Category Archives: Kennebunkport

Booth Tarkington in Kennebunkport

Rewards of the pen

News of the death of Booth Tarkington in 1946 fell like a blanket of grief over the town of Kennebunkport. For more than 40 years the author had whole-heartedly embedded himself in his beloved summer community in a way that changed the town and the man forever.

Newton Booth Tarkington was born in Indianapolis, Ind. on July 29, 1869. He attended Purdue University and then Princeton University, but didn’t graduate from either institution. He sought work as an illustrator and a writer during the 1890s but it took almost a decade before he could make a living at it. Finally, in 1898, he sold a manuscript entitled The Gentleman from Indiana, which became a bestseller in 1900. Tarkington’s career and financial prospects would never again be in doubt.

The writer first visited Kennebunkport in 1903 as a newlywed. His arrival at The Old Fort Inn was proudly announced in Kennebunkport’s summer newspaper. Recovering from a serious case of typhoid fever, Booth spent that season falling in love with the town where he would summer for the rest of his life. His first marriage ended in divorce, however, and his daughter by that marriage died young.

A new life chapter began in 1912 with his second marriage to Susanah Robinson. Mr. and Mrs. Tarkington frequented the Old Fort Inn or rented cottages from Kennebunkport friends — like artist Abbott Graves — until proceeds from the wildly successful Penrod enabled them to build a beautiful summer home in 1917. No expense was spared. The new cottage on South Maine Street, called “Seawood,” was mentioned by the editor of Kennebunkport’s newspaper. “To the summer visitor the house has seemingly reared itself overnight like Aladdin’s palace.”

Tweedles, a play Tarkington wrote with Harry Leon Wilson, debuted on Broadway in 1923, starring Ruth Gordon. It is a gently satirical examination of two sides of the same snobbery. Though the play is set in a “fictional” Maine coastal resort, the tea room/antique shop where much of the action takes place is surprisingly similar to the real life Bonnie Brig Tea Room — so popular at the time with the Cape Arundel crowd. In the play, young lovers are foiled by strained relations between their families; hers, local and proud of their old New England heritage and his, seasonal residents of considerable means and social stature. The play was clearly poking fun at the all-too-real tensions between native Kennebunkporters and summer people from away, but nobody seemed to mind. In fact, the theme resonated with both.

Rumors circulated in the late 1920s that Tarkington was losing his eyesight. The author did not noticeably slow down in his professional life or his private life at the Port. He continued to create characters who had undoubtedly been inspired by the people he had met there.

Mary’s Neck was published first, in serial form and then as a novel. It is a less than flattering portrayal of superficial, self-important cottagers at a “fictional” resort, located on a rocky promontory on the Maine coast.

Mirthful Haven is a novel about life in another “fictional” Maine resort town. Tensions swell in the old-fashioned village, still imbued with vestiges of the clipper ship and China trade days when it was visited by summer representatives of the outside world with their garish yachts and their exclusive country clubs. Young love is thwarted again by the great divide.

The character of Capt. Embury was supposedly fashioned after Capt. Dudley, a real life China Trade sea captain who lived on Elm Street. The fictional Harry Pelter is suspiciously like Francis Noble, whose refusal to give up his dilapidated shack across the river was at the time tormenting the Kennebunk River Club set, in real life.

Submerging himself in the nautical spirit of his work, Tarkington purchased the tired old Machias lumber schooner Regina in 1929. He blocked her up permanently at William Trotter’s boathouse near the Nonantum and drilled holes below the waterline so she wouldn’t rise and fall with the tide. A retired local sea captain, Blynn Montgomery, was hired as Regina’s master ashore to handle licensing, maintenance issues, and to tell visitors true sea stories in a captain’s hat, giving the vessel an air of authenticity. The Regina became a source of pride in the old seafaring town with her bowsprit extending out over Ocean Avenue. For Tarkington, the schooner and boathouse that he nicknamed “The Floats,” functioned as a work studio and a gentlemen’s clubhouse.

Booth Tarkington also loved motorboats. In June of 1930 a 45-foot cruiser, Zantre, was launched for him from Clemie Clark’s Boatyard near the Grist Mill. Zantre was the third cruiser the author had owned in Kennebunkport. The first was named Zantee and the second, Zantu. All were named in honor of Mrs. Tarkington. Her given name was Susanah and her nieces and nephews affectionately referred to her as Aunt Zan.                                                            Continued below…

Author, playwright and civic-minded neighbor

Year-round residents of Kennebunkport were not put off by the grandeur of Booth Takington’s living conditions. They had grown to love him for his honest unaffected manner. Even his employees regarded him as a friend.

Francis Chick, his Kennebunkport chauffeur, was reported to have said, “We folks around here like the Tarkingtons. They’re so common.” Booth liked the line so much that he used it in one of his stories. Henry Thirkell — who acted as captain on Booth’s motor cruisers — and his son Stanley who later took over the job, were like family. The Tarkingtons not only respectfully employed their neighbors, they quietly helped them solve personal difficulties.

For all his charm and generosity, the author was not the type to gush falsely, nor was he a saint. His public criticism of other writers was harsh. That same inclination to speak his mind sometimes allowed some anti-Semitic and racist feelings to see the light of day in local newspaper interviews. A reporter who visited the Tarkingtons at their Kennebunkport home in 1924 noted “The prettiest little black boy I have ever seen, with curling hair, an entrancing smile, and a white coat always opened the door to the Tarkington’s summer home.” But this was a different time. Bigotry was accepted and Booth had that way about him that invited forgiveness and friendship.

One of Tarkington’s best friends in Kennebunkport was the notoriously cranky historical fiction writer, Kenneth Roberts. The two men shared a sardonic wit. Booth delivered with humor and a twinkle in his eye that made people believe his zings were all in good fun. Roberts wasn’t blessed with that gift. They often met at The Floats in the afternoon for tea and writers’ “shop talk.”

