The History of Our Meetinghouse
Our nation was trapped in the throes of the Civil War, yet the members of the First Congregational Church of Wells voted “to rebuild the Church in order to have a more modern edifice.” Despite considerable opposition to the plan, Robinson & Huzzey of Lynn, Massachusetts, rebuilt the structure, utilizing timbers from the previous church, at a cost of $3,500. The new church was completed in 1862. One wonders if perhaps the rigors of war enticed the membership in this direction, as the previous church had been built a century earlier during the Revolutionary War.
By 1870, a bell was purchased. Cast in Sheffield, England, its placement in the steeple was cause for great celebration, with five hundred to a thousand people reportedly in attendance. (Read more about our efforts to restore the bell here.) In yet another twenty years an old store was purchased by the Ladies Benevolent Society, moved and attached to the rear of the church for use as a vestry for Sunday school rooms.
The Historical Meetinghouse. John Neill, Oil on canvas, 1975
This current building stands on the foundations of three prior meetinghouses. In 1662 the Town voted to build a thirty-foot-square meetinghouse. Thirty years later the meetinghouse was burned down in a Native American raid. Construction of the second meetinghouse began in November 1699. A third and larger (65' x 46') meetinghouse was built over a period of years in the 1770s. The fourth, our current Meetinghouse, dates to 1862. Over three centuries, each meetinghouse has stood on this spot as a landmark for the secular and religious center of life in our community.
By the 1700s the meetinghouse was home to the First Congregational Church of Wells. Eventually, doctrinal differences, as well as the distance to the meetinghouse for some of the members, resulted in several other churches being spun off from the original church.
In 1831 a small group formed the Second Congregational Church of Wells and eventually built their own church a couple of miles north, shown here in a photo from the 1920s, looking south on Post Road (Route 1) toward Wells Corner. (Note the trolley tracks along the western edge of the road!)
Eventually, for practical reasons in an environment of limited resources, the two churches began to merge activities. In 1863 they began to unite for some meetings. In 1907, they hired a single pastor and shared his annual salary. They carried the same organ up and down Post Road between the two churches. Joint services began in 1949, switching locations every few months. After 132 years of semi-separation, the two churches finally merged into the Congregational Church of Wells on July 7, 1963.
In 1966 the Society was approached by church leaders to see if we would accept the building with the stipulation that it be used as a museum. In 1967 the Society agreed, and in 1969 the deed with restrictions was approved. The Congregational Church of Wells still holds services in the Meetinghouse on the first Sunday of July each year, and many of their older church members still fondly refer to the Meetinghouse as the First Church.
This photo shows an interior view of the Meetinghouse, standing at the altar looking toward the front foyer and Post Road (Route 1).
The summer of 1980 saw the Meetinghouse Museum open for tours for the first time. Initially the downstairs of the vestry and the church were utilized for displays. However, the publication of Alex Haley’s book Roots brought with it increased interest in local genealogy, resulting in the library being moved upstairs to accommodate the numerous volumes of local histories, genealogies, diaries, scrapbooks, and other materials. Today the Esselyn Perkins Library is one of the finest in southern Maine, with folks from all over the country making use of the resources either by visiting or by written inquiries.
Front foyer of the Meetinghouse
Being a fine example of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and a building with a great deal of historical significance, the Meetinghouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
As the Historical Society's home, our Meetinghouse continues to be used for historical, musical, and educational programs, for genealogical research, and as the home for our Museum and our ever-growing collections. Weddings are now held here as well, as a means to raise revenue.
The Society's Five-Year Capital Plan outlines the changes we hope to make to maintain and improve this beautiful building, ensuring that it will be a valued part of the community for generations to come. We welcome your support in this effort. Please consider becoming a member or making a donation to help us meet our goals.