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Last Chance for Paul Wentworth

In 1936 Salmon Falls lost its oldest house
-- now someone wants to give it back
Paul Wentworth House 

In 1936 one of the oldest and most dramatic-looking mansions in the New Hampshire Seacoast was disassembled -- brick-by-brick, board-by-board -- and removed to Dover, Massachusetts. Tearing apart old houses was commonplace in the "colonial revival" era in the early 20th century. Even the Metropolitan Museum practiced preservation by destruction.

 The Paul Wentworth House, built in 1701, was the most famous structure in Rollinsford. Never modernized, its dark carved wooden panels were so thick that they were used as walls on both sides. It boasted distinctive wide floorboards and thick doors had milled from the ancient first forest that once dominated the region. Then suddenly, like the forests, the house was gone.

Now Massachusetts wants to send the 300-year-old landmark home. The reconstructed mansion is ours for the taking -- if members of the Rollinsford Historical Committee can find the funds, roughly estimated at $300,000, to again disassemble the structure and transport it back to Rollinsford. But there's a catch. The offer is good until April 2002, just a few months away -- and the clock is ticking.

"We don't want to say 'no' and miss this opportunity," says historian Kathleeen Shea, a member of the Rollisford group. About 35 Rollinsford residents, nearly 2 percent of the population, recently attended a meeting to consider reclaiming the oldest house in town.

"We're going to need to have a lot of our ducks in line by March," Shea says. " if we're going to go ahead with this…The good showing from townspeople indicates it's not pie-in-the-sky."

The ducks needed, according to Shea, incude creating a nonprofit agency to move, rebuild and maintain the Wentworth mansion. Rollinsford’s history group is currently just an advisory committee to the town selectmen -- without budget or tax exempt status. There must also be a feasibility plan that explains how much money is needed, how it is going to be raised, and how the building will be utilized. So far, Shea says, locals favor the creation of a heritage center for promotion of town history.

Ironically, the Paul Wentworth Mansion almost became a NH museum in the 1930s. Back then, owner Mrs. Fred Blodgett, a collateral descendant of the original builder, had hoped to find a few thousand dollars to save the aging building and her extensive collection of historic artifacts. She refused to sell off pieces of the interior woodwork to the Metropolitan Museum, and eventually offered the entire building to her son, Fred Blodgett, who moved it across state lines. When he died two years ago, the 300-year Wentworth connection was severed and property was sold. Fearing for the building, historians in Dover, MA, convinced the new owner to give New Hampshire one last chance. The owner agreed, according to Lucy Putnam, chair of the historic committee, but conditionally. The Rollinsford group must offer a "concrete vision" and formally agree to complete the project in a timely manner, she says.

"As I see it, our town was robbed of one of its great pieces of history. We now have an unimaginable chance to bring it back," Putnam says.

Paul Wentwoth House

 So who the heck was Paul Wentworth , and why all the fuss over this old house? The story, like the mansion, comes together in lots of little pieces.

Think of the Wentworth family as the Kennedys of New Hampshire, only richer, arriving in New England 200 years earlier, and even more politically connected. Portsmouth already has three historic Wentworth homes -- but the one built in Rollinsford predates them by at least 50 years.

It all started around 1632 when "Elder" William Wentworth, then in his early 20s, arrived in the New World from England to seek his fortune. He was among the original settlers in Exeter who signed the Exeter Combination, a sort of Mayflower Compact designed to create a body of laws in a rugged new frontier. William moved to nearby Dover, where at age 73, history records, he threw a band of attacking Indians out of the Heard family garrison and barred the door, despite a hail of bullets, until help arrived. That garrison, successfully defended, was among the few that survived the famous "Cochecho Massacre."

Elder William had four sons. Samuel, the oldest, settled in Portsmouth and became the patriarch of the Wentworth dynasty there.

After breaking free of Massachusetts in 1741, New Hampshire had three British governors of its own. Only the King of England wielded more power over this colony than its governors -- and all three were descendants of Samuel Wentworth. That's a lot of power, and in little more than three decades, the Wentworth men chartered hundreds of new towns in what is now Vermont and New Hampshire, growing richer all the while.

