Part of this historical overview is extracted from the history written for the Maine Community Heritage Project (MCHP), funded by Maine Historical Society.
From One Town, Many: Ancient North Yarmouth
M ore than three hundred years ago, North Yarmouth and six of our neighboring communities were all part of Ancient North Yarmouth. The original 1680 plantation of North Yarmouth encompassed present-day North Yarmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, Pownal, Freeport, Harpswell, and the Mere Point portion of Brunswick. It was one of the oldest and largest towns in the Province of Maine.
The center of North Yarmouth in 1680 was today’s town of Yarmouth. Most of North Yarmouth’s European settlers divided their land into lots and built along the immediate coast, particularly near the Royal River, named for William Royall, one of the earliest settlers of this area called Wescustogo.
Long before European settlers arrived, our region of Maine was home to the Abenaki tribe of Native Americans. The Abenaki, the Maliseet, the Passamaquoddy, the Mi’kmaq and the Penobscot Indians were members of the old Wabanaki Confederacy, the traditional adversaries of the Iroquois.
“Abenaki” has an Algonquian root, meaning “people from the east.” The Eastern Abenaki settled in pockets throughout the region, farming the fertile plains of the Kennebec and Androscoggin Rivers, and spreading out along lands west of Casco Bay in small family and tribal settlements.
English Settlers Arrive
In the mid-1630s William Royall came to the Casco Bay region from Salem, Massachusetts. In March 1643, his land holdings around the river known as Wescustogo were confirmed by Thomas Gorges, Deputy Governor for the Province of Maine.
In later years the river came to be known as the Royal River, the name it carries today.
Others settlers followed. Most were from England; and many were descendants of settlers in Massachusetts. They came to North Yarmouth because large tracts of land were still available for settlement, and they had heard that timber, fish, and other valuable resources were abundant.
William and Phoebe Royall settled on the eastern side of the Royal River. They built a house and farmed land between the Royal (Wescustogo) and Cousins (Chusquissacke) Rivers, in present-day Yarmouth and Freeport.
Wescustogo had a well-protected harbor and plentiful fishing and hunting. There were huge trees to harvest for trade with England. More settlers followed and began to farm along the coast. Population grew and more and more land was taken, creating tension with the native Abenaki.
Such conflict was flaring up all over southern New England and in 1675, the colonists and their Native American fought King Philip’s War, an armed conflict that lasted until 1676.
In Wescustogo, all 65 colonists of North Yarmouth were driven from the land they had settled. Some returned within a few years, but were driven away again after a series of attacks known as King William’s War. (1688). These conflicts were so devastating that settlers did not return until around 1715.
Fighting between Native Americans and the European settlers especially escalated during the French and Indian War of the 1750s, when many European settlers were captured, killed, or had their homes burned. However, the settlers were persistent and eventually the Abenaki moved further inland and north towards Quebec, which allowed the Europeans to regain their footing. After 1758, peace prevailed and the white settlement of North Yarmouth, at the mouth of the Royal River, grew and prospered.
North Yarmouth was incorporated on September 22, 1680. The “North” in the North Yarmouth was meant to differentiate it from Yarmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod—Maine was then a part of Massachusetts.
Establishing Boundaries and Lots
In the 1720s, a determined group of twenty families returned to North Yarmouth and built three garrisons for protection. In 1727, the plantation was divided and mapped, setting out land lots and ownership.
North Yarmouth’s boundary with Falmouth was reestablished. A large boulder known as the “white rock” was used as the separation point.
Returning settlers, who had been driven out in the Indian Wars, were given first choice of lots. Some chose new lots or incorporated them into their old lands. Newly arriving settlers chose from what remained.
“Home lots” of 10 acres near the coast were purchased by one hundred and three original proprietors (owners). If they improved the lots and kept them occupied for five years, they received an additional lot of 100 or 120 acres in the interior back lots, known as the “after divisions.”
The back lots were mostly dense forests of valuable timber. Landowners cut down the huge trees, floated them down the Royal River, and loaded them onto ships. The timber was sold at a good profit to English merchants.
After the trees were harvested, the settlers then cleared their property and established farmland.
The one hundred “after divisions” and their sixty-four landowners were the foundation of our future town of North Yarmouth.
