Welcome to Ogunquit - A Brief History

Today, Ogunquit remains essentially a tranquil, small village where one can enjoy the simple pleasures at a peaceful  pace, no matter how crowded it may become at times.  It continues to offer almost everything to almost everyone as perhaps nowhere else in the country can: the finest stretch of pristine beach whose glistening white sand flows wide and long; one of the most picturesque small harbors, with its fishing and pleasure boats moving  easily at their quiet moorings and crowned by a unique draw-footbridge; the quaint New England flavor of the Village Center with its countless restaurants and lounges, art galleries, gift shops, inns, hotels and guesthouses; awesome views of high waves crashing against rocks, and soothing views of gentle waters easing up onto clean white sand; several fine golf courses and country clubs nearby; the Ogunquit Playhouse which yearly attracts star names to its casts of players; movie theaters and small repertory companies; boat rides, either for the viewing or for trapping Maine’s famous lobster or for fishing in the deep dark sea; the exceptionally stirring and exhilarating Marginal Way footpath which winds along a craggy promontory shadowing the vast Atlantic for a sandpiper’s view of the famed rocky coast of Maine.

The picturesque little village of Ogunquit lies in the southeastern corner of York County – the southernmost and most populous county in the State of Maine.  The name, roughly translated from the Abenaki (some say Natick) Indian language, aptly means  “…beautiful place by the sea.”  Before  the coming of Europeans, the land was rough and rocky; its fields and forests were further from markets and shipping points than those of the York River to  the south and the Mousam and Kennebunk rivers to the north.  Fishing was the chief source of income for Ogunquit residents in the early days of settlement.  These dauntless, self-reliant fishermen kept their dories in the outer part of what is now called Perkins Cove, exposed to and at the mercy of the erratic Atlantic Ocean.

Settled by the English in the late 1620’s, the area enjoyed relative harmony between colonists and native Indians for  several years.  Eventually, however, as is common with most early settlements, disputes arose, and the village was  subjected to numerous attacks and massacres.

The entire Ogunquit area was once a part of the 5,000 acre estate of Sir Fernando Gorges, granted to him by the English  King for “loyal service to the crown”.  His descendant, Sir Thomas Gorges, became the first “mayor” of the area  and, out of a grant that was extended “…from the Cocheke to the Kennebec” rivers; he chose this southern part for his home.

The first church was built in 1642, and as early as 1679, trading vessels left the pier at the end of what is now Wharf  Lane for Boston and the Caribbean laden with firewood and lumber, returning with sugar, molasses, rum and salt.  As  late as 1900, schooners and other large sailing ships could be seen coming and going from this busy dock.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, of which Maine was the large northern section, attempted to lay claim to this vast Gorges grant, but in a lawsuit in England in 1678, the crown sustained the Gorges heirs.  The Massachusetts Colony later bought Ogunquit, as well as the rest of the grant, and during the Missouri Compromise of 1820, conveyed half interest in this wild parcel of land to the new State of Maine; they later ceded the other half.

The first Post Office was established in Ogunquit in 1826, and in 1879 is became part of a grocery store (formerly  Maxwell’s Store) on the south corner of what is now Berwick Road.  The new brick building on Main Street, just  south of the town center, now serves as a meeting and greeting place for residents throughout the year.

In 1888, a bridge was built across the Ogunquit River providing access for summer visitors and residents to the  beautiful and vast beach area, and, in 1897, the Ogunquit Memorial Library building was given to the Village by Nannie (Mrs. George) Conarroe in memory of  her husband.  This imposing yet elegant  fieldstone structure, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, remains a uniquely lovely landmark in town and well used by residents and  visitors alike.  Also in 1897, the  Ogunquit Water Company was formed using dams on the Josias River and later large wells which were dropped in a field near Agamenticus Road.  In 1901, the Mousam Water Company bought the rights, franchises and property, and today it is operating as the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport & Wells Water District.

Around the early 1900’s, the streetcar was introduced to the Village of Ogunquit, and electricity became available.  The townspeople petitioned an article to be put in the warrant of the Wells town meeting (of which Ogunquit was then a part) asking for street lights through the center of the village, but when the  article came before the voters, it was opposed by “…hollering and foot stomping enough to shake the foundation of Wells Town Hall”.  Needless to say, the “Wells folks” soundly defeated the article.  The Ogunquit voters were “madder than wet hens” and entered a bill in the State Legislature, which, in 1913, gave them a charter for the Ogunquit Village Corporation.

