Sarah Bartlett Frost (1776-1848) and Josiah Paul (1813-1892), innkeepers
1798 - Frost Tavern / Paul Hotel – 224 Main Street
This building is part of South Berwick Historic District as well as of the South Berwick Village District on the National Register of Historic Places. A tavern starting from 1817, it was built more than a decade earlier as a private home by Winthrop B. Norton. Sarah Bartlett Frost (1776-1848) opened the Frost Tavern here after her husband, George, was lost at sea in 1815. Her inn stood when President James Monroe traveled through South Berwick during his first term in office. General Lafayette was welcomed here in June 1825. After Mrs. Frost’s death, Josiah Paul was innkeeper until his death in 1892. Paul also served as deputy sheriff and coroner, and used the property to confine prisoners on occasion. In the early 1900s, the building was variously part of St. Rose’s School, St. Joseph’s Convent. the Academy of St. Joseph and Bible Speaks Church. In 2020 it became the Stage House Inn.
Early years as a home. The old Boston turnpike carrying travelers crossing the Salmon Falls River toward Portland had made the tavern’s location advantageous in the early 1800s. The building probably originally had a traditional gabled roof.
Before becoming a public house, the Frost Tavern had first been built, probably in 1798, as the home of Winthrop B. Norton, according to a 1902 report by Elizabeth Caton Frost, who grew up there in the early 1800s. Norton had married Dorothy “Dolly” Gowell in 1789, according to Vital Records of Berwick. Deeds show he owned the shop next door later known as the Adams Store. He is mentioned on a survey of 1805 as being compensated for the removal of “part of a store and ancient dwelling house” when the “highway,” Main Street, was improved, so he may have built the new house in anticipation of the road work. Of the house, Miss Frost said, “Mr. Norton, I presume, built it for himself and family, as his father and sister were living near, and continued to live there many years, but Mr. Norton soon removed to some place below Portland.”
The Frost Tavern, Adams Store, and Tompson-Sanborn House may have all been originally owned by Winthrop B. Norton, who sold them to different owners in the early 1800s.
Sarah Norton, Elisabeth Norton and Winthrop B. Norton seem to have been children of Nathaniel Norton (c. 1735-1820), deacon of the Second Congregational Church, and his wife Meriel (c. 1736-1811). Church records show the Nortons came from Durham, NH, in 1780. In 1814, according to the History of York County, Nathaniel Norton was among 12 “leading citizens” signing a petition for the first South Berwick election following the incorporation of South Berwick. The Nathaniel Norton family may have been related to an Oliver Norton whose son son Oliver, Jr., was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1798. His children were born in South Berwick, including son Oliver Knowlton Norton, born in 1824, according to Vital Records. A map of 1856 shows an O. Norton on Portland Street.
During the first years of the house there may possibly have been another, earlier Frost Tavern, as author Marie Donahue, in her history of Berwick Academy, wrote of the academy’s founders, “Throughout the summer and fall of 1790 these dedicated men had met frequently in Frost’s Tavern and in various homes and by January 1791 had raised by subscription 500 pounds to erect a [school] building…”
Frost Tavern. In 1816 the recently widowed Sarah Frost bought the Winthrop Norton house, other buildings and over seven acres of land for $3,150. The next year she opened the Frost Tavern.
The daughter of Nathan Bartlett, Sarah was born, perhaps in Kittery, on October 4, 1776, and on February 19, 1794, she married George Frost (b. January 14, 1776). The Frosts’ children were John (b. 1794), Mary (1797-1804), Sarah Shapley (1800 -1805), Charles Chancey (1805-1826), Dorcas Hubbard (b. 1807), and Elizabeth Caton (b. 1812). (Sources: letter of Ralph Bartlett and Vital Records of Berwick).
