Maine – Kittery: Fishing War to Flowers

Kittery is located at southern point of Maine’s coast and is 293 miles from Eastport, the most eastern town in the United State…but 4,568 miles of jagged coastline lay between those two points (Woodward, 32)

We usually enter Maine by way of the Piscataqua River Bridge, which opened in 1972.  I love looking at its beautiful arch as we approach on Highway I-95 then the road makes a gentle curve and we come under the openwork steel grid and see the sign for the Maine state line.  As a passenger, I have a minute to enjoy the river and the boat traffic below before we are across and approaching the first toll booth a few miles up the road. 

Two other bridges span that stretch of the river and they both have sections that lift to allow large boats and ships to pass.  The Sarah Mildred Long Bridge carries Route 1 Bypass traffic between Maine and New Hampshire.  Its first iteration opened in 1822 and the bridge has undergone major changes over the years, including its most recent reopening in 2018.   I was curious about the bridge’s name and found on Wikipedia that it was renamed in 1987 to honor a “50-year employee of the Maine-New Hampshire Interstate Bridge Authority who rose from a secretary at its creation to executive director.” 

The original third bridge opened in 1932 and was named to honor the World War I Maine and New Hampshire soldiers and sailors who gave their lives for their country.  In addition to carrying Route 1 traffic, this is the only one of the three bridges that allows pedestrians and bicycles to pass.

No matter which of the three bridges we have taken into Maine, for some reason we have never tarried in Kittery, but this time we were driving from South Berwick on Route 103 and Kittery was our destination.  We didn’t need to worry about exceeding the speed limit along this stretch of road because there is interesting landscape and plenty of 18th and early 19th century homes to discover along the way.   Then, just before we entered into the historic town of Kittery, we had a spectacular new view of the Piscataqua River Bridge. 

The point at which the broad Piscataqua River flows into the Atlantic Ocean made a perfect location for English to establish a fishing station in 1631.  A few hearty souls and their female servants were left to survive the winter and state a claim to the area’s rich fishing grounds (Woodward, 92).   It didn’t take long for Kittery to become a populated and bustling port with ship building, shipping and lumber added to fishing as its major industries. 

All was well and expansion boomed until the English, French and Indians fell into disagreement over control of the territory and serious battles ensued.  The Indian raids emptied the central part of Maine of almost all European settlers.  Even in nearby South Berwick, just twenty miles away, the attacks left some of the population dead and a mill destroyed while other residents were force marched to Canada and an uncertain future.     

Understandably, those living in the area around Kittery wanted to flee to safety in Massachusetts, but “Fearing the eastern frontier would become depopulated, the Massachusetts General Court forbade Mainers from relocating without their permission.”  Colin Woodward in his colorful account of this period reports that many of the remaining nine hundred residents turned to drink, supporting at least nine pubs and filling the “local court dockets…with alcohol-related crimes.”  He goes on to say that life on the “Maine frontier was a serious business, and those who survived under these conditions had to be stubborn, self-sufficient, and able to endure considerable physical and emotional punishment.”  (Woodward, 114-15)

Finally, in the early 1700s the warring turned into occasional sparring and Maine resettlement was underway.  Lumber, ship building and shipping brought prosperity to some, but another major battle was being played out for control of the North Atlantic and her fishing grounds…waters teeming with cod, haddock, halibut and lobster.  The French were so determined to win that they spent thirty years and a treasury of francs to build a fort in Louisburg, Canada, which was completed around 1740.  This was no ordinary frontier fort but a large, solid stone structure on the coast.  It was so large and seemingly impregnable that it was called the “Gibraltar of the West.”  Huge cannons were trained on the sea and the French Navy’s North American operations were based here as well as “a fleet of privateers, semiofficial birds of prey that darted out to plunder North Atlantic shipping” (Rich, 77).  

Maine fishermen bore the brunt of this aggression and their livelihoods were in peril, but the Massachusetts Bay Authorities didn’t see any need to send money or men to help protect them or these waters.  Through sheer persistence, lies and luck, a man named William Vaughn was finally able to get a measure passed by the Massachusetts Bay Authority to approve a campaign to fight the French, but there was to be no monetary support from England.     

The attack on Louisburg started in 1745 and took an entire year to bring victory.  The Governor of Massachusetts assigned Lord William Pepperell, a well-to-do merchant with no military skills, to lead a force of raw independent-minded fishermen, farmers, merchants and lumbermen and their “cockleshell fleet.”  The only qualifications for service in this ragtag regiment were 1) showing up and 2) owning a gun.  

