Hamilton House History
Jonathan Hamilton (1745-1802) was a Berwick, Maine, (then still a part of Massachusetts) native who rose from humble beginnings to become the most prominent merchant in the region by the mid-1780s. Hamilton began his mercantile career selling local fish and timber. During the American Revolution he amassed a fortune through privateering ventures which allowed him to expand his business into shipbuilding, timber harvesting, partial ownership of local mills, and the ownership of sugar plantations on the island of Tabago, West Indies, from which he imported rum, molasses, and slaves.
Hamilton’s base of mercantile activity was centered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he rented wharf space and owned a chandlery shop with his partner Mr. Lord. In 1783, he purchased land at Pipe Stave Landing on the Salmon Falls River in Berwick. An advantageous location for loading and building vessels, the parcel of land already had a long history of local use. In fact, prior to the Hamilton purchase, the site had belonged to David Moore. According to Moore’s 1777 probate inventory, a house, a wharf, and ways for building vessels were present on the property. Moore’s house burned several years before Hamilton purchased the property, but the wharf and ways remained intact for use by the new owner.
Between 1785 and 1788 Hamilton created his own country seat at Pipe Stave Landing, building a grand mansion on the bluff overlooking the river. Tax records from 1798 indicate that Hamilton’s house was the highest valued in Berwick. In fact, it was taxed twice as much as the next best house, the Tilly Hagen’s house (today known as the Sarah Orne Jewett House in downtown South Berwick). From his new home Hamilton conducted trade, built and serviced vessels, ran a shop, and became part owner of a nearby mill.
After Hamilton died in 1802, his sons did not carry on the business at the same level of prosperity. There are allusions to their lack of ability and integrity, but most likely they were caught in the crunch of the Jefferson Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812. The embargo and war crippled shipping throughout New England, hastening the decline of many family fortunes and the death of small shipping centers like Berwick.
Hamilton’s daughter Olive and her husband Joshua Haven purchased the property from Hamilton’s sons, living there between 1811 and 1815. The property was owned by Nathan Folsom, a former business associate of Hamilton, from 1815-1839. Folsom, who purchased the house as an investment, probably leased it during this period.
In 1839, Hamilton House was purchased by Aipheus Goodwin and his wife Betsy. The Goodwins were farmers and, as New England’s economy shifted away from shipping and toward agriculture, it was fitting that the town’s landing now became a family farm.
Several generations of the Goodwin family raised sheep and a variety of other crops at Hamilton House. Although the family enjoyed several decades of prosperity, the New England agricultural economy began to suffer from western competition toward the end of the nineteenth century. As a result, the family’s resources diminished and the house fell into disrepair. With growing opportunities for well-paid factory work in South Berwick and surrounding towns, and agriculture on the decline, the Goodwin family decided to sell the farm.
The Goodwins could afford to make few changes during their tenure in the house, making it a preserved example of early architecture. The "old-fashioned" look of the house endeared it to local author Sarah Orne Jewett, who feared the house might be torn down if sold to the wrong buyer. In 1898, Jewett convinced her friend Emily Tyson, widow of the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and her stepdaughter Elise Tyson (later Mrs. Henry G. Vaughan) to purchase the house. The Tysons were part of a new wave of summer residents who were caught up in the Colonial Revival romance of owning country houses which reflected the grace and prosperity of colonial forbears and provided a healthful rural retreat away from the heat and pollution of cities.
The Tysons hired Herbert Browne of the Boston architectural firm Little and Browne to oversee some interior changes and to design additions to the west and east sides of the house. The Tysons also embarked on creating a grand Colonial Revival-style garden at the east side of the house encircled by an elaborate pergola. All major work was completed by 1900. Important additions to the property made in the following decade included murals painted in the parlor and dining room of the house by George Porter Fernald and the construction of a charming garden cottage fitted with interior paneling salvaged from a colonial home in Newington, New Hampshire. Luckily, Elise Tyson was an accomplished amateur photographer whose photographs of interior and garden views provide a rare and wonderful documentation of the early years the ladies spent at the property.
After her stepmother’s death in 1922, Elise Tyson Vaughan and her husband Henry Vaughan (married 1915) were encouraged by William Sumner Appleton, the founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England, to keep the house. The Vaughans had built a house, again aided by the firm of Little and Browne and with murals by George Porter Fernald, in Sherborn, Massachusetts. Around 1925, Elise did some redecorating at Hamilton House in keeping with the spirit of the earlier era and summered there until her death in 1949.
Elise Tyson Vaughan bequeathed Hamilton House, its gardens, outbuildings, and surrounding fields to Historic New England in 1949. She left the adjacent woods to the state of Maine in the name of her late husband, Henry Vaughan. Today the woods have many popular hiking trails and are maintained as Vaughan Woods State Park.
Shortly after Historic New England acquired the property, the garden pergola, which had fallen into disrepair and was nearly destroyed in a hurricane, was removed. The architectural additions made in the Tyson era, including the kitchen wing on the east side of the house and the bedroom and porch on the west, were also removed to reveal the house in a form more closely reflecting Jonathan Hamilton’s occupation. Although we may regret the removal of these architectural elements today, they were, at the time, in keeping with current attitudes toward preservation and restoration to early periods (at the expense of later additions) prevalent in the 1950s.
In 1987, Historic New England embarked on a project to recapture the Tysons’ Colonial Revival vision of Hamilton House. The bases of the restoration were interior and exterior photographs of the house and gardens taken by Paul Weber for a series of articles published in House Beautiful magazine in 1929. Major garden restoration began in 1992 and continues today.