History Of Wells
A History Of Wells, Maine By Hope M. Shelley
In our nation's eastern most Pine Tree State of Maine and its southern most county of York, is the town of Wells, named for the cathedral city of Wells, in Somerset, England. Wells is a seacoast town. From Drakes Island to Moody the majestic marine shoreline sweeps in a crescent, bordering the mighty Atlantic Ocean with sandy beaches and rocky promontories. Behind the dunes a tidal river flows through the green and gold marshes and is met by many smaller streams, which originate inland among the forests and distant hills.
Everywhere is found evidence of the last glacial age; in the stone walls of the pastures, the great boulders in the fields and forests, the bare scoured ledges and in the rocks along the shore. Here, in layer upon layer of rock, twisted out of the natural position by the great glacial force, is a record of the ages for all to see.
Settling The Plantation Of Wells
Wells is located in the section of Maine awarded to Sir Ferdinando Gorges on August 10, 1622 by the Plymouth Company in England. Gorges was named the Lord Proprietor of Maine with almost regal powers over the province. Unable to come here himself, he sent his young cousin, Thomas, to act as his deputy and agent. Thus it was Thomas Gorges who granted the lands from Northeast of the Ogunquit River to the Southwest of the Kennebunk River to agents from Exeter, New Hampshire on September 27, 1641 for the purpose of settling the plantation of Wells.
Town Incorporation & Fees
The original settlers of Wells paid annual fees to lease the land. After the death of Sir Ferdinando Gorges and with the political upheaval in England, the Massachusetts Bay Colony took advantage of the situation and laid claim to all of Maine. On July 4th & 5th in 1653 Wells submitted to the control of the MBC with their laws and Puritan beliefs. Although Wells residents were reluctant to submit, the town was now incorporated and as free men each was now the owner of his own lands.
The original land grants to the first settlers in Wells stretched two and a half miles inland from the upper edge of the marsh. The farmsteads and gardens were followed by orchards, pasture land, hay fields and inland wood lots. The inland boundaries were where the Ridge and Branch Roads are today. On early deeds this was called the Upper Post Road and was parallel to Lower Post Road (Route One).
Geography of Wells
When attempting to best describe Wells, one must consider its geographical content and size. Now approximately 60 square miles in size, its original boundaries included the towns of Kennebunk and Ogunquit. The number of rivers and brooks in the area was one of the enticements to early mill owners. Clusters of farms were concentrated near rivers and brooks, where the mills operated.
Early Settlers & Businesses
Usually evident in these areas of concentrated population were a blacksmith shop, a store and eventually a post office. A local one-room school and a church provided the educational, social and cultural opportunities for each area. These early settlement patterns comprise the various sections of Wells today; Coles Corner, Wells Corner, Eldridge Corner, Moody, Tatnic, Merriland Ridge, Highpine (formerly Wells Deport) and Wells Branch derive their names from earlier times.
Long before Wells incorporation in 1653, as the third town in Maine, temporary residences were built on the beaches by traders and fishermen. Edmund Littlefield, the father of Wells, established a permanent home, sawmill and gristmill as early as 1640-41 at the falls of the Webhannet River. Reverend John Wheelwright soon followed and by 1642 was attempting to provide religious freedom here for himself and his followers. He established the first church and claimed several tracts of land for himself. During his brief three or four year stay, he also served as one of the agents appointed to survey and allot lands of Gorges grant to Wellssettlers.
The Indian Wars
The Indian Wars, from 1675 until the mid-1700s, made existence in Wells almost beyond human endurance. The noble men and women who remained were forced to withstand many terrors and adversities. They were murdered, their homes and mills burned, and their farms laid waste. The Indians devastated all the territory northeast of Wells, leaving Wells the frontier town. The inhabitants were compelled to breast the full fury of the French and Indian forces. One of the most significant battles took place in 1692 at the site of Storers Garrison on Post Road. This three day battle fulfilled an earlier prophesy: Berwick, Kittery, York shall fall, Wells shall stand to see it all. Academic historians now agree, that because Wells did withstand that particular battle, the English foothold in the northeast was insured.
The staunch settlers rebuilt again and again. Having survived poverty and disease as well, they were again called to fight. During the Revolutionary War Wells contributed extensively to the army. At one time at least one-third of all able-bodied men served. No other town in York County contributed a greater number of officers. Following this conflict Wells prospered, with shipping and trade extending to the West Indies and Europe. The area was set back briefly by the War of 1812, but the glorious Age of Sail soon followed with shipbuilding and commerce by the coastal schooners flourishing.