Though Tarkington had been a teetotaller since 1912, he didn’t judge his friends for enjoying a cocktail or two in his company. Kenneth Roberts spent many years documenting his efforts to achieve the perfect cocktail recipe. Journalist Francis Noble was another daily visitor aboard the Regina whose affection for alcohol was no secret. Noble, who was by then ostracized by Cape Arundel’s finest, would row across the river from his shack every afternoon to argue politics with his conservative friend and to imbibe.

The rumors of Tarkington’s eyesight problems had merit. He was almost completely blind by September 1930. An operation at Baltimore restored his sight in one eye, but the author was never again able to read or write for himself. His doctors ordered him to work no more than four hours a day and his secretary, Betty Trotter, took his dictation. By his own account, he napped every day after lunch in the captain’s berth onboard the schooner Regina. Weather permitting, he chased whales in his motor cruiser after lunch. The Tarkingtons always dressed for dinner and entertained their friends with music, cards and an occasional game of charades. After all the guests had retired, Susanah Tarkington read her husband to sleep. The accomplished workaholic resigned himself to his newly restricted schedule but his health issues had taken a toll.

An Indiana youth met Booth Tarkington at Gooch’s Beach in 1931. The boy was stunned by the famous author’s appearance. He later wrote an article for his school paper that was picked up by an Indianapolis Weekly. Booth was described as a stooped, grey, frail-looking man in an ill-fitting bathing suit, chain-smoking enormous custom-made cigarettes with his name printed on each one. The boy’s perception of Penrod’s creator was deflated. The people of Kennebunkport continued to love him as the gifted, neighborly, generous human being they knew him to be.

A young Robert Currier, from Newton, Mass., came to vacation in Kennebunkport with his family in the early 1930s. He met Tarkington who encouraged him to bring his theatrical Garrick Players to Kennebunkport. Tarkington went so far as to trim and tailor parts of his play Tweedles to be performed by the troupe in 1933. Festivals featuring the plays of Tarkington were frequently performed at the Olympian Club and later the Kennebunkport Playhouse on River Road. The author was an enthusiastic patron, hosting cast parties onboard his schooner. Sometimes frustrated with the way his plays were performed on Broadway, Tarkington enjoyed the influence he had on Currier’s productions. He also drew big name performers that might not otherwise have agreed to perform at the Kennebunkport Playhouse.

The Federal Works, a New Deal Agency, commissioned artist Elizabeth Tracy to paint a mural for the Kennebunkport Post Office Wall in 1940. Tarkington and Roberts spearheaded a movement to have it removed. The government-funded mural portrayed scantily-clad bathers at the beach. Not a fan of President Franklin D. Roosevelt or his new deal, Tarkington was very vocal in his opposition. “The painting is an eyesore and the whole town is ashamed of it,” declared the author. “It’s dismal, a combination of Coney Island and Mexican realism.” It took four years, but in 1945 the mural was replaced with a more dignified painting by marine artist Gordan Grant. And the shipbuilding-themed mural that still graces the Post Office wall was funded by Kennebunkport citizen donations, not the U.S. government.

After a long illness, Tarkington died in Indiana at the age of 76. The 1947 Kennebunkport Town Report was dedicated to his memory. “The admiration that Kennebunkport felt for Booth Tarkington is inexpressible. The town is in much the same situation as are his close friends, many of whom are authors. Their affection for him was such that they were unable to write the usual eulogies that appear so frequently when famous men are taken from us. Kennebunkport misses and mourns him, just as all the world misses and mourns him.”

Tarkington left his mark at the Kennebunkport Post Office; he left his mark on South Main Street where his beautiful Seawood has been converted into condominiums; he left his mark on Ocean Avenue where the schooner Regina was disassembled and sunk in 1952, being too deteriorated to save. For some, the sight of The Floats — between Nonantum Resort and the Kennebunk River Club — still evokes afternoons of camaraderie and literary conversation. Most of all, Tarkington made his mark on Kennebunkport hearts and history.

Arundel sloop Polly slips away from the enemy

False loyalty wins escape

Kennebunkport was attacked by enemy vessels near the very end of the Revolutionary War. The story of the Arundel Militia adroitly overcoming the British in the 1782 Battle of Cape Porpoise has often been told with pride. But Kennebunkport was deeply embroiled in the war from the very beginning. Another Cape Porpoise incident that occurred just a few weeks after the first military engagement of the war has received far less attention from local historians.

The Arundel-owned coasting sloop Polly sailed from Ephraim Perkins’ wharf at what is today Dock Square on May 13, 1775. Her cargo was delivered to Plymouth, Mass. where she was loaded up again for the return trip. She set sail for Arundel on May 15, but a cutter of His Majesty’s Naval Forces would alter her course that day.

Boston was under British control at the time. Learning that the colonists had gathered an arsenal at Concord, Mass., British Military Governor, General Thomas Gage had ordered 700 soldiers to destroy the weapons depot. Admiral Samuel Graves had ferried the British soldiers across the Charles River sparking the Battle at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. When the sloop Polly sailed from Plymouth less than a month later, both British military men were stationed in Boston.

On her way home, the Polly was seized by one of Admiral Grave’s cutters, forced into Boston Harbor and into the custody of General Gage. The Polly’s cargo was immediately confiscated by Gage’s men, though top dollar was paid to the captain for them. The Polly and her crew were “detained” in Boston for some time. To escape the clutches of the British Navy, the captain of the Polly cleverly pretended loyalty to the crown, agreeing to sail to Nova Scotia to pick up supplies for the forces at Boston.

There was some confusion in preserved documents whether Ephraim Perkins captained on this voyage or if Samuel Smith of Arundel had been at the tiller. A contract to charter the Polly was drawn up between Perkins as owner and master of the said 88-ton vessel and Major William Sherriff, the King’s Deputy Quartermaster. The contract read in part, “The Above said Majr Wm Sherriff, Doth promise to pay to the said Perkins for the Run or Voyage of said Vessell, One Hundred and Eighty Dollars.”

Captain Samuel Smith testified before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress at Watertown on June 9, 1775 that as captain he had been solicited by Admiral Graves’ Secretary to enter into His Majesty’s Service. “Knowing no other way wherein I Could Possibly make my escape I entered into service to go to Winsor in Nova Scotia for hay & other things.”

