KENNEBUNK, Maine -- Small towns on the Maine coast tend to have their local gentry, but Kennebunk can claim that its squires were truly lords. Barely into his mid-20s , William Lord started constructing a dry goods store for the shipbuilding and sea-trading town in 1825. He built it right across from the First Parish Church and graveyard where the Portland turnpike met the road to Kennebunkport Landing on the Mousam River .
In 1936 , his great-granddaughter Edith Cleaves Barry , an artist and summer resident, launched a small museum on the second floor of what had become known as the Brick Store . Lord built the structure as the gateway to Kennebunk, and the museum that Barry created continues that role.
"This is our 70th anniversary as a museum," says Tracy Baetz , who took over as director in 2003 . "It's older than all but a few of the Smithsonian buildings." Baetz should know -- she previously spent a decade on staff at the Smithsonian Institution .
Over seven decades, the museum has expanded to embrace five connected buildings, making the structure itself something of a museum piece. "Very few towns can boast an extant commercial block," says Baetz. "It's really the history of the town written in microcosm." In addition to the dry goods store, the buildings have housed an IGA supermarket, a fraternal lodge, a gas station, the town's free library, a telegraph office, and rooms for boarders.
"Barry started the museum during the Depression," says Baetz. At a time when many Americans felt their history was slipping away, individual, often wealthy benefactors around the country took it upon themselves to save the past. In 1936, only a decade had passed since the Rockefellers had helped establish Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and a decade and a half since Henry Ford had launched Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. "We have the same thing here," says Baetz. "But it was on a smaller scale -- and done by a woman."
Barry's core collection focused on local fine and decorative arts, much of it from the many branches of the Lord family. But it "quickly grew into a regional history museum," says Baetz.
The museum keeps up a lively schedule of temporary exhibits (one on rustic Maine camps recently closed), but the core collection reflects Kennebunk's mercantile wealth. Like so many coastal New England towns, Kennebunk grew rich on shipping from the late 18th through the mid-19th centuries. Many of the museum's most prized artifacts are heirlooms of the merchant princes -- their export china, cut glass, Boston and English sideboards, clocks and chairs. A few pieces, however, predate the sail trade. Certainly the most unusual piece of furniture in the collection is the Capen Perkins Chest , an elaborately carved and ornamented chest constructed in either Ipswich or Newbury in 1685.
The museum collections reprise the best of the portrait painters working in southern Maine in the 19th century, beginning with the deaf itinerant painter John Brewster Jr. (1766-1854) and several portraits by Thomas Badger (1792-1868), the Boston painter whose stock in trade became character-study portraits of the elite in coastal Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. The subjects included several sea captains and, of course, William Lord, who is buried across the street in Hope Cemetery behind First Parish Church . The church has its own museum piece: a bronze Paul Revere bell hanging in its belfry.
The artist Barry was especially interested in paintings. Several works hanging on the wall are either her original compositions or her copies of now-vanished historic portraits. There are also some hidden charmers, like "The Antique Shop" painted in 1926 by Abbott Fuller Graves , the noted American Impressionist who lived in Kennebunkport from 1895 until his death in 1936 . Barry's uncle, William E. Barry , was a noted architect and preservationist. His 1874 "Pen Sketches of Old Houses" presents many of Kennebunk's fine old dwellings.
Many of those structures still stand as an open-air museum of sorts. Like the museum, the mansions along Summer Street reflect the success of local sea captains, shipbuilders, and merchants. To get a peek inside one of those mansions still in private hands, reserve a spot at the Brick Store Museum's annual Holiday Tea on Dec. 10 , held this year in the 1862 Italianate manse known as the Captain Moses Maling House .
Cambridge-based writers Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@ verizon.net.