Although overland travel was difficult, as early as 1825 there were eight taverns catering to the stagecoach travelers. The railroads arrival in 1842 provided employment for the locals and accessibility from points north and south. The rails would eventually become the means of transporting freight previously carried by the schooners.
The Beaches Of Wells
The barrier beaches of Wells were being discovered by wealthy inland businessmen by the late 1840s. Although tourism didn't flourish until the 20th century, this was the beginning of the awareness of our cool summer climate and many natural resources. Originally, the beaches of Wells were the natural resource that provided a landing place for the earliest travelers. Early historians noted that traders and fishermen were using the beaches regularly by the 1500s. In fact, Drakes Island was reportedly named for a Casco Bay trader and voyager, Thomas Drake, who supposedly plied our shores. As the settlements occurred a century later, these beaches became not only a landing place but more importantly the highway for travel from one settlement to another. Travel was mostly by foot and allowance had to be made for skirting the rocky ledges with paths through the adjoining forests. It reportedly took 2 to 3 days to go from Cape Porpoise to York.
Beach Protection & Maintenance
More important still, these barrier beaches were described in deeds as seawalls. This barrier was most important in protecting the marshes from the waters of the Atlantic. The value of the marsh hay with its high mineral content was immeasurable. The survival of the settlers livestock and subsequently their own depended upon the marsh hay. Any community in New England, which had been blessed with marshes, had a head start in maintaining a successful settlement. The protection of the marshes and the maintenance of the beach barrier was noted in the mid 1700s when the Massachusetts Court (Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820) wrote a law penalizing anyone who allowed livestock to trample the barrier dunes. In 1757 Province Laws note an act to prevent cattle, horses, and sheep from running at large and feeding on the beach grass at Wells. It further states that the destruction and trampling of such had occurred, thus allowing the seas to break across the beach covering the said marsh with sand. The penalties were considerable thus hoping to deter the negligence of the livestock owners.
The Industrial Era
The Industrial Era of the mid-1800s brought economic prosperity. This and advances in transportation initiated the development of beach resort towns such as Wells. The arrival of the railroads in 1842 and 1872, the Atlantic Shore Line in 1907 as well as the automobile provided accessible means for reaching our shores. Beginning in the late 1840s wealthy industrialists sought to recreate their social circles at the shore where cooling breezes tempered the heat and humidity of the inland cities.
The Atlantic House
The Atlantic House, built in the late 1840s at Fishermens Cove, was the first such enterprise locally. Interrupted by the Civil War, it was not until 1872 that another such venture surfaced with the building of the Island Ledge House at Wells Beach. Once consumed by fire, these huge lodging and entertainment-center undertakings were not again attempted. Numerous smaller hotels and boarding houses were built. Developers began purchasing the hillocks and hummocks of the barrier dunes for subdivision into individual house lots. In the late 1880s and throughout the 90s Charles Tibbetts acquired Moody Beach. In the early 1890s William Eaton was the local agent for R.Bl Crook and J. B. Brackett, merchants from Berwick, who laid out Atlantic Avenue. In the early 1900s Joseph Eaton subdivided Drakes Island.
Construction & Development
As the cottage boom evolved, the local shipwright, who had formerly built the sailing vessels, now became the house carpenter. Masons and painters began advertising. Electricians and plumbers advertised as well when, in the early 1900s electricity and town water became available. Architecture along the shore was varied but generally numerous windows and porches faced the Atlantic. The first area to be built with summer cottages appears to be the Crescent Beach area north to the main beach. The 1891-2 Cadastral Map of the Beaches of Wells picture 15 beachfront cottages in this area. There were nine cottages noted on Atlantic Avenue, one at Drakes Island and none at Moody Beach. Thus evolved the service industry of hotels, restaurants, specialty shops and entertainment centers to accommodate the seasonal population which provided economic security to investors and native Mainers.
Visitors & Travelers
The original guests were wealthy folk who stayed the whole summer. Not until after World War II, when the auto became available to nearly every family, did the length of stay change from the whole summer to a more transient few days to a week. Cabins and motels evolved to accommodate this generation of the traveling public. Regardless of whether visitors to Wells came to enjoy Mother Natures artistry and weather, for family ties, for health or financial gain, for pleasure, or just because it was the fashionable thing to do, tourisms popularity has continued for more that a century and half of summers. This sharing of the towns natural resources has had a permanent impact on our seacoast community.
Chamber Of Commerce
Today museums and historic sites through out Wells recognize the heritage and significance of the towns role in local and national history. The Chamber of Commerce provides a wealth of information for those who wish to see the town. The 350th Anniversary Committee has written an in depth history of the town in the recent publication, My Name Is Wells, I Am The Town. Make Wells your destination soon.