Loyalists Josiah Jones and Jonathan Hicks were put onboard the Polly as supercargo to look out for His Majesty’s interests just in case the mariners had been less than honest about their allegiance. The captain was to take orders from Jones who carried with him a packet of letters, orders, and other papers that were later published in Baxter Manuscripts of the Maine Historical Society.

According to his testimony, Captain Smith received orders not to leave for Nova Scotia immediately but to wait to sail in a convoy of a number of vessels the following morning at ten o’clock. Supercargo Jones was apparently not aware of that order because when Captain Smith suggested they get an early start that night, Jones agreed.

Jones was apparently also not familiar with features of the Maine coast. He did not realize that Capt. Smith had opportunistically set a course for Cape Porpoise Harbor under the cover of darkness. Along the way, Jones ordered Capt. Smith to clean and prepare the firearms that had been placed onboard in Boston to defend the charter from the “Rebels who might attack them on their passage.” As it turned out, the rebels to fear were already onboard the Polly.

She arrived at Cape Porpoise Harbor on June 2. The loyalists, their papers and their arms were immediately turned over to the Arundel Committee of  Correspondance to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, namely, Benjamin Durell, Jonathan Stone, Thomas Wiswall, John Hovey, a notorious Whig, and James Burnham, who later became the only American casualty of the Battle of Cape Porpoise. A letter to the Provincial Congress was drafted by the committee. While they awaited a response, Jonathan Hicks and Josiah Jones were confined at Arundel.

A week later, master and mate were sent with their prisoners to Watertown, in the Polly, to be examined by the Provincial Congress. After various depositions from June 8 through June 10, Jones and Hicks were delivered to the Concord jail where they remained for several months. The Arundel Committee received special thanks from the Provincial Congress for their clever handling of the whole affair.

Loyalist Jones had a sister, Mary Dunbar, living in Concord while Josiah was imprisoned there. According to the journals of Mary’s grandson, Henry David Thoreau, she helped the prisoners escape by bringing them baskets of food in which files were concealed.

Sagamore Doney’s Kennebunk River Warriors

The Price of Encroachment

There were just a few Saco Indian families living on the banks of the Kennebunk River after the King Phillips War. Some of their lodges and shell middens were located in what is now Arundel — at a turn in the river near the head of the tide.

The Treaty of Casco, which recognized Indian rights to their land, brought King Phillip’s War to a close in 1678. The English were required to pay each resident Indian family an annual quantity of corn in exchange for use of their ancestral territory. The Indians believed the treaty also gave them exclusive rights to fish the rivers.

Relations between the English and the Indians grew increasingly strained when the English repeatedly broke all the terms of the Treaty of Casco. Not only did they ignore their debt of corn to the Indian families, but they also fished the Saco River with nets near its mouth, thereby preventing any fish from ever reaching the Indian village upriver.

The treaty violation that most infuriated the Indians was the granting and patenting of their lands by the English. Cotton Mather reported in his Magnalia Christi Americana that the Indians had threatened to knock any surveyor on the head if he came to their lands to lay out lots.

The Town of Cape Porpus granted many Kennebunk River lots in April of 1681. One of those granted Joseph and Edmund Littlefield and Nicholas Cole the right to build mills between Goff’s Brook and Durrell’s Bridge. According to Charles Bradbury in his “History of Kennebunkport,” their plans were abandoned when upstream neighbors objected to a dam at that location.

One month later, Wane Doney, Sagamore of Kennebunk, deeded the mill men another piece of land way upstream, above the Indian lodges, where Route 1 now crosses the Kennebunk River. His oldest son, Robert (Robin) Doney witnessed this instrument, which is still in the manuscript collection of the Boston Public Library.

John Batson and John Barrett of Cape Porpus built a new sawmill in 1682. This was problematic for the Indians as well. Dams prevented fish from swimming upstream to spawn and sawmill refuse coated the spawning grounds with an impenetrable sawdust paste. The Indians complained that fish populations were suffering and that sawmills were “soyling their fishing.” The same John Batson and John Barrett, along with Lt. Purington, petitioned Gov. Danforth for the right to grant Cape Porpus land in 1684.

John Batson was found downed under his mill wheel in 1685. Circumstances surrounding his death were suspicious enough to warrant an inquest, which his partner John Barrett attended, but no conclusions of wrongdoing were filed. The incident has remained a mystery to local historians.

English cattle were allowed to wander free through Indian cornfields in Saco after repeated complaints. Every source of food the Indians had was threatened. They were angry and vocal about the total disregard for the terms of the Treaty of Casco. Threats were made. Some wandering English cows were killed.

As a precaution, in September 1688, Justice of the Peace Benjamin Blackman of Saco gathered up 16 to 20 Indians who had been leaders against the English during King Phillips War. Among them were the Hegens of Saco, and the Doney’s of Kennebunk. The prisoners were sent to Boston and their brethren began rounding up English hostages to exchange for the prisoners.

A month later, letters were sent to and from Gov. Andros notifying him that “ye 11th instant one man was found killed by Indians to ye Eastward att Cape Porpus & severall others missing who are feared to be lost.” Cotton Mather makes note of the incident writing that two Cape Porpus families named Bussy and Barrow had been cut off by the Indians.

Simon Bussie, who had been granted the Kennebunk River lot adjacent to the Indian lodges, was killed or carried away. No Barrow family is found in Cape Porpus records, but it’s possible Mather was actually referring to the Barrett family. Mill man, John Barrett Sr., and two of his sons had also been killed or carried away by Indians in the fall of 1688.

John Barrett Jr. was killed the following spring when Indians “known to them” attacked the fort in Cape Porpoise Harbor. The Stage Island Fort was commanded by grantor-of-lots, Lt. John Purington, who had chosen to build his own Kennebunk riverfront home at the Indian lodges. On the same day in April of 1689, the house of Nicholas Morey, who owned a mill at Mast Cove, was burned by the Indians.

