Eliza Ann Barker, born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, was a girl of fourteen when she came to South Berwick in 1819, to teach the choir at a Baptist church located where the soldier’s monument is today. The Baptist minister, Ebenezer Little Boyd, had come from Newburyport ten years earlier to serve the congregation at that church, called the Meeting House on the Plains. Religious passions were growing and church membership was expanding in the early 1800s, and there were already two Baptist churches in town when Eliza came here—one at Great Hill and the other at the Plains.
The church at Great Hill had introduced music in their services in the 1790s. Perhaps on a visit back home to Massachusetts Parson Boyd recruited Eliza to lead his congregation in singing.
Eliza would have traveled from Newburyport to Portsmouth by packet boat or stagecoach—a three-hour ride—and upriver to South Berwick by gundalow. She carried all her possessions with her in a small leather trunk bound with brass tacks, now owned by the Counting House Museum.
In 1826 she married a local grocer, Elisha Whitehouse, and raised nine children here.
As a singing mistress in the 1820s, Eliza would have taught hymns that are still sung today, like “Amazing Grace,” published 40 years earlier by English clergyman John Newton. But it is also likely she knew popular and patriotic tunes of the time, like “Yankee Doodle,” a British song of mockery adapted with pride by American soldiers in the 1770s, or “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written in 1814 and later adopted as the nation anthem.
The meeting house where she taught music was used for both religious services and town meetings, and it survived for many decades. Writer Sarah Orne Jewett recalled stolen moments in the empty church building as a child: “I remember that the unpainted woodwork had taken a beautiful brown tint with age, and that it used to be a vast pleasure in my childhood to steal into the silent place, and to sit alone, or with small, whispering friends, in one of the high, square pews.”