By Ethel Morrell McCollister (believed to be from: The Portland Telegram/1923)
Among the interesting old estates in Maine, many of which are widely known, there is none more interesting that the old Morrell Estate in Eliot, which has, until now, been entirely “unhonored and unsung”. Perhaps no estate in New England, with the possible exception of just one or two in the Plymouth Colony has been so long in one family. And surely there is not one which has a most interesting history, or more relics than this place.
We do not know just when the founder of the family arrived in this now peaceful continent, but he was not too far behind the Pilgrims: some historians claim that he landed in “Strawberry Bank” Portsmouth in 1624. But we do know that John, son of this unnamed emigrant was born in Kittery in 1640. He was perhaps a brother of Robert and Peter Morrell, first settlers of Falmouth who seem to have perished when that settlement was razed in 1680. He married a granddaughter of John Wincoll, the first white settler on the Great Works River, and prominent citizen of the town of Kittery. Morrell built his home on the seven acres that was her dowry and her mother’s before her, in the present town of South Berwick, then part of Kittery. Several years later in 1676 he made a bargain whereby he “swarmed” - good Yankee word – its seven acres and building for the (illegible) of Abraham Conley at Cold Harbour. Perhaps the reason for the exchange was the brick yard on the banks of Sturgeon Creek, for John Morrell was a brick mason. The estate is now owned by his direct descendent, Mr. Chas. Morrell and is in the present town of Eliot.
Here John lived - when he was not in garrison fighting Indians – and here he died and was buried. He tilled his land, ran a ferry between Kittery and Dover Neck, made bricks and his leisure learned to read and write, which was not a common accomplishment in those days. He received a license in 1686 to “conduct” a tavern. He was one of the largest land owners in Kittery having received much of it for his services in the Indian wars. His sons also received several grants for their services, and at least three branches of the family are still living in parts of these various grants, although not one of them are in the present town of Kittery.
After John, came his son Nicholas, who carried on the brick yard and a ferry. Today the road leading around the hill to the ferry is still discernible as is also the site of the log cabin where these intrepid pioneers made their home. It is on the banks of the Creek, a few steps from the ferry landing, at the foot of the hill.
At the beginning of the Indian uprising in 1720 Nicholas was one of seven citizens who were ordered to build garrison houses. He chose a site on the side hill directly overlooking the log cabin and ferry. This garrison has completely disappeared, the only relics now remaining are some carefully preserved panes of glass from the small windows. Thick cloudy glass it is, the panes are about five and one half inches square, but what a history. Can you not see those rough, toil stained hands as they carefully handle the few precious pieces of glass, or the great hardy frame clothed in homespun to which they belong? Perhaps someone was standing guard, watching for Indians while the panes were being set in the window frames. Think of the anxious faces pressed against the glass time and again, watching for sign of hostile Indians, of for French privateers from Canada to appear in the Creek.
Among those who were ordered to take shelter there where Nicholas brother, John Jr., who has built his log cabin several miles to the north on a piece of level land in what is now the heart of North Berwick Village. Incidentally, this place is also in the hands of descendants of its founders, Mr. and Mrs. L. Morrell Sherburne, both of whom trace their lineage to John, Jr. They still make their home in the house that was built after the log cabin was “outgrown”. It was built directly behind the original log cabin. Mr. and Mrs. Sherburne are the fortunate owners of a large collection of heirlooms of which they are justly proud. A whole day would hardly suffice to examine the large number which they have. It was from this estate that the Morrell’s went out to Bauneg Beg Lake and established the mill -1764- which is still operated by a male descendant. But we are getting away from the Eliot estate.
When the Indians became less troublesome it was decided to build a new home and the site chosen was again on the hill side, near the garrison house. We do not know the dale of the building but it was previous to 1740 because the room in which a child was born in that year is still pointed out to visitors. It is a fine site . There is a good view of Sturgeon Creek which is a branch of salt water; it overlooks Portsmouth and Dover, and the ferry; and in times past the brick yard and burial spot of John senior at the foot of the hill.
One of the first objects to meet the eye of visitors is the deep well filled with a never failing supply of sweet water, which is situated near the house. It is lined with field stone showing the marks of great (illegible) reply to a questions as to who built the well, the answer if the owner was that it “has always been here”. So whether it was built by the Morrell’s of before their time, even, is unknown.
