Sarah Norton (c. 1767-1862) , Elisabeth Norton (c. 1775-1848), and Nathaniel Adams (1793-1861), shopkeepers
c. 1800 – Adams Store – 200 Main Street
This building is part of South Berwick Historic District as well as the South Berwick Village District on the National Register of Historic Places. Possibly the remains of a larger store owned about 1800 by Winthrop B. Norton and shortened to make way for a road expansion in 1805, this shop in about 1815 came into the care of Sarah Norton (c. 1767-1862) and eventually also of her younger sister Elisabeth (c. 1775-1848). Known as Aunt Sally and Aunt Betsey, the two sold “small wares dear and necessary to every woman's heart,” according to author Sarah Orne Jewett’s sister Mary. As the Adams Store from the late 1840s through the 1870s, the shop welcomed children like the Jewett sisters, who shopped for “penny toys and picture books” under the patient eye of Mrs. Adams. It is the home of a local business today.
Early shopkeepers, the Nortons. The Frost Tavern, Adams Store, and Tompson-Sanborn House may have all been originally owned by Winthrop B. Norton and sold to different owners in the early 1800s. In 1789 he had married Dorothy Gowell, according to Vital Records of Berwick. A road survey of 1805 states that Norton had a store in this vicinity, and that he was compensated for the removal of part of it and an “ancient house” when the road was improved. Writing in 1902, Elizabeth C. Frost wrote of the Frost Tavern, “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.”
Perhaps coinciding with his departure, Norton transferred the shop in 1815 to Sarah Norton, probably his sister. A deed from this time refers to “Sarah Norton’s store.” She was probably 48 years old, and had a younger unmarried sister who would have been 40.
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, age 79, was among 12 “leading citizens” signing the 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. His son Oliver, Jr., was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1798, and his children 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.
Mary Rice Jewett writing years later, recalled two sisters, “Aunt Betsey and Aunt Sally Norton,” who operated the store for “many years, and kept a stock of small wares dear and necessary to every woman's heart. Miss Betsey was large and masterful like her neighbor Mrs. Frost [Sarah Frost, owner of the Frost Tavern next door], while her sister was of a more gentle nature, but both were held in high esteem in their day.”
Mary was probably not writing from first-hand experience in Aunt Betsey and Aunt Sally’s store, as records indicate the Nortons sold it in 1849, the year of author Sarah Orne Jewett’s birth, when Mary Jewett was only two. But their grandfather, Theodore F. Jewett, undoubtedly related stories. On a local map of about 1835, we see the store situated though not named, just a few doors from one operated by “T. Jewett.”
An undated account, probably about 1900, transcribed from the newspaper Independent and entitled “Old Houses,” recalled “Miss Sally Norton” as a “severe spinster” who “kept a variety store” in the building.
Aunt Betsy seems to have died in 1848 at age 73, precipitating the sale of the store the next year. That seems to be the evidence shown in the "South Berwick Cemetery Record," written by John Frost in 1967, listing the graves in Old Fields Burying Ground of two sisters, Elisabeth and Sarah Norton, and their parents. If this is the case, the elder Aunt Sally, though retired from shop-keeping, may have been known to the young Jewett girls as they grew up during the 1850s. Sarah Norton lived until September 1, 1862, and the ripe old age of 95.
The Adams Store. Nathaniel Adams (1793-1861), who bought the store from the Nortons, had been a soldier from Newington, New Hampshire, in the war of 1812 and a South Berwick shoe dealer, according to a family genealogy citing the Military History of the State of New Hampshire. The 1857 Maine Business Directory lists Adams as one of four South Berwick dealers in “millinery and fancy goods.” Nathaniel Adams’ wife was Lydia Tobey, born in 1793 in Eliot, and they had been married in 1815, according to family records provided by descendant Elizabeth Hanna, citing the Genealogical History of Henry Adams of Braintree, Mass. and the Nealley family Bible.
The Jewett sisters, growing up near the Corner, thus knew the business as the Adams Store, and they experienced it first hand countless times as young shoppers: “[The Norton sisters’] business mantle fell upon Mrs. Adams who is most pleasantly remembered for her kindly ways to children and grown persons alike,” wrote Mary Jewett. “Her gentle ‘Yes, dear,’ and the interest and patience with which she would regard our small shopping with its long delays of decision between the relative merits of penny toys and picture books could hardly be matched in these hurrying days of the present time.”
By 1848, just before the store changed hands, the Adamses had become relatives of the Jewetts by marriage, in that Nathaniel Adams’ daughter Mary Jane (1823-1896) had married George Kittredge Nealley (1819-1910), brother of one of Sarah Orne Jewett’s great uncles.
Nathaniel and Lydia Adams both died in 1861 and are buried in Dover, N. H. By 1872, Mary Jane’s brother, John Wesley Adams (1834-1917) owned the store. He had married Harriet “Hattie” N. Gould (1835-1902) in 1856, according to Vital Records. This source also mentions a John W. Adams associated with the Methodist Episcopal Church of Great Falls (Somersworth), N.H., who performed marriages in South Berwick in the 1870s. At the end of the 1800s, Ansel Quimby bought the store from the Adams family.
In the 1920s, this building contained an auto repair business. In the 1960s, it became the office of the P. Gagnon & Son heating oil company for over three decades. It later returned to its retail identity.
(This article was written by Wendy Pirsig and updated in November 2020.)