Bartholomew Nason (1756-1822), merchant; Benjamin Nason (1788-1875), businessman; Elizabeth Plumer Bailey (d. 1897)

Double House

c. 1845 Nason-Plumer Double House - 94-96 Main Street

Built as a rental for employees of the Portsmouth Company cotton mill on the river in South Berwick, Maine, this house was owned for many years by members of the Nason and Plumer families.  Benjamin Nason (1788-1875) was one of South Berwick's leading businessmen, and the Plumers were descendants of the baker, John Plumer (1800-1873).

Before 1800, property ownership here in this neighborhood of Berwick (as South Berwick was known until 1814) was dominated by a few families of long tenure—Lord, Nason, and Abbott—who had emigrated from England and lived for generations, occupying large tracts of land at the head of tide.  At Quamphegan Landing the river – leading to Portsmouth and the Atlantic -- and the road – the “turnpike” connecting Boston and Portland – formed an important crossroads that generated mercantile activity in lumber and trade goods.

On the large lot now 80 Main Street stood the three-story mansion, store and outbuildings of merchant Bartholomew Nason (1756-1822),  whose family had lived here for five generations. Nason married in Boston and was a shopkeeper there on Cross Street before he returned to South Berwick sometime after 1798.  

Benjamin Nason
Benjamin Nason

In 1822, just three months after Bartholomew Nason died, his heirs sold the 80 Main Street property.  Nason’s son Benjamin lived on Portland Street and owned a store at the corner of Main and Portland. But in 1831 the Portsmouth Company cotton mill was incorporated, eventually bringing on some 200 employees, many of whom needed housing. Here, in the period of 1835 to 1845, Benjamin Nason built two “double houses” to rent to employees on property he still owned next to that of his late father’s mansion.

The two houses, at 94-96 and 88-90 Main, shared rights to a common well.  The deed for 94 Main from 1846 refers to “tenements on the adjoining land belonging to Benjamin Nason.”  

The house at 94-96 Main has a complex history of ownership. In 1846, when Benjamin Nason was 58, he sold the property but divided it into two parcels, separating ownership of the two halves of the house.  Presumably that was an astute business decision; each parcel sold for $800.  The buyers were both employees at the Portsmouth Company:  Albert J. Mason, who worked in the dress room of the mill, bought 94 Main; and Cyrus Ferguson, employed in the weave room, bought 96 Main.   The next generation of owners followed suit: John E. Bailey at 94 Main was a bookbinder who also worked in the cloth room of the mill; and Joseph A. Hanson at 96 Main, a brother-in-law to Cyrus Ferguson, worked in the cotton mill.  That property division remained in place for over a century, until 1958, when the owner of the north half of the house (96 Main) bought the south half (94 Main) from his neighbor’s estate.  The double house was still under single ownership in 2015.

Growth in the Landing neighborhood during the early years of the Portsmouth Company Cotton factory on the river (present-day Liberty Street at the Counting House) was transformative.  In the decade the mill was built, between 1830 and 1840, the town’s population increased by an astonishing 47 percent,  and the population density of the mill neighborhood rose rapidly to accommodate the workforce of about 200 at the mill.  Two-family houses were added or adapted from earlier stock along Main Street and elsewhere in the neighborhood. By1860 the cotton mill had been operating for nearly 30 years and was the largest employer the town had known.  

But the Civil War was a long and bitter contest, and its impact on local families mounted through the war years.  During the decade from 1860 to 1870, the town’s population declined for the first time on record.      

The mill ran for the last time in late December 1894 to mid-January 1895. 

In the aftermath of war and economic decline, property ownership and tenure at the Landing changed as well.  In 1860, much of the property along Main Street from the bridge to School Street (now Sewall Road) was consolidated in the hands of three families, the Nealleys, Nasons, and Plumers.  The men who headed these families—lawyer John B. Nealley, merchant Benjamin Nason, and baker John Plumer—all began as storekeepers or skilled tradesman living in the neighborhood.  When their generation died in the 1870s and 1880s, ownership passed to family members who were women, often widows, and to laborers no longer associated with the cotton mill.  The assurance of steady employment at the mill eroded, and with it the social fabric of the neighborhood.

The double house at 94-96 Main Street exemplifies this shifting pattern of house ownership.  Elizabeth Plumer Bailey, niece of the baker John Plumer at 54 Main, bought the southern half of the house (94 Main) in 1859, the year that her father Avery Plumer, a Portsmouth baker, died.   Elizabeth was 35 and living in Portsmouth with her husband of ten years, bookbinder John Bailey.  Perhaps an inheritance from her father allowed Elizabeth to purchase the half-house in South Berwick. John found work in the cloth hall of the Portsmouth Company, where finished cloth was inspected.  But he continued to work as a bookbinder and later as a house painter, rather than as an inspector at the cotton mill, where employment was unsteady.  Elizabeth owned the house for nearly 40 years until her death in 1897.  The following year, the property was sold to John O. Foss, a factory worker—but not a worker at the cotton mill, which had closed.   Foss was an edge setter making shoes in the David Cummings and Company shoe factory across town.

The north half of the house (96 Main) became the property of Susan Hayes Ferguson when her husband Cyrus, a weave room overseer at the mill, died in 1848.   She was a 30-year-old widow with an eight-year-old son, Alfred.  She took in boarders to make ends meet, but died only five years later, in 1853.  The house passed to her orphan son, who lived there with the family of his aunt, Clara Hayes Hanson.  When Alfred died while still a student in 1861, the house became the property of Clara and her husband Joseph A. Hanson, who worked in the cotton mill.  The Hansons continued to live in the duplex until the mid-1870s, when Clara sold the house.   They left the Landing community and its cotton mill for North Berwick, where Joseph found work managing a hardware store.  Subsequent owners were Justin Clement, postmaster, who sold the house in 1886 and moved to Boston; and Colman Tyler, a jeweler, who relocated to Ipswich by 1900.  All three families who occupied the house after the Civil War lived there for 15 years or less before departing for other towns and states.  The last of these, the Tyler-Burnham family, continued to rent this property to tenants for nearly 30 years after 1900, while living in coastal Massachusetts. 

(Posted 2016 – Excerpted from a 2015 Historic District Commission Report by Nina Maurer.  Sources: Old Berwick Historical Society archives; York County Registry of Deeds; York County Registry of Probate;   "South Berwick, Maine," Wikipedia, accessed December 7, 2015.)