There is a small cemetery just back of the house on the hill side and one wonders why this was established when John and several of his children were buried at the foot of the hill – was it because of Indian troubles? There are several stones still standing and the oldest is that of John’s senior’s son-in-law, Samuel Drown, who died in 1730, the year in which the garrison was erected.
The poet Whittier tells us of the fugitive Quakers from Boston who “Drew rein before the friendly door … In distant Berwick town” but it is not at all unlikely that similar rein was drawn before the door of the Morrell homestead in Kittery, now Eliot for the situation is ideal for fugitives to escape and there is no doubt that the family were loyal and intrepid enough to set their persecuted brethren across the creek on their ferry, where they would be safe from pursuit.
The first Quaker meeting house in this state was built within a mile of the old homestead. It must have been a pleasant sight to see this Quaker husband and father step out of his door on the pleasant Sabbath morning and with the family about him, descend the hill, pause a moment, perhaps, at the resting place of his ancestors, marked by a cluster of field stones, then on, across the level and up another low hill to the church door. It was built in 1730, one hundred and ninety years ago, and the site is now marked for the church has long since disappeared. But the Morrell’s were there two generations before the church and they are still there, as hospitable, as then.
Robert of the third generation, was the third owner of the estate. He was a man of prominence in town affairs, and much loved and trusted by his fellow man, if one may judge by the large number of wills which he was named executor, and other services of trust, which he was called upon to render. He is probably buried with his parents on the hillside, but nearly all the stones are unmarked as was the Quaker custom of the day. The last stones placed were those of Robert’s son, Joel, and his wife, Hannah (Winslow). He was one of the signers of the warrant for the first town meeting of Eliot. One of his sons died in the Halifax Prison in 1812.
Many columns could be written of the children who went from these acres and made themselves famous in the outside world, for the Morrell’s - or Morrill’s - list of noted men and women is a long one, but such is not the purpose of this article. In the old house are many relics of those now sleeping on the valley and on the hillside, and those who went away, never to return. All are in fine condition thanks to Mrs. Morrell’s care. Among other things are several trunks said to have traveled over nearly all the world. Today one may see “Aunt Harriett’s sewing on the table beside her bed, just as she left it when she laid it down for the last time, the needle fastened into the bit of cloth. She died in 1912. Above stairs beds stand as they were made up, a quarter of a century ago, and time is taking his toll from the patchwork quilts.
John came after Robert, divided 100 acres between two of his sons, William and John, the latter having the homestead. This John was the father of seven children. He and his wife are buried, not in the little plot behind the house but nearer the top of the hill. The children all lived at home, and although it was said to be the jolliest family for miles around, none of them ever married. One by one they were laid beside their parents and the plain granite stones erected. The last to go were the oldest of the family, Mary Ann, born in 1825, who dies in 1909 and the youngest, Harriette, born in 1835, died 1912. They were cared for during the last years by Charles, the last descendant of Joel in the male line in the vicinity, he being the grandson of William, for whom the estate was divided. Thus it happened that he came into ownership of the Old Homestead. The little cemetery where John and his family all sleep together, has a high iron fence around it as if there would still keep the world from intruding on their family affairs. As no one else is laid there it may be without parallel in the Country.
Mr. Charles Morrell is unable to carry on the work of the place, owing to ill health, and will in all probability have to sell it, as he and Mrs. Morrell have no children. To the members of the John Morrell Association the thought of having the “cradle of the Clan” for centuries, go out of the family name and control is not pleasant and they hope to devise some means to purchase it. A committee is now working on this matter.
It is an ideal spot for family reunions, for a clubhouse, or other purpose. There is a good bathing beach, fishing and all the salt water sports. The brickyard from which John the first made his bricks three hundred years ago, and near which the bones of his two slaves were disinterred a few years ago, is still an object of interest. It must be one of the oldest in America. The place is near a fine auto route, easily accessible from electric and steam cars, and certainly should not be allowed to pass from the family, remembering that it was paid for with the land that John Wincoll gave his daughter for a dowry, and which she in turn gave her daughter, the wife of Morrell.
To “love, honor and cherish” these acres that have nurtured so many generations of one of Maine’s most prominent families is not merely a privilege, to be lightly put aside if one so wills, but a duty worthy of some considerable sacrifice to accomplish for the history of the estate is that of a clan which has made American history since the beginning of American history, nearly three centuries ago. For that matter perhaps the entire population of the State might appropriately “lend a hand” in preserving it, for where else in Maine can we find soil that is hallowed with the dust of a complete line of pioneers extending from the first Indian war down to 1912, very nearly three centuries?