Edith Pierce Wordell
1901 – 1994
Essay by Diane Michaels Francis
Edith Gertrude Pierce was born on November 10, 1901, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island to Sophie Hilliard and Herbert Warren Pierce of Little Compton. The family lived at the Lake-Pierce Farm, Herbert’s family home. Herbert delivered mail by horse-drawn carriage. Sophie was a homemaker and talented seamstress, sewing baby clothes for a retailer in New York City. The Pierces employed a man to assist in the running of the farm, which was just large enough to meet the family’s needs. Edith described many of the details of her childhood and daily life at the farm in an oral history compilation, Johnnycakes and Cream (Lucy O’Connor, 1993).
Taught by her father Herbert, Edith was skilled with horses and loved to ride, often taking the horse and buggy on errands for him. She was extremely social and enjoyed her friends and the parties, dances, and summer beach days of her childhood. Edith was a passionate reader and loved the Town Library, visiting it often. She was a good student and completed most of her schooling in Little Compton. She attended Durfee High School in Fall River for her senior year and, in the School Record of 1919, Edith was described as having a serious demeanor “…but wait till you see her smile and you will know that she is another of those happy mortals who claim Little Compton as their home town. That is where Edith learned the horsemanship she so excelled in; that is where she found out what jolly good times are and it was down there in the tiny library that she acquired her love of reading. Some day she is going to make a dignified school–marm, and a very successful one she will make, too.”
Following graduation, Edith enrolled in the Rhode Island Normal School (now Rhode Island College) to study teaching. She successfully completed the program, and in 1922 began her teaching career in Schoolhouse #2, located at the head of Taylor’s Lane. Edith enjoyed her days as a teacher; she was practical and fair-minded and established deep connections with her students. She channeled her love of nature into her teaching, finding creative ways to take her students outdoors to play and learn. Recess was mandatory, and regardless of the activity or weather, Edith played along with her students. Edith’s love and commitment for children was perfectly matched by her instinctive and effortless teaching style. She continued to teach in the school system for eight years, with multiple grade levels in a single classroom. That, and a lack of plumbing and heating, were significant challenges that Edith seemed to take in stride. In the fall of 1929, the Josephine F. Wilbur school opened, and Edith taught one year in what she described as luxury.
In June of 1930, Edith married Otho Wordell, also from Little Compton. The couple met through Otho’s younger siblings. After they married, Otho moved to the Pierce family home. Otho was a carpenter employed by the Department of the Navy in Jamestown and Newport throughout his career. As the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, and new regulations prohibited married women from working, Edith resigned her teaching position and was soon employed part-time as a second assistant in the Brownell Library. Edith’s teaching career would not end with her resignation, as she was often called on to teach at the Wilbur and McMahon schools, where she was a fixture for the next 30 years.
Edith gave birth in 1933 to their first son, Robert, and two years later, Roger was born. Edith was a very attentive and disciplined young mother. She read often to her young sons and taught them to read by the time they entered school, instilling an academic work-ethic in their earliest years. Much like her own childhood, they had ample space to roam and learned to share her love of nature. Eventually, she added a Shetland pony and a Morgan mare to the farm, so they could learn to ride as well.
Edith and Otho truly enjoyed their many friends in Little Compton, frequenting the Fo’c’s’le, Ray’s, and The Grange to socialize. Edith was an avid bowler, and she and Otho were part of the Mixed Doubles league in town. Edith and Otho did some traveling, but Little Compton was Edith’s favorite place. While she was not fond of cities, she would often reflect on a trip in 1939, to the World’s Fair in New York City, with friends, Ida and Fred Smith, as memorable.
During World War II, Edith volunteered as a ‘spotter’. Her son Roger remembers accompanying her to the Big Hill on Peckham Road, to track and report on plane activity. In 1945, the Wordell’s welcomed a third son, Russell. The Wordell home was central to the lives of their sons and their neighbors on Maple Avenue. In the biography of his mother, Virginia Rogers, for this project, Gardner Rogers reflects on growing up on Maple Avenue and the impact of the ‘Ladies of Maple Avenue’ on his childhood. Ever the gracious host, Edith was always prepared to welcome a visitor. As johnnycakes were the daily bread of Edith’s kitchen, there was always a heaping plate, warmed and ready to serve with a dollop of thick cream. Edith loved to host parties; from children’s Halloween and Christmas parties to larger themed gatherings of neighbors and friends. Edith was also a games enthusiast, and croquet was a favorite summertime activity. She was a spirited player and was known to send an opponent’s ball flying out of bounds, if it suited her game, or whim.
