WESTPORT – If you live in the Westport area, you’ve likely come across the name Charlotte White while traveling around town, where there is a road named after that.
But who is Charlotte White?
Local author Gail Hartnett Roderigues attempted to answer this question in her quest to shed light on the important, but often overlooked, residents of Westport.
Her new self-published children’s book “Women of Westport”, which is aimed at third-graders, focuses on three central characters – Charlotte White, Ruby Devol Finch and Helen Ellis.
âThese are women who have fallen through the history books, through the cracks, and made major contributions and have never been recognized,â Roderigues said.
Roderigues, who has lived in Westport for 28 years, said that when asking residents about Charlotte White, she quickly corrected the pronunciation of her name (“Shar-lot-ee”, rather than the more common “Shar-lot “), but few could tell him much about the notable inhabitant of the city.
So she dug a bit and it piqued her interest.
For Roderigues, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Education, Photography and Feminist Studies from the University of Rhode Island, instilling literacy in young children has always been one of his passions, so this project was the perfect fit.
She said her goal – through the stories of these successful women in Westport – is to help inspire young girls.
âMy hope is to enlighten young girls to know that they could be who they want and do whatever they want to do,â Roderigues said.
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Years ago Roderigues received grants from the Helen Ellis Charitable Trust to paint murals at the Macomber School. This experience gave him the necessary impetus to launch his book project.
In 2018, Roderigues got his first Helen Ellis scholarship for the book, then another in 2020 to complete it.
Helen Ellis Charitable Trust, named after the famous educator and artist who is one of the protagonists of Roderigues’ book, funds the Westport Cultural Council to support artistic and cultural projects that benefit the Westport community.
Roderigues wrote and illustrated “Women of Westport”, together with her daughter Lauren Roderigues, 24, a recent Emmanuel College graduate who served as graphic designer on the project.
âIt was a labor of loveâ¦ it was fun,â said Roderigues, who also has a background in graphic design.
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It was not Roderigues’ first writing project. In the late 1980s, she and her sister, Beth Lloyd, collaborated on a children’s book “Twas the Week Before Christmas”, to be distributed as a Christmas present to family members on the challenge of taking her little nephews. sit at Sears Portrait Studio. Roderigues illustrated it and his sister wrote the book, a variation of the classic poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas”.
âThey loved it,â she said.
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Today, Roderigues hopes that âWomen of Westportâ elicits the same reaction from local readers, young and old, while fostering an appreciation of the town’s history.
âI wanted to highlight how Westport has benefited from these major contributions from these women and that should be recognized,â she said.
So who are these famous women from Westport?
Charlotte, who is said to have been born in 1775, is mentioned in local history books as a healer and midwife, who received a basic education and dabbled in poetry.
Her father was a freed slave and her mother was a Wampanoag Native American from Martha’s Vineyard, “so there’s this ethnic diversity that’s fascinating,” Roderigues said.
She was known for her work with the poor, and in particular people of color, and practiced folk medicine, helping to care for the residents of Westport. âShe was by today’s standards a nurse practitioner,â Roderigues said.
Historical documents link Charlotte to another notable Westport native, Perry Davis, who rose to fame as the maker of one of the best-selling patent drugs of the 19th century. It is suspected that Davis stole Perry Davis’s Pain Killer formula from Charlotte during a meeting with her at the Manchester store in Adamsville, where Charlotte is said to purchase the ingredients for her medicinal potions.
âHe got very rich, his drugs were sold all over the world, he bought a big house in Newport on a cliffâ¦ and Charlotte was never compensated or recognized,â Roderigues said.
Charlotte’s father worked for the White family in Westport, eventually adopting their name. Charlotte grew up with one of the white girls and took care of her, who eventually handed over her property to Charlotte.
âBack in the days when wealth was valued with the amount of land you owned, it was doing pretty well in the last years of its life,â Roderigues said.
White died in 1861 of “pulmonary fever” and was buried with her family near their home on what is now Charlotte White Road.
Ruby Chaffinch Devol
Ruby Devol Finch, born in 1804, is considered “one of the most creative American folk artists of her time,” according to a 2012 article in Antiques and Fine Art Magazine.
Ruby was a community artist, creating portraits of friends and neighbors at a time when it was rare for women to practice as professional artists.
âThe look on her face, I can just see the determination she must have had,â said Roderigues, referring to the only known photographic image of Ruby. “It wasn’t always a traditional role for a woman … being an artist was off the beaten track back then.”
Ruby, who grew up on a farm on Sodom Road, has gained more attention after her passing and in recent years following new discoveries of her work. In 2005, local antique dealers unearthed works that had been hidden on a Devol family farm for over 150 years.
“They were cleaning the Devol farm on Sodom Road and they found in the basement that there were things wrapped in Civil War diaries … and when they opened them there were these big primitive drawings. that it would do for all of its neighbors, âRoderigues mentioned.
Although it remains somewhat obscure, Ruby’s art is highly prized and can be found in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, according to the Westport History Society. One of his works, a profile portrait of Ann Potter circa 1830, is in the collection of the Westport Historical Society.
Ruby, who married William Finch of New Bedford and had a daughter, died a widow aged 61 in 1866. Although a marked gravestone has not been located, it is believed to be buried in Westport in a secluded cemetery on the grounds of one of the Devol family farms.
Helen, who was born in 1889, lived in Westport for over 50 years. Teacher, artist and entrepreneur, she is the best known of the central figures in Roderigues’s book.
Roderigues describes Helen as someone who was always “ahead of the curve”.
Helen taught woodworking at Milton Academy for many years in the early 1900s before leaving that post and opening The Whaler Book Shop in New Bedford with her friend in 1928. They then established Whaler on Wheels.
âThey’re renovating a coupe and turning it into a traveling bookstore,â Rodrigues said. “She used to go to Rhode Island and all the summer communities and sell books on the road.”
She also opened a tea room at her home on Main Road in Westport.
Helen, one of the founding members of the Westport Historical Society, has always been very active in the community. She worked for the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, which is now the New Bedford Whaling Museum. She also helped lead the opening of the Dartmouth Children’s Museum, now the site of the current YMCA in Dartmouth.
After her retirement from teaching, Helen’s woodcarving was recognized and her naturalistic woodcarvings were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.
Helen died in Westport at the age of 89 in 1978, and the proceeds from her estate were used to establish the Helen Ellis Charitable Trust.
“Her determination resonates with me,” said Roderigues, who admires Helene’s attitude of “don’t say no to me, I’ll show you how I do”.
Where to find “Women of Westport”
It is intended that Roderigues’ book will be integrated into the curriculum of Westport schools. An educator from the Historical Society will take âWomen of Westportâ to elementary schools as part of their history presentations, which thrills Roderigues.
Roderigues, who works for the YMCA SouthCoast, runs a Healthy Initiative Grant and is also a long-time member of the nonprofit SouthCoast Bikeway Alliance, looks forward to promoting his new book and educating people on the topic.
âThe simple relief of having this done is awesome,â she said. “This is going to be the fun part.”
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Those looking to pick up a copy of his new book can find them at the Partners Village Store and the Westport Historical Society.
Roderigues will also stop at the Handy House Artisan Fair and Vintage Market at 202 Hix Bridge Road, Westport, this Saturday, September 18, with copies of “Women of Westport”. The Westport Historical Society event will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.