During King William’s War, which by now was in full swing, a map indicating English forts and Indian camps was drawn by William Pitkin and Benjamin Church. This map, held in the manuscript collection at Maine Historical Society, says Doney had 8 warriors at Kennebunk and Hegens had 9 warriors in Saco. No warriors were indicated at Wells.

Indians didn’t kill or capture people indiscriminately in the early wars. They targeted those who had provoked them. Mills were burned and mill men were frequently targeted because they jeopardized one of the sources of food available to the Indians. Broken treaties and unauthorized use of Indian land could also antagonize the original inhabitants.

Phillip Durrell, whose double victimization by the Indians seemed uncommonly cruel, was in fact in possession of the Indian lodges lot both times the Indians attacked his family.

The remains of at least one Indian lodge can still be seen resting precariously close to the encroaching Kennebunk River. Les Welch, who owns the Arundel property now, would like to see what remains of the Indian lodge protected before it’s too late.

“Finding the  Almouchiquios,”  by Emerson W. Baker of Salem State College was one very interesting and helpful source for this article. Other sources were, writings of Cotton Mather, Kennebunkport Town Book, Ruth Landon’s deed research preserved by the Kennebunkport Historical Society, History of Kennebunkport by Charles Bradbury, Ancient History of Kennebunk by Edward E. Bourne, Sketch of an old River by William Barry (Edited by Joyce Butler)

Six rescued from the Kennebunk River in 1800

Cards and Trefethens in the Kennebunk River

Kennebunk clergyman Rev. Nathaniel H. Fletcher wrote a letter to the Humane Society of Massachusetts recommending that Capt. James Perkins Sr. and Capt. James Perkins Jr., of Arundel, be decorated for heroic efforts in rescuing and reviving six people from drowning in the Kennebunk River. His letter described the harrowing events of November 29, 1800 and was later published in its entirety in the Salem Gazette.

A few days before Thanksgiving, six members of the Card and Trefethen families of New Castle, N.H., sailed up the Kennebunk River to visit relatives living in Lyman, or Coxhall, as it was then called. Mr. Trefethen, his 15-year-old son, Mr. and Mrs. Card and two of their children, navigated up the river in a small two-masted schooner. They got as far up as the bridge near the head of the tide — about where route one crosses the Kennebunk River today. There they tied up the boat and continued on foot to Coxhall, 12 miles further inland.

Saturday afternoon, Nov. 29, they returned to the boat with an additional child added to the party. One of Mr. and Mrs. Card’s children had been living in Coxhall and was returning home to New Castle with the rest of the family. They sailed downriver — to about where the locks would later be installed — but grounded out on some rocks on the eastern bank. There they sat in a colder-than-usual November wind, waiting for the tide to float them off.

After about two hours the stranded travelers got restless and decided to cross the river and await the tide with their friends, the Webbers, whose house was on the western bank. They all climbed into their canoe, which was way too small and unstable to hold seven people. It immediately tipped all seven of them into the freezing water, just a bit upriver from the Perkins house.

James Perkins Jr. had been butchering meat at his father’s house when the sound of an unfamiliar female voice in distress set him running through four inches of ice and snow toward the river, throwing off his outer wear and calling to his father for help.

The younger Capt. Perkins waded into the river up to his chin to reach the nearest floating person. Mr. Card, who was “in the agonies of drowning,” grabbed Capt. Perkins with such violence that when he finally disengaged himself from the drowning man and made it to shore, his shirt was ripped to shreds. James Perkins Sr., who was by now at river’s edge, took charge of Mr. Card while James Jr. returned to the depths of the river to rescue another victim.

One by one, five more downing persons were brought to the shallow water by the younger Capt. Perkins and dragged onshore by his father. The last to be rescued was Mrs. Card, who, with her two-year-old baby clutched to her chest, had sunk to the bottom for the last time. Every one of the victims were “senseless and speechless,” except Mr. Card.

Capt. Perkins asked him repeatedly “if six were the whole number” and repeatedly he answered in the affirmative, even after seeing his unconscious family members laid out on the bank. Apparently, in the fright of the moment, he had forgotten that they brought an additional child home from Coxhall.

According to Rev. Fletcher’s letter:

“These six were conveyed to the house of Capt. Perkins, Sen. where their wet clothes were taken off and dry ones procured. But, alas, three of them, Mr. Trefethen, Mrs. Card, and one of her children, upwards of two years old, were apparently dead and irrecoverable. To resuscitate these, the upmost exertions were made by Messrs. Perkins, and the likeliest means used that lay within the sphere of their knowledge and recollection. The persons were gently rolled, bathed with brandy, rubbed with warm flannel, and the like till the whole were joyfully restored to life. Before this took place, the means were incessantly continued till 3 o’clock, Sabbath day morning.”

The last victim to be revived was Mrs. Card. She immediately looked around the room and discovered that her eight-year-old daughter was missing. Young James Perkins rushed back out to the river and eventually found the girl but not soon enough to save her.

The various methods used to resuscitate the Cards and the Trefethens were precisely those recommended by the Humane Society of Massachusetts thus making the heroes eligible for commendation by the Society. Capt. James Perkins Jr. and Capt. James Perkins Sr. were each awarded a silver can and their names and remarkable deeds were published.

This was not the first time that sacrifices had been made by James Perkins Sr. for the good of others. In 1787, he had volunteered his house for use as an inoculation hospital. It had been his vessel that brought Small Pox to Arundel from the West Indies. When Dr. Thatcher Goddard asked him to offer up his house to the cause, Perkins willingly complied, even though most people in town were horrified by the idea of purposely infecting their loved ones with the dreaded disease.

The Perkins house, site of resuscitations and inoculations, still stands set back from Oak Street by the Kennebunk River. Built by Captain Thomas Perkins Jr. in 1724, it is said to be the oldest house in Kennebunkport.

Wiswall family of Arundel survived shocking occurance in 1786

A lightning strike for the annals

A bolt of lightning nearly destroyed the home of Thomas Wiswall in 1786, knocking his family temporarily insensible.

