Village overview 5: The Village and Central Square
Local resident Mary Rice Jewett described the development of South Berwick Village in the early 1800s: “Then what we know as the village was only beginning to be, but gradually as the zeal for business increased, the enterprising men moved their stores back from the river to catch the incoming tide of teams as soon as possible, some of the most energetic men even driving back towards North Berwick and Blackberry Hill, I have heard it said, to be first to greet the teamsters who came from Alfred, Lebanon, and even far beyond. Strangers often ask the reason for the long row of stone posts along Portland Street, but I have been told that at nearly every post one would find oxen standing in a busy morning in winter while the bargaining went on for the loads they brought.”
Residents of the late 1800s experienced further changes, with the arrival of the railroad and the continued rise of the mills including the Cummings shoe factory in the village center. Then a tremendous fire in July 1870 dramatically altered the village architecture. A new business block was followed at the end of the century by electrification and a trolley line running right through Central Square.
Mary's sister, author Sarah Orne Jewett, wrote in “Looking Back on Girlhood,” 1897, “From that time the simple village life was at an end. Its provincial character was fading out; shipping was at a disadvantage, and there were no more bronzed sea-captains coming to dine and talk about their voyages, no more bags of filberts or oranges for the children, or great red jars of olives.”
In her books and stories, Jewett spoke to all Americans who worried about the loss of their old way of life. “Tradition and time-honored custom were to be swept away together by the irresistible current,” Jewett wrote in 1893. “Character and architecture seemed to lose individuality and distinction. The new riches of the country were seldom very well spent in those days; … the well-filled purses that were scattered in our country's first great triumphal impulse of prosperity often came into the hands of people who hastened to spoil instead of to mend the best things that their village held. It will remain for later generations to make amends…”
But much of South Berwick Village prevailed. Today, a remarkable number of sights Jewett knew remain. With homes and businesses from the 18th, 19th and early 20th century still lining these historic village streets, residents and visitors can learn and enjoy the heritage of our place.
(This summary by Wendy Pirsig from archives at the Counting House Museum. Revised November 2020.)