Rich’s frequently hilarious telling of the “hen-headed scheme” helps soften the brutal conditions the men endured.  Her light-handed telling of this heroic saga does not in any way diminish the courage, determination and ingenuity the men displayed throughout the year, especially during the brutal winter and on into the mud-sucking spring of 1746.  I almost felt that she was writing through tears as she recounted the sad conclusion of this military victory (Rich, 76-86). 

 After holding his ragtag lot of men together and leading them to victory, Lord Pepperell returned to Maine a hero and a physically broken man.  He was made a baronet and died shortly thereafter.  But this unlikely military leader did more than win a major victory against the French; he also helped plant seeds for the American Revolution.  Mainers had been hung out to dry for years, so to speak, by the Massachusetts leaders who were supposed to be governing and protecting them.  Against all odds, this untrained but spirited force had taking on a powerful enemy nation and won.  This lesson was not soon forgotten and when the call to arms came twenty years later to fight against England, memory of this event stirred passion and encouraged people to believe a victory was possible.  

After his death, Lady Pepperrell was left with enormous inherited wealth from both her own and her husband’s families.  She chose keep the English title of “Lady” rather than assuming the American “Baroness.”  She also chose to remain in Kittery and in 1760 built a lovely Palladian house on a hillside overlooking the Gulf of Maine. 

Her home, which is now privately owned, is situated across the road from Kittery Point’s First Congregational Church (established in 1714)…

…and the Old Burial Ground is located alongside her stone-walled garden.

On my walk through the old burying grounds, I discovered Robert Browning’s epitaph on the grave of Celia Thaxter’s husband, Levi Lincoln Thaxter.

Once we returned home, research on this obscure piece of granite introduced me to the Isles of Shoals and to Celia Thaxter (1835-94), a painter, writer and poet who created renowned gardens (Calhoun 31-33).  At about the time when Lady Pepperell was overseeing house construction, Celia Thaxter’s father was hosting tourists miles offshore in his Appledore House on the island of that name.  There are nine islands that comprise the Isles of Shoals with four being a part of Maine and the other five under New Hampshire’s jurisdiction (Calhoun 31-33).  [On the map below, the islands are in the lower right corner.]   

Back in the 1800s, Isles of Shoals were visited by writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Sarah Orne Jewett as well as other creative luminaries. Celia Thaxter helped to make the island of Appledore famous through her poetry and her 1873 publication, Among the Isle of Shoals, “in which she described the pastoral side of island life and the poverty and drunkenness of its long-time inhabitants” (Calhoun 33).  

Impressionist and plein air painters loved her gardens.  Childe Hassam produced 400 or so paintings and drawings on the island and illustrated Thaxter’s 1893 book, An Island Garden, “one of the grittiest garden books of its day, full of slugs, gulls, thin soil and ceaseless winds” (Calhoun 33).  Thaxter was into reality and this popular book has been republished and is available for passionate gardeners as well as Hassam enthusiasts.

This year, because of social distancing and other restrictions, the ferry isn’t taking visitors to the Isles of Shoals and Thaxter’s gardens, but at least some of her flowers can be seen in Portsmouth, NH, at Prospect Park.  The annuals that were grown for the garden have been planted there instead.  In the park they have been arranged in long-established flower beds, but back on the island these sun- and wind-hearty beauties would be sporadically tucked in among rocks and perennials, adding unexpected dashes of color throughout the gardens.

Coming back to the mainland…a short stretch down the road from Lady Pepperell’s House is a military site that has served to defend Portsmouth Harbor from before the Revolution through World War I.  As early as 1689, earthworks and a small blockhouse were completed there and named after General William Pepperell.   In 1720 a new blockhouse was built to improve military defense and it also served as a toll station, extracting fees from ships entering Portsmouth Harbor.  In 1808, Massachusetts gave the land to the Federal Government, which then built Fort McClary on the site.  A brick Powder House and Rifleman’s House and a granite wall and earthworks are all that remain of the fort from that era.  Fieldstones at the far end of the parade ground are all that is left to mark a second riflemen’s house and a barracks also from that era. 

The magnificent block house remaining on the site was built 1844-46.  The first story granite walls stand on mortared fieldstone and the second story walls are built of squared logs.  At the same time, a granite Powder House was built behind and below the fort.  Fort McClary was officially deactivated in 1846, but it was called back into use after Confederate raiders seized a ship in Portsmouth Harbor during the Civil War.  The earthworks were extended during the Spanish American War (1898) and three large cannons stood ready.  During WWI the Powder House walls and roof were reinforced but again the fort wasn’t involved in any military action. 