Thomas Wiswall had arrived in Cape Porpoise from Newton, Mass. in 1752. Two years later he purchased a blockhouse that was built by Rowlandson Bond in 1743 and moved his family to the banks of the Kennebunk River. There were only nine buildings in the Kennebunkport Village area between Lock Street and South Street in 1786. Wiswall’s blockhouse stood at what is now the corner of Union Street and Ocean Avenue.

His wharf was the first one built on the eastern side of the Kennebunk River and from it he engaged in fishing, coasting and lumbering. Wiswall’s sloop was the first from Arundel to sail to the West Indies, though that first voyage was a financial failure. Most of the cattle that was on deck as cargo fell into the ocean within hours of being loaded onto the vessel. Wiswall persevered with West Indies trade and by 1764 he was one of the wealthiest citizens of Arundel.

Slavery was tolerated in Massachusetts until the Revolutionary War. One of the five slaves listed in the 1764 census of Arundel, a West Indiesman, belonged to the Wiswall family. Though Bradbury writes in his “History of Kennebunkport” that the last two slaves in Arundel died in the poorhouse shortly before 1837, there were West Indiesmen listed as servants in Kennebunkport households as late as 1860.

During the American Revolution, Wiswall was an inspector for the war effort in Arundel. His two cannons were the ones used in the Battle of Cape Porpoise in 1782. (See Cape Porpoise in the American Revolution at

Reports of the lightning strike in Arundel appeared for months in newspapers from South Carolina to Boston and New York. The home of Thomas Wiswall, who had previously been referred to in Boston papers as “Innholder of Arundel,” was struck on the evening of June 8, 1786.

His 20 x 25 foot main house had two stories and a garret. An attached one-story el contained the kitchen and a dairy or milk-room. The only chimney passed through the roof at the end of the house nearest the kitchen.

Lighting struck the chimney, de-nailing all the roof boards around it. Iron curtain rods sitting on the attic floor near the chimney directed electricity into the closet of a bedchamber directly below. Wiswall’s gun was leaning in the corner of that closet wrapped in woolen cloth. The stock of the gun broke away from the barrel and the muzzle was instantly melted, setting the woolen cloth case on fire.

Five people were in the house at the time. All of them were in the kitchen except one daughter who was working in the milk-room. All were knocked insensible. When they came around a few minutes later, none could recall the shocking event, though its results were immediately evident.

Every room was affected. The breastwork over every fireplace in the house was torn apart and every window in the house was broken except one that had been left open. Details of the damages were conveyed in an article in the Massachusetts Gazette on July 10, 1786.

“The frame and sashes of one of the kitchen windows, against which a young man was leaning his arm, together with 4 feet of the plate above, were thrown into the yard before the house. In the milk-room, all the shelves were removed from their supporters, and every earthen milk-vessel broken to pieces, out of one of which a daughter was lading milk into a pewter vessel in her hand. In the same room a cheese-tub was overset, and the cheese in a pickle thrown to the other side of the room. The glass bottles, in several cases in the chamber were broken. Four doors in the house were unhinged. The cellar door was burst open, and a dog was found dead in the cellar.”

The Wiswall family regained their senses just in time to extinguish the fire in the bedchamber closet, which had by then, communicated from the gun case to the light clothing hanging above it.

The incident is probably what inspired Thomas Wiswall to start building a new home for his family next door in 1786. The elegant new house, which still stands on Union Street and now houses Ben & Jerry’s, was finished in 1789.

The old blockhouse, a little worse for the wear, was sold to Nathan Morse but was torn down in about 1807. Its cellar hole was still visible across from Silas Perkins’ store in 1837 when Bradbury wrote his “History of Kennebunkport.”

The “Jinxed” Career of the Ferryboat Kittery

Troubled launching, troubled career.

A vessel that “stuck on the ways” at launching was considered by superstitious sailors to be forever jinxed. The faulty launching of the ferryboat ‘Kittery’, built by David Clark of Kennebunkport, for the directors of the Portsmouth, Kittery & York Street Railway Company (PK&Y) in 1900, lent credence to the notion.

PK&Y started offering ferry service across the Piscataqua River in 1897. The line ran from the old Spring Market building in Portsmouth to the Badger’s Island ferry landing on the Kittery side.  An old steam ferryboat, ‘Mystic’, was purchased from Captain Horatio W. Trefethen of Kittery, who by then had already been piloting her back and forth across the river for some 15 years. A second ferryboat, the  ‘Newmarch’, was purchased from the Middleton Ferry Company of Connecticut. After the ‘Newmarch’ burned to the waterline on December 1, 1899, a committee was formed to procure a new ferryboat to replace her as soon as possible.

The ‘Newmarch’ could accommodate 200 passengers and six heavy teams at once. PK&Y sought to acquire a larger, more commodious vessel that could accommodate many more horse teams and the vehicles they pulled.  In January of 1900, the company announced that a suitable ferry had not be found. They intended to contract for a new vessel and had already requested bids from a number of shipbuilding firms. The winning bid came from David Clark of Kennebunkport. Though he had built several steamers by then Clark had never before built a ferry.

The new ferryboat would be christened the ‘Kittery’. According to a report in the Portsmouth Herald, she was to be launched on June 29, 1900 but there were delays in her construction. The promised launch date, highly anticipated in Portsmouth, came and went. Shipbuilder, David Clark announced that her new  launch date would be July 14th. Events of that day were covered in the Eastern Star. “A large crowd assembled to witness the launching but to the disappointment of all she did not go wholly off the ways.” Spectators murmured about bad omens as they wandered away from the riverfront shipyard behind South Congregational Church.

‘The Kittery’ was gotten off in the dark of that night without ceremony. She was towed to the Perkins Wharf where she awaited the arrival of steam engine inspectors. On July 20th it was announced in The Eastern Star that no further delays were anticipated. The inspectors had arrived and the ferryboat would likely be leaving Kennebunk within a few days under her own steam.

