South Berwick Village Fire - July 25-26, 1870
SEE THE VIDEO -- "The Night South Berwick Burned" by Tim Benoit, with photos from the Old Berwick Historical Society
MAP: South Berwick Village at the Corner, about 1860. The shaded area shows the approximate extent of the fire.
The writer of this essay is thought to have been Rebecca Young (1847-1927), a Main Street resident and lifelong friend of Mary and Sarah Jewett. For many years she was connected with the South Berwick National Bank, eventually serving as treasurer.
If we could step backward to the Summer of 1870, and stand by the old town pump that occupied the central place in our village square, the whole western side would appear very strange. But, I imagine that to some of us, the years that have passed would be as a dream in the night, and we should at once walk across the street into Mr. Hollis Witt's little store to ask if our watch could be regulated, and to listen again to the many clocks ranged on his shelves ticking faster or more slowly, and now in unison - or into Mr. Joe Porter Davis' tin shop for a dish that would last longer than a dozen of the present day articles of tin ware. The buildings on the opposite side are now much as they were at that time, but every thing from the present P.O. [NOTE: this would have been the Parks Store—ed.] to the Huntress block, now replaced by the Ross block, was swept away by the fire that began about midnight of July 25, 1870, and on the morning of July 26, had left nothing behind but coals and smoking debris in the uncovered cellars.
The building we called the "brick block" stood on the land where are now the stores of Mr. George Mathes and Mr. Daniel McIntire. It contained two stores occupied by Nicholas Hanson, druggist, and M.M. Albie, who made and sold boots and shoes. Over Mr. Hanson's was Mr. George Yeaton's law office, and Daniel Doherty, uncle of the present Daniel and William, had his popular barber shop over Mr. Albie's. In the rear was the village hall, on the second floor of a wooden extension, to which we arrived by a stairway from the street, going across an entry and then descending a few steps. It is with something of a sigh of regret for the past, that we recall the panoramas, the slight of hand matinees, the exhibition of Tom Thumb and Dolly Dutton and their kind, and also the noisy band concerts, and the church levees and fairs of those early days. It was in, or under or near the ante room of this well remembered hall that the fire of the eventful night began, the hall having been used in some capacity during the evening.
The first building beyond, and just this side of the P.O. was the home and store long occupied by some members of the Ricker family, the last of whom was Miss Mary Ricker. She sold small wares of all kinds, and I distinctly remember buying gloves there, and with more pleasure the worsteds for my canvass work. Next the driveway, still there, was a piazza that extended by the parlor with its lace curtains at the windows, one of which was on the street and much admired, to the door that entered the living rooms, and the store the other side of the parlor was entered by a door from the street. At the time of the fire Miss Ricker had become Mrs. Eddy and removed from the place. The store was occupied by Miss Rebecca Smith, the Milliner, and the living rooms by Mr. Knight who had a public stable near the stable where Mr. Hoyt now is. We mention Mr. Knight in particular, as he first discovered the fire and gave the alarm. His child was ill and he was awake and at about midnight saw a light across the way by the store now occupied by Mr. Jed Watson. He thought he heard some one come down the street, whom he supposed was Mr. Hanson, the druggist, on an errand of mercy at his store. A little later he saw from another window, the flames coming through the roof above the entrance to the hall the opposite light being a reflection of the fire on the glass windows. He immediately gave an alarm, to which the people seemed slow to respond, as always when roused at midnight from a sound sleep. The fire rapidly gained force, and the village afforded no means of staying its destruction until the driveway, known as Scott's Court, was reached. The wooden buildings, with only alley ways between them, more food for the flames, and there was little water to check their fury. The only supply of water was from the wells in the vicinity and that was soon gone. The hose was too short to reach the brook and the engine from Dover, sent to our relief, gave little help. A large house owned by Mr. N. Proal just behind the stores was burned, and Mr. Gerrish's house was saved by being covered with blankets, kept wet with the water taken from the water hogsheads of Mr. Morrison who lived in the Huntress block. The same process - wet blanket and carpets, saved the Jewett house opposite from destruction, as also the Post Office building and others.
All the occupants of the stores, and small tenements above them, tried to take their goods to places of safety with little success - as to results. Many things were carried but a little distance and hardly out of harm's way, and thieves with stolen goods with them could not always be distinguished from honest helpers. The story of one man found among Mr. Whitehead's goods in Mr. Jewett's garden putting on one vest after another until he had swollen out of all due proportion, seems amusing to us now. Mr. Morrison, who lived in the Huntress block relates that he carried his household goods to a safe distance, made his cow fast in the orchard, tied his pig to the fence there by its hind legs, leaving the little ones in the pen to die, if die they must, and used his horses for the benefit of those in need. The house was not burned and all were peacefully sheltered the next morning.
There are many incidents of the night that are of interest to us who knew every person and every inch of ground of the village. Miss Jewett will, I am sure, tell us of the meeting at her father's house of Mr. Noah Pike and Mrs. Witt, who had been sworn enemies for years while living side by side. The flames reached the house of Mrs. Witt first, and as there was some hope they might be stayed at that point she exclaimed with more feeling than piety: "O Lord, shall my house go and his remain!" But both houses went down before the devouring flames.
One of our dear friends, hearing that the firemen were in need of some refreshment, in her sympathy and excitement carried out to them a large roast beef, and passing it uncut to the nearest one said "Here, they say you are hungry!" A small boy venturing too near an uncovered well, fell in, but was promptly rescued by the firemen.
It was a night of fear - even of terror - and of excitement and suspense, and to many a time of sorrow and discouragement. By the disinterested friends who knew not our traditions, it was said to be a blessing in disguise. It has been as they foretold, that from the ashes of the little, old, and irregular wooden structures there have arisen buildings of brick, more modern, more commodious and convenient, and in every way better adapted to their desired purpose.