The 1783 Tarr-Eaton House as it stands today, after a painstaking restoration. (VAN DUSEN FAMILY PHOTO)
You have all driven by it: the small, very old house in the field at Harpswell Center, just across the road from the Kellogg Church. You might have wondered about it. How old is it? Who has lived there? What is the structure’s history? I’ll try and answer these questions and more in this article about my family’s “labor of love” in the restoration and preservation of this local landmark.
The human side
The building is known as the Tarr-Eaton House and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. It was built by William Tarr II, whose family settled on Harpswell Neck in the mid-1700s. The Tarr family had moved north from Rockport, Massachusetts, in search of more farmland and, with it, improved economic conditions.
William Tarr I had likely built an earlier structure on the 105-acre site before his son built the main block of the Cape homestead in 1783, which is what we see today. William Tarr I also built a detached English-style barn, which is no longer standing.
William Tarr II and his wife, Elizabeth (Clark), had six children while living in Harpswell. They mainly raised sheep and goats, while also fishing and harvesting timber. He was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War and, from 1784-85, held a license to “keep tavern and retail spirituous liquors” in the house. The tavern was short-lived and they continued a subsistence lifestyle until William sold the farm in 1811 to Joseph Eaton.
The Eaton family was well known to Harpswell, where the elder Elisha Eaton was the first minister of the Congregational church. He held services in what is now known as the First Meeting House, the oldest surviving meeting house in the state and a national historic landmark.
Elisha and his wife, Katherine, had 11 children, two of whom were named Samuel and Mary. Elisha died in 1764 and Samuel took over the ministry until his death in 1822. Mary, with no record of her being married, had a son, Joseph, who purchased the house from the Tarr family. Mary died when Joseph was 12 years old and it is thought that Samuel, who never married, raised Joseph into adulthood and lived his last few years at the house.
Joseph became a justice of the peace and, with his wife, Frances, had 10 children. Joseph was responsible for adding the attached carriage barn and porch with Greek Revival architectural updates to the exterior sometime around 1845. On Frances’ death in 1872, their daughters Mary and Emeline inherited the house.
The sisters lived some 90-plus years in the house. They were friends of Harriet Beecher Stowe and are thought to be the prototypes for the characters Aunt Roxy and Aunt Ruey in her book “The Pearl of Orr’s Island.” Mary predeceased Emeline and, sometime during the first decade of the 1900s, Emeline sold the house to John Hackett. The sisters and many other members of the Eaton family are buried in the Meeting House cemetery.
John and his wife, Mertie Mae, lived the remainder of their lives in the house and, upon their deaths, their son Everett inherited the house. He and his wife lived most of their lives in Kentucky and came to Harpswell during the summers. Later in their lives they made several attempts to sell the house and it was on the market for many years.
The years had taken a toll on the structure and it had become run-down and in need of major structural work, which kept buyers away. Then, in 1982, Helen and Walter Norton purchased the house with 43 acres and gifted the structure and 2 acres to the Harpswell Historical Society in hopes of creating a house museum for the society.
Having limited resources, the society thought the best future for the building would be to sell it. A group of Historical Society members created the Harpswell Heritage Trust to sell the property and create and oversee preservation easements to ensure a careful and sensitive restoration of the exterior elements. The Heritage Trust would later become the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, and the proceeds from the house sale would become its seed money. This is where my family comes into the picture.
Kathy and Donald Van Dusen (my parents) were newly ordained old house buffs and were looking for a project and a place to retire. They were living in central Massachusetts, where they had moved from Maine, and were looking to come back to the state. They had collected antiques and were looking for a historically accurate and intact mid-to-late-18th-century home that needed some work.
For three years they perused real estate listings, but nothing met their restrictive criteria. They had seen the Tarr-Eaton House, but the price with the 43 acres was undoable given the condition. It needed everything! When the Heritage Trust listed the property in 1983 with 2 acres and preservation easements, my parents made an offer and it was accepted. Little did they know that it would be eight years of work before they could call it “home.”
Buy it ratty and leave it alone
Kathy and Don were strict preservationists and recognized the building’s potential. Much of the original fabric was intact and the setting adjacent to the Meeting House and cemetery was like living in the 18th century. The first project was to stabilize the structure by pouring a new foundation and replacing sills.
They hired Chip Black, of Harpswell, as general contractor. But before that, they photo-documented the exterior and interior architecture so needed replacements could be duplicated. In addition, they pursued any information, including old photos, that would help in the restoration.
To stabilize the house, it was raised and separated from the attached carriage barn to enable the pouring of a foundation faced with local fieldstone. My dad would often say that when the house and carriage barn were set back on their new foundations, there was an audible sigh of relief from the cemetery next door!
Next was the rebuilding of the center chimney, which was the heart of the structure. They hired Rick Hossmann, who owned Royal River Brickyard in Yarmouth and had restored much of the 18th-century masonry at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was a truly gifted mason who used antique tools and methodology to duplicate period masonry. Rick used old photographs of the exterior and interior brickwork to replace the existing footprint of the original chimney.
They hired Eliot Chandler, of Arrowsic, to begin some of the interior finish work in one of the front rooms. About this time, my parents were starting to run out of money and decided that if they were going to get this done, they would have to do it themselves. They went about setting up a woodworking shop and started the slow, arduous restoration of the exterior.
Much of the original woodwork needed to be replaced, but the original window sashes were intact and broken panes were replaced with period wavy glass. The porch needed to be completely replaced and the photo documentation proved valuable in the rebuilding.
Once the outside was complete, my parents turned their attention to the inside. Preservation easements were not on the interior, so they had free rein, but being dedicated preservationists, they wanted it to reflect the period of the house. This meant building modern conveniences into an 18th-century interior without compromising the ambiance.
Careful study and planning preceded everything they did — retaining original woodwork, flooring and plaster, and using period building materials when the originals were missing. Throughout this weekend restoration, they were commuting back and forth from Massachusetts. The active construction of the house attracted much attention in the surrounding communities and my parents received many donations of period architectural elements that were used in the restoration and for which they were very grateful.
Finally, after working seven years and eight months, my parents moved into the Tarr-Eaton House and, with their commitment, perseverance and dedication, preserved a true town landmark and one of the town’s earliest Revolutionary-period structures.
The old kitchen or “keeping room” of the Tarr-Eaton House has a brick fireplace with a beehive oven. (VAN DUSEN FAMILY PHOTO)
The “West Room” of the Tarr-Eaton House features Federal-period architectural moldings. (VAN DUSEN FAMILY PHOTO)
I purchased the house from my parents in 1999 and continue the “labor of love.” Historic New England (historicnewengland.org) has shown interest in adding the house and landscape to its collection of house museums. An endowment is being raised and tax-deductible donations are needed and welcome. If interested, please feel free to call me at 207-833-6370 or email me at email@example.com for more information.
Today, the Tarr-Eaton House and setting is a rare survivor that successfully captures the remoteness of the 18th century. It represents the “house of every man” during the second half of the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, and provides a valuable snapshot of how these occupants lived, struggled, prospered and survived in coastal Maine during this period in American history.
Deane Van Dusen is a retired landscape architect with a passion for historic architecture and decorative arts. He has researched, lectured and published articles on preindustrial New England country arts, with an emphasis on Maine folk art.