Maine – South Berwick: Cows to Classic Architecture

The tall, straight white pines of southern Maine’s forests caught the attention of seamen and the area became the prime source for masts on sailing ships that were plying the waters around the world.  The Salmon Falls River, which got its name from the abundant salmon leaping the falls during spawning season, provided transportation for the forests of harvested pines that were moved along its route to the Piscataqua River and on to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Instead of transporting enormous logs, the river is now the energy source for the Salmon Falls Hydro Station that provides power to homes and businesses in the area.

Legend has it that the machinery for what would become the first saw mill in the nation was unloaded in South Berwick from the Pied Cow in 1634…not exactly an auspicious name for a ship, but she must have been seaworthy because on an earlier visit that year she had brought the first cows to the East Coast, thus leaving Cow Cove named as a lasting tribute to her contributions.  As with the rest of Maine, South Berwick suffered through the turbulent years of French, Indian and English embattlement, but it eventually became a bustling place filled with ship builders, wharves, warehouses, chandlers, mills and merchants. 

Homes began to be built after the sawmill was in operation and the mill grew…its labor force enhanced by Scottish prisoners captured by Oliver Cromwell’s forces.  Indian raids in the later 1600s depleted the population, but by the early 1700s things stabilized enough that settlers returned and the town started growing again.   Berwick Academy was founded in 1791 to provide a classical education, and it is the oldest secondary school in the state.  The Fogg Memorial Building was built in 1894 to replaced the previous academy building that had been destroyed by fire.  The surrounding landscape was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.  Over the years, the institution has maintained a fine reputation, and today, the Academy has over five hundred day and boarding pupils in grades pre-K through 12th with students coming primarily from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

My first visit to South Berwick came three years ago when Don and I joined Historic New England, an organization dedicated to the preservation of early New England history and architecture.  We spent that summer driving back and forth across five states to visit their thirty-eight historic homes…two of which are located in South Berwick.  Most of the photos of the two homes in this piece come from that visit since the houses themselves are currently closed due to COVID-19, although the gardens are open to visitors.

American author, Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), was born in 1849 in her grandparent’s circa 1774 home (right photo) and grew up in the house her parents built next door on the same property in 1854. 

The houses were in the heart of town, so she had ample opportunity to observe people as they came and went from the shops across Main Street and as they gathered for events at the Odd Fellows Building on the other side of Portland Street (right photo). 

Her father was a doctor and she often rode with him in his horse-drawn buggy down Maine’s narrow country roads to remote farmhouses or coastal cottages.  While he examined his patient, helped birth a baby or closed the eyes of those he couldn’t save, Sarah sat in the kitchen with the patient’s family and listened to their conversation.

She lived in her family home for the rest of her life and the town continued to evolve around her.  She stored those early impressions, her ongoing observations and lingering fragments of conversation until she began pouring them into her writing.  You may want to read The Country of the Pointed Firs in preparation for a trip to Maine…but to see Jewett’s Maine, you will want to visit places like South Berwick and other more remote communities miles away from the busy tourist towns. 

On a visit to South Berwick, it is easy to look at the old facades of the local stores and imagine what they would have looked like with pedestrians peering into shop windows while horse-drawn wagons lumbered past.  You might want to leave your car parked and walk a few blocks to look at the homes and gardens that populate the quiet streets.  Many of the people living behind those doors and windows speak in the distinctly Maine dialect Jewett’s characters use…words and inflections that are still spoken when locals talk to each other about the weather, their maladies and the neighbors…timeless topics that, in the hands of a great writer, make good stories.  Jewett’s writing exposes a private Maine that the tourist or new arrival may catch a glimpse of, but they will never be around long enough for them or their children to be anything but “from away.”

Last summer we learned how restrictive this term can be.  While we were dining in a restaurant on a popular and remote island, our server told us that at her wedding her new husband’s family criticized him for marrying a girl “from away.”  Our server had grown up just across the bridge on the other side of the waterway and her family had been living there in Maine for generations.   

Jewett’s home may have been built in classic Georgian style, but she did not feel compelled to keep every room furnished in that period.  We were surprised and delighted by the very avangard Arts and Crafts wallpaper she hung in the entry and the stunning William Morris carpet on the steps and landing of the handsome wide staircase. 

The parlor and dining room were more in keeping with traditional 18th and 19th century décor.

She positioned her grandfather’s desk on the second floor stairway landing and did the majority of her writing in this space.  From the window alcove above the house’s front door she had a constant view of the locals’ comings and goings. 

