KITTERY POINT, Maine — We all know about Celia Thaxter’s artistic salon at the Isles of Shoals. New England’s artists, musicians and writers flocked to the poet’s refined summer hotel in the romantic Victorian era. But back on the mainland at Kittery Point in Maine, a secret society of manly men were drinking rum, hanging out and talking trash. And some of these guys were truly famous.
For males of the “in” crowd, the coolest place to chill in summer was the seaside workshop of woodcarver John Haley Bellamy. The man who created the iconic “Bellamy eagles,” now highly collectible, loved to surround himself with the rich, the fun and the famous while he worked. Painter Winslow Homer and writers William Dean Howells and Mark Twain were among Bellamy’s guests. Besides local fishermen or his working-class friends from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, one might bump into Admiral George Dewey, former Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, Harvard President Charles Eliot or actor Edwin Booth (unhappily, the brother of John Wilkes Booth).
Endlessly busy, master carver John Haley Bellamy had perfected the craft of rapidly turning out decorative carvings that were prized as souvenirs by the new wave of tourists that “discovered” the Seacoast beginning in the 1870s. But only those visitors whom Bellamy found entertaining were welcomed into his crowded two-story workshop overlooking the sailing boats docked in Pepperrell Cove.
“It was an exclusive club,” Bellamy’s nephew and biographer later wrote. “Visitors were courteously received, but they never caused him (Bellamy) to stop working entirely and lay aside anything he was doing.”
A renowned bachelor and fabled drinker, Bellamy worked at a fascinating address. His shop was located behind the Sir William Pepperrell House that once belonged to the only native New Englander to be knighted by the British king. The ancient Pepperrell House (dating to 1682) still stands across from the village post office and next to Frisbee’s Store at Kittery Point.
As America hurtled toward the fast-paced 20th century, the relaxed atmosphere of Pepperrell Cove was a peaceful healing place. William Dean Howells, an author and editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine, purchased his own summer estate a little farther up Pepperrell Road. Although he had traveled the world, Howells once wrote to a friend that, “The Great Lakes are great, but Kittery Harbor is big enough for me.”
Prolific maritime painter George Savary Wasson moved here in 1889 with his wife Amelia. Wasson set up his own studio overlooking the water. Although 20 years his junior, Wasson quickly fell in with Bellamy and his elite men’s club.
Howells convinced Wasson to write about the fading culture of Kittery fishermen. Wasson’s first of three books of seafaring anecdotes was called “Captain Simeon’s Store.” Mark Twain praised one of Wasson’s tales as “the funniest story I ever read.” Wasson’s books about Kittery Point have been called “the most authentic Maine stories ever written.”
Kittery Point lobsterman David Kaselauskas is a huge fan of both Bellamy and Wasson. Their work has inspired Kaselauskas to do a little wood carving of his own, and a number of his carvings are on display in the Bellamy exhibit, “Bold and Brash,” currently running at Discover Portsmouth in downtown Portsmouth, N.H.
It was likely, Kaselauskas says, that Howells encouraged English novelist Henry James to stop in to meet Wasson and Bellamy when he visited New England. Legend says that when the popular British writer arrived at Wasson’s home, he was down at the water working on his boat. Amelia Wasson called to her husband, “Mr. James is here!” She was shocked and embarrassed when her husband shouted back, “Well, send him down.”
“That’s the kind of man Wasson was,” says Kaselauskas, who lives within view of the late painter’s studio. “He wasn’t one to kowtow to anyone.”
Members of the Bellamy men’s club returned summer after summer to rusticate in the craftsman’s studio. Late in his life William Dean Howells wrote: “Even the days of declining years linger a little here where there is nothing to hurry them, and where it is pleasant to loiter, and muse beside the sea and shore, which are so netted together at Kittery Point that they hardly know themselves apart.”
To visit the world’s largest collection of John Haley Bellamy carvings at Discover Portsmouth, 10 Middle St., Portsmouth, call 436-8433 or visit PortsmouthHistory.org. For more, read the newly published “American Eagle: The Bold Art & Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy” (2014) by James A. Craig.