The fort, with its surrounding twenty-seven acres, is a great stop for history buffs and it also makes a beautiful location for a picnic, a hike or just a good place to pause to enjoy watching the Piscataqua River.  Large stone blocks from some never completed project are strewn about on the grounds and make a fun place for children to play. 

The United States Navy has had a much greater presence in the Portsmouth area than the army.  The Piscataqua River, the Atlantic and other oceans and seas around the world have seen many ships that were built in Kittery.  John Paul Jones’ famous Ranger, the first ship to fly the Stars and Stripes, was launched at Kittery on May 10, 1777, and the U.S. Federal Government established the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on Seavey’s Island in 1800.  

Again I have digressed and want to come back to Pepperrell Road.  On my list of things to see was the John Bray House, which has a bit of a convoluted story.  Bray did build a home on this property in about 1662, but it was not the existing house.  A 2-1/2 storey structure, possibly a meeting house, with a center chimney and granite foundation was built on the lot sometime around 1720-40 and it is one of the one of the oldest surviving buildings in the state. 

At first we couldn’t find the house but we accidentally turned into the driveway of this magnificent, strikingly modern home and then we retraced our steps and continued to look for the Bray House.  As it turned out we were within feet of the house as we were circling that driveway but didn’t realize it because the house has been much altered under the direction of its current owner, Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates fame.  The original 1700s “house” structure still remains, but it is now flanked by modernist, angular, starkly white-sided, grey-roofed components…a bit like a jumble of houses on a Monopoly board.  Not knowing the story, I asked Don to stop the car so I could take a photo of the house because of its interesting architecture.  A visit to the Jacobsen Architecture’s website will give you a photo of the original structure and extensive photos of the exterior and interior of the house as it stands today (jacobsenarchitecture.com).

It was finally time for us to make our way back to Portland, so we were again following Route 103 when Don saw a road on our right that looked interesting.  The roadbed was a ledge above a stream, and we spotted a few houses/camps squeezed against the steep bank between the road and the water below.  Beyond them a sign for Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier announced a colorful and sprawling operation that has been going since 1930.  It sits on a dock above the creek and is a fun place to stop and enjoy the view and a taste of Maine.  Parking is at a premium so an odd-hour visit is strongly suggested.

In spite of its rich history, Kittery is best known today for its outlet centers located right on Route 1.  Many visitors make this their first and only stop in Maine and leave the old parts of Kittery to be discovered by more history-minded travelers…but should you have a love of candy, you might want to stop at Yummies Candy & Nuts.  As my friend Nancy describes it:  “You are like a kid in a candy store only you are adult kid in a candy store with the means to make large purchases with no parental restrictions. Perfect!”

If you have time to explore, we encourage you to take one of the smaller bridges into Maine and give yourself time to savor the scenery and the history along the two-lane routes throughout the state. 

Recommended Resources:

Calhoun, Charles C.  Maine (Compass Travel Guide).  Oakland, CA: Fodor’s Travel Publications Inc, 1997.

Rich, Louise Dickinson.  State O’Maine.  New York: Harper & Row, 1964. 

Woodard, Colin.  The Lobster Coast.  New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

4 thoughts on “Maine – Kittery: Fishing War to Flowers

  1. The surname “Pepperell” is quite ubiquitous here in the Biddeford-Saco area. First and foremost, it was once the name of the most successful textile mill in New England, on its own and then following a merger with a southern company called West Point. The name “Pepperell” seems to have been “borrowed” from a well-known Boston merchant. Saco’s City Square is named Pepperell Square, though that might not be for much longer, as the Pepperell family was known to have been slave-holders, so a movement is now under way to change it. And that’s all I’ll say about that. Last but not least, the tall apartment building on Water Street in Saco is called “The Lord Pepperell Apartments.” It houses a mix of low-income individuals and retirees. I’m sure that this is all inter-connected somehow to your Lord Pepperell of Kittery fame. Great article!

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  2. Toni, Very interesting, love the scenery. Each one of your blogs makes me realize why you and Don travel Maine.
    I can picture living and owning lady pepperrell’s estate and all those Gardens!! Even the winters would be fun.

    As I think of the early settlers of Maine, I say they had SISU. Mom

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