The South Berwick of Jewett’s youth was a busy place with mills, lumber, shipping and commerce but the Civil War changed that.  Maine lost more men per capita in the fighting during the war than any other state.  Without Southern cotton, once successful mills across the state closed, and formerly bustling sea ports became near-silent specters.  Large New England cities became heavily industrialized to meet war demands and society had changed as well in its aftermath.  The Colonial Revival movement gave those with nostalgia for earlier times an opportunity to recreate this environment for themselves by restoring Colonial homes and gardens.

Jewett watched her precious Berwick change and was especially alarmed when the Hamilton House, a Georgian mansion built in 1785 by Col. Jonathan Hamilton, reached a serious state of disrepair.

Hamilton was a Berwick native who had made his fortune as a privateer during the Revolutionary War.  In 1777, he bought an existing wharf and buildings, and then built a magnificent home situated on a rise above the Salmon River.  The property changed hands in 1839 when it was purchased by a farm family who worked the land (around 300 acres of forest and farm) until the end of the century when agriculture suffered and no longer provided a viable source of income.  (The source for the information on the Jewett and Hamilton properties came from our tour and the Historic New England website.)

By this time the house had fallen into disrepair.  Jewett loved the house and had even used it as a setting in her novels, The Tory Lover.  Rather than have the house fall into the wrong hands, she convinced her Bostonian friend Emily Tyson and her stepdaughter, Elise, to restore the house.  They purchased the property in 1898 and hired Herbert Browne of Little and Browne (Boston) to oversee the project.  The Tysons also had a garden laid out at the east side of the house and murals painted in the parlor and dining room, and as a final touch, they had a charming cottage built on the far side of the garden.  Historic New England has an extensive collection of photos taken of the restoration by Elise Tyson, who was an accomplished amateur photographer.

The home is so beautiful that these photos speak for themselves…the entry hall and dining room:

Parlor and dining room murals:


Glimpses of the Garden:

The Cottage and its garden…

Cottage interior with paneling from a less fortunate Colonial home in New Hampshire…

After her stepmother’s death in 1922, Elise Tyson Vaughan and her husband Henry Vaughan were encouraged by William Sumner Appleton, the founder of Historic New England (HNE), to keep the house.  Elise summered in the home until her death in 1949 at which point it was transferred to HNE to be maintained as one of their properties. She also bequeathed 160 acres of land to the state of maine to be kept in its natural state.  That land became Vaughan Woods State Park, a glorious forest of towering hundred-year-old pines with almost four miles of easy to moderate hiking trails.

Back down the road at Salmon River Falls, the Counting House Museum is well worth exploring when it is able to reopen. We were advised by museum staff that the new feature exhibit will be about Scottish settlement in the area.

On an earlier visit to the museum, we learned the story of Mehitable Goodwin who was captured along with her husband, brother and his family during an Indian raid in 1675.  One day earlier, her father and two of her brothers had been slain by the attackers when they attempted to bury neighbors who had been killed in the raid.  The captives were forced to march at a fast pace (with the British at their heels) to Quebec where they were assigned as servants in Canadian homes.  After five years, the captives were ransomed and Goodwin was reunited with her husband.  They resettled in Old Fields (South Berwick) and she was buried years later in the cemetery there when she died.

Despite a somewhat sleepy appearance, we found South Berwick rich in history and well worth a visit.  The Hamilton House has reopened for scheduled tours on weekends (call Historic New England to book an appointment) The house, gardens and river setting make it well worth the drive. 

I’ve listed two books below for suggested reading.  Louise Dickinson Rich’s writing is both informative and entertaining.  She offers a Mainer’s perspective on the state’s history and writes in a fresh and lively style.  Sarah Orne Jewett’s characters speak in regional dialect, but the issues they discuss are still timely.  Jewett is also viewed as an early feminist writer…although strong women were easy to find in Maine communities where occupations like lumbering and seafaring took a toll on the male population, which was also seriously depleted by the Civil War.  Both writers are entertaining and perceptive and they provide distinctive and appealing introductions to Maine.

Recommended Resources:

State O’Maine by Louise Dickinson Rich, New York: Harper & Row, 1964.  Her love and passion for Maine and her lively writing style make this historic account of the state a page-turner that I couldn’t put down.

The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories by Sarah Orne Jewett, edited by Mary Ellen Chase with an introduction by Marjorie Pryse.   New York: W.W. Norton, 1981.  Certainly many fine versions of Jewett’s work have been published over the years, but I particularly liked Marjorie Pryse’s introduction.   Historic New England – Anyone planning a visit to New England should look into this organization and consider purchasing a membership.  For a moderate cost, their roster of thirty-plus homes is available to tour for no additional charge and their website and library are exceptional resources.

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