YARMOUTH – The imposing Italianate mansion at 233 West Main St. has never quite shaken the inauspicious start that led some townspeople to call it “Reuben’s Folly.”

But most interesting tales from the past contain a little grit, and the story behind the Capt. Reuben Merrill House makes it the ideal new headquarters for Maine Preservation, an organization dedicated to saving historic places.

When it was built in 1858, the three-story, 15-room house was considered the grandest in town. A fancy wrought-iron fence rimmed the front yard, a balcony topped the double front door, and a widow’s walk crowned the hip roof. Most rooms had marble fireplaces from Italy and wall-to-wall carpet from England.

Merrill hired Thomas Sparrow, a prominent Portland architect, to design the house, according to a 1973 historical survey of the property. He paid $7,000 to buy a large lot on the outskirts of town and build the house. Merrill was at the peak of his seafaring career, but such luxury ultimately cost more than money.

Seventeen years later, the 56-year-old father of four was still working on the house and struggling to pay it off. He took his last voyage reluctantly.

“He told a neighbor he didn’t want to go, but he needed money for the house,” said Merry Chapin of Phippsburg, one of the captain’s great-grandchildren, who grew up in the house and now owns it.

Merrill died on June 16, 1875, when his ship, the Champlain, had nearly completed a voyage from New York to California, according to the historical survey. The vessel entered a fog bank near San Francisco and hit rocks off the Farallon Islands.

After making sure his crew was safely in lifeboats, Merrill was struck by the ship’s rigging and knocked overboard. His body and the cargo — $210,000 worth of railroad iron and other merchandise — were never recovered, according to Frederick Matthews’ “American Merchant Ships 1850-1900.”

The captain’s eldest son, Osborne Merrill, the first mate, witnessed his father’s death.

“He never went to sea again,” Chapin said. “That was the end of seafaring in our family.”

But the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has remained in the family. Large gold-framed portraits of the captain and his wife, Hannah Blanchard Merrill, still hang in the front parlor.

Chapin’s grandparents, Ferdinand and Addie Libby Merrill, raised two children in the house: George and Elizabeth, who was Chapin’s mother.

Elizabeth Blanchard Merrill Barker Murphy was born in the house in 1909 and died there in 2004, at the age of 94. She was a social worker who was married twice, first to Dr. Hubert Barker, from 1937 until his death in 1979, then to a college sweetheart, A. MacDonald Murphy, in 1986. He died in 1998.

Considered a woman ahead of her time, she pushed the town’s schools to start serving hot lunches, helped to start the town’s recycling program and regularly held fundraisers at her home for various causes.

“My mother was such a party person,” Chapin said. “She loved nothing more than to have people in this house.”

Chapin had her mother in mind when she contacted Maine Preservation last year to learn about the available property-tax incentives for historic homes. During her conversation with Executive Director Greg Paxton, Chapin asked if he knew of anyone who might be interested in renting the house, which had been leased in the past but had been vacant for a while.

At the time, the nonprofit with four full-time staff members was based in a one-room office at 500 Congress St. in Portland, above the Material Objects consignment shop and Port City Music Hall.

Paxton quickly investigated the possibility of moving his organization to the Capt. Reuben Merrill House and secured a long-term lease. Maine Preservation moved to 233 West Main St. at the end of April. A group of North Yarmouth Academy students recently spent a day improving the landscaping, which is quite overgrown and obscures the view of the house from the road.

“This is a great house for us,” Paxton said. “We’re living what we do. We have a lot more space here for a comparable cost, and this offers us better access to the rest of the state for the work we do all over Maine.”

Maine Preservation will hold an open house on Sept. 17, when the public will get a chance to see the mansion’s many original features, including the fence, which needs some repairs, the fireplaces and other period furnishings.

Chapin said she’s not sure what will happen to the house in the future. A retired schoolteacher, she would like one of her three children to move into the house, but they now live and work elsewhere.

“For now, having Maine Preservation here is a wonderful fit,” Chapin said. “And wherever my mother is, I think she’s happy the house is being cared for.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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