In the spring of 1914, the first regular meeting of the Ogunquit Village Corporation was held.  There were twelve articles voted on at that meeting, including a sum of $350 for streetlights.  The total amount appropriated for the town budget was $2,867.

The early 1900’s also saw the formation of the Village Improvement Society to ensure that certain public services were  provided to the burgeoning population.  It managed to pay for most of the sidewalks first constructed on Main Street and set out trees along the roadside to provide shade and beauty.  It saw to the maintenance and, for many years, the improvement of the Marginal Way, one of the Town’s greatest assets, and along with the local branch of the American Red Cross, established and funded the first life guard service on Ogunquit Beach.  It also provided a “sprinkling” system for the town’s dirt roads the keep down the dust for pedestrians and horses.

Veterans’ Park in the Village Square was dedicated in 1967 to veterans of all wars.   This lovely area with benches and attractive plantings provides a quiet, shady respite for strollers and shoppers.   A similar area of shade trees and benches is available in the center of Perkins Cove at Rotary Park, a gift from the Ogunquit Rotary Club.

One of Ogunquit’s greatest admirers was S. Judson Dunaway, a local philanthropist who loved this community very much.  While walking around his beloved village one day, he noticed that the old “Fireman’s Hall”, which in earlier times had housed the town’s fire trucks and now the Ogunquit Village Corporation offices where “many hot debates” occurred, was becoming run-down and neglected.  He offered the village a new building.  The old Fireman’s Hall was torn down and the new “S. Judson Dunaway Community Center” was put in its place at a cost of $250,000.  It was dedicated in November of 1974.

In 1979, the State Legislature passed an act making Ogunquit, upon approval of its citizens, a “Town unto itself”.  In the local referendum that followed, Ogunquit citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor.  This act, separating the Ogunquit Village Corporation and the Town of Wells, became effective July 1, 1980.  Ogunquit has functioned with a Town  Manager/Board of Selectmen form of government since then.

While tremendous growth occurred in the 60’s, through the 70’s, and into the 80’s (the permanent resident population has actually decreased from that of the early colonial settlement), Ogunquit has managed to retain its charming qualities and has proven an enduring venue for thousands of visitors year after year.

Over the past 100 years, this attractive seaside village has evolved from a flyspeck of a fishing hamlet with dirt roads  and weathered shacks to a major vacation resort without losing a bit of its charisma or endearing quaintness.

Ogunquit’s Beautiful Beach

“When you see the powdery three-mile plus stretch of white sand curving into a backdrop of rugged cliffs, you’ll know instantly why Ogunquit has been drawing such a mélange of fans consistently for so many years.  This site the native Indians called “beautiful place by the sea” is suitably named, and the bountiful beach is a special treasure in Maine whose rockbound coastline yields few such vast, open places.”  (Author unknown)

Since the building of a bridge over the Ogunquit River to the beach in 1888, visitors have flocked to this little village in southern Maine to enjoy the seemingly endless expanse that lies hidden from easy view by dunes and snaking tidal river separating it from the town and main road.

For many years no one claimed title to or paid taxes on this large land grant.  The  State of Maine, to which it was ceded in 1820 during the break from Massachusetts, decided to sell Ogunquit Beach to Charles Tibbetts of Somersworth, New Hampshire, for $100,000 with a quitclaim deed, but the village of Ogunquit was given the option to take it by eminent domain.  Over the protests of Ogunquit residents, Mr. Tibbetts agreed to pay all the back taxes to the Town of Wells of which Ogunquit was at that time a part.

After a long period of time, house lots eventually began selling at the northern end of the beach in Wells (now known  as Moody), and soon Ogunquit residents realized that their lovely beach, long regarded as a public park, was in jeopardy of becoming privately owned and inaccessible.  The proposed amusement park slated for the southern section of the beach area spurred them to take drastic action.

Several prominent residents including Roby P. Littlefield, whose ancestors were some of the original settlers, went to the  State Legislature in Augusta and pleaded to have the area designated a public  park.  This was eventually granted, and  the town was given the right of eminent domain to acquire the land between the Ogunquit River and the ocean and the power to tax property within its limits.  In 1923, Mr. Littlefield was again instrumental in forming the Ogunquit Beach District and served with Philip Hutchins as its first trustees.   To finance the $45,000+ cost for gaining the beach area, each taxpayer received a supplemental tax bill, along with the regular property tax, to share in the purchase cost.  The beach was acquired and has been maintained ever since as a public park.  As of 1938, Ogunquit Beach was one of only  two municipally owned beaches in the State of Maine.

