Abner Oakes (1820-1899), justice of the peace
early 1800s– Judge Oakes Office - 19 Norton Street
Until the early 1880s when it was removed for a bank, this little South Berwick house stood on Main Street on a site that later became a bank, and then the office the P. Gagnon oil company. In a memoir, local resident Mary Jewett (1847-1930) said she was told that the house had originally belonged to the merchant and mill owner Thomas Leigh, who died in 1831 and had an office next door. The building may appear on a map of c. 1835, between the Leigh office and the Parks Store on Main Street, almost in front of the John Tompson House. By 1870 it was the law office of South Berwick Justice of the Peace Abner Oakes (1820-1899).
Abner Oakes' residence was on Academy Street. Oakes House, later part of the Berwick Academy National Register Historic District, was built about 1859. That house was the birthplace of Judge Oakes’ daughter, artist Marcia Oakes Woodbury (1865-1913), who with her husband Charles H. Woodbury illustrated the 1893 edition of Deephaven by Sarah Orne Jewett. Their drawings for the novel depicted scenes and people from South Berwick, southern Maine and seacoast New Hampshire.
Abner Oakes was born in Sangerville, Maine, on April 13, 1820, the grandson of a Baptist minister, according to published biographies including Biographical Sketches of Leading Citizens of York County. His father, William Oakes, Jr., was a poor farmer who raised six boys and a girl. Abner was the eldest. Unlike most Maine parents struggling in the early 19th century, William Oakes managed to propel at least three of his sons to college-- two from Colby (then Waterville College), another from Dartmouth. All three graduates -- became attorneys. A passionate political observer and Democrat, an admirer of Jacksonian James K. Polk, President from 1845 to 49, William Oakes served as Sangerville selectman and Piscataquis County sheriff,, according to a publish biography in the Old Berwick Historical Society archives. His letters show he encouraged his sons to take part in civic affairs.
A graduate of Waterville in 1847, Abner Oakes preserved throughout his life a collection of personal documents from the 1840s, now in the collection of the Old Berwick Historical Society. These papers cover the years before he arrived in South Berwick and during which he moved from high school at Foxcroft Academy, through Waterville College, and finally to a clerkship at the Secretary of State’s office in Augusta.
In the early 1840s, at the age of 21, Oakes wrote an essay entitled, “Governing the passions,” in which he articulated his generation’s message to impetuous youth.
“If we give free rein to our desires,” wrote the young judge to be, “they will, like the dreadful whirlwind, overturn everything in their way, spreading destruction on all sides, and leaving the mind a scene of moral desolation, without the power or even the desire of social, intellectual, or moral enjoyment. Our influence in the world is, to a great extent, lost by not controlling our passions... It is by a compleat and powerful discipline of the mind, by concentrating all its energies upon whatever object they desire, that the great master spirits of every age have been enabled to exercise that mighty influence over the minds of others. By knowing how to rule themselves, they can sit upon the whirlwind.”
Toward the end of the year 1849, Abner and his brother, both in their 20s, briefly contemplated going to California during the gold rush. While employed in Augusta, Abner received a letter from his younger brother, Albion, who had just graduated from Waterville College, and had earned tuition by teaching school in the seaport of Waldoboro, Maine.
“... Your object and mine in studying and practicing law is to make money -- to get rich -- to demand an influence -- and to live easy. But if we are lucky beyond the mass, it will require years of hard study, deprivation, hard labor, troubled conscience and aching heads before we can expect even to possess a competency. In my opinion it is no easy job for poor boys in the present age of the world to rise rapidly in fortune or influence. If we practice law our life will be one of continued strife and litigation... If in five years from now we should have obtained our profession and become sufficiently established to pay our expenses, we shall do well -- a pleasing prospect. But should we pack up and go where money is to be had we shall stand as good a chance of becoming rich as we should of becoming successful if we staid at home and practiced law. Thus money is to be made in Calafornia -- that many are becoming more than wealthy is beyond a doubt. ... Anyhow there will be more than three hundred vessels sail from New England next month, and they will carry a mighty host of men, but it will be some five or six months before they get there. Now what I propose is thus we get ready to start between this and the last of Dec. and go by the way of the isthmus which will take us from thirty to forty days ... But we shall want money ... and the way I propose to obtain is to let some one send us and go shares in the profit or else let me get my life insured for about $1000 and then hire about five hundred giving our names (?) and the insurance policy for security, and as soon as get there and earn the dust [?] sent it home and pay up.
“I don't know of any one that would stand a better chance in making money there [?] than we should, for we are both young bloods strong and rugged ... we should go with the determination to … work hard, watch the chances and be ready to take the advantage of any thing. We can teach school, tend store, survey lumber or land, or if need be preach or go into the mines. In a word we are both Yankees.”
