Voices of the Bay: Bristol Historian Rei Battcher

The lifelong resident’s role in plaquing houses, giving tours in period clothing, and his own family’s lineage

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Rei Battcher is a linchpin to preserving Bristol’s past. When it comes to his vast knowledge of the town’s history, Battcher is more like an ocean than a fountain. Ask him about people, dates, and places, or the background of an old building or home, and he’ll probably have an answer – or know how to find it. The lifelong Bristolian has been the historian and librarian for the Bristol Historical Preservation Society (BHPS) since 1973. He’s responsible for society’s Historic Plaque program, which involves extensive research on title of change information, including homes’ mortgages, tax records, wills, maps, and other primary sources. Battcher has worked the reference desk at Rogers Free Library since 2009 and was the historian for the Rhode Island Society of Mayflower Descendents for 12 years. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Social Sciences and a Masters in History with a concentration in secondary education from Rhode Island College. 

Plaque Origin: Helen Tessler, past president and curator of BHPS, started the Historic Plaque Program as a Bicentennial project in 1974. It was her goal to plaque 200 houses for the 200-year-anniversary of the founding of the country. She didn’t make it to 200, but she did plaque 50 houses – all work done gratis. There are over 240 plaqued houses today. We continue to get requests from both new and longtime residents.

If Walls Could Talk: While I was researching for plaques, I came across a lot of information about the people who lived in these houses. Though not pertinent to knowing the date of the house, it was plenty interesting. I felt I had to find some way to use this information. It became the Backdoor Gossip Tour featuring interesting things – nothing salacious – about the people who lived in the house. I did my first tour 40 years ago.

Dress the Part: Occasionally I wear period clothing for the tours. I appear as Simeon Potter for the Bombed and Burned Tour. He was very cantankerous, was always suing people, never spelled the same word twice in a letter; he was a pirate, privateer, and “merchant.”

Young Historian: I was always interested in things that happened before I was born. I always loved architecture. I had a fascination with Greek Revival. If there was a house with columns, my mother knew it would be a long stop while we were walking. 

Family Roots: My father’s mother’s family goes back to the Coggeshalls of Coggeshall Farm in 1790. They then popped over and were founders of Aquidneck Island – Portsmouth in 1638, Middletown and Newport in 1640. My father’s father’s family came to Bristol in 1869. I am the fourth generation to live in the home my great grandfather built in 1880. For me it’s a shrine of the past. 

Know someone who might be a good fit for Voices of the Bay? Email Nina at YourHomeWithNina@gmail.com

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