Paul Wentworth Interior

Samuel Wentworth and his wife had 16 children in Portsmouth at what was called "The First House" not far from present day Prescott Park. If that 1670 structure had survived, it would be the oldest Wentworth family house standing. But it didn't survive. Governor Benning Wentworth's mansion (1759-60) still stands at Little Harbor. The home of Gov. John Wentworth (1763), NH's last royal ruler remains on Pleasant Street, and we still have the stately restored Georgian mansion of John's father Mark Wentworth (ca. 1760). The Newcastle hotel Wentworth-by-the-Sea (1874), soon to be restored, was named a century later in honor of Samuel Wentworth's early home that also served as an inn for travelers.

Judged on seniority alone, that makes the 1701 Paul Wentworth home something special. Now here's the family connection: Paul's father Ezekiel was another son of Elder William Wentworth, the one who started this whole story. That means Paul was cousin to British Governor Benning Wentworth. But even without all this history and politics, the missing Rollinsford Wentworth mansion is an important chunk of New Hampshire's heritage – well worth saving.

It's an architectural gem. Very few of these "first period" saltbox style houses survive anywhere in the state. The Jackson House (1664) in Portsmouth is the very best example left to us. This dark, slightly eerie wooden structure feels primitive to modern visitors. It’s diamond-shaped leaded-glass windows would make a great setting for harsh New Engladn tales like "The Crucible" or "The Scarlet Letter." The sharp twin-roof of the Sherburne house (1696-1703) by the entrance to Strawberry Banke feels like "The House of Seven Gables." These are contemporary with the lost Rollinsford treasure.

Paul Wentworth House

These are homes from a very different chapter in American history . The original Paul Wentworth house had a secret second sub-cellar, used to escape from Indian reprisals. Legend says that Col. Paul’s wife Elizabeth repelled her Native American attackers with pots of boiling soft soap.

While his famous relatives made history in Portsmouth, Paul Wentworth grew wealthy deep in the hinterland. Practically a king in the village then known as Salmon Falls, he owned the biggest house on 120 acres near the heart of town. Now dominated by towering brick mills, Rollinsford was once a lumber town and Paul Wentwoth owned the land, the wood and the sawnill. He also "owned" slaves and the foundations of the slave quarters were visible into the 20th century. The original house site is now privately owned, but Rollinsford town selectmen are reportedly "warming" to the idea of relocating the Wentworth house on town land nearby.

The potential here is enormous for Rollinsford, a fascinating town just off the beaten path and closely linked to historic South Berwick, Maine, the other half of Salmon Falls. The town has no library, no historical society, no museum, no interpretive center. Indeed, Rollinsford is the perfect spot in which to teach the history of industrial America. First there were the Indians, fishing for millennia on the river. Their rapid waterfalls were an ideal power source for centuries of sawmills run by European immigrants like the Wentworths. Then came the massive 19th century mill, the rise of electrical power, and the collapse of the New Hampshire factories in the middle of the 20th century due to cheap power and foreign labor. Today the recycled Rollinsford mills are home to every sort of business from Damart longjohns, to high tech companies.

Paul Wentworth House

This classic story of a milltown through time could be dramatically told from the re-furbished Wentworth home, high above the Salmon Falls River. Unlike the complex tale of the Wentworth political dynasty in Portsmouth, this tale is as clear and memorable as Rollinsford itself. There is room for the stories of exploited slaves, banished Native Americans, immigrant factory workers, brave hardworking women and adventurous children. Toss in a Wentworth clan genealogy room, an office or two upstairs, displays and a passionate interpretation, a little media center, a walking tour along the river by the railroad, tales of lumbering and manufacturing. Rollinsford, potentially, has it all.

But let’s not look a gift house in the mouth. First, piece-by-piece, Rollinsford has to bring the Wentworth building home. Lots of money, planning and sweat are needed. But lots of time – that Rollinsford does not have. Soon again, as in 1936, the ancient frame, floorboards and paneling will come undone, destined for New Hampshire, or for places unknown.

(For more information on the Paul Wentworth House project contact Lucy Putnam at 603-742-8581)


Copyright © 2002 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved..
Article by J. Dennis Robinson. Images of the Paul Wentworth House cortesy of the Rollinsford Historical Committee.

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