The picturesque little village of Ogunquit lies in the southeastern corner of York County – the southernmost and most populous county in the State of Maine. The name, roughly translated from the Abenaki (some say Natick) Indian language, aptly means “…beautiful place by the sea.” Before the coming of Europeans, the land was rough and rocky; its fields and forests were further from markets and shipping points than those of the York River to the south and the Mousam and Kennebunk rivers to the north. Fishing was the chief source of income for Ogunquit residents in the early days of settlement. These dauntless, self-reliant fishermen kept their dories in the outer part of what is now called Perkins Cove, exposed to and at the mercy of the erratic Atlantic Ocean.
Settled by the English in the late 1620’s, the area enjoyed relative harmony between colonists and native Indians for several years. Eventually, however, as is common with most early settlements, disputes arose, and the village was subjected to numerous attacks and massacres.
The entire Ogunquit area was once a part of the 5,000 acre estate of Sir Fernando Gorges, granted to him by the English King for “loyal service to the crown”. His descendant, Sir Thomas Gorges, became the first “mayor” of the area and, out of a grant that was extended “…from the Cocheke to the Kennebec” rivers; he chose this southern part for his home.
The first church was built in 1642, and as early as 1679, trading vessels left the pier at the end of what is now Wharf Lane for Boston and the Caribbean laden with firewood and lumber, returning with sugar, molasses, rum and salt. As late as 1900, schooners and other large sailing ships could be seen coming and going from this busy dock.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony, of which Maine was the large northern section, attempted to lay claim to this vast Gorges grant, but in a lawsuit in England in 1678, the crown sustained the Gorges heirs. The Massachusetts Colony later bought Ogunquit, as well as the rest of the grant, and during the Missouri Compromise of 1820, conveyed half interest in this wild parcel of land to the new State of Maine; they later ceded the other half.
The first Post Office was established in Ogunquit in 1826, and in 1879 it became part of a grocery store (formerly Maxwell’s Store) on the south corner of what is now Berwick Road. The new brick building on Main Street, just south of the town center, now serves as a meeting and greeting place for residents throughout the year.
In 1888, a bridge was built across the Ogunquit River providing access for summer visitors and residents to the beautiful and vast beach area, and, in 1897, the Ogunquit Memorial Library building was given to the Village by Nannie (Mrs. George) Conarroe in memory of her husband. This imposing yet elegant fieldstone structure, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, remains a uniquely lovely landmark in town and well used by residents and visitors alike. Also in 1897, the Ogunquit Water Company was formed using dams on the Josias River and later large wells which were dropped in a field near Agamenticus Road. In 1901, the Mousam Water Company bought the rights, franchises and property, and today it is operating as the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport & Wells Water District.
Around the early 1900’s, the streetcar was introduced to the Village of Ogunquit, and electricity became available. The townspeople petitioned an article to be put in the warrant of the Wells town meeting (of which Ogunquit was then a part) asking for street lights through the center of the village, but when the article came before the voters, it was opposed by “…hollering and foot stomping enough to shake the foundation of Wells Town Hall”. Needless to say, the “Wells folks” soundly defeated the article. The Ogunquit voters were “madder than wet hens” and entered a bill in the State Legislature, which, in 1913, gave them a charter for the Ogunquit Village Corporation.
In the spring of 1914, the first regular meeting of the Ogunquit Village Corporation was held. There were twelve articles voted on at that meeting, including a sum of $350 for streetlights. The total amount appropriated for the town budget was $2,867.
The early 1900’s also saw the formation of the Village Improvement Society to ensure that certain public services were provided to the burgeoning population. It managed to pay for most of the sidewalks first constructed on Main Street and set out trees along the roadside to provide shade and beauty. It saw to the maintenance and, for many years, the improvement of the Marginal Way, one of the Town’s greatest assets, and along with the local branch of the American Red Cross, established and funded the first life guard service on Ogunquit Beach. It also provided a “sprinkling” system for the town’s dirt roads the keep down the dust for pedestrians and horses.
Veterans’ Park in the Village Square was dedicated in 1967 to veterans of all wars. This lovely area with benches and attractive plantings provides a quiet, shady respite for strollers and shoppers. A similar area of shade trees and benches is available in the center of Perkins Cove at Rotary Park, a gift from the Ogunquit Rotary Club.
One of Ogunquit’s greatest admirers was S. Judson Dunaway, a local philanthropist who loved this community very much. While walking around his beloved village one day, he noticed that the old “Fireman’s Hall”, which in earlier times had housed the town’s fire trucks and now the Ogunquit Village Corporation offices where “many hot debates” occurred, was becoming run-down and neglected. He offered the village a new building. The old Fireman’s Hall was torn down and the new “S. Judson Dunaway Community Center” was put in its place at a cost of $250,000. It was dedicated in November of 1974.
In 1979, the State Legislature passed an act making Ogunquit, upon approval of its citizens, a “Town unto itself”. In the local referendum that followed, Ogunquit citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor. This act, separating the Ogunquit Village Corporation and the Town of Wells, became effective July 1, 1980. Ogunquit has functioned with a Town Manager/Board of Selectmen form of government since then.
While tremendous growth occurred in the 60’s, through the 70’s, and into the 80’s (the permanent resident population has actually decreased from that of the early colonial settlement), Ogunquit has managed to retain its charming qualities and has proven an enduring venue for thousands of visitors year after year.
Today, Ogunquit remains essentially a tranquil, small village where one can enjoy the simple pleasures at a peaceful pace, no matter how crowded it may become at times. It continues to offer almost everything to almost everyone as perhaps nowhere else in the country can: the finest stretch of pristine beach whose glistening white sand flows wide and long; one of the most picturesque small harbors, with its fishing and pleasure boats moving easily at their quiet moorings and crowned by a unique draw-footbridge; the quaint New England flavor of the Village Center with its countless restaurants and lounges, art galleries, gift shops, inns, hotels and guesthouses; awesome views of high waves crashing against rocks, and soothing views of gentle waters easing up onto clean white sand; several fine golf courses and country clubs nearby; the Ogunquit Playhouse which yearly attracts star names to its casts of players; movie theaters and small repertory companies; boat rides, either for the viewing or for trapping Maine’s famous lobster or for fishing in the deep dark sea; the exceptionally stirring and exhilarating Marginal Way footpath which winds along a craggy promontory shadowing the vast Atlantic for a sandpiper’s view of the famed rocky coast of Maine.
Over the past 100 years, this attractive seaside village has evolved from a flyspeck of a fishing hamlet with dirt roads and weathered shacks to a major vacation resort without losing a bit of its charisma or endearing quaintness.