Walter H. Downs (b. 1853), attorney

Downs House c. 1825

c. 1825 - Downs House - 319 Main Street

This house is part of the South Berwick Village District on the National Register of Historic Places. This house seems to be the home of J. F. Downs that appears on a South Berwick map of 1856, and later belonged to Frederick G. Downs (1806-1891), a mason. His son, Charles W. Downs, was killed in the Civil War in 1862. Another son, Walter H. Downs (1858-1920), graduated from Berwick Academy, Wesleyan University, and Columbia Law School. He became was a South Berwick judge, lawyer and postmaster. 

An Album of the Attorneys of Maine by Ernest Constant Bowler, 1902, states, “Walter H. Downs of South Berwick, Me., son of Frederick… and Ruth T. (Roberts) Downs, was born in South Berwick, March 26, 1853. Attended Berwick Academy, Wesleyan University, graduating June, 1875, and Columbia Law School, 1877. Admitted to the bar June, 1877, and has practiced in New York city and South Berwick. Has held office of Postmaster, Town Clerk and Treasurer, and Trial Justice. Member of St. John's Lodge A. F. & A. M., St. Paul’s Commandery K. T. Republican."

On the excerpt shown at left of a South Berwick map of 1856, this house seems to be the home of a J. F. Downs. Soon afterwards it was owned by Frederick G. Downs (1806-1891), and his wife, Ruth T. Downs (1812-1896). Their children included Walter H. Downs, Charles W. Downs, Mary Ann and Ella. Another member of the family living in South Berwick was Frederick A. Downs (1833-1874), but his relationship is not yet known.

Frederick G. Downs had a large lot, and also owned nearby property on Butler Street. (See 1872 map excerpt at right.)

This part of Main Street was once called Elm Street, known for its shade trees. In the history of Berwick Academy, The Old Academy on the Hill, historian Marie Donahue said that after a fire destroyed the academy schoolhouse in 1851, summer classes were held downtown in the Masonic Hall-Huntress Block, where July temperatures were sweltering in the upstairs rooms. (An arrow on the 1872 map excerpt to the left shows the location of this Masonic/Huntress building, which later housed Civil Consultants, three doors away from this house). Years later, one of the students, Maria L. Ricker, recalled the headmaster’s kindness “in allowing the girls in my class to take our books out under the trees in front of Mr. Frederick Down’s residence (his daughter Mary Ann was one of us) and study our lessons.”

Several years later, Mary Ann’s brother, Charles W. Downs, was killed in the Civil War in 1862 at the Battle of Williamsburg, Virginia, at the age of 19. The battle, part of the Peninsula Campaign, was also known as the Battle of Fort Magruder. Charles’ grave is in Portland Street Cemetery. Another sibling, Ella R. Downs, died in 1872 at the age of 23.

Stones for Charles H Downs, Walter H Downs, Isabelle Downs and Ella R Downs in Portland Street Cemetery

The local Downs family had produced a number of soldiers in the American Revolution, according to the 1898 compilation of Berwick soldiers from town records by historian W. C. Spencer. They include Benjamin, who served from 1777-1780; Ichabod, who served nine months in 1778; James, a minute man in 1775 who served nine months in 1778; Jedediah, also a minute man; and Joshua a minute man in 1775 who became a lieutenant in “Captain Hamilton's company,” 1780.

From the newspaper Life published in South Berwick on March 22, 1889.

Walter H. Downs (1858-1920) lived on Main Street, and was a South Berwick judge, lawyer and postmaster, according to the 1900 census and the Maine Register business directories of 1892 through at least 1912. According to Vital Records of South Berwick, his wife was Isabelle Hurd of North Berwick (1858-1925), whom he married on Oct. 20, 1904. Whether they lived here in Walter’s childhood home is not yet known.

 (Summary by Wendy Pirsig from archives at the Counting House Museum. Revised December 2020.)