Born in 1880 in the village of Standon, Quebec, Canada, Placide Hermenegilde Gagnon was the fifth in a family of thirteen children. His father Ulric was a farmer and day laborer working in small farm villages bordering the Etchemin River, about 30 miles southeast of Quebec City. After wheat crops were blighted by disease in the 1830s, many farmers in Quebec were forced to change their livelihood from field work to factory work. Placide emigrated to New Hampshire in 1896 when he was 16 years old, despite the commonly held concern of French Canadians that leaving their native land would undermine the close bonds of language, religion and culture that sustained their communities back home.
Arthur Swasey grew up on a farm a few miles from the center of town, near Junction Road. His father, Charles, grew oats, barley, corn, potatoes and apples on the 100-acre farm. When he died in 1910, Charles left the farm to his youngest son, Arthur. Two years later Arthur moved his family to a house on Main Street, so his daughters Alice (age 17) and Marion (age 12) could attend school in town.
The Davis family’s tinware business dates back to about 1824, when Richard Davis and his partner, Abraham Gilpatrick, came to South Berwick from Wells to start a tin shop. Their shop was located at the foot of Main Street near the bridge. They made a wide range of tinware, such as pails, funnels, plates, scoops, lamps, and cans. In addition, they sold iron stoves and hinges and installed tin roofs.
Charles Whitehead immigrated to America from England as a young man and established a custom clothing business on Main Street in South Berwick in 1848. His shop was one of the ones destroyed in the fire of 1870.
The South Berwick Free Baptist Church, located near the center of town on Main Street, is part of the interesting story of Maine Baptists, the religious revival that swept New England in the 1800s, and the temperance movement that followed.
A brief inscription on a marble tablet in the quiet cemetery is the only reminder of the dramatic career of Elijah Ricker, a sea captain from Maine whose life tells the story of South Berwick during its heyday as a maritime community:
“Captain Elijah Ricker died at sea on a passage from New Orleans to Liverpool, July 10, 1826, aged 40 years.”
Benjamin Franklin Davis (1862-1933), sometimes known as Ben Frank, ran a drugstore on Central Square in downtown South Berwick. Given the same name as an uncle born in 1829 and killed in the Civil War, Ben Davis was filling prescriptions as early as 1882. in her essay “Pages from the Past,” about the early 1900s when the Davis store was still in existence, historian Jennie Ricker wrote, “The Davis Drug Store was established April 27, 1889, by Ben F. Davis, first in the store now occupied by Flynn’s Market and later in its present location.”
The Flynn family grocery business was a fixture on Main Street in South Berwick for almost a century. Daniel D. Flynn had emigrated from Ireland some time before 1860 to work in the woolen mills at Great Works. He married Catherine Driscoll, and they raised four children, the youngest of whom was Daniel F. Flynn. In 1893 when the younger Daniel was 25, he married Mary Leonard, a weaver in the mills. He was already working as a butcher then. By 1900 he was doing business as a fishmonger. But with the birth of his daughter in 1902, he had five young children to support, and opportunity knocked.
Hannah Driscoll was an Irish girl who began work in the Jewett House when she was 14 or younger. She came to Maine to live with her Aunt Nancy and Uncle James Collins, a day laborer, who lived on Portland Street not far from the Jewetts. Hannah’s sister Ellen emigrated in 1855 at the age of four; if the sisters came together, then Hannah was nine when she arrived in South Berwick to start a new life.
As a young doctor, Theodore Herman Jewett (1815-1878) built a medical practice in his home town of South Berwick. When he was a boy of 7 or 8 his family had moved from Portsmouth, where he was born, to the upriver town where his father, a sea captain and shipbuilder, established a shipyard and operated a dry-goods store. Theodore loved reading and became a scholar, rather than a merchant or seaman like his father and brothers. He attended Berwick Academy and at age 15 entered Bowdoin College, where he decided to pursue medicine. He studied with doctors in Exeter and Boston and graduated from the newly organized Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1840.
Born in 1794, John Frost was the eldest son of mariner George Frost and his wife Sarah Bartlett Frost. George was lost at sea in January 1815, at age 40, leaving Sarah a widow with at least three children ranging in age from 3 to 18. Sarah bought a seven-acre parcel of land with a house along the main thoroughfare in the newly incorporated town of South Berwick and went into business as owner and manager of the Frost Tavern. She managed the inn successfully for over 30 years.