But the engine inspections, conducted across the Kennebunk River at the Emmons Littlefield wharf, did not go well. It was later reported in Portsmouth that “the steamboat inspectors had ordered some alterations in the piping of the new ferryboat ‘Kittery’.”  Other problems with her construction were identified in the meantime and it was determined that she would have to be towed to Portsmouth. On July 27th, the tugboat Piscataqua arrived at the Kennebunk River to pick up the troubled new ferryboat. The President, Treasurer and Superintendent of PK&Y were all on board to take possession.

After a brief stop in Portsmouth to satisfy the crowds that watched for her arrival from the Kittery Point bridge, the new ferry was towed to Boston. It was reported in the Boston Daily Globe that the ‘Kittery’ had to be hauled out on the marine railway there “to receive a new keel and other important repair work.”

It was the middle of August before she was put into service and within a month the she was hauled again to undergo a major design change to her steam reversing apparatus. This alteration reportedly cost PK&Y $800.

The ‘Kittery’ never performed satisfactorily. She used five times as much coal every day as did the other ferry on the line, steamer ‘Alice Howard’, which had replaced the ‘Mystic’ in 1901. The beleaguered ‘Kittery’ hit the bridge in 1910 when her engines died mid-stream. She broke down several times during 1911 and was taken out of the water again to be repaired. Another overhaul was required in 1913.

The Atlantic Shore Railway, which had absorbed the PK&Y in 1906, entered federal receivership on November 1, 1915. When the ferryboat ‘Kittery’ was finally sold to New York parties in 1918 for $6,000, it was reported in the Portsmouth Herald that proceeds of the sale would figure as assets of the troubled trolley company.

It was also reported in 1918 that the ferryboat ‘Kittery’ had “not been used much for the service for which it was built owing to the fact that it could not be operated with as much speed as other boats in the unusually strong tides of the Piscataqua River.”

Though the original design of the ferryboat was likely inadequate, old-timers often blamed her many misfortunes, with a knowing nod, on her interrupted first launching.

A Kennebunkport man for all seasons

James A. Benson had a taste for variety

When studying family history, one often finds a character whose experiences earn him the label of family adventurer. The Benson family history is full of strong men and women, but only the mostly documented story of the life of James A. Benson, born in Kennebunkport on Dec. 4, 1840, reads like historical fiction.

Uncle Jim, as family members still refer to him, was reportedly fearless, even as a boy. He starred in a plethora of Benson-family legends beginning in his teenage years. One such legend, submitted to a local paper for publication by Melvin Landon many Halloweens ago, painted a vivid picture of Jim’s youthful bravado. After his chores were done, Jim would walk down to the Port to go see the girl he was smitten with — a girl who was at the time being courted by several young men. She lived alongside the cemetery and Jim was in the habit of cutting through to save time.

One night, after seeing Jim cross the cemetery, one of his frustrated rivals hatched a sinister plan to scare Benson off. He dug a grave right in the middle of the path he knew Jim would traverse again later that night. After sweet goodbyes were uttered, Jim took off light-footed into the night. Before a moment had passed, the ground opened up under our hero, plunging him into the freshly dug grave. Just then his rival jumped out of hiding wrapped in a sheet and in his spookiest voice chanted, “What are you doing in my grave?” Jim reached up, grabbed the ghost by the ankles, pulled him in and scrambled out. “What the hell are you doing out of your grave?” roared Jim, as he shoveled dirt onto his stunned opponent. Like most spooky graveyard tales, this one cannot be verified, but if anyone ever lived such an adventure it might well have been James Benson.

Uncle Jim volunteered, at the age of 20, to serve in the Civil War. He was sent to Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Va. He was working there as a teamster in 1861 when Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and offered Union Army Teamster jobs to many fugitive Virginia slaves.

Letters addressed to Jim at Fortress Monroe from his father in Kennebunkport have been preserved by his descendants. In them and in the regimental records we learn that after his first term as a teamster expired, Benson enlisted in Company D of the 27th Maine Regiment on Sept. 30, 1862.

Enlistment in the 27th Maine was intended to be a nine-month commitment, but as Jim’s relatively uneventful second term of service was coming to an end, President Abraham Lincoln asked members of the regiment to volunteer for an extra week of active service to defend Washington from Robert E. Lee’s army, which had recently invaded Pennsylvania. Less than half of the soldiers volunteered to stay on and the ones that did were promised the Medal of Honor.

By some bureaucratic mix-up, medals were prepared for the entire regiment and many of the medals were distributed before the mistake was discovered. The rest were later stolen from Col. Mark Wentworth’s barn, where they were being stored. In 1917, Congress ruled that only those 27th Maine soldiers who had served the extra week were eligible for the Medal of Honor. James A. Benson must not have been one of them because his name appeared on the list of soldiers whose medals were revoked.

After the war Uncle Jim travelled out west to find his next adventure. He married Irish-born Margaret Kelley in Oregon, but by the time the 1870 census was taken, Jim and Margaret were living in San Francisco, Calif. He listed his occupation as drayman; a drayman was a driver of horse or mule teams that delivered goods and supplies.

Uncle Jim’s descendants still own the whip that he is said to have handled with great skill. On one of his trips home to Kennebunkport, Jim wanted to demonstrate that skill for his family. While his aunt scolded him for wasting her time he shredded her apron with the snapping tip of his driving whip. The Bensons returned to California and by 1880 Jim was a San Francisco policeman.

He was also employed for a while as a dog sled driver in Canada. Family legend says that Benson found himself in dire straights one night having frozen several toes while he was out on a sled run. Rather than let gangrene invade his foot, he instructed a friend to cut off the discolored toes with a knife after he had consumed enough whiskey to render himself unconscious.

Sure enough, records from the Togus Maine Disabled Soldiers Home, where Uncle Jim passed away in 1907 after a thrilling 67 years, indicate he was missing three toes on his left foot and one toe on his right.

Many thanks to Frank Landon for his Benson family records. Like his mother, Ruth Landon, did before him, Frank devotes immeasurable personal time to preserving the history of Arundel and Kennebunkport.

