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The Gruff Gardener of Bridge St


Brewster is talking here about Bridge Street on North Mill Poind in Portsmouth before the old train station. But that train station is gone too. Modern visitors know the area between the North Cemetery and the railroad tracks today for its quick stop beverage store and pizza shop. How times change – and better or worse?




The Old Welch House on Bridge Street -- Johnny Cunningham.

ABOUT Charles Brewster 

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. -- JDR

Brewster's Rambles on SeacoastNh.comWHO that has been through Bridge street in the past century, has not noticed the long, low black house, with a camel-back ridgepole, end on the street, next South of that on the corner of Hanover street? Passing this spot one day a few years since, we were surprised to find that the house had disappeared, and nothing left but a stout chimney with bricks set in clay.

Of the exact date when this old house was built we have no record. The first occupant we can find was Benjamin Welch. He was born about 1710, and probably he located here as early as 1740. He occupied it in the time of the Revolution. There was no house nearer to it on the south than the Call mansion; and on the North and East were none nearer. Our old folks can yet remember when this house set thus by itself, with several handsome trees on the north side, (where the corner house now stands,) under which the patriarchal proprietor might frequently be seen sitting, enjoying the clear prospect of Christian shore, before any railroad depot or distillery was built, before the first grave was made in the old North Burying Ground, or even a bridge built where the mill now stands. He too could see the full tides by their free ingress, flowing nearly up to his premises.For many years there was a well curb just inside the door on the street, at which the wayfarers, from a spring in the cellar, quenched their thirst, and the wants of the house were supplied.This was a cottage of the olden time--and it was not wholly without its romance, although its history is not all recorded. Before that broad fire-place happy faces have shone, and as the story of the "Regulars" has been told, fearful eyes have been looking out to see if they were coming. Here "olive plants" might be seen around the family board. Among the daughters was Betty, whose bright eyes and comely person, as well as her pleasant manners, were the attraction of the foreign gardener of Col. George Boyd. Whether Johnny Cunningham met Betty Welch first at the well, or whether he fell in love with the cottage in the distance as he tilled the great garden of Col. Boyd, (extending from the mill to the depot,) history does not inform us,--but the fact that he here won her heart and hand is better established.

Johnny Cunningham, as he was familiarly called when the writer knew him, was a small man, his head generally turbaned with his handkerchief, sans suspenders, quick in his movements, strong nervous temperament, and very irritable at small matters. He was of Irish descent, but found in England by Col. Boyd, and sent here before the Revolution to be his gardener--for which business he had been educated. As a penman few could surpass him.

We recollect an illustrative anecdote of the old man. He had been at work for Maj. Wm. Gardner one day, and presented his bill. Maj. G. was struck with the bold beauty of the writing, and priding himself on his own skill with his pen, inquired of the little rough man, who made out his bill for him!

"Myself, sir." The Major expressed doubts, and to test him, asked him to go to his desk and write his name. "Your penknife, if you please," said Johnny. Having adjusted the nib to his liking, the pen was applied to the paper, and Maj. Gardner soon saw in the freedom and ease with which his letters were cut, a penman whom he could not excel. The bill was paid, and a dollar extra added as an acknowledgement of his skill.

After Johnny's marriage, the trees on the north of the house were cut down, and he built the two story barn now standing there. How long he occupied it we know not. He for many years rented it, and lived in the old house. They had one son, Andrew, to whom he gave a good education. He died in early manhood. After the death of his wife Betty, he chose to put his effects into the care of the town, and take up his residence at the town farm, where he had opportunity, under the charge of Superintendent Morrison, to follow his favorite pursuit, gardening, when he had the inclination--and if his hoe or a spade was ever out of its place when he wanted it, there would be no peace on the farm until the article was found. That hitching up of his pants, that extension of the arm, that flash of the eye, and that quick expression of irritation when the boys asked of him the hour, none who knew him will ever forget. He died about twenty-five years ago, at the age of 94 years. Thus the old house and its inmates have now all passed away.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
This digital transcript  © 1999

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