Stephen Nason was born in South Berwick in 1838 and grew up on a farm on Emery’s Bridge Road. His family had deep roots in South Berwick soil, reaching back five generations to the early 1700s. As a young man, he was a farmer like his father, Daniel. But Stephen was the third son of the family, unlikely to inherit land, and in his twenties he chose to pursue another trade, that of blacksmithing.
In 1825, at age 26, John Goodwin Thompson founded one of South Berwick’s longest-running businesses, a book and stationery store in the center of town. The business seems to have operated continuously there until he died in 1872, when his son William took over and ran it until a few years before his death in 1914.
The flat land below Powderhouse Hill in South Berwick was known as “the Plain” until at least 1829, when it is mentioned on records connected with the town’s militia. Soldiers needed to practice marching and handling of arms, so local militia training exercises were held on farm fields every year at the end of the harvest. These exercises were called musters. On Muster Day every year, whole families would come to watch and socialize while townsmen would march and drill. Muster Day gingerbread became a staple of these occasions and was prepared in New England kitchens across many generations.
Jerusha Jenkins was the oldest daughter of Edward Park and Jerusha Seaver Park. By the 1800 census, the Parkses had come to South Berwick from Dorchester, Massachusetts, with eight out of their 14 children. They were energetic entrepreneurs, and in the early 1800s owned several pieces of property in downtown South Berwick, chiefly the Parks Store on Main Street, which was operated by Thomas Parks, Samuel Parks, and their brother-in-law, Job Harris.
Jedediah Jenkins was a saddler—a maker of saddles and harness. But the prominent mention of his orchards in a handbill from 1856 suggests he may have made and sold cider as well. The range of apples grown on the Jenkins farm would have included many varieties not commonly grown today in New England, such as Yellow Transparents, Northern Spys, or Baldwins.
Nathanael Low was a physician and astronomer born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, who moved to South Berwick (then part of Berwick) in 1786. He published Low’s Almanac from 1762 until his death in 1808. His almanac was one of the publications that citizens of the early United States depended on for tavern and stagecoach schedules. Low's Almanac also provided astrological information, verse, lore, homilies, recipes, and jokes. During Low’s years in this house, when Portland Street was part of the Boston to Portland turnpike, stagecoaches driving right past his door followed schedules published in his almanacs.
“Joseph Murphey … was a cabinet maker of much skill, to which many pieces of old furniture to be found in our houses can attest,” wrote Mary Rice Jewett, sister of author Sarah Orne Jewett, in a memoir about downtown South Berwick. In the early 1800s Murphy had a shop at the crossroads, on the site of what is now the Odd Fellows Block, and Mary believed he was the builder of that landmark brick building. An account book of Murphy's now owned by the Portsmouth Athenaeum shows evidence that he traded with leading citizens of the town, and may have built the Jewett Store in Central Square about 1816. He also made a desk for the Jewetts that is now on display at the Jewett House.
Shoemaking was an important trade in South Berwick in the 1800s. Francis Raynes was typical of local shoemakers in the before 1850, supplying custom shoes to order from his shop at the crossroads. His trade prospered when new markets for ready-made shoes emerged in Boston, southern states, and the West Indies. By 1850 there were three tanners and twenty-five shoemakers in South Berwick. Raynes became an entrepreneur, employing six men and two women making goods valued at $3,600 a year—more than the local sawmill.
Today we take transportation for granted. Cars carry us almost anywhere. But in the 1800s, people depended on the horse and carriage for home transportation. And if you needed help repairing your wagon, or wanted to rent one, you came to see someone like Simeon Huntress, the liveryman.
George Campbell Yeaton lived in South Berwick all his life. He was born in 1836, when cotton and woolen mills were swelling the town’s population. His father, Isaac P. Yeaton, owned a gristmill for grinding corn and a sawmill for cutting lumber at Leigh’s Mill Pond on the Great Works River, starting in the 1830s.
Civil War veteran Captain Isaac Fall (1830-1909) was a member of Company B, 27th Maine Regiment, stationed in Virginia to defend the capitol during the war. His company, made up mostly of local men from South Berwick, hauled lumber to build barracks and moved camps several times under his command. When he returned from the war, he became a truckman, hauling sand and brick from the brickyards in Eliot and carting other building supplies.