Capt. Joseph Brooks, the Kennebunkport Storm Tracker

Forewarning favors the odds

Capt. Joseph Brooks of Kennebunkport earned his nickname “Old Probabilities” by pioneering in the field of weather forecasting. His persistence in the face of skepticism, even among his co-owners at the Portland Steamship Packet Company, preserved profit and lives.

Capt. Brooks was of Portland, Maine. It was 1837 when he took Sarah Coes as his wife. She was the daughter of Kennebunkport sail maker, Benjamin Coes, who around 1795 had built the Federal house on Pearl Street now known as Tory Chimneys. Brooks worked in Portland and later in Boston, but he would call Tory Chimneys his home until his death in 1894.

Born in Auburn, Maine, in 1806, Brooks was an intellectually curious individual. In an interview conducted for the press in 1882, he related an early memory that illustrates his determination to learn. Proudly calling attention to a coverless copy of the New Testament, he told the reporter that he had used it to teach himself to read at the age of 12. He found the tattered bible on a beam in a sail loft where he worked as a child. “He rubbed the dust from it, put it in his pocket and in due time absorbed its contents into his mind and heart.”

He became especially interested in weather prediction in 1841 after attending a lecture given by Professor James P. Espy, the United States Government’s first official meteorologist and author of “Philosophy of Storms.” Espy theorized that storms advance eastward across the country and that a storm reported in New York could be expected on the Maine coast within a period of one to three days. Advances in telegraphy soon made it possible for weather reports to be received in good time for astute mariners like Brooks to pay heed to their warnings.

In 1844, when he co-founded the Portland Steam Packet Company, operating two propeller-steam freighters running opposite directions between Boston and Portland, storms were the greatest financial challenge he had to face. His insurance burden cut deeply into his profits. Within a few years commodious new side-wheel passenger steamships with cabins, finished in cherry and mahogany, were added to the line. They ran at night between Franklin Wharf in Portland and India Wharf in Boston and coincided with railroad schedules at either end. Brooks even had a piece of the Grand Trunk Railroad Station business before all was said and done.

Before 1850, against the better judgment of his business partners, Brooks had employed agents in New York, New Haven, Springfield, Boston and Portland to make observations of the state of the wind and weather and to send their findings to him every day over telegraph wires. If the weather looked bad in the morning up to three additional reports were made each day.

Brooks soon got a test case that brought them all around to his way of thinking. He later recalled the incident to a Boston reporter.

“On a certain Monday in the month of February 1852, I sent a telegram (telegrams on this subject passed daily between the Boston and Portland offices of the company) to the agent in Portland at 12 o’clock noon, to the effect that a heavy snow storm was raging in New York but that the weather continued fine in Boston. At four o’clock in the afternoon another telegram was sent, stating that the storm had reached Springfield, and the Boston boat would not leave her dock and that if the St. Lawrence (then a new boat) left Portland, she would find herself in the midst of the storm before the passage was half completed, Now sneers and jeers were in order. The Portland agent came to the conclusion that storms in New York had nothing whatever to do with the weather in Boston and Portland, or in between those points and sent his ship to sea.”

The St. Lawrence left Portland with a full freight and 307 passengers. The howling nor’easter Brooks had predicted met her off Portsmouth, N.H. Conditions grew worse and worse and by the time she reached Boston Harbor she was in serious trouble. She was adrift for three days losing her rudder and most of her cargo, but fortunately all her passengers were spared.

In fact, during the course of 37 years under the management of Brooks, the Portland Steamship Packet Company transported millions of passengers and not one was ever hurt or lost. The line had the best safety record by far, even though they carried much less insurance than any of the other companies and retained a higher percentage of their fares. By the time Brooks retired to Kennebunkport his system of using weather observations to reduce losses had been widely adopted by most Steam Packet Companies.

Harness Racing in Kennebunk

Sulky Racing on Kennebunk Ice
Sulky Racing on Kennebunk Ice

Southern Maine has a long and varied history of horse racing. The first standardbred horse from Maine to run for a stake was Zuarrow, a chestnut gelding from Waterville. He was entered in a Massachusetts race in 1819, just one year after the first professional American Harness Race. Zuarrow trotted one mile across the Charlestown Bridge in 2 minutes, 57 seconds. Trotting hit its stride in 1835 and steadily grew in popularity in Maine throughout the remaining years of the 19th century, even in Kennebunk.

The secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture was alarmed to report in 1866 that horse-racing formed the most prominent feature at agricultural fairs. He quoted from a document written by the editor of the “Canadian Farmer,” who stated, “There was a trot each day and purses to the amount of $1,000 were offered by the society out of its funds. The excuse for this is that the people will not come out in sufficient numbers to pay expenses, unless racing is provided for.”Horse racing was embraced in York County with astonishing enthusiasm given the sway that propriety was said to carry here in those days. Gambling on the horses was considered good clean fun and was enjoyed by the staunchest of moral policemen. York County race results appeared on the front page of the Eastern Star in 1877.

Any straight stretch would do for a track. In Kennebunkport, heats were run on North Street and what is now known as Ocean Avenue. Racing on town streets became so prevalent in Maine that a law was passed stipulating that anyone using a regular roadway as a race track could not sue the town in the event of an injury.

Sulky races were featured at every county fair and most municipal celebrations. They were primarily run on the beaches by 1900, but occasional winter heats on the frozen Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers were reported in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.

In 1904, it was reported that Dr. Merrill, Professor Wheeler, Ernest Benson, Freeman Seavey and Mr. Robinson, all of Kennebunkport, regularly raced their horses at Kennebunk Beach. Mr. George Bayes was the starter and Dr. Merrill and Edward Bryant judged the heats.

A new track was prepared by the Kennebunkport Driving Club for late winter racing in 1919. Permission was granted by Kennebunk Lower Village landowners to dam up the outlet at the road and allow the marsh inland of Western Avenue to freeze solid. Two or three sulkies were pulled around the ice track in each heat and kids entertained themselves between races by letting their kites pull them across the slippery track. The ice was so thick that spectators could drive their automobiles all the way to the end of the marsh. The new track, dubbed Lake Speedway, was a roaring success.