Settlements Grow Into Villages
The descendents of North Yarmouth’s original proprietors had large families, and population grew rapidly. In 1764, North Yarmouth listed 188 families living in 154 houses. There were a total of 1,097 inhabitants, including 18 African Americans.
The first US Census in 1790 recorded that the town’s population had almost doubled—to 1,905 persons.
Besides the original settlement village on the shore in Yarmouth, other centers began to develop. People needed general stores, blacksmiths, and carriage-making shops, and shops and houses centered around the local churches or at travel intersections—where inland roads met stagecoach routes. Later, villages grew where railroad train depots were located.
Within the boundaries of our present-day town, these villages developed early on:
• Crockett’s Corner (the modern-day intersection of Route 9, Mountfort Road and West Pownal Road)
• East North Yarmouth (the modern-day intersection of North Road and Route 9)
• Walnut Hill (settled at first at the modern day corner of Route 231 and Route 115; and later at the intersection of Routes 9 and 115).
Why Other Towns Split Off
In Ancient North Yarmouth and Yarmouth, A History: 1636-1936, William Rowe wrote that “In early New England the history of the church is the history of the community.” This is particularly true for Ancient North Yarmouth!
From 1730, the Church Under the Ledge (now gone) on current day Route 88, was a community center. People worshiped there, and parish (church) business was conducted there. But it was also North Yarmouth’s administrative center. Town meetings were held at the Church, and people went there to record births, deaths and marriages, and to pay their taxes.
But as North Yarmouth grew and settlers established homes in our town’s far-flung corners, residents had to travel long distances to Sunday worship and town meetings. For Harpswell’s inhabitants, this meant a long, hard, and often dangerous row or sail for twelve miles over the waters of Casco Bay at least once a week. It is no surprise that they were the first town to secede from North Yarmouth. In 1750, the settlers of Harpswell established their own separate parish, and, eight years later, incorporated as a distinct town.
Freeport set off as its own town in 1789, followed by Pownal in 1808, Cumberland in 1821, and Yarmouth in 1849 (more about this later).
Settlers in our present-day town of North Yarmouth also wanted their own church and civic center close to where they lived, and they worked hard to make it happen. Around 1780, Walnut Hill residents built a “Great Schoolhouse” near the Walnut Hill Cemetery on Route 115. They used it as a schoolhouse and as a church.
In 1793, residents organized the “Second Church of North Yarmouth” at the corner of Routes 115 and 231, and in 1794, petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for the right to form their own parish, separate from The Church Under the Ledge. They called themselves the “North West Congregational Society of North Yarmouth.”
In 1806, the Legislature approved the separation of North Yarmouth into two back lot parish areas, and in 1821, one of those parishes, Cumberland, seceded from North Yarmouth.
Coastal Yarmouth split off from North Yarmouth in 1849. This was the most traumatic separation for what remained of ancient North Yarmouth.
There had always been strong ties between Yarmouth village and the interior. Trees cut for lumber near Walnut Hill village were used to build ships in Yarmouth’s harbor; farms produced crops that were sold in the village and village merchants sold goods to the rural farmers.
But quarrels between villagers and back lot farmers had been festering for some time. By the 1840s townsfolk living on Main Street and along the crowded waterfront were increasingly angry that those living near Walnut Hill opposed their efforts to build new roads and modernize the town. Finally, after a heated argument over the purchase of a fire engine, Yarmouth village petitioned the legislature to separate from North Yarmouth.
With separation came the realization that the Town Hall, Masonic Lodge, North Yarmouth Academy, the militia, the town band, the fire company and the Abolitionist now existed within the boundaries of the town that split away. But North Yarmouth retained legal possession of the area’s earliest records, some which date back to the 1600s, and even including one of the original signed copies of the Declaration of Independence!
In 1853, a new town hall was built in the geographical center of the town, between the two villages of East North Yarmouth and Walnut Hill. Today, that venerable building on Route 9 is home to the North Yarmouth Historical Society.
Towards the 20th Century
Most families in North Yarmouth were farmers, and had to deal continuously with all the challenges that farming brings: crop failures, hard winters, rough roads, isolation, fire, storms, and more. If that weren’t enough, farmers had to compete with the expanding farms of the American West, where crops were cheaper to grow and send east by railroad.
Still, farming was a successful venture for many families in town and the beautiful old houses of Walnut Hill and East North Yarmouth are a good measure of agricultural success.