Because of its 3 ½ mile length, and the fact that the town continues to guard and oversee its preservation, the beach can be accessed from just three locations: the Main Beach, with its entry from Beach Street in the center of the village; Footbridge Beach, reached from Ocean Street and a lovely arched footbridge for pedestrians only; and Ogunquit North  Beach, which abuts Moody Beach from Bourne Avenue in Wells.

It is common to find visitors and residents alike standing awestruck at this magnificent expanse of uncluttered, immaculate soft white sand beach, preserved for future generations to marvel at its beauty.

Perkins Cove

In the very early days of settlement, when fishing was the chief source of income for Ogunquit residents, Perkins Cove, originally called The Cove or Fish Cove, was open to the ocean where the dories usually were tied, but when high seas were running, the fishermen had to pull their boats up onto the small beach above the reach of the waves.  This caused great inconvenience, especially when the high tides came at night.

The Josias River then emptied into the ocean through a shallow, rocky channel between the ledges called Crow Island and the point of land called Adams Island.  This was actually a peninsula connected to the mainland by a small piece of field at the end of what is now Woodbury Lane.  The fishermen thought that if a channel could be cut through this land so that the Josias River emptied into Perkins Cove, it would form a larger body of sheltered water and eventually save them much labor.  They formed the Fish Cove Harbor Association and bought the land between Oarweed Cove and the Josias River for commercial use.  They dug a ditch almost across this piece of field and at a very high tide, when conditions were favorable, cut through to the Josias River.  The water rushed in “…with a roar that could be heard up to Pine Hill”, and in a short time, had cut a channel through which they could comfortably and conveniently  bring their boats.

In the late 1930’s it became evident that each year Perkins Cove was becoming increasingly more popular with fishermen and boating enthusiasts and soon would not be large enough for future projected use.  So, through the issuance of bonds and help from the federal government, the “Perkins Cove Harbor Project” got under way, and the tidal basin was dredged to nearly its present size.  The harbor re-opened with much fanfare on July 3, 1941, and now offers a calm anchorage for at least 75 craft with low-depth of six feet.  However, the best-known feature of Perkins Cove is probably its unique  draw-footbridge.

The Perkins Cove wooden footbridge, overlooking one of the loveliest little harbors in the Maine coast and spanning the narrow entrance to the port, is perhaps the only double-leaf draw-footbridge in the United States.  It can provide, with both leaves raised, a clear waterway width of over 40 feet, while a vertical clearance of 16 feet at high water permits many of the smaller craft to enter and leave the harbor without raising the bridge at all.  Until recently the longer section was the only one being used and had to be raised by hand.  The second half was added because so many larger vessels were soon seeking entry into this snug, sheltered harbor.

The drawbridge has a two-part span, either side of which can be raised independently of the other; the smaller of the two “draws” is cranked up and down by hand.  The bridge was originally built at a cost of $12,979 and was financed by the Ogunquit Village Corporation, which appropriated $1,000 from its Perkins Cove account; the remainder came from  unappropriated surpluses.

The design of the bridge is simple: two main piers composed of creosoted wood piling, bolted and bound together with steel cable.  Extra independent pilings are placed upstream of the main piers to fend off heavy cakes of ice, which come  down the Josias River in winter.  An icebreaker has been maintained by the village to keep the harbor clear year ‘round.

Operation of the drawbridge is the duty of  the harbormaster or his deputy, but if neither is at hand, any available  lobsterman or fisherman is glad to do the job.   Actually, many a summer visitor has accommodated boats entering or  leaving by operating the drawbridge with a button located on the bridge itself.  Children, especially, race to the center of the bridge, their fingers at the ready on the control button, hoping a high-masted boat will necessitate the raising of the bridge.

Occasionally bridge operation is left to itself when the lobster and fishing boats arrive from a day’s work laden with  catch.  Maine boasts of having the best lobster in the world, and lobstermen harvest over 56 million pounds a year  (2007 statistic).  Many say that lobster preparation in Maine, and especially in Ogunquit, has been raised to a fine art.

