The Orchard House

An undated historic view of The Orchard House. The original image is owned by Downing Simmons, Jr., grandson of Minnie Carter.

An undated historic view of The Orchard House. The original image is owned by Downing Simmons, Jr., grandson of Minnie Carter. The 1-story building on the right housed the Tea Room, which is where the Orchard House's dinners were held.

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The site of The Orchard House in the present day. Only two stone pillars marking its entrance remain.

The site of The Orchard House in the present day. Only two stone pillars marking its entrance remain.

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The Orchard House as captured by the 1970 aerial photographs of Rhode Island.

The Orchard House as captured by the 1970 aerial photographs of Rhode Island.

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Known Name(s)

The Orchard House


Rte. 1, Stonington Westerly, RI

Establishment Type(s)

Hotel, Restaurant

Physical Status


Detailed History

The owners of The Orchard House, Minnie Carter and Gertrude Owens, were sisters born in 1905 and 1902 respectively. Little is known about their early years, except that in 1923, at age 18, Minnie had a daughter, Doris, and sometime after that, Gertrude married Eugene J. Owens, who served in the US Maritime Service. Since Doris was born in New Haven, the sisters may have grown up there and Minnie may have moved as a young woman to Brooklyn, NY, where Doris grew up. Doris attended the Girls’ High School in Brooklyn, where she was a classmate of future Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Fellow alumnae Lena Horne was just a few years older and Roxie Roker a few years younger. The Girls’ School offered a highly sought-after education and Horne was the first African-American student to attend.

All three women seem to have begun summering in the New London area during the 1920s or 1930s. The fact that Gertrude and Eugene were listed in the New London directories in these years suggests that Minnie and Doris may have been introduced to the area by family visits. During this period, Minnie and Gertrude noted the need for a hotel where African-Americans could stay and to that end, they purchased the “Spaghetti House” in Westerly in 1938. They operated this first business until 1946, when the end of World War II brought new opportunities, as well as increased recreational travel by African-Americans to the area.

In 1946, Gertrude and Minnie purchased land in Pawcatuck from Margaret Van Allen. While located in Connecticut, the land was just a stone’s throw from the town of Westerly in Rhode Island, hence its inclusion with the RI instead of the CT Green Book listings. The property already contained a house and 1-story building of considerable size, which would have gotten the sisters off to a good start on their operation. They renamed it The Orchard House.

Van Allen inherited the property from her father, Lorenzo Van Allen, who was a wholesale jewelry distributer based in Providence. Gertrude and Minnie took out a mortgage from the Washington Trust Company at the time of the purchase in the amount of $8500. Van Allen was extremely supportive of the women and funded a second mortgage in the amount of $3000 (to be paid off in installments of $150 two times a year). Van Allen's funds probably provided the women with the downpayment for the WTC loan. Both mortgages were paid off by 1952.

The Orchard House was listed in The Green Book for just one year, in 1957, but its operations spanned several decades and it was a popular destination in its heyday. In particular, it was known for its elegant Sunday dinners and well-dressed clientele, but the site also hosted private events, such as bridal showers, as well as public lectures, such as one by Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown in 1947. These events took place in a 1-story building to the north, which housed the White House Tea Room.

A large 2-1/2 story house to the south, with a porch, clapboard siding, and a gable roof, contained, according to an announcement in the newspaper "...fourteen bedrooms, some en-suite, powder room, living rooms, sun room and kitchen. The surrounding large grounds with plenty of chairs for lounging or for the many sports and games which are featured, such as Badminton, archery, croquet, bicycling, ping-pong and bathing." These high class activities greatly appealed to Orchard House's visitors.

The landscape surrounding The Orchard House also provided opportunity for recreation, especially the park across the street where the Stonington High School is currently located. Visitors could ride bicycles into the park and/or picnic at tables stationed throughout. Sometimes, card games and other games of chance were played there, outside the environs of The Orchard House. 

The Orchard House attracted elite African Americans, many of them doctors and lawyers and many coming back year after year. Visitors often planned their visits to meet up with other guests by reserving the same couple of weeks at the same time each year. Oral histories today recount that Orchard House's visitors were extremely nice, impeccably mannered, and enjoyed having a place where they could relax--and they were very encouraging to the younger employees and family members.

The sisters were actively involved in the Westerley community, especially the Pleasant St. Baptist Church, and its Fortnightly Society, and they appeared frequently in the local newspaper society pages. When Doris married Downing Simmons, her reception was held at The Orchard House. Off season, the sisters both worked, Minnie as an elevator operator and Gertrude in private homes. Over time, as their families grew, children and grandchildren worked in various capacities to support the operation.

In 1972, Gertrude died and Minnie inherited the property. A year later, in 1973, Minnie sold her share of the property for $95,000 and Gertrude’s share for $67,500 to Louis and John D’Amato, real estate developers. Minnie contracted a mortgage with the D’Amatos for her share, with the D’Amatos paying her monthly (Gertrude’s share was paid at the time of the sale). The D’Amatos were given permission in the deed to demolish the buildings on site in order to develop the property and by 1974, having completed the payments, Minnie signed the property over to them. All the Orchard House buildings were demolished in these years, leaving only the two stone gates remaining.

Thanks to the Stonington Public Library, an interview with Minnie's grandchildren is available HERE.




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