Author Sarah Orne Jewett lived for more than half her life in the Jewett-Eastman House. She wrote over 140 stories, novels and poems during her 33 years here before she moved to the Jewett House, her birthplace next door, in 1887. Her father, Dr. Theodore H. Jewett, built the smaller home for his family in 1854. He was a country doctor who practiced medicine here and inspired some of her literary works. After the last Jewett family member died in 1931, the house became a community center, and South Berwick Public Library occupied the house from 1971 to 2012. It is now a visitor center owned by Historic New England and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is in South Berwick Historic District.
In 1849, when Jewett was born, her family resided with her grandparents in the c. 1774 mansion on the corner of Main and Portland Streets in South Berwick, Maine. Today, we call this the Jewett House. There Captain Theodore F. Jewett had lived since the early 1820s, had raised Sarah’s father and uncles, and had become the town’s most prominent shipbuilder and merchant. After two sons died in the 1840s, Captain Jewett persuaded Sarah’s father, Dr. Theodore Herman Jewett, to practice his medical profession close by. For the doctor’s growing family, the Jewetts in 1854 built next door on Portland Street the home that later came to be called the Jewett-Eastman House.
Photo of Sarah Orne Jewett, courtesy of Historic New England
Was this house at right Dr. Jewett’s office for a time?
The Greek Revival house, where Sarah grew up with older sister Mary and younger sister Caroline, has changed little over the years. Originally it had no porch. A map of about 1860 seems to indicate that Dr. Jewett worked from a small office out-building in the yard.
By the 1870s, he had moved his practice into the house, using the newly added porch as an entrance for his patients. A detached barn stood in the rear, from which Dr. Jewett may have driven his carriage on house calls in the country, many a time with young Sarah at his side.
In this house, as a teenager, the author began her professional career. She drew upon her childhood here, the evenings of story-reading by the living room fireplace with the old Dutch Biblical tiles, her memories of going to sleep in her second floor back bedroom, and “waking in my warm bed” to hear “the sleds creak through the frozen snow as the slow oxen plodded by.”
From this house’s doorway she had crossed Portland Street to attend Miss Olive Raynes’ school, and to climb hillside fields to discover a bubbling spring or a sentinel pine. South Berwick in the 1850s and 1860s had become a textile mill town, and its pre-industrial village, a little commercial center with a variety of shops and elm-shaded streets, was the Jewett girls’ universe; uncles, aunts, cousins and playmates welcomed them from doorways up and down dusty Portland and Main Streets. The family’s Congregational church and several others stood nearby. Beyond lay the Salmon Falls River, and up the hill stood Berwick Academy, where Sarah walked to high school classes, graduating in 1865, as her father had before her. One can imagine this young woman, not yet twenty, mailing her first magazine manuscripts at a post office housed in a storefront across the street from the room where she wrote them. In 1868 she got word that her first story was published, “Jenny Garrow’s Lovers,” a tale of unrequited love.
The character of this South Berwick childhood surely shaped her writing, but so likely did the threats to this village way of life. The neighborhood surrounding the Jewett compound underwent profound changes in Sarah’s twenty-first year. First the Cummings shoe factory and housing complex sprang up on Norton Street behind the Jewett homes. Then on Main Street a quaint row of shops right outside the family’s windows was replaced by a brick commercial block following a devastating fire in July 1870. These abrupt transformations signaled the rural way of life Jewett had known would soon disappear, just as had the seafaring of her grandfather’s day. That this upheaval sealed her literary ambition is unproven, but as the young author developed both friends and readers in Boston -- and matured under editors like James T. Fields and William Dean Howells of The Atlantic Monthly -- her writing began to satisfy them all by capturing the vanishing details of rural Maine for readers of urban and industrialized America.
In 1877 Jewett published Deephaven, a collection of sketches she’d begun during the year of the fire. She continued to produce a stream of stories, novels, poems and essays from her childhood home on Portland Street, most notably A Country Doctor, inspired by her father. He died in 1878, and her younger sister married the same year, but Sarah and her sister Mary remained in the house with their mother Caroline. Jewett’s literary friendships also led her into the Boston cultural establishment, where in time she spent much of the year. An easy train ride connected the world of Charles Street and Beacon Hill with that of South Berwick village.
Meanwhile the Jewett House, next door on the corner, had become, since Captain Jewett’s death in 1860, the residence of Dr. Jewett’s brother William. When he died in 1887, Sarah and Mary Jewett moved with their mother into the mansion, and sister Caroline and her husband Edwin Eastman returned to the smaller house with their eight-year-old son Theodore. The rear of the Jewett-Eastman House seems to have been expanded at that time.
By now, Sarah Jewett’s reputation was international. The two Jewett houses in the center of South Berwick had become the town’s most celebrated residences, receiving visits from John Greenleaf Whittier, William James, Sarah Wyman Whitman, Julia Ward Howe, Willa Cather, Rudyard Kipling, Madame Therese Blanc and other prominent intellectual figures of America and Europe.
Details of the Jewett-Eastman property continued to thread themselves through her stories. “A Neighbor’s Landmark” begins: “The timber-contractor took a long time to fasten his horse to the ring in the corner of the shed...” We can wonder if in 1894 the author wrote while looking out her Jewett House bedroom window at the ring fixed to the corner of a shed behind the Jewett-Eastman House (see photo at left).
Though Sarah Orne Jewett died in 1909, Mary remained in the Jewett House until 1930. Dr. Theodore Eastman, a physician like his grandfather, died in 1931. He left both properties to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), now Historic New England.
From 1931 to the present day, the Jewett-Eastman House has been a community center for the town of South Berwick -- at different times a tea room, a gathering place for bridal showers and other festivities, and a meeting hall for such organizations as the South Berwick Woman’s Club, the South Berwick Rotary, and even a 1950s group called the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden Club. In 1971 volunteers organized the South Berwick Public Library on the first floor of the house. When SPNEA put the property on the market in 1984, the Jewett-Eastman Memorial (JEM) Committee was incorporated and raised funds to buy the building, SPNEA retaining historic preservation covenants. Historic New England re-purchased the house in 2012.
Today visitors can enjoy the architectural details remaining from Jewett’s day - the tiled fireplace, the dining room cupboards, the author’s signature scratched on the window glass. Even now, with trucks rumbling past the white picket fence, the identity of the house is mingled with the memory of Maine’s beloved author.
-- Text and color photos by Wendy Pirsig (revised May 2012)