In the earliest years of settlement, from the mid-1600s to about 1800 and before South Berwick was a separate town, people of the old town of Berwick had a different settlement pattern than we have today. Most clustered their homes on the rivers near the waterfalls that were sources of power for lumbering and gristmills—areas marked in purple on this topographical map at left.
The first church and Old Fields Burying Ground, near the intersection of Brattle and Vine Streets and Old South and Old Fields Roads today, marked the center of the community in those early days.
The part of town that is now downtown South Berwick stood back away from the water. Here a few scattered farms exploited the gentle terrain facing southwesterly from two natural hills rising above the east side of the Salmon Falls River. There were natural springs, and a little creek, and it was nice and flat – a plain. Documents show that residents referred to the area as “the Plain” till at least 1829:
Second Regiment first Brigade and first Division of Maine Militia -- South Berwick, September 24, 1829:
“Pursuant to a Brigade order of September 21st, A.D. 1829, Capt. Samuel F. Staples will parade the company under his command on the plain near The Revd. Mr. Boyd's Meeting house in South Berwick, on Wednesday the fourteenth day of October next, at Seven o'clock in the forenoon, armed and equipped as the law directs for military duty, review and inspection: and there await the orders of the Adjutant of Said Regiment. Capt. Staples will make written application as by law directed to the Select Men of the town wherein his Company belongs for the rations to which they are entitled. The Regiment will be ready for the reviewing officer at nine o'clock in the forenoon.
-- By order of the Colonel, Isaac P. Yeaton, Adjutant (From Old Eliot, Book Three, Vol. VIII, p. 195)
Before the construction of bridges at the mouth of the Piscataqua, the Boston to Portland highway rounded Great Bay and crossed the Salmon Falls River into Maine at the location of Quamphegan Landing, by the Counting House Museum today.
During the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the country began improving transportation routes, and the new federal government gave turnpike authorities the right to create the best possible route through private lands, explain Donna-Belle and James L. Garvin in their book On the Road North of Boston. The improvements brought by the turnpike meant that a stagecoach leaving Hanover Street in Boston in the morning could now reach South Berwick by dark instead of taking two days.
A ledger from the period in the Counting House Museum collection lists the local turnpike corporation’s employment of 8 oxen, two horses, 4 ox yokes, 4 horse collars, 2 saddles for draft horses, 3 ox carts, 2 horse carts, a truck, 3 drays, 2 plows, 3 “scrapers” drawn by animals to smooth road surfaces, 12 wheelbarrows, 2 saws, 29 shovels and spades, 20 hoes, 4 crowbars, 10 axes, an adze, 4 pickaxes, a block and tackle, chain, rope and blasting equipment.
Published almanacs show that among the places the stagecoaches stopped were the Haggens tavern (in the period 1795-1809), the Foss tavern north of town, and after 1816, the Frost Tavern at the corner of Main and Paul Streets.
The town had become the gateway to Maine, as described in The South Berwick Register, 1904, which said, "At the close of the war of 1812, the messenger bearing the news peace, galloped through this town on his way to bear the good tidings through the Province of Maine."
The turnpike gave today’s Main and Portland Streets the shape we recognize, as the town drifted north from the old settlement to a new hub on the plain. A map of 1805 shows how surveyors laid out the road to Portland through what is now downtown South Berwick, widening and straightening it to ease the route of oxen hauling heavy loads. Nine buildings that were in the way—likely some that still stand today – were moved from the highway’s path to nearby locations.
Even though the road was straighter, it still had to wrap around Butler Hill. The Portland Street-Main Street intersection was to be known as “the Corner.”
With the coming of the 19th century, the town of South Berwick took shape. In 1814 it became separate from Berwick and North Berwick, and statehood came to Maine in 1820. As cotton mills boomed at Salmon Falls and Quamphegan after 1830, the commercial and residential district developed—South Berwick Village. The wide intersection at the Corner appears on a map of c. 1860 as Central Square.
Local resident Mary Rice Jewett described the development of South Berwick Village in the early 1800s: “Then what we know as the village was only beginning to be, but gradually as the zeal for business increased, the enterprising men moved their stores back from the river to catch the incoming tide of teams as soon as possible, some of the most energetic men even driving back towards North Berwick and Blackberry Hill, I have heard it said, to be first to greet the teamsters who came from Alfred, Lebanon, and even far beyond. Strangers often ask the reason for the long row of stone posts along Portland Street, but I have been told that at nearly every post one would find oxen standing in a busy morning in winter while the bargaining went on for the loads they brought.”
Residents of the late 1800s experienced further changes, with the arrival of the railroad and the continued rise of the mills including the Cummings shoe factory in the village center. Then a tremendous fire in July 1870 dramatically altered the village architecture. A new business block was followed at the end of the century by electrification and a trolley line running right through Central Square.
Mary's sister, author Sarah Orne Jewett, wrote in “Looking Back on Girlhood,” 1897, “From that time the simple village life was at an end. Its provincial character was fading out; shipping was at a disadvantage, and there were no more bronzed sea-captains coming to dine and talk about their voyages, no more bags of filberts or oranges for the children, or great red jars of olives.”
In her books and stories, Jewett spoke to all Americans who worried about the loss of their old way of life. “Tradition and time-honored custom were to be swept away together by the irresistible current,” Jewett wrote in 1893. “Character and architecture seemed to lose individuality and distinction. The new riches of the country were seldom very well spent in those days; … the well-filled purses that were scattered in our country's first great triumphal impulse of prosperity often came into the hands of people who hastened to spoil instead of to mend the best things that their village held. It will remain for later generations to make amends…”
But much of South Berwick Village prevailed. Today, a remarkable number of sights Jewett knew remain. With homes and businesses from the 18th, 19th and early 20th century still lining these historic village streets, residents and visitors can learn and enjoy the heritage of our place.
(This summary by Wendy Pirsig from archives at the Counting House Museum. Revised November 2020.)