The following May, a meeting was held at the Mousam House in Kennebunk to form a combined Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club. Freeman Seavey was elected secretary and treasurer; Roy Taylor, Ernest Walker, Harry Washburn, Harry Day became assistants; and Earnest Benson was named president and manager of the club.

Benson, whose pristinely cared for racing silks were red and white, was uniquely qualified for the top position. As a Kennebunkport blacksmith, he boarded horses for fellow club members and made special racing shoes for the contestants. The club raced in the winter at Lake Speedway and the rest of the year on Gooch’s Beach. Popularity of the sport quickly grew in the Kennebunks.

In March of 1922, the Biddeford Weekly Journal printed a rumor that the West Kennebunk Grange was thinking of leasing the local deputy sheriff’s training track for a fairground and possibly, a venue for harness racing. Sure enough, on July 22, 1922 the West Kennebunk Grange Trotting Park was established for summer racing on Constable Edwin I. Littlefield’s land. Heats were held every Saturday afternoon.

Fiske, Benson, Maling, Taylor, Smith and Jenney of the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club and Matt Bowden, L E Wiggin and others of Biddeford, agreed to trot their 20 or more horses for 40 percent of the gate receipts. The Grange received 60 percent to be invested in maintenance on the track. The trotting park accommodated crowds of 3,500 within the first two years, but maintenance of the park was not adequately performed by the Grange and the track fell into disrepair.

On Nov. 15, 1929, it was reported in the Lewiston Evening Journal that the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club had purchased 22 horse sheds at the West Kennebunk Trotting Park as well as the judges stand and ticket office. Edwin I Littlefield, by then a senator, retained ownership of the land. Sheriff Ernest L. Jones was elected manager and treasurer of the Driving Club.

The West Kennebunk Trotting Park was used mostly as a training track after 1930. Local races continued to be run on Lake Speedway and Gooch’s Beach. World War II put an end to the regular races, though occasional heats were run until 1948.

Little remains of the West Kennebunk Trotting Park, which now lies under the turnpike garage. Few people still remember the horse racing years in the Kennebunks. Fortunately, Cecil Benson does and his help with this column was greatly appreciated.


People of Cape Porpoise witnessed battleship trials and war games

A right of way contest
A right of way contest

Around the turn of the 20th century, Cape Porpoise residents had a front row seat to watch the official United States Battle Cruiser speed trials from Seavy’s lookout up on Crow Hill.

Each trial consisted of 2 trips over a carefully measured course that ran 41.65 knots at sea from Cape Ann, Massachusetts to Cape Porpoise, Maine. The battleships would circle for a few hours at Cape Ann to give their boilers time to build up a head of steam before screaming across the starting line at top speed.

The stakes were high for the first trial in May of 1893. Philadelphia shipbuilder Edwin S. Cramp had a contract to deliver a cruiser that could maintain an average speed of 20 knots per hour for four consecutive hours. Every quarter knot by which the requirement was exceeded was worth another $50,000 from the Government.  Members of the Naval Board of Inspection looked over every bolt and rivet from stem to stern and remained on board for performance assessment. Edwin S. Cramp himself supervised the trial and Capt. R A Sargeant took command of the vessel. A ship’s company of no less than 400 men were required for the trip that cost approximately  $30,000.

May 22, 1893 was a beautiful calm day. Thousands of giddy spectators decked in Sunday finery turned up at Cape Ann to witness the start of the race. A reporter for the Boston Daily Globe described a carnival atmosphere that spread all the way up the coast to Cape Porpoise. The trial was a triumph. After just under four hours – with a clock stop in off Cape Porpoise to get the massive vessel turned around – the armored cruiser New York averaged 21 knots per hour earning her shipbuilder a $200,000 premium.

Several trials were conducted each year from 1893 through 1907. The Biddeford Journal posted expected times of arrival and no matter the weather, the folks in Cape porpoise were watching from Crow Hill when the battleships came into view.

The October 2, 1895 trial of the Steamer St Paul for a coveted US Mail Carrier contract seemed doomed from the start. She got under way to build steam at 9:45 am but shipbuilder Cramp didn’t like the way her boilers were running. To make matters worse she had been sitting in brackish water in the Delaware River during a long drought and her bottom was foul. At the last minute Cramp decided to put off her official trial and proceed with a preliminary run.

Not far out of Cape Ann the boilers began to “prime” and the boat’s speed perceptibly decreased. “Priming” meant that the water in the boiler was not made into steam rapidly enough. Bubbles containing a large percentage of water were carried into the cylinders with steam.

Eight miles from the finish line in Cape Porpoise the steamer was further delayed when the captain of a local lumber schooner refused to yield right of way.  The schooner was directly in the ship’s path. Captain of the St Paul ordered the whistle blown for her to sheer off but the Cape Porpoise lumberman held steadily on. The big racer barely avoided cutting the schooner in halves.

The official trial was run the following day after brackish water was cleaned out of the boilers but even then she beat her 20 knot per hour minimum by only .50 knots. The St Paul was immediately taken to New York and placed in service on the line. Despite a slow start she proved to be a splendid transatlantic mail carrier.

August 20, 1902 spectators at Cape Porpoise were treated to a full scale war game. The Blue Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Higginson was charged with defense of the U.S. coast from Cape Cod to Portland against attack from Admiral Pillsbury’s White Squadron.

Higginson’s fleet consisted of nine battleships, seven torpedo boats and a converted yacht, the Mayflower. The White fleet was ordered to attempt to reach Portland, Rockport, Portsmouth, Salem or Provincetown without getting caught by a superior vessel.

The War Games were an exciting spectacle for the people of Cape Porpoise, who this time came down off Crow Hill to get a closer look.

Blue Squadron Cruisers, Brooklyn and Olympia, the Mayflower and the torpedo boat Shubrick arrived off Cape Porpoise just before 3 pm. The larger vessels remained well off shore, but the torpedo boat ran in and anchored near the cape for about a half an hour. The fleet proceeded eastward after that but not before the torpedo boat Shubrick steamed in and put a marine ashore.