Frost family graves at Portland Street Cemetery reveal that George Frost was lost at sea in January 1815, aged 40 years. (Berwick Vital Records also mentions a Capt. John Frost who died “suddenly – 16 August 1815.”) Left with at least three children ranging in age from 3 to 18, Sarah Frost went into business as owner and manager of the Frost Tavern in the newly incorporated South Berwick.
Within years she welcomed world famous guests traveling the “highway,” President James Monroe in 1817 and General Lafayette in 1825. The fifth President of the United States passed through South Berwick after his July 1817 visit to Portland during the first year of his presidency, according to his 1818 account, A Narrative of a Tour of Observation Made During the Summer of 1817.
Not long afterward, it seems, Mrs. Frost had the inn decorated with hand-painted wallpaper by the French muralists Dufour et Leroy. Her daughter Elizabeth recalled, “The origin of the paper bearing the mythical pictures that adorn the walls cannot be correctly determined, but it is probably a French manufacture, and was made by Louis Robert in 1799…[It] was bought by my mother of Mr. I. F. Shores, who kept a bookstore in Portsmouth, N. H.” The scene depicts the bay of Naples from the mural “Les Vues D’Italie” and was restored and reapplied to the walls in 2019.
Historian Tom Johnson wrote, “Dufour wallpaper was very, very, very, expensive even in the early 19th century, so Madame Frost must have been successful at her tavernkeeping!”
The History of York County, published in 1880, states “In 1824-25, when the Marquis de la Fayette visited this country, he was received by a delegation of the most prominent citizens of Maine on his entrance to the State through this town. The party breakfasted at Mrs. Sarah Frost’s inn, on the old Frost Home, in the present village, and an address of welcome was delivered there by Judge Benjamin Greene. Hon. William Allen Hayes also participated in the reception. The marquis also called upon Mrs. Olive Cushing, whom he had known in Boston during the war… On this occasion there was a grand parade of the school children of the town.”
An eyewitness, Sophia Elizabeth Hayes Goodwin, recalled Lafayette’s visit on June 24, 1825. “An elegant breakfast was provided at Mrs. Frost’s. The attendants at the table were the principal young ladies of the village. One young lady, Miss Sally Noble, was honored by the conspicuous attention of the General, who said she was the most beautiful young lady he had seen in America. The citizens were introduced to the General in the parlor of the Hotel. My father [William Allen Hayes] acted as master of ceremonies, and I remember my pride in his easy address. I remember my father wore a claret colored frock coat – which displayed his remarkably handsome person to great advantage. But I was half ashamed when he brought up my sister Hetta and myself and introduced us as his children, though I was partially assured when the General complimented him upon having so interesting a family.”
Mrs. Frost, whose name can be seen on the hotel on a South Berwick village map of c. 1835, showed herself to be a capable hotel owner, managing all kinds of customers, as historian Annie Wentworth Baer recounted in an historical essay in the early 1900s.
“It came about that an Italian with a company of puppets wandered into South Berwick many years ago. He hired a room in Mrs. Frost's tavern, and made all plans to give an entertainment,” Baer wrote. “A small boy, whose curiosity got the better of his judgment, came so close to the little wooden folk that he stepped on the string that moved the whole company and broke it. Surely the game was up, and this sad accident so enraged the Italian that he fell upon the boy with seemingly murderous intent. At this critical moment, Mrs. Frost appeared, and taking in the situation, drove the Italian out, and threw his puppets after him.”
Annie Baer has more stories about the innkeeper’s spunk. “Mrs. Frost had a call to Portsmouth, where a large sum of money was to be paid her,” wrote Baer. “She journeyed to the New Hampshire part in a two-wheeled chaise, and expected to return before night. There was some hitch in the business arrangements, and she was delayed. Night overtook her before she reached Old Fields, and under cover of darkness, a man held her up and demanded her money. Mrs. Frost was a woman of strong nerve and great courage. She resisted vigorously, and during the contest said, ‘I know you!’ and told him his name (Henry Hodsdon). When the would-be highwayman realized that Mrs. Frost recognized him, he stepped back into the bushes, and the intrepid woman drove on. She was so incensed at his attempted robbery that she had him arrested, and to save him from the penitentiary, his family mortgaged Birch Point (Note: Birch Point was a section along the Salmon Falls River near the South Berwick-Eliot line—ed.). In time, the growth was cut by the mortgagee. Mrs. Frost was equal to all occasions, as this old time story proves.”
