists must be gone and the house converts back to a bed-and-breakfast. It is considered one of the most haunted places in America.
A BnB since 1996, it offers a choice of eight bedrooms including the John Morse guest room, where the body of Mrs. Borden (who was Andrew’s second wife) was discovered, the Lizzie and Emma Suite, and the Andrew and Abby Suite. The furniture is the same as in the crime scene photo, and on the wall, there is a picture of the crime scene.
Overnight guests enjoy an extended tour of the home (the staff is well versed in Borden lore and the history of the era). A full hot breakfast, reminiscent of the meal served to the Bordens on the morning of the murders (leaving out the three-day old mutton broth) is served, and evening snacks are provided. An onsite library of books and videos relating to the Borden family, the murders, trial and aftermath are also available. (The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, 92 Second Street, Fall River, MA 02721, 508-675-7333 http://www.lizzie-borden.com).
Definitely take the time to visit the Fall River Historical Society, housed in an exquisite Gilded Age mansion, which has the largest exhibit of artifacts from the Lizzie Borden case – the handleless hatchet, her prison lunch pail, the crime-scene photographs, the pillow shams from the bedroom that Abby was murdered in, and even photos of Andrew’s and Abby’s crushed skulls introduced as evidence. It also offers a costume collection, a Mourning Room, a gallery of paintings ($5/adults, $3/children, 450 Rock Street, Fall River508-679-1071, www.lizzieborden.org.
Very nearby in Fall River is Battleship Cove offering the world’s largest collection of naval ships on exhibition. You will be in awe as you come close to these primarily World War II-era battleships and submarine, which you can climb aboard and explore. Only when you physically board the gangplank and walk the deck to where the guns are, do you realize how massive these ships are; how stark the living conditions; how fearsome the weapons; how touching the photos and personal effects, and the words and images of the young sailors who served.
When you see just how big the guns are on the U.S.S. Massachusetts, it is overwhelming. This ship went through 35 battles in WWII, gunned down 39 aircraft and five ships and yet never lost a man in combat.
You also get to squeeze through the Attack Submarine Lionfish, which served in WWII and the Cold War and dueled Axis submarine and schooner; explore the destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., the only American vessel to board a Soviet-chartered ship during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; investigate the Soviet-built missile Corvette Hiddensee (this is really amazing, you still see the surface-to-air missiles in the chamber).
As we are leaving, groups of Girl Scouts are arriving for their overnight onboard. The complex also includes the National PT Boat Museum and the National Destroyermen’s Museum, and has a research center with a veterans’ oral history archives (You need 2-3 hours to really visit; closes at 5 p.m., free parking is available 508-678-1100, www.battleshipcove.org).
If you are traveling with kids, stop at the Fall River Carousel, which is part of the same park-like setting. There is also a railroad museum across the street.
On the Water
The waterfront is a dominant theme for our visit, and we experience the joy of seeing the world from water level with a kayaking experience on the picturesque Westport River, through Osprey Sea Kayaks. The outfitter not only has superb equipment to rent, but offers marvelous tours (Fall foliage, moonlight, sunset and classes in techniques. “Family Fun” is an introduction to kayaking for parent-child or the whole family, traveling at a relaxed pace and allowing time to learn basic strokes, rescues, and play games (geared for children six and up ($55/adult, $35/child, 2-3 hours). Rentals start at $25 for a sit-on-top single for a half-day, based at Head of Westport, in Westport, 508-636-0300, www.ospreyseakayak.com.
Head of Westport is a charming area that was principally devoted to agriculture and shipbuilding. Today, there is still the Bell School House, which houses the Westport Historical Society, and the Powder House which was used as an ammunition house after the War of 1812
Those so inclined might stop at Buzzards Bay Brewing (98 Horseneck Road, Westport, 508-636-2288,www.buzzardsbrew.com) and Westport Rivers Winery (417 Hixbridge Road, Westport, 508-636-3423,www.westportrivers.com) offering tastings and tours.
Then, you can do what we did and go down to the beach, stopping first at Partners Village Store & Kitchen (865 Main Road, Westport, 508-636-2572) to pick up gourmet sandwiches and look around at the charming gift shop (and historical society), before continuing on to Horseneck Beach for time to lounge around the two-mile long expanse of sand beach (excellent facilities). This is, after all, Coastal Massachusetts and there are several lovely beaches to choose from, including Demarest Lloyd State Park (Joy Rd., S. Dartmouth).
Padanaram, in South Dartmouth a popular summer resort community on Aponagansett Harbor, is worth exploring. This charming, picturesque and historic waterfront village offers tree-lined streets and clapboard houses, quaint shops, a village store, art studios, a yacht club, as well as cafes and restaurants.
It is part of Dartmouth which was settled in 1652 and along with Westport purchased by the Massachusetts Bay Colony from the Indians Massasoit (of Plymouth Colony fame) and Wamsutta for “thirty yards of cloth, eight moose skins, fifteen axes, fifteen pairs of breeches, eight blankets, two kettles, one clock, two English pounds of Wampum, eight pairs of shoes, one iron pot, and ten shillings!” It was settled mainly by Quakers, who sought to break away from Plymouth Colony.
Padanaram (everyone wants to know) got its name from Laban Thatcher who arrived from Cape Cod, built a wharf, a shipyard, windmill, magnesia factory. Laban became known, though, for having established a salt works which failed and became known as “Laban’s Folly.” He named the village because he saw an analogy in his own life and fortunes to that of the biblical Laban who dwelt in Padan-Aram, and who was father to Leah and Rachel, wives of Jacob (more information from www.coastalvillages.com).
I hear the story during dinner at the Black Bass Grille (3 Water Street, 508-999-6975), a casual restaurant serving pizzas, soups and salads, sandwiches, seafood and meats.
There is a certain sense of exploration in South Coast Massachusetts, since the attractions are not all in one neat or compact area. The towns and villages – and the attractions – are about 20 to 30 minutes drive apart, and there is no cute vintage-looking trolley to tie them together, at least yet. So you need to plot your course, and link your attractions geographically. But that is not too difficult, since each of the towns or villages offer a full morning or afternoon or even a full day’s appeal. This is a hub-and-spoke style of touring – where you stay in one place, but each day, plot your course to a different point.
There is so much more to do than we had time for during our weekend getaway: the 97-acre Buttonwood Park, for example, is the “crown jewel” of New Bedford’s Park System, which dates back to a design in 1895 by Charles Eliot of the Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot firm and has a zoo established in 1894 and the 12th oldest zoo in the United States, with a bear den dating back to a 1936 WPA project (www.buttonwoodpark.org)
With temperatures moderated by the Gulf Stream, this part of New England catches the fall foliage a little later – peaking the week after Columbus Day, when there are any number of harvest festivals. But with such diversified attractions, South Coast Massachusetts makes a great getaway, any time of the year.
South Coast Massachusetts is part of a larger tourism region, Southeastern Massachusetts which comprises all of Bristol County, which is part of a still larger tourism entity, Massachusetts Cultural Coast, which includes also Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Cape Cod, Plymouth County, and Quincy (www.theculturalcoast.org).
For information about lodging and attractions contact the Southeastern Massachusetts Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-288-6263, www.bristol-county.org.
See also: New Bedford: The City That Lit the World
Friday, 12 September, 2008
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