John Plumer (1800-1873), baker and Methodist deacon
c. 1800 - John Henry Plumer House - 62 Main Street and c. 1830 - Deacon John Plumer Bakery - 54 Main Street
One of the dominant families at the Landing in the 1800s was that of John Plumer, a baker who lived from 1800 to 1873, and his son, John Henry Plumer [Plummer], who owned a livery stable.
Founded in the decade before the Portsmouth Company cotton mill was built on the Salmon Falls River, Plumer’s bakery business at 54 Main capitalized on a location at the nexus of the river and the “turnpike” that then carried horse-drawn traffic through town on Main Street. Later, the bakeshop thrived because of its proximity to boarding houses, taverns, and several hundred mill employees at the Portsmouth Company, incorporated in 1831. John Plumer was a young man of 29 with a wife and infant son when he bought his shop at 54 Main in 1828. Sixteen years later, at age 45, he was described as a “gentleman,” indicating a man of property.
The properties at 54 and 62 Main had been part of a nine-acre estate of Gen. John Lord, a wealthy merchant (1765-1815). For six generations the Lord family staked their fortunes in maritime trade from this tidewater village. John Lord owned mill rights at the Quamphegan waterfall. He also built ships at Pipe Stave Landing, and was a partner of Jonathan Hamilton, shipbuilder and West Indies merchant who built the Hamilton House about 1785. The house at 62 Main may have been built in the late 18th century and may not have been Lord’s principal residence. According to a deed of 1833, the nine acres included “an old mansion house, large barn, store, and dwelling house, mechanic shops and other buildings” on both sides of “the road leading over the Landing,” now Park Street, which was part of the sale. In 1828 and 1833, Lord’s son and heir, the lawyer John P. Lord, sold his inherited land along Main Street, including 54 and 62 Main. It was a substantial property for the neighborhood and sold for $3,200, a large sum, indicating the extent of the holdings. With this transaction, Lord divested not only the house and stables on the corner of Park Street, but also his father’s homestead and store, located near the corner of Factory (now Liberty) and Pleasant streets.
The number of business owners based at the Landing then expanded to include a broad range of services, from doctor and merchant to blacksmith, hatter and baker.
The house at 62 Main was bought by a local hatter, Christopher How, and likely used as both his dwelling and shop for nearly fifty years. Late in life How remarried and moved to Saco, and the house was rented in the 1840s.
In 1828 the shop at 54 Main Street was purchased by baker John Plumer, adjacent to “the house now occupied by said Plumer.”
Hash House (left) and Portsmouth Company at the bridge
The Plumer bakery was remarkably successful. Four years after he bought the bakeshop, the Portsmouth Company cotton textile factory was operating a block away, employing several hundred workers daily. The largest boarding house in the neighborhood—the three-story company boarding house, which later earned the nickname the “Hash House”—was one block south at the foot of Main Street, and would have required dozens of loaves of bread a day.
Local historian Annie Baer wrote of Plumer’s business success in a 1914 memoir about the Landing neighborhood: “He was a most excellent baker; almost innumerable pots of beans and loaves of brown bread were taken out of the side door in the basement of his house, next north of the tavern, Sunday mornings. Good bread, jumbles, turnovers, and doughnuts grew under his hand.” Plumer represented the next wave of Main Street landowners—tradesmen and entrepreneurs who staked their claim in the factory neighborhood.
As his business grew, Plumer bought other lots in the neighborhood. In 1850 he purchased the house next door at 62 Main, likely for his younger son John Henry Plumer, who turned 21 and was married later that year. (His older son Alexander, a divinity student at Princeton Theological Seminary at the time—presumably another major investment of bakery profits—became a Congregational missionary in northern Maine).
Five years later Plumer bought a half-acre lot and William Cromwell’s store across Main Street, where his son John built a stable and ran a livery service. Plumer continued to acquire land through the early 1860s, buying lots on nearby Tremont (Middle) Street and elsewhere in town on the Great Works Road (now Brattle Street) and the Old Salmon Falls Road (now lower Main Street). He operated the bakery until at least 1870, a few years before his death at the age of 74. His “innumerable pots of beans and loaves of brown bread” bankrolled a sizeable legacy in real estate, as well as less tangible assets.
Plumer was deacon of the First Parish (Congregational, now Federated) Church. Reverend John Lord, the historian, said of Deacon Plumer: “He was a pillar of the church – frugal, but generous in large matters; a liberal contributor to [Berwick] Academy, and to all public charities, a man of foresight, who would have made a capital abbot of a medieval monastery – for his piety -- his asceticism, his abilities, and love of power.”
In the aftermath of the Civil War and economic decline, property ownership and tenure at the Landing changed. 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, 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.
In 1883 John Henry Plumer, the baker’s son, who owned the livery stable on the west side of Main Street, opposite the Plumer bakeshop, and at least six other properties at the Landing, also bought 88-90 Main Street. John had lived three doors south at 68-70 Main for nearly twenty years, so until his death in 1894, he rented out 88-90 Main, when it passed to his widow, Nancy (Butler) Plumer, who also rented it out.
62 Main Street in the 20th century
Owned by two families in its first century, the house at 62 Main Street was owned by eight families in the next.