Instead of going west, however, Abner Oakes completed his legal studies, a course of eight months in Ballston Spa, New York, and came to South Berwick, probably first studying with Thomas M. Hayes of Saco, and passing the bar exam in 1851, according to his personal papers and "Biographical Sketches of Leading Citizens of York County, Maine".
Then 32, Oakes seems to have served as legal apprentice for the defense in the Benjamin Stillings arson trial, during the temperance controversy and arson incidents of 1848-1851. There is no evidence of Oakes having taken sides in the temperance debate, and his role on the arson defense team is unclear, but his job included detailed, extensive verbatim transcripts of the court proceedings that have survived, all in Oakes’ handwriting. Other records include lists of witnesses and an accounting of their travel to court in Alfred. These documents, stored in the Counting House, provide the best accounts we have today of this major event in local history.
With the close of the arson trials in 1852, Oakes briefly became county superintendent of schools, then opened a law practice in South Berwick. For a time he worked from an office on the second floor of the Parks Store on Main Street, according to memoirs of Mary Jewett, who states that the Oakes office followed those of attorneys William Allen Hayes and Charles N. Cogswell, who died in the early 1850s.
Papers on an assault and battery case before Judge Oakes in 1856
Oakes seemed to have sometimes worked with John Noble Goodwin, who in 1854 was elected to the Maine State Senate and in 1860 to Congress. In 1863 Lincoln appointed Goodwin territorial governor of Arizona. Almost 140 Goodwin court papers dated from 1841 to 1863 remain among the Abner Oakes collection today.
One reason Oakes chose southern Maine to practice law may have been his personal life. About six months after the conclusion of the arson trial he was engaged to Susan Marcia Bennett, 22, a young teacher from Parsonsfield, Maine. The following note, apparently written to his fiancée as he popped in and out of the county courthouse during the workday, is from one of the few surviving personal Oakes letters.
“Alfred, October 14, 1852
“I have not got home yet, nor a letter from you; but I shall go to South Berwick this afternoon and expect to find a nice long letter waiting for me then. I could not get away from Alfred yesterday after the adjournment of the Court; but I have been pretty well paid for staying, as I have made out and present to the Co. Comr’s seven petitions for damages on roads...”
Susan Marcia Bennett had grown up in a family much like Abner’s own. Dr. Gilman Bennett of Parsonsfield, a politically active Democrat like William Oakes, had been a state representative in the 1830s, and in 1852 was appointed York County treasurer, according to The History of York County. It seems likely that Bennett’s position assisted Oakes’ early career. Dozens of his letters and journals survive in the Counting House Museum collection.
Abner and Susan Marcia were married in Parsonsfield on October 16, 1853, according to the Oakes family Bible. They spent their honeymoon at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition. On their return she saw South Berwick for the first time. “It is a very pretty village about five times larger than I supposed,” she wrote her parents, “and more than all the rest, an excellent location for Abner apparently. We have been looking for a house...” This was still six years before they built their permanent home at 29 Academy Street; the address of their first home is unknown.
From the Saco Democrat Extra
Within a year, Oakes, now 34, was assigned as presiding judge in a sensational South Berwick murder case, the Smith-Brewster trial in which an itinerant salesman was accused of killing and robbing a laborer on Butler’s Hill near the village following a drinking spree. A newspaper account, the Saco Democrat Extra of November 7, 1854, recounted the courtroom scene:
“The Court for the preliminary trail of William B. Smith for the murder of Charles F. Brewster met according to appointment, at Central Hall, at 10 o’clock A. M. The court room was filled to overflowing with eager listeners. Many were doubtless drawn thither to get a sight of the man who could be thought guilty of so outrageous a crime against his fellow man and the public as that laid to the charge of Smith.
“The accused was brought to this place from the Jail at Alfred by Mr. Josiah Paul... and when not in court he is kept at Mr. Paul’s Tavern. He is a young man, perhaps thirty years of age, about medium size; but does not look like a man who would commit so cold blooded murder. It is evident from his looks that he feels much anxiety as the trial proceeds.
“The examination is held before Abner Oakes, Esq., and H. H. Hobbs, Esq., is the prisoner’s counsel, and John N. Goodwin, Esq. And Co. Att’y I. T. Drew conduct the prosecution on behalf of the state.”
Several days of emotional and graphic testimony by witnesses and the victim’s family followed. The South Berwick case was a preliminary trial, and from there it was sent on to Alfred and the Supreme Judicial Court. Smith was convicted of murder, and on January 25, 1855, he was sentenced to hang, according to the diary of eyewitness George L. Came, probate clerk. Maine State Prisoners 1824-1915 indicates the sentence was later changed to life imprisonment.
