The Oldest Commercial Building in Kennebunkport

Last week’s Throwback Thursday featured the c.1724 Thomas Perkins House, the oldest house in Kennebunkport Village. This week, the oldest commercial building still standing in the village is our focus. The Eliphalet Perkins wharf and store were built c.1775 for the West Indies trade. Perkins ships carried Arundel fish and lumber to the West Indies and returned with molasses for making rum.

In the 1840s, Mrs. Jeffery ran a sailor’s boarding house upstairs in the store. Eliphalet Perkins III and his son Charles E. Perkins, who built the Nott House, owned the business when the Maine liquor law passed in 1851. Schooner Nile, the first Perkins vessel ever launched from the Dock Square shipyard, returned to Perkins Wharf on February 3, 1852, with at least two barrels of rum and two casks of Brandy. Just then, the newly appointed Deputy Sheriff, James Tripp arrived with a warrant to search the schooner Nile. The spirits were dumped in the square. Fines were quietly paid. The influential Perkins name was mostly kept out of the news but not out of Andrew Walker’s diaries. Within a year, Charles E. Perkins and his brother-in-law, Joseph Titcomb had reinvented the company as a coal business and the wharf was expanded for coal storage.

Wheeler & Bell moved into the store after the Dock Square Fire of 1877 burned their original shop across the square. They also opened the Kennebunkport Post Office and an American Express Office on the premises. Wheeler & Bell were plagued by burglars who were, I suppose, enticed by the office safe. In the wee hours of July 24, 1878, bandits broke in. They drilled nine holes in the safe and were about to pack the holes with gunpowder when neighbor Mr. Burleigh Thompson was awakened by the racket and scared them away. Thieves stole safe-breaking tools from Mr. Tripp’s blacksmith shop on Maine Street in 1884 and then proceeded to Wheeler & Bell to try to break open the safe. They were unsuccessful but the safe took some damaging blows. A self-cocking revolver and a bit of tobacco were stolen from the front showcase. Wheeler & Bell finally decided to leave the safe open and post a sign for the scoundrels “Not Locked – Try handle” Mr. Wheeler died in 1891 and Mr. Torrey bought his share of the business, which was renamed Bell & Torrey.

In the early 1900s, Ted Maling and Woodbury Moulton had a meat market in the old store. Then Mr. Tobey had a grocery store and fish market. In the 1950s and 60s, Roy Cluff ran a Fish Market there. He sold the building to Marion Sharpe for an art gallery in 1964. Artist Frank Handlen showed his work there, too. Marion sold to Tom and Dorothy Jeglowsky who ran Kennebunk Bookport upstairs. Mrs. Carey opened the Copper Candle downstairs.

A fire nearly gutted the place on August 25, 1973. Three firefighters were injured. Walter Kubiak, a member of the volunteer Village Fire Company, fell about 35 feet onto some rocks in the mudflats of S-Brook sustaining serious back and shoulder injuries. The fire had started in a wastebasket behind the shop and spread to a propane tank that exploded. Melting wax in the candle shop downstairs made the fire difficult to fight.

The owners restored the building. The Copper Candle is still going strong on the first floor. The much-loved Kennebunk Bookport is gone in this electronic age but to this day, the 1775 EIiphalet Perkins store is the jewel of Dock Square.

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