In the second half of the 19th century, women, many of them widows, acquired double houses on Main Street through inheritance or purchase. When the women sold their property, the buyers were primarily men, and after 1900, those buyers typically came from out of town and held jobs outside the neighborhood. As the 20th century unfolded, three trends—population mobility, loss of family ties, and declining employment—combined to make the Landing a more vulnerable and marginalized neighborhood. The single-family house at 62 Main Street illustrates the precipitous change wrought in a neighborhood uprooted from local employment.
Baker John Plumer bought hatter Christopher How’s house in 1850, perhaps as a home for his son John Henry, who at 21 was working in the family bakery next door and was married later that year. John Henry occupied the house at 62 Main for about 15 years, working as a stable keeper and farmer. But he and his wife Nancy had no children to take over the property. When the elder John Plumer died without a will in 1873, the house was purchased from the estate by his daughter Ellen (Plumer) Wentworth, who had lived in the neighborhood all her life. She was one of five siblings and the only daughter to stay in South Berwick—the others moved to Florida. The oldest son, Alexander, became a missionary in northern Maine. So Ellen and her stepbrother, who at that time lived next door at 68-70 Main, were the last of the Plumer family at the Landing. She and her husband Charles K. Wentworth, a farmer and house carpenter, raised two sons here and occupied the house for over 40 years, from shortly after their marriage in 1864 until he died in 1906. Their long tenure was a vestige of family continuity and social stability within a shifting population, summed up in the lives of the Plumer siblings, who relocated far from the family seat.
When the house at 62 Main was sold out of the Plumer family in 1906, it entered a period of rapid turnover among tradesmen, many of them from immigrant families. David Sarsfield, born in Rollinsford to Irish parents who emigrated in the 1850s, was working at the Great Falls cotton mill in Somersworth by age twenty-one. He became a mule spinner at the Amoskeag mills in Manchester, operating the enormous machines called mules that spun cotton fibers into yarn for weaving cloth. But he returned to Rollinsford by 1895, and little more than decade later was working as an electrician from his home on Main Street in South Berwick. David was successful in making the transition from a fading industry to an upstart—from spinning yarn to wiring houses. In the early years of the electric industry, the demand for lights, fans, telephones and elevators was compounded by the invention of a burgeoning array of new electrical devices, such as irons, vacuums, refrigerators, washing machines, and doorbells. He continued in the business for thirty years, but he moved continually, selling his Main Street house after only two years and relocating in 1911 to Haverhill, Massachusetts—a city better able to support a trade in the vanguard of industry. Ironically, had he remained in the neighborhood another few years, David might have found ready employment at the Berwick and Salmon Falls Electric Company power station, built in 1917, a short walk down the street at the bridge, where the cotton factory had stood.
Later owners of the house at 62 Main included both immigrants and natives to Maine. George Chagnon was a French Canadian immigrant who arrived in South Berwick in 1885 to work as an iron molder in the local foundry. At the time he bought the house in 1908, the Somersworth Foundry Company, located across the river in present-day Rollinsford, employed a hundred men in making cooking, office and parlor stoves and other castings. The foundry provided employment for Landing residents well into the twentieth century, and in that sense, it was a stabilizing influence on the neighborhood. But many foundry employees were first-generation immigrants who had difficulty assimilating in the neighborhood. George found dependable work at the foundry and lived at the Landing until his death in the 1920s, but his wife, Pulcherie, never learned to speak English. His son Lorenzo, also a Quebec native and an iron molder, sold the house to a local grocer, Norris Maddox, in 1924.
Maddox was a Maine native from Newfield, about 30 miles north of town, the youngest of five siblings. In 1870, at age 16, he left the family farm to work in the Shapleigh woolen mill, as his older brother Joseph had done. But in the early 1880s both brothers left factory work to take up the grocery trade in South Berwick. Their aging uncle, Isaac L. Moore, ran a store at the corner of Liberty and Pleasant streets that supplied provisions to the Landing boarding houses. The Maddox brothers eventually operated that grocery and two others in town, including the former Nealley store at the corner of Main and Garland streets, a few doors south of 62 Main. When he bought the house in 1924, Norris was still a grocer, but he was 70 years old and long a widower with no children. In less than four years he sold the property. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the house had changed hands five times.
The next buyer was John H. England, a telephone crew foreman. John’s parents had emigrated from England to South Berwick in the early 1870s to work in local woolen mills. By 1900, at age 19, John was a dyer at the Newichawannock Woolen Mill near his home on Brattle Street. But his livelihood changed course when the Portsmouth, Dover and York Street Railway—an electric trolley service connecting South Berwick to the shore—commenced operations in the summer of 1903. When John married the following year, he was working on the electric railway, and he later made his living as a trolley electrician. Like David Sarsfield before him, John made the transition from mill operative to electrician. He became a telephone crew foreman for New England Telephone and Telegraph Company in Dover, where he was working in 1927 when he bought the house at 62 Main. For the next 30 years, John and his family lived at the Landing, supported by an industry that would transform rural life, as the textile mills had done a century before.
(Posted 2016 – Excerpted from a 2015 Historic District Commission Report by Nina Maurer. Sources: Old Berwick Historical Society archives; York County Registry of Deeds; Annie Wentworth Baer, “The Landing Mill and Its Time,” (Dover, New Hampshire, 1914), original manuscript Woodman Museum; Alonzo J. Fogg, The Statistics & Gazetteer of New Hampshire, 1874.)