Community organizations such as the Wescustogo Grange and the Congregational Church’s family activities were important for our rural community and have a long history.
North Yarmouth children received their elementary education in several one-room schoolhouses which served the different villages.
By the 1940s, we had four schoolhouses: the Dunn School (Route 9 near North Road); the Buxton School (Pea Lane and Route 115); Walnut Hill School (Route 231 between the Congregational Church and Lufkin Road); and the Hicks School (Mill Road and Route 231). The Town House on Route 9 also served as classroom space for Grades 7 and 8, and some neighborhood 6th graders.
North Yarmouth’s schoolhouse system was a direct result of our town’s roads. At the turn of the last century, roads could be very bad: narrow, rutted passways which had became “crowned” over time as horse drawn carts and wagons traveled over them. There were frost-heaved rocks, ruts, holes, impassable mud and washouts, and huge drifts from snowstorms. North Yarmouth began to see paved roads in the 1930s, when Routes 115 and 9 were blacktopped (Route 9 wasn’t finished until 1950).
As population increased in the post-WWII, the little schoolhouses simply could not accommodate the growing population of children. This combined with improved roads, made it possible and necessary to consolidate the town’s schoolchildren into one central building. Our one-room schools faded into history with the building of the North Yarmouth Memorial School, completed in 1950.
This school became overloaded quickly; kindergarteners were taught in the Vestry of the Congregational Church starting in 1958.
The new Maine School Administrative District 51, combining North Yarmouth and Cumberland, was approved by the two towns’ residents and the Legislature voted it into existence in 1965. (The official vote was Feb. 7, 1966. (CHECK!!).
The North Yarmouth Memorial School burned to the ground in the early morning hours of October 22, 1975. The school was rebuilt and rededicated in 1977.
North Yarmouth paid the tuition for its high school students to area schools, since our town did not have its own high school. The majority of students attended either North Yarmouth Academy or Greely Institute (later Greely High School), depending on which school was closest to home. When Cumberland and North Yarmouth consolidated into MSAD 51, all North Yarmouth students went to Greely High School.
North Yarmouth’s historic homes date from 1759. The ell of the house located where Parsonage Road meets Route 115 (the Stackpole home, J. Staples on the 1871 map) was in existence when the town’s earliest road, Route 115, was laid out in 1759.
The early homes that survive in North Yarmouth today were built and improved by homeowners in the Georgian and Federal style of the times, and look like homes in Yarmouth village, since early homeowners had many business and personal connections to Yarmouth. These old homes existed in a landscape that was both tied to the sea, and yet distant from it.
Throughout the 19th century our town’s homes developed as farms grew and prospered. Many homes in North Yarmouth—classic connected farmhouses—date from the 19th and early 20th century. Several of these beautiful North Yarmouth homes are discussed in Thomas Hubka’s Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn.
Any community’s growth is tied to transportation. Find out more about North Yarmouth’s road history here.
North Yarmouth Historical Society
In the 1970s, several North Yarmouth residents realized the importance of our town’s history and took steps to preserve and protect our historical resources. In October, 1974 North Yarmouth Historical Society held its first official meeting. Nellie Leighton, a North Yarmouth resident since the age of 2, was NYHS’s first president. Linda Wentworth was elected vice president, Shirley Fountain was elected secretary, and Edith Atkins became the society’s treasurer.
On March 3, 1973, the organization was incorporated. Pro-active efforts at preservation were led by Ursula Baier, who was an experienced worker from a historical society in New Hampshire. Deed research, an old house survey, and rescue and preservation of our ancient town records were performed by a stalwart team of volunteers. The organization today rests on the solid foundation laid by these preservationists.
A vault was built to house NYHS’s collections and early records of the town. It is located in Walnut Hill Station, the town’s firebarn and former municipal office; this is where NYHS’s administrative records are also kept.
The 1853 Old Town House, located on Route 9 just south of the Royal River, was saved from imminent destruction in 1976 by NYHS when the Society purchased it from the town for $1.00. A large number of town volunteers worked to restore it; it is now used for NYHS events and private functions.
North Yarmouth has grown from a small backlots settlement to a beautiful rural town known for its spacious open lands and historical character. We are proud to retain the name of ancient North Yarmouth, incorporated in 1680 as one of the oldest and largest towns in the Province of Maine.