A note to Oakes written by Sarah Orne Jewett’s father, Dr. Theodore H. Jewett
Justice of the Peace Abner Oakes practiced law in South Berwick for almost half a century. Though none of the cases was as sensational as the 1851-52 arson trial or the 1854 murder trial, the Abner Oakes collection at the Counting House totals about 1500 papers involving local merchants, traders, dentists, cobblers, gundalow operators, mill representatives, teachers, housewives and laborers. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, a major portion of Oakes’s business seems to have been a slew of rather routine legal transactions for insurance companies. For local historians today, the collection gives a valuable view of the community’s social, economic and legal history of the nineteenth century -- roughly the same half century as Sarah Orne Jewett’s. Oakes’ papers reveal a disciplined and measured mind, a man of modesty, intelligence and balance.
When Oakes presided over the preliminary Smith trial, his wife Susan Marcia was six months pregnant, and just as the final trial got under way in Alfred, she gave birth to a son on February 1, 1855, Gilman B. Oakes (“Benny”). He lived only seven months. In 1856, however, son Frederick was born, and within a few years the Oakeses moved into their new home at 29 Academy Street, where son Charles was born in 1860.
Now in his 40s, Oakes escaped service during the Civil War. Younger brother Valentine Oakes, who had graduated from Dartmouth in 1853 and also become an attorney, was killed fighting in Virginia in 1862.
Three years earlier, brother Albion Oakes had died at age 33 in Waldoboro, where had taught school while earning his way through college. His energies benefiting local schools, including the establishment of a teacher's institute, earned him a reputation as a dynamic young man, and in 1853 he married the daughter of a prominent shipbuilder. He became a law partner of S. S. Marble, a leading citizen who later became governor. He died on June 21, 1859. His young daughter, Carrie Oakes, is believed to have married Abner Oakes’ son Frederick in Waldoboro in 1876. However, Frederick died the next year.
The end of the war brought three more Oakes children in South Berwick though. Marcia "Susie" Oakes, born in 1865, was named after her mother, Susan Marcia. Kathrine M. Oakes was born in 1867.
Harry A. Oakes, born 1868, died at age 5 in 1873. An odd footnote to this little boy’s life was that the next year, Abner’s younger brother, William Pitt Oakes, named his own newborn son Harry Oakes in Sangerville. He later discovered gold in Canada and in the early 20th century became the richest man in the world, knighted Sir Harry Oakes. He was murdered in the Bahamas in 1943.
By 1872, Abner Oakes seems to have moved his law office to this tiny building when it stood on Main Street, as shown in the map excerpts below and at right.
From the York County Atlas of 1872
This little building seems to have existed for decades, and may even have been a tavern that figured in the temperance controversy of the 1840s and 1850s. Mary Jewett’s c. 1890 memoir about the Fire of 1870 says, “There was formerly a small story and a half building which was moved away and converted into a house near the Cummings Shoe factory. This also belonged to the Leigh estate I have been told, and saw a variety of tenants good and bad in its history, which went from a drinking place in its earlier years through to its final use as Mr. Oakes' law office.”
In this photo, taken after the office was removed, the brick bank building that replaced it in the early 1880s appears at far right. The photographer was standing near the 20th century location of South Berwick Town Hall, looking across Main Street and slightly northward. The rest of these buildings were removed in the late 1960s to make way for an even newer bank, the building that later contained P. Gagnon & Son. At that time, Old Berwick Historical Society founder Craig Holmes discovered the Oakes law papers that today are preserved at the Counting House Museum.
After South Berwick’s great downtown fire of 1870, Oakes helped form the Newichawannock Hall Association to build a public hall upstairs in the new Central Square Business Block. He served as both town tax collector and town treasurer. He advanced to the Thirty-second Degree in the society of Masons. He was a member of the First Parish Congregational Church, while a biographical account noted that “in questions of religion he takes a broad view.”
Some of Oakes’s children entered Berwick Academy in the 1870s. Daughter Marcia “Susie” graduated in 1882 and became an art teacher before her marriage to painter Charles Woodbury. About 1885 Oakes became trustee and the academy’s treasurer. Academy financial records, bills, receipts, and correspondence with the board of trustees, include a receipt for $45,000 as part of the bequest of the Fogg estate and the building of Fogg Memorial Library in 1894.
In 1893 Oakes represented South Berwick for a term in the state legislature. His son, Charles Oakes, went to Dartmouth and became a physician practicing in New York, according to family records.
Abner Oakes died September 2, 1899. Susan Marcia Oakes lived until 1918, and the Oakes house on Academy Street remained a center of family life throughout the first half of the 20th century, until it was purchased by Berwick Academy. The last family member to live there was the judge’s granddaughter, Marcia Oakes Sanborn, whose father was Dr. Charles Oakes. She died in California in 2003 at age 92.
(This summary was written by Wendy Pirsig and revised in March 2021.)