Elizabeth Jane Peckham

Elizabeth Jane Peckham

Born 1956

Liz Peckham. Courtesy of K. Barry Peckham.

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.

Ella had her new apartment on the 2nd floor where she lived another 19 years cooking meals and ruling, from her perspective, high above the glass greenhouse. Mary Jane immediately began learning from Al the whats and hows of plants at Peckham’s Greenhouse. She loved it! Her status with the local garden clubs gave her a new sense of identity. By her late 40s, Mary Jane enjoyed her reputation as “the plant lady”.

While her husband was steeped in the skills of farm and greenhouse, he struggled to turn a profit under his father’s guidance, and then lost 2/3 of his farmlands when property went to his siblings. It was Mary Jane who dove into the greenhouse operation as a year-round money-maker, pushing house plants where before only springtime sellers had grown. Her urban sense of “retail” civilized the greenhouse experience for customers. She demanded that farm clutter be hauled away and visualized a retail space, rather than a purely functional space where plants grew. By 1972 Mary Jane was working 6 days a week in the greenhouse and in ’73 she hired her first non-family employee, a RISD graduate and farm girl from PA who understood Mary Jane’s vision and became an honorary Peckham.

After a brief absence from LC while attending college and experiencing work in an office setting, I grew envious of the work back home in the greenhouse.  I was welcomed back and spent the next few years convincing my parents to transform the old tractor garage and vegetable washing room into retail space for decorative pots and baskets. I continued working there for several years after my marriage to Norman “Skip” Paul. My husband’s dream was to grow food for people, and we bought the Country Stand on West Main Road as its 3rd owners. I split my time between the two businesses until our farm and family needed me more. After 14 years of running the Stand, we changed our business model and began selling our produce at Farmer’s Markets and through a Community Supported Agriculture Program. My real joy in life comes from nature and the still life details that pop out of simplicity. I feel grateful for all my connections with the folks in this community.

When their 5th child was killed in an accident during the busy season of June 1978, Mary Jane proved more adept at coping and managing operations than her grief-stricken husband. She would have her turn with grief only after her husband regained his composure. The extended sadness colored her sunset years.

My love for this community was strongest after losing my first-born, Aislinn at age 2.5 years old. I felt immense love and support in town; this came less than 10 years after my brother’s death. My mother and I had this sad detail in common.  Soon after my 2nd child (Silas) was born, I had a chance to “pay it forward”. The Old Grange Hall was being decommissioned and the town considered tearing it down for a parking lot. I became a member of a group to save the building for a Community Center.  I am so proud of the work we did with a door-to-door fund-raising campaign, saving and renovating the building as a center that includes everyone, with no religious, political, or economic bias. It is truly a gem in town so many years later!

Mary Jane and Al turned over the business to their youngest son towards the end of the 20th century, but both could be found in and around the greenhouses for years thereafter. Mary Jane’s busy life ended in 2010, during the busy season.

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. 

Liz Peckham

April 2020

 

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