Maine has few small harbors that show such constant activity, and none more picturesque than Perkins Cove.  Thousands of people have stood on the white painted bridge and watched the fascinating life of this little port and of the numerous local birds darting in and out of the birdhouses nailed to the pilings under the footbridge.  The Town of  Ogunquit realizes more than ever the value of this unique asset, especially from aesthetic and historical points of view.   From the crown of its span and from the approaches when the span is open, people watch entranced for hours as various vignettes unfold around them.  Yachts come in from all points along the Atlantic; lobstermen constantly shuttle in and out with their pots and catches, and sailing ships and fishing parties make their way through the crowded harbor, leaving for or coming in from a day of relaxation or adventure.

The Arts in Ogunquit – Beauty by the Sea

Even a short history of Perkins Cove would have to include its influence in the development of the arts.  Ogunquit’s ability to lure fine artists dates back to 1888 when Charles Woodbury (1864-1940), a young proper Bostonian, stumbled upon Perkins Cove, a small picturesque inlet with colorful, sturdy New England sailing dories and weathered fish shacks.  Calling it “an artist’s paradise”, he opened a school for his coterie of academic followers among the fishermen’s shacks.  In time, some of these shacks were converted to housing for the burgeoning art colony, providing meals and lodging, and eventually becoming forerunners of the B&Bs and inns which later dotted the Cove.  By the end of the 19th century, Ogunquit had become a well-established artist colony.  Woodbury’s students tended to be bright young women who strolled the beach with parasols and painted parti-colored beach scenes in the polite style of Postimpressionism.  They were known locally as the Virginial Wayfarers.

It has been written that the arrival of Modernism in Maine can be traced directly to a summer day in 1902 when New York art critic, Hamilton Easter Field (1873-1922), arrived by carriage at Perkins Cove accompanied by a twelve-year-old French protégé, Robert Laurent (1890-1970).  Ogunquit’s reputation as an art colony continued into the 20th century with the arrival of Henry Strater, a friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who, in 1952, founded the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, since praised as “…the most  beautiful small museum in the world.”  Perched high above the rocks in Narrow Cove where artists used to congregate, the Museum’s all-glass east wall looks  dramatically out over a wide expanse of the Atlantic.  The lawn is “dressed” with whimsical, oversized wood sculptures and a small pond where blue heron and butterflies gather.  It is dedicated to displaying a wide range of works by American artists in an open, uncluttered exhibit area throughout the summer months.  Many of America’s outstanding artists lived or have summered in Ogunquit since those times.  Among them were Edward Hopper, Elyot Henderson, Marsden Hartley, Bernard Karfiol, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Alfred  Bellows, Harmon Neill, Peggy Bacon, William Ehrig and, perhaps the most important American artist associated with the Ogunquit colony, Walt Kuhn.

In 1928 Charles Woodbury and Henry Strater, along with other artists, formed the Ogunquit Art Association, thus instituting one of the first exhibition spaces to show the work of local artists and to present programs for the community.  The gallery and colorful annual Art Auction are still run by the artists themselves, just as they were in the past.  Ogunquit artists, along with other regionally and nationally recognized  artists, exhibit and conduct workshops in the Barn Gallery located on Shore Road at Bourne Lane.  Additionally, Ogunquit offers a profusion of privately owned galleries, many still in Perkins Cove, where fine original art can be viewed and purchased.

In the area of performing arts, Ogunquit has been similarly blessed.  Its reputation as an important art colony, coupled with the area’s great popularity as a summer resort, convinced Walter Hartwig, a former Hollywood director and  Broadway producer, and his wife, Maude, that it was the ideal location for a permanent playhouse.  In 1933, in the former Ogunquit Square Movie Theatre, the Ogunquit Playhouse was inaugurated.  By the end of the 1936 season, it was obvious a larger theatre was needed.  The new Ogunquit Playhouse debuted in 1937 in  a large building just south of the Village Center.  In succeeding seasons, top stars flocked to Ogunquit to perform splendid theatre for local and visiting audiences.  Walter Hartwig was credited with pioneering  the original “straw hat circuit.”

In 1950 John Lane, who first came to the Ogunquit Playhouse as an actor, returned as co-producer.  A short time later, Maude Hartwig retired, and John Lane acquired the theatre, which to this day remains John Lane’s  Ogunquit Playhouse.  Upon Mr. Lane’s retirement, and in order to ensure that the theatre remains operating well into the future, he very generously offered to donate the Playhouse to a foundation created just for this purpose.  The Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation is now accepting contributions to establish an endowment fund to guarantee that the tradition of high theatrical standards and the excellent quality of performances and productions of the past will continue for the enjoyment of future generations who flock to this small town on the Maine coast.

