KITTERY – For a lot of people, Kittery is the town they drive through on their way to or from every place else in Maine.

Millions stop to shop for bargains at the factory outlet malls along Route 1, unaware of the rich history, thriving community and natural treasures of the Maine coast that lie just a few miles from Interstate 95.

For the folks who live and work here, Kittery is a place that holds fast to its pioneer roots as Maine’s first incorporated town. It has evolved through the centuries to play a continuing role in our nation’s defense as home of the first federal shipyard. And it faces challenges ahead with a strong community spirit grounded in its churches, schools and civic organizations.

“I wish some of the people who come just for the outlets would take the time to get to know the other things that make up the character of Kittery,” said Jeff Pelkey, 43, who owns a funeral home in town and heads the local chamber of commerce.

Settled in 1623, Kittery was incorporated in 1647 as a fishing and trading town in the Province of Maine, a territory held by Sir Ferdinando Gorges of England. It was named after Kittery Court, a manor in Devon, England, that was the birthplace of a town founder, Alexander Shapleigh.

Covering 18 square miles, the town is rimmed by the Piscataqua River, Portsmouth Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, and bisected by Spruce Creek. Its vast waterfront has defined the town’s character from the start, when fisheries were established on the Isles of Shoals, to today, when even a glimpse of the ocean can put a house out of reach for most buyers.

As a result, more residents are “from away,” townspeople say, and Kittery’s senior population has grown with the development of several retirement communities. An increasing number of residents commute from Boston at least part-time or work from home in web-related businesses.

Like many Maine towns, Kittery’s school-age population has declined, leading to the recent closure of an elementary school, which is being converted into a community center. The historic Rice Public Library remains a favorite among townspeople of all ages, including Bethany McEllin and her three young children.

“We’ve found this community to be close-knit but welcoming,” said McEllin, 37, a New Hampshire native who moved here two years ago. Her husband, Danny, is a construction manager who works throughout New England.

Challenges facing the town include the recent closure of the Memorial Bridge on Route 1 to vehicle traffic, which effectively turned the downtown connection to Portsmouth into a dead-end street until the span is replaced in 2014. The town recently hired a new public works director and a new school superintendent, and it soon will launch searches for a new police chief and a new town manager.

Many things haven’t changed. The downtown looks much as it did decades ago, though tenants now include ethnic restaurants, boutiques and galleries. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard continues to dominate the landscape, bringing in about 4,500 workers daily and serving as a base for the Navy and Coast Guard.

Established in 1800, the shipyard’s civilian work force swelled to more than 25,000 during World War II, when it produced more than 70 submarines. Many shipyard workers rented rooms in nearby homes and drove home on weekends. Some even rented parking spaces on townspeople’s lawns, a tradition that continues today.

“When I was a kid it seemed like everyone in town worked at the shipyard,” said Carol Grover, 68, a retired bank vice president. “Today, not so much. A lot of people commute from as much as an hour away, I think partly because housing can be expensive around here.”

Kittery Point, the town’s southeastern region, features some of Maine’s oldest homes. Its centerpiece is the First Congregational Church of Kittery Point, built about 1730 and known as the oldest church building in Maine.

Barbara Littlefield and her late husband, John, settled in his native Kittery Point after he retired from the Air Force at age 39. He apprenticed as an electrician at the shipyard and worked on nuclear subs for 20 years.

“Throughout his Air Force career, we lived a lot of places,” recalled Littlefield, 73. “We always said, if we found someplace we liked better than Kittery Point, we’d move there. We never did.”

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

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