MAINE STREETS – JUNE 2007
By Nancy English
The oysters pulled out of Damariscotta River fed generations of Native Americans, who left heaps of discarded shells many feet deep beside the river. These middens, as they are called, are still visible today at the Whaleback Shell Midden off Route One in Damariscotta.
When the colonists began arriving, the British Navy had been using the Damariscotta River to carry away freshly harvested timbers for use in their own shipyards. The new American settlers quickly set up water-powered sawmills in several locations to cut the long, heavy timbers that were used to build clipper ships and schooners in the new shipyards popping up along the river. The profits made by these shipyards built the old houses that still dot Damariscotta today. Its many examples of 18th-century architecture include the 1754 Chapman-Hall House at 270 Main Street, which is believed to be the oldest house in town. At the turn of the 19th century, the shipyards, lumber mills, and brickyards began funding the construction of handsome Federal-style houses. Homes from this and earlier eras show off the skilled craftsmanship of local shipbuilders, and some even display the artistry of talented woodcarvers, who were employed to carve the figureheads that adorned the prows of ships. According to one account, Edbury Hatch, who was apprenticed to a Newcastle figurehead carver named Thomas Southworth in 1870, carved the portico at 175 Elm Street, a brick, Federal-style house now on the market for nearly a half-a-million dollars. A carving of ripe grapes hanging from curving vines arches over the front door of this 1850s house, which was originally owned by Everett Stetson. The grape leaves bracket a carved G. Because a man who later owned the home for many years was named Gay, the G was long thought to simply represent the first letter of his name. But according to Calvin Dodge, a local historian and Freemason, the G actually stands for “God”—or the “Grand Geometer” to the Masons. That single letter, as well as an hourglass carved above the portico’s roof, are still Masonic images today. Next door to 175 Elm Street is another brick, Federal-style house, this one built in 1843, according to its owner, Valerie Seaberg. The name Abner Stetson, the home’s first owner, is still inscribed on an ornate iron gate. A total of 11 houses in the area were built by Abner Stetson, Dodge says, and his shipyard built clipper ships that set several speed records on their journeys across the Atlantic and around South America. The bricks in these houses, and in the commercial buildings along Main Street that were constructed after a fire in 1845 destroyed most of the Main Street’s wooden structures, were made from clay taken from the river bottom. Ten thousand cords of wood were burned every year to fire the bricks, many of which were sent to Washington and Boston, and at one time 12 brickyards operated along the river. Matthew Cottrill was an Irishman who, along with his partner James Kavanaugh, built a sawmill and shipped lumber to the West Indies. Ships returning from the long voyage brought back molasses and rum and a hefty profit for both of the men. Part of the Cottrill fortune was invested in the 1802 Matthew Cottrill House on Main Street, which was designed by Nicholas Codd. Writer Martha Frink called the Cottrill House “one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in town.” Its façade is embellished with a columned doorway and an arched, second-floor window that once offered a view of Cottrill’s sail loft. Cottrill and Kavanaugh also helped pay for the construction of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Newcastle, the oldest Catholic church in New England, which was built in 1807–1808. The Coffin House at 170 Main Street was built circa 1800, and has lately undergone a scrupulous renovation under the ownership of Robert Flory, who saved the building from possible demolition when the Skidompha Public Library, its former occupant from 1922 to 2001, moved into a new building next door. The Coffin House still has its original windows, many with their original panes of wavy glass. All the lumber used to build the Coffin house was planed by hand, and the elaborate curves of the crown molding were hand carved using intricate hand tools. The smooth birch handrails along the Coffin House stairway have the satiny patina of something that has been touched by generations of hands. The home’s wall panels were made from wide slabs of pine harvested from the town’s old forest, where it was once common to find trees six feet in diameter. “They had to quit shipbuilding because the lumber ran out,” says nonagenarian J. Huston Dodge, describing the demise of the industry in the late 1800s. Dodge is a distant relative of Calvin Dodge and an expert on 18th-century construction; he still lives in the same house he was born in 90 years ago. The traditional post-and-beam building techniques of the late 1700s and 1800s were standard in most Damariscotta homes from the period. Adding an addition to a home during that time was often accomplished by detaching a wall, moving it out, and building in between. Other houses, Dodge says, were jacked up by shipbuilders-turned-carpenters, and a new story was constructed underneath the raised house. Homes were also moved from one location to another. In the winter, these houses were set on skids and pulled by “20-yoke of cattle” to their new locations. Another Damariscotta native, Robert Strong, whose wife Jean Stetson Strong is descended from the shipbuilder Everett Stetson, owns the present-day Clark Apartments on Elm Street, a building that began as a tavern and hotel. “We still have the hotel register with the signature of President James K. Polk, who stayed here when he came to certify the Pemaquid Lighthouse,” Strong says. The lighthouse was already 20 years old when Polk visited Damariscotta. A few copies of the Damariscotta Historical Society’s A Walking Tour of the Early Dwellings of Damariscotta, Maine, are still available at Calvin Dodge’s antique store, Cooper’s Red Barn Antiques, at 627 Main Street.