Leora Philbrick Bristol of Hampton, New Hampshire had a reputation in her family as “no shrinking violet.” Born in 1887, with bloodlines that stretched back to the town’s earliest years, on her 18th birthday she married Frank Bristol, a divorced man 12 years her senior. It was an act that most parents of the time would have found appalling. She had been one of the first women to conquer the complexities of the automobile in her hometown, and as early as 1916 had bought and sold real estate in her own name. In 1912, when Frank turned from house painting to cars and opened Bristol’s Garage at Hampton Beach, no doubt she was right there, involved in its operation. But the auto business, still in its infancy, was by no means a sure thing, at least in the minds of some folks—when Frank Brooks decided to open the Hampton Center Garage in 1915, his parents advised him to “get a decent job.” The World War took a toll on the auto industry as production was devoted to the war effort, with sales and repair shops inevitably taking a hit. Then came the deadly Spanish flu pandemic that killed some 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. During the years 1918-1919, Leora’s grit was sorely tested as first Frank succumbed to the flu, leaving her with four small children and a business to run, and then Millard, her 13-year-old son, died of pneumonia.
The Bristol Garage
Shortly after Frank’s death Leora assumed sole ownership of the garage by buying her children’s inherited interest in the property. The family continued to live in their Marsh Avenue cottage, adjacent to the garage, and Leora continued to run the business with help from Walter Goss, a former chauffeur who managed the day-to-day operations of the garage. But she evidently had other plans for her life, as in early 1922 she put the garage up for sale and bought an undeveloped lot at the corner of Lafayette Road and Ann’s Lane on which she would build a house. The garage went unsold that year, and in March 1923 she once again advertised that it was for sale, and could be bought with or without the two adjacent cottages. Unfortunately, on a windless night in June the garage took fire and burned to the ground, two years to the day of the last great beach fire.
Explosions rocked the garage as the fire spread from car to car, the night watchman making his escape from the burning building by breaking a window. While a “roaring mass of flames” shot high into the night sky, Leora and her family, and the pajama-clad guests at the Wilbert Hotel next door to the garage, fled for their lives as the fire quickly ignited the surrounding buildings. The Bristol cottages were utterly destroyed, two others badly scorched, but the Wilbert, by virtue of its fireproof shingles, was saved from total destruction, and was credited with helping to check the fire’s spread. Various culprits were assigned to the cause of the blaze; a short circuit in one of the 22 cars parked inside the garage, an unextinguished cigarette butt, an overheated engine. The following day the fire made the front page of the Boston Globe, which reported, somewhat fantastically, that some 100,000 people had arrived during the day to inspect the calamity.
Leora’s Bristol Cafe
Put out of her home by the fire, Leora rented an apartment in one of John Janvrin’s new houses across from the Odd Fellows Hall at the center of town. She and her family resided there until July 1925 when the Ann’s Lane house became ready for occupancy. Here she opened a cafe and rooming house (later known as the Lafayette Inn), which she ran until selling the property in late 1926. This house was later moved to the adjoining lot to make way for the Town and Beach Motel, and is still standing there today.
Unlike many women of her time, Leora never remarried. After selling the Ann’s Lane house she turned to housekeeping, advertising for situations “in refined gentlemen’s homes.” Over the years she worked at a number of private homes in places like Kittery and Portsmouth, and later, until her death in 1956, she lived in Exeter with her daughter Charlotte Bristol Doyle, a former Carnival Queen (1927) who owned a real estate agency in Hampton for many years.
According to Leora’s great granddaughter, Julie Bristol Mortlock of Exeter, who is currently writing her family’s history and who contributed to this article, Leora loved cats, and kept many in her home. Not surprising, really, since I have it on good authority that “cat ladies” the world over are and have always been nonconformists who love challenging traditional roles. Leora Bristol certainly fit the description.
Originally published in the Hampton Union, May 3, 2019.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org or lassitergang.com.