From the mid-thirties to the late forties, smaller theatrical groups and repertory companies flourished in this welcoming  atmosphere, conducive to the artistic temperament.  Art galleries and summer theatre are still an  important part of Ogunquit’s “landscape”.

The Marginal Way

At the annual meeting of 1923, a vote of thanks was given to Josiah Chase for the “gift” which he had given to the village of  gunquit.  This gift of the “Marginal Way”, a mile-plus walkway along the rocky cliff, is probably the finest gift  this village has ever received.

Beginning in a corner of Oarweed Cove near the harbor, the now paved footpath meanders through bayberry and bittersweet bushes, gnarled shrubs of fragrant pink and white sea roses, shaded alcoves formed by wind-twisted trees which jut slightly out onto granite outcropping, and expansive views of the Atlantic with all its varying seasonal moods.  There is no better place to unwind and be overwhelmed by the immensity and vastness of nature, then come away feeling humbled and contented yet remarkably uplifted and refreshed.  This precious piece of natural beauty had for  decades been called “the margin” because of its patterned development along the  edge of the cliff.  Ironically the  present day footpath was not the result of an enlightened citizenry or of far-sighted conservation planning, but of the dealings of a shrewd businessman  and some stubborn, persuasive “locals”.

In 1884, Josiah Chase retired from his Portland, Maine law firm and returned to the family home in York.  He decided to dabble in real estate development and purchased a twenty-acre strip of land extending “…from Perkins  Cove to Israel Head…” to be the heart of his planned subdivision.  Chase designated “the margin” area as common ground for this large investment, knowing that ocean access for all future residences would greatly increase the value of the lots.  Meanwhile, a rare coalition of year ‘round residents, fishermen, artists and devoted summer visitors, led by Ogunquit’s  feisty, unofficial “mayor”, F. Raymond Brewster, after watching with apprehension what was happening to oceanfront in surrounding towns, began lobbying the State and badgering the very frugal Mr. Chase to preserve the walkway.

What led Chase to give in is anyone’s guess; perhaps a combination of economic self-interest, land conservation and just plain en-masse bullying.  Whatever the incentives, these efforts eventually paid off and Josiah Chase, just three  years before his death at age 85, ceded the magnificent Marginal Way to the community.  Town officials then used Mr.  Chase’s extreme generosity as a “shining example” when approaching other shorefront owners.  More land was added  through grants, eminent domain and the voluntary granting of needed bits of private property along the path by conscientious owners.  Untold time and effort was expended to beautify and restore this lovely asset; the path is now owned completely by the  town.  Many eyes were opened by the devotion and appreciation shown this narrow strip by artists and visitors who to this day cherish it for the magnificent treasure it is, more so because of its apparent ability to survive hurricanes, development booms and municipal shortfalls.

Although the way is gentle with easy bends and inclines, most walkers prefer to stop for an exhilarating or contemplative rest at one of the thirty benches that dot the footpath.  Strategically placed at various intervals, these memorial benches give the Marginal Way its well-deserved sense of reverence, for on the backs of them are small plaques dedicated to people who have loved and cherished this small piece of paradise.

For more than 100 years, people have strolled along these granite cliffs drinking in the spectacle of sea, surf and sky,  animated by the roiling Atlantic and punctuated by screeching gulls.  At low water, the tide pools captured by the rocks teem with starfish, small crabs and sea urchins, only to be swept away again by the crashing waves returning to claim their territory.  Walkers stand mesmerized by the panorama before them, while others busily investigate the flora and fauna that beckon the curious.

After the path was heavily damaged by the 1991 “no-name” October storm, the Volunteer Committee to Restore the Marginal Way was formed.  It petitioned the public for $35,000 to replace 11 benches that were destroyed and to repair the boulder-pummeled gouges in the footpath.  The committee received more than $105,000, much of it from fewer than one hundred donors who sent large amounts to help with the restoration and ensure that a fund was available for future maintenance.

Each year more than 100,000 people walk this “Marginal Way” along the rugged cliff line, and while Maine has several  somewhat similar ocean walkways, this is unquestionably the most unique, the most popular, the most painted and the most beloved.