Harpswell Historical Society

Incorporated 1979

929 Harpswell Neck Road
Harpswell, Maine  04079

The Harpswell Historical Society is dedicated to the discovery, identification, collection, preservation, interpretation, and dissemination of materials relating to the history of Harpswell and its people.

Table of Contents

Historic Park 
and Museum

Links to 
related sites


Harpswell Historical Society
Old Meeting House

The Story Of
Harpswell's Old Meeting House

1757 1759

A National Historic Monument

      In 1738 the Town of Yarmouth consisted of all the territory between Falmouth and Cape Small Point including the 99 islands in Casco Bay. By water Cape Small Point was 16 miles from the meeting house at North Yarmouth, and Harpswell 12. It is not difficult to imagine the hardships of rising long before dawn on cold Sundays, feeding the family, dressing small children and rowing or sailing through rough waters to attend church where services were held for long hours in a poorly heated building. While the early settlers of Harpswell contributed to the support of this preaching for a number of years, the hardships involved forced them, in 1740, to petition for separation in order to establish a parish of their own. The Yarmouth town records show that in 1744 the town excused the Harpswell people from paying the minister's rate for that year. And in June 1749 the General Court passed an order making Harpswell and the Islands a separate parish.

Thus Harpswell became a parish in 1751 and employed a minister of its own, the Reverend Richard Pateshall, a Harvard graduate who preached for about three years.

  In 1753 the Reverend Elisha Eaton was chosen to serve the parish. The council that met to ordain him assembled in the only house in Harpswell that had plastered rooms!

  The need for an adequate meeting house had been apparent for several years when in 1757 plans were drawn up and the Reverend Eaton, perhaps finding local talent unavailable, enlisted his son and namesake to help with the construction. According to his diary, Reverend Eaton made the sashes and frames for the building. On August 7, 1757, he recorded the following: "getting stuff for window frames and sashes for the meeting house . . .." Nearly two years later on June 13, 1759, he wrote "putting sashes on board vessel for the Meeting House at Harpswell'. October 6 sailed for Harpswell arrived there and tarried until November 27th."

  The Meeting House interior was of the utmost simplicity. The high, dark green, pulpit with its sounding board backed by a multipaned arched window, was typical of that period. Straight backed pews lined the walls. Later, the original center pews were removed to make room for the administration of town business. The overhead beams were hand hewn, joined and pegged. The boards, one and one half inches thick, and the clapboards, were hand made and extra thick to keep out the cold. In the Deacon's box there is one floorboard 291/2 inches wide. This may have been put there in an effort to flout the law of the King, which made it a serious offense to cut down a tree measuring more than twenty-four inches. (The King had pre-empted all trees over 24 inches in diameter for masts for the British navy.)

  Steep stairs lead to a small landing where the narrow stairway divides, one branch going sharply to the right, the other to the left. The knees used to reinforce the gallery suspension are still to be seen. The balcony room on the left is now an office for the Harpswell Selectmen

For seating in the Meeting House Click here

  Only the finest carpentry went into the pumpkin pine box pews for which the original occupants bid as high as $150.00 and also paid a fee each year for their use. The narrow seats were guaranteed to keep worshippers awake as well as to give them backaches! The original ten foot high pulpit is on a level with the gallery so that people up there could hear. It's possible that its elevation also gave the preacher a vantage point to check on anyone who might not be as attentive as he should be.

  When the Reverend Eaton died in 1764 his son Samuel was asked to become the minister. He had graduated from Harvard and had studied law and medicine as well as for the ministry. He was thus not only a parson of parts but also a lawyer and doctor, both of which professions he practiced. Samuel was a bachelor of Spartan habits who managed to get along nicely on his salary of $325.00 per year. His wig is now kept in the Meeting House, as is his baptismal bowl, which he used in baptizing over 1100 persons, an impressive number for a preacher of that time and place. When his pastorate ended with his death in 1822, he and his father had occupied the pulpit for a total of 69 years.

  Elisha Eaton is buried in the old burying ground immediately behind the Meeting House. The cemetery was in use until about 1900 when it became necessary to refuse further interments because old graves were being uncovered whenever a new grave was opened.

  In recent years the cemetery has been well cared for. While many of the graves were either unmarked or marked with perishable wooden markers, there is still a considerable number whose tombstones record the names of the early settlers and later residents of Harpswell.

When Elijah Kellogg was asked to become the settled pastor of Harpswell, he asked for a larger church. After considerable contro­versy between denominational groups, some of whom refused to pay taxes for the support of a Congregational minister, enough sup­porters were finally enlisted to form an entirely new society and the building of a new church across from the Meeting House was under­taken. This church, known as the Kellogg Church, is still an active entity and regular services are held there every Sunday.

The parish, on March 16, 1842, voted to petition the court to sell or otherwise dispose of the Meeting House. However, there was some confusion as to the legality of the procedure and in Septem­ber 1842 it was voted to choose a committee of three to remonstrate against the sale. As a result it stood unused for 15 years before it was taken over by the Town of Harpswell. It has been used as a Town House ever since.

When the town offices were located there, and the building also became a polling place, an oblong, broad side stove was installed. It seemed more important to be warm and comfortable when at­tending to town business than when attending to the Lord's work!

In 1958 Harpswell celebrated its bi-centennial. When the bills for the celebration were paid it was found that there was a profit of $1,400.00. After much discussion it was decided to use this money to begin restoration of the Meeting House. A committee was formed with Miss Anne Frances Hodgkins as Chairman and plans were developed to proceed.

The restoration work has progressed slowly, perhaps because money has come in slowly. John Allen of Harpswell, a master cab­inet maker and a descendant of one of the families who worshipped in the Meeting House, has done much of the work himself. Win­dow frames have been especially milled and the 7 x 9 panes of glass were obtained from the same firm that supplies Williamsburg. The off-white plaster that has been done matches exactly the original clam shell plaster. While repairing the plaster, a keg of bullets, believed to have been for use in the War of 1812, was found in the blind attic.

The Old Meeting House is open to the public every Sunday during the Summer months and is still used occasionally as a place of worship.

In 1938 the building was included in a Federal program which made detailed drawings of it now on file in the Library of Congress.

On August 20, 1966, in an impressive ceremony, the Maine Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of Founders and Patriots of America placed a bronze marker honoring it as one of the most important historical buildings in the State of Maine.

And a final accolade came in 1969 when the Old Meeting House was designated as a National Historic Monument.

 This story was written by Virginia Barnes Woodbury and edited by Willan Roux
for the Harpswell Historical Restoration Committee, Inc.