The Dartmouth-Westport Chronicle
Westport Historical Society Meeting September 16, 2004
Immigration in Westport Series: The Portuguese Around Us
A look at Westport's Portuguese community
Similar to other parts of America, the history and culture of the south coast of Massachusetts was shaped by immigration patterns of the early 20th century. In two recent programs about immigration, the Westport Historical Society highlighted the impact of the Irish and the French -Canadians on Westport. The most recent spot light was on the Portuguese and State Representative Michael Rodrigues was its torch bearer.
As a backdrop for his talk, Rodrigues summarized Portugal’s history from the time it wrested control of its borders from the Moors in 1143 AD to the present day, saying Portugal “ranks as one of world’s longest established countries. ” One of its preeminent rulers, Prince Henry the Navigator, was a leader with the spirit of an adventurer, the brain of a visionary, and the ingenuity of an inventor (he made the first astrolabe for navigation in open waters and designed faster ships). The training Prince Henry’s school of navigation presented his sea captains led them southeast to Madeira, the Azores, and Cape Verde, and then south along the coast of Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope, and on to India. By establishing trade routes to the East, Rodrigues noted, “for one brief moment in time Portugal, only 325 miles long and 135 miles wide, was the richest country in the world.”
Immigration to the US has often been spurred by famine, war, or oppression in other parts of the world. In Portugal’s case, the oppressive, iron-fisted rule of Antonio Salazar from 1926 until 1974 was enough reason for many to leave the villages and towns they had inhabited for centuries and embark on their own voyage of discovery. By then, the world’s horizons had been explored and the route to their future led to America, the land of opportunity and equality. The newcomers first found larger cities like New Bedford, Fall River,and Providence. In time, scores of families whose names populate the 508 area code ended up right here in Westport.
The stories of the families of Representative Rodrigues, Charlie Costa, and Manny Martin, both of whom Rodrigues invited to tell stories with him, are the stuff of American history. Each family’s saga could fill a documentary mini series about the assimilation of immigrants into the melting pot that became America. Their anecdotes described classic immigrant stories: a tight network of families with solid work ethics who struck out on their own but could always count on one another in time of need. Midwives in the middle of the night or help in the fields early in the morning were only one call away.
Photo: Rep. Rodrigues, Manny Martin, Alex Silva
Charlie Costa’s father, born in 1893, was not only industrious but also entrepreneurial. He ended up owning four farms in this area. “I guess it must have rubbed off because after I graduated from Westport High School, I decided to go into farming myself,” says Costa. He bought what became known as the Harbor View Farm on Adamsville Road in 1946 and worked it for 47 years. The impact of families like Costa’s wasn’t limited to their vegetables or fresh milk which reached the tables of local families. Along with operating a successful farming operation, Costa spoke with earned pride about his involvement in civic life. Representative Rodrigues listed Costa’s 16 years as an elected member of the board of health, 12 years as a selectman, his appointment as Deputy Commissioner for the MA Department of agriculture, an appointment as State Executive Director for MA in the Farm Service Agency for 8 years, then 2 more as a selectman, and rightly concluded, “Charlie, you’ve contributed alot not only to the land of Westport but to its people.”
Costa’s love of farming inspired him to be one of the first farmers in the state use the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Act (APR) to sell the development rights to his land ,thereby insuring its fields would continue to feel the weight of the plow or hooves of the cows. “Once you make a living from the land, it stays with you. I could be a millionaire if I wanted to develop that land but money isn't everything.” (applause from the audience)
“The Martin family on Sodom Road has been friends with my family for generations,” said Rodrigues as he introduced 83 year old Manny Martin. Martin’s father, who came to these shores from the island of Saint Michael in the Azores, met his mother as they worked in Fall River. “Like many Portuguese, they came to Fall River, New Bedford, Lawrence, and Lowell to work in the cotton mills,” said Rodrigues. The Martins married, bought a 122 acre farm in Westport in 1919, and planted vegetables and raised cattle for milk.
We’ve all heard the saying “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. The Martins gave this story a dairy queen twist. In the 1920s, there were no price controls and dairy farmers were at the mercy of the milk processors (“We hated Mr.Hood’s guts,” said Martin, whose family eventually got the last laugh). After one hard period in which much of their milk spoiled because the processors didn’t pick it up, Martin’s father thought why don’t we make cheese from this? “My mother got the cheese recipe from Charlie’s grandmother,” laughed Mr. Martin.
Thus, growing from jugs of spoiling milk, the Martins started a business, Martin’s Cheese, “queijos frescos"” , fresh cheese. Manny Martin thinks it’s the oldest business in town. According to Rodrigues sources, “Martin’s Cheese is the oldest Portuguese run cheese business in the country.” Rodrigues made many mouths water as he described how good this milky white cheese tastes when it’s spread on homemade bread and sprinkled with red pepper.
Mr.Rodrigues finished the evening by talking about his own family’s roots from the mainland of Portugal. His grandfather immigrated here in 1918 at the age of 17, followed by his grandmother a year later. They took the path of many others and in 1920 left Fall River for Westport, joining families like the Machados, the Fernandez, the Oliveiros, who all reared large families. For years, they had a network of mid wives amongst themselves who always showed up in time to help bring another of their own into the world.
When Rodrigues told of his father rebuilding Hix Bridge in one year after the hurricane of 1938, an audience member shouted out ,”Bring him back!”. The comment didn’t reincarnate Mr. Rodrigues but did generate one of the biggest laughs of the night. Rodrigues reminisced about day-long Sunday dinners served in three shifts to accommodate the children and adults, the annual pig slaughtering weekends, and his family’s sixth trip to Portugal, where they found the answer to a genealogical question that had puzzled them for years.
Representative Rodrigues spoke knowledgeably and affectionately about Westport’s Portuguese community. His stories and those of Manny Martin and Charlie Costa painted a picture of loyalty and connectedness within the first generation of immigrants, whose legacy to their children was love of family and the will to succeed. In his opening remarks, Rodrigues said, “if you came from Portugal, you knew one of two things, farming or fishing,.and you knew hard work.”
When they reached Westport, Massachusetts, these immigrants found all three.
Rodrigues and Alex Silva of UMass Dartmouth have begun collecting information to include in a book they’d like to publish on this subject. If you would like to offer stories or information, call Mike Rodrigues at 508-646-0650