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  • by Karen Cummings

Fryeburg Village’s Roving Houses

Fryeburg is known as the village of the roving houses. Many of the stately homes that line Main Street in this quaint Maine village once stood at other sites, and sections of some of the homes were originally built for entirely different purposes.

An example of this is the home called the "old Evans place," now owned by the John Atwoods, at 175 Main Street. The front part is comprised of sections of the first house in town, built in 1763. The ell of the house was once Fryeburg's first tavern. The woodshed, now a family room, was originally the town's first schoolhouse, located at the foot of Pine Hill on the southwestern side of Fryeburg before being moved uptown.

Other homes in Fryeburg have had similar histories. The Roy Andrews house at 164 Main Street acquired the nickname "The Brig" because it took so long to find a "safe anchorage" according to John Stuart Barrows in his book, "Fryeburg: A History."

Originally built on Fryeburg's Main Street, near where Oliver's Drug Store [now Norway Bank] is now, the house moved across the street before settling in its present site.

Another interesting tidbit about the house is that it has "Indian shutters," as do many of the early houses in Fryeburg. Indian shutters are those which slide into the walls of the room and can be opened and closed in a manner of seconds. As it was noted in the Fryeburg Historical Society's records of early houses, "There was little or no danger of Indian raids after 1780, but every house in area built before 1790 had at least one room equipped with Indian shutters."


"I think it was good insulation," said Fryeburg historian Diane Jones. "It gave them at least one warm room in the winter."

Many of the homes that date back to the early settlers are no longer in existence. The great fire of 1906, which destroyed 14 major buildings in the village of Fryeburg, did much to reduce the number of truly old houses. Others may be difficult to trace, as records were not kept of which homes were moved and incorporated into an ell here or "modernized" into a Federal style there.

As with all new settlements in this country where trees were readily available, the first structures built for homes were log cabins with dirt floors. As soon as sawmills were established, however, the settlers started building frame houses with clapboard exteriors. Houses and barns were built in a similar manner with the building framed on the ground, then raised and joined together with wooden pegs called "trunnels"—tree nails. The resultant homes were substantial.

Surrounded by a virgin forest, Fryeburg's early settlers could afford to be choosy about the lumber they used to build their homes. Corner posts were 8 8- or 10x10-inch hand-hewn beams. A town officer, the "Culler of Shingles," had the sole duty of examining all shingles and clapboards and throwing out those that were imperfect. Supplies seemed unlimited at that time, so only clear lumber was used—no knots allowed.

Wainscotting in interior rooms, with boards over two feet wide, was common, and floor boards were more than an inch thick and ranged in width from 10 inches to just shy of two feet. The explanation offered for this by some historians was that trees with a diameter larger than 24 inches were marked with the king's broad arrow for use as ships' masts and therefore illegal to use. Though the penalty for this was death by hanging, Fryeburg residents, and other early New Englanders, probably cut them anyway and simply sawed the boards to 23-1/2 inches.

The size, workmanship and attention to detail on the Fryeburg houses attests to the early affluence of its residents. Though the land was conducive to farming, and the surrounding forests provided large revenues, Fryeburg was also ideally situated to become a trade center between the seaports to the east and the mountains to the west. Many little industries sprang up and Fryeburg grew as it attracted more tradesmen and professional people. A great deal of the expansion came in the early 19th century, and the houses of that time were built in the Federal style—large square, two-story buildings with a center chimney, as was popular in the southern New England states.

Many of the substantial old Fryeburg homes were skillfully constructed by ship's carpenters during the winter months. These men used their skills creating beautiful woodwork, trim, stair railings, and newel posts, as well as mantelpieces and doors. Only too glad to live in Fryeburg during their off-season, these displaced seamen often worked for their bed and board and a small amount of spending money.

If you've ever wondered, this background of the men who built many of Fryeburg's homes may serve as a good explanation for the widow's walks on a few of the more prominent homes of the village, even though they are located more than 60 miles from the sea.

True to their Yankee thrift, Fryeburg residents could not bear to waste anything. Though businesses came and went, many of the structures that housed these early industries are still around in other forms. Strongly framed potash (a product used in the making of soap) houses were converted to dwellings, as were tanneries, stores, blacksmith shops, and stables.

Times change, and Fryeburg is now considered off the beaten path. As a result, the main village area has been able to remain relatively unchanged over the years, except for one glaring difference.

The towering elm trees which once stood along Main Street played a major role in the early glory of Fryeburg. Planted by the first residents, these impressive trees not only lined the streets, but also the walkways on either side of Fryeburg's Main Street and provided a cooling and inviting foliage archway through the village.

Though many of the town's historical buildings are still standing, it is sad that fire and disease had to rob current residents and visitors to Fryeburg of these living monuments to the town's forefathers.

A large number of trees have been replanted, but just as the quality and classic architecture of the village would be impossible to replace today, so are Fryeburg's elms.

Editor's note: The author wishes to thank the Fryeburg Historical Society for the use of a scrapbook containing histories of the homes of Fryeburg compiled for the Fryeburg Women's Library by the late Mrs. Henry C Barbour.

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