Timothy Ferguson (1788-1839), merchant and investor
Ferguson was a prominent merchant and investor of South Berwick and a founder of the Portsmouth Company textile mill in 1831. He came to South Berwick from Eliot, where he was a fifth-generation descendant of a 17th century Scottish prisoner of the English, Daniel Ferguson. When Timothy was 28, he was operating a store in town, and two years later he bought a lot to build a new store of his own.
To say that Ferguson was an enterprising lad would be an understatement. Beginning in 1816 he bought land along Portland Street and more lots at the Landing with wharves, a cooper shop, and a store, as well as a sawmill on the nearby Great Works River. He married Eliza Goodwin, the local blacksmith’s daughter.
In 1822 he sold his house on Portland Street to merchant Benjamin Nason and bought the Nason homestead at 80 Main Street, which included a dwelling house, store, and outbuildings. The 1822 deed refers to Ferguson as “esquire” rather than “trader,” or storekeeper, an indication of his rising status.
Ferguson became a partner of Capt. Theodore F. Jewett. In 1825, one of their ventures was building the 386-ton Olive & Eliza, a ship with a recorded length of 111.7 feet, at Pipe Stave Landing. William Hanscom (1783-1859) was the builder. Capt. Jewett, 38 years old with small children at home, including author Sarah Orne Jewett’s father, was master on the Olive & Eliza’s first voyage. He sailed to Liverpool and followed the triangle trade route around the Atlantic. For the next two decades, the Olive & Eliza sailed the globe with other captains and had many adventures, including a lightning strike that set a load of cotton on fire.
Records of the Great Works mill area show Theodore Jewett, Benjamin Nason and Timothy Ferguson purchasing a partial mill privilege for $75 in 1827. Ferguson still held it at his death eight years later.
In 1831 Jewett and Ferguson were among four partners who founded the Portsmouth Company cotton mill at Quamphegan Landing, just down the hill from Ferguson's home.
In 1837, Ferguson partnered with entrepreneurs Isaac P. Yeaton (1805-1886) to build a woolen mill at Leigh's Mill Pond. It operated until burning down in 1844.
A map of South Berwick Village from the mid-1830s shows two buildings Ferguson owned in the center of the business district.
But in 1839, at age 51, Ferguson died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving debts amounting to $18,000—a huge sum at the time.
His grave stone inscription at Portland Street Cemetery reads, “Died suddenly an active and enterprising merchant, one of the first movers of the various manufacturing establishments of the place and a liberal supporter of religion and education. His death to us the cause of so much sorrow has we trust removed him to a more exulted sphere of action beyond the grave.”
Author Sarah Orne Jewett remembered Ferguson in an 1894 town history as having been among "an interesting group of men in the town, the stamp of whose thought and ambition may still be felt as a good inheritance from the early planters of Berwick, I believe, all through her history.
"The houses built by these men are, for the most part, still standing, and many of their own traits and actions are still remembered. The importance of the village, and its connection with the world outside, can be measured by the manner of its housekeeping, " Jewett continued, adding that no one entered homes including "the Timothy Ferguson house, without seeing at once that people of refinement and cultivation had planned them and lived in them with elegance and hospitality. The best life in such a town as this was no more provincial in early days than it was in Salem or Boston, and the intercourse and sympathy between people of the same class in New England was more marked than at any other period."
A chair in the Counting House Museum collection once stood in the Ferguson Mansion. It had belonged to Eliza Goodwin Ferguson, who married Timothy in 1811, and was likely built by a local 18th century craftsperson and was perhaps a wedding gift from her parents, Jordan and Sarah Goodwin. She would have been the "Eliza" in the name of the ship her husband and Theodore Jewett named for their wives in 1825.
The Nason-Ferguson House (Ferguson Mansion) was torn down in the mid 20th century.
(Edited by Wendy Pirsig, 2020, from archives at the Counting House Museum. This article includes excerpts from a 2015 South Berwick Historic District Commission Report by Nina Maurer. Last photo courtesy Peter J. Michaud.)