In 1960 Edith retired from teaching, and 30 years after taking her first position there, Edith became Head Librarian at the Brownell Library. Edith believed strongly that every child should be taught to read at an early age and dedicated herself to making the library welcoming and attractive to the youngest in the community.
When eldest sons married, Robert to Ruth, and Roger to Noreen, they built homes adjacent to Edith and Otho. Being a grandmother was a great joy to Edith. Roger’s children, Bradford and Brenda, spent their childhoods running back and forth across the yards to visit Edith and Otho, great-grandmother Sophie and their Uncle Russell. Whether they found Edith working in the kitchen, or on the porch mulling over a crossword, she would drop everything for a visit with them. She spent countless hours reading to the children and teaching them to print their names to obtain their first library cards. Edith taught them to play Gin Rummy, and they would spend summer afternoons playing on the screened porch. When she taught them to play croquet, they quickly learned that Grammy played all games competitively, even when the opponent was her grandchild. Edith enjoyed gardening and had a ‘fondness’ for birds. Each time a grandchild would point out a bird, Edith would identify the species for them. They remember watching in awe as she coaxed birds to eat directly from her hand.
With her family living on the surrounding land, her home remained a central location. Her love for parties never waned, and she and Otho hosted many gatherings, including several pig roasts with their family, friends and Maple Avenue neighbors. Each October, for many years, this same group traveled to the Fryeburg Fair. It was on a trip to Fryeburg in the 1970s that Edith wore her first pair of jeans, a gift from her daughter-in-law, Noreen. Jeans, in fact pants of any kind, were a significant departure from Edith’s typical attire. Whether at the Library, putting out the laundry to dry in the dead of winter, or tending to her garden, Edith wore a dress, and her starched collar was adorned with a pin or ribbon. She always appeared crisp and polished; perfectly put-together.
In 1985 at the age of 84, Edith retired as Head Librarian after working 55 years in the town library system. She was honored with the dedication of the Brownell Library’s new children’s room in her name. The Edith G. Wordell Children’s Room is the site for children’s activities and programs, a fitting tribute to the women who dedicated innumerable hours of service to generations of children in Little Compton, believing that her day was not complete unless she had helped a child. Edith had become the “…dignified school–marm, and a very successful one …”, precisely as predicted in 1919.
Edith was active in the community for the whole of her life. She was a member of Little Compton Grange #32 for over 75 years and remembered it fondly as the social center of the town. Edith also was a longtime member of both the American Legion Auxiliary Post #37 and the Social Rebekah Lodge #11.
In the May 30, 1985 edition of the Sakonnet Times, Edith is pictured marching with the American Legion Auxiliary in the Memorial Day Parade. Edith felt very deeply about participating in the annual parade around the Commons, honoring the men and women, many of her generation, who had served this country. As a personal tribute, each year Edith would select red geraniums from Peckham’s Greenhouse and fill the Brownell Library window boxes.
For many years, youngest son Russell lived with her and was a tremendous support and companion, particularly after Sophie’s and Otho’s deaths. In 1991, Edith’s family, neighbors and friends gathered to celebrate her 90th birthday. It was a special moment. She had been blessed with a loving family, life-long friends, great health, and having led a purposeful life. Edith’s one known vice was the small scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream, in which she indulged each night.
A great source of happiness and pride in Edith’s final years was seeing her grandchildren grow into young adults, graduate from high school and attend college. Attending Brad’s college graduation, and knowing that Brenda, following in her footsteps, would soon be a teacher, thrilled her. And Edith had been happy to attend Russell’s wedding in June 1994. He and wife Suzette lived with Edith in the family homestead until her death in October 1994.
Edith’s sons and grandchildren continue to live on the Lake-Pierce Farm; the family now includes third grandchild Benjamin (2001) and great-grandchildren, Braden (2009) and Sofie (2012).
Diane Michaels Francis, based on conversations with Edith’s son, Roger Pierce Wordell.
Essay by Walter and Norma Wordell
Edith Pierce married Otho Wordell, lived on Maple Avenue, and raised 3 sons. Edith was a substitute teacher at the J.F. Wilbur School. She worked at the library. She was active in the American Legion Auxiliary, Little Compton Grange #32, and the social Rebekah Lodge #11. She was also active in the Methodist Church and later in the United Congregational Church.
Edith was a special party mother for especially her middle son, first grade 1940 class. Every holiday, we all went to her son’s party.
Walter and Norma Elwell