Another national figure who visited the inn was the Unitarian minister and lecturer Thomas Starr King (1824-1864). Pastor of the Hollis Street Unitarian Church in Boston from 1848, he also became a popular lecturer. “Traveling a circuit that extended from Bangor, Maine to St. Louis, Missouri,” according to the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, “King was successful in communicating to a mass audience the thought of such men as Socrates and Daniel Webster, and attracted large crowds to hear him on such topics as ‘Substance and Show’ and ‘Existence and Life.’" It is not known when Thomas Starr King, supposedly accompanied by his parents, came to South Berwick and stayed at the Frost Hotel. King’s father, who had been the Universalist Minister in Portsmouth, NH from 1828-1835, died while a minister in Charlestown, Mass., when his son was only 15, about 1843. The younger King became a famous minister and lecturer several years later.
“They went to Mrs. Frost's hostelry to rest and have dinner,” recalled Baer. “Mr. King the elder found the office and barroom combined seemed to be the only place for his wife and son to sit in. Now the Rev. Mr. King preached universal salvation, but socially he made a little distinction, and appealed to Mrs. Frost for another room for himself and family to rest in. This request raised the landlady's ire, and she ordered no less a person that the eloquent Starr King and his immediate ancestors out of her house.”
Paul's Hotel. Sarah Frost managed the inn, likely with the help of her son John, until her death in on Apr. 11, 1848 at the age of 72. John Frost still owned the store and post office next door, at 2 Portland Street today, as late as 1860, when he would have been 66, as shown on this map that dates to before the existence of Paul Street.
In the 1850s, with railroads and industry bringing even more travelers through South Berwick, the hotel changed hands. Josiah Paul (1813-1892) and Sarah F. Johnson, both of Sanford, had been married on October 28, 1838 by Philander Hartwell, Minister of the Gospel, according to Vital Records of Berwick, South Berwick and North Berwick. As the new hotelkeeper, Paul kept the famous Frost name for another decade. In the Maine Business Directory of 1857 he listed his establishment as the Newichawannock Inn.
Eventually it became Paul’s Hotel. Josiah and Sarah Paul ran the establishment until their deaths in 1892.
Paul eventually made a number of exterior modifications, including the mansard roof, cupola and large porch.
In addition to being an inn-keeper, Paul also served for a time as deputy sheriff and coroner. When a big murder case was tried in 1854, newspaper accounts of the trial reveal that Paul’s Hotel was used to hold the defendant, William B. Smith. Serving as coroner when the body of the victim, Charles F. Brewster, had been found in the woods, Paul also testified in the trial.
Religious center. The building was known as the Paul Hotel into the early 20th century and then was purchased by St. Michael's Catholic Church. The 1968 St. Michael's Parish Directory gives this account: “Formal religious education in So. Berwick began in 1909 when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyons arrived, at the request of His Excellency, Bishop Walsh, and Rev. Denis O'Brien, pastor of St. Michael's [Church]. Classes were held on the first floor of the Sister's residence, a building formerly called Paul's Hotel...A bequest for the establishment of a parochial school had been made by Joseph and Rose Cotter, and the school was called St. Rose in their honor.” The Sisters of St. Joseph operated St. Joseph Academy, associated with the larger St. Michael's School, now South Berwick Town Hall.
Today the former hotel has entered its third century. The Stage House Inn opened in 2020.
(This article was written by Wendy Pirsig from the Counting House Museum archives, and updated in November 2020.)