Kittery, Maine, is a town of many hidden gems. Some residents – including myself – would prefer to keep these treasures secret so they don’t become spoiled, overcrowded tourist attractions.
But as popular as picturesque Rogers Park may be to local townsfolk, and dog owners especially, there are probably few who know and appreciate the story behind it.
This thickly wooded site overlooking Spruce Creek is fortunately tucked into a corner of Kittery mostly known by locals only, and not far at all from the shopping outlets for which the town is famous. It’s a spot where visitors can actually get a sense of what the area might have been like 400 years ago.
What many folks might not realize is the park was a gift from a local family whose ancestors came to America almost that long ago, aboard the Mayflower. Specifically, these 27 acres were handed over to the town by Richard Rogers, a lifelong resident who spent more than four decades working at nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Kittery resident Barry Fitzpatrick, whose parents later bought Rogers’ home, remembers this benefactor as a prototypical New England Yankee who lived his life based on the understanding that “you had to put something into it to get something out of it.”
“He was just a very gentle old man,” Fitzpatrick recalled recently. “He was working all the time.”
The park best represents the legacy of this favorite Kittery son, but it’s hardly the only reminder of his family name.
‘Very generous gift’
Rogers, who had no surviving children, donated this family land to the town back in 1958. A plaque that still lies near the trailhead of the park states the land had belonged to the family since 1677, and was formerly known as Eagle’s Point. It also says ancestor Thomas Rogers and his son Joseph were among those who sailed to the New World aboard the legendary ship Mayflower before descendants eventually settled here in Kittery.
A letter addressed to Richard Rogers, a seventh-generation local resident, and other family members from the town’s board of selectmen in December 1958 notes a special meeting was held Nov. 3 that year to accept “your very generous gift to the Town of Kittery.”
“The (Rogers) family has zealously served the Town and State with honor and it is most fitting that “Rogers Park” be so called to perpetuate this ancient and honorable name,” the Kittery selectmen wrote. (Ironically, the board’s chairman that year was Harold L. Durgin, my wife’s great-grandfather.)
An old Portsmouth Herald article announcing the opening of the park mentions “a stone marker telling of an Indian massacre at the site in 1636.” No one seems to know now what became of that marker, or which particular incident it references.
The 1903 book “Old Kittery and Her Families,” by Everett S. Stackpole, recounts several deadly skirmishes in the Spruce Creek area between European residents and Native Americans throughout the 1600s and 1700s. While these antagonists waged war with each other over this land for a great many years – after decades of initial peace – we only have a one-sided recorded history that still survives today.
Rogers was the last male member of his family when he died in 1964 at age 98, just a few months after local newspaper articles reported on what would be his final birthday. His wife died in 1943.
Rogers was born in 1866, in the same house where he was living at the age of 90. He ultimately retired from the local Navy yard in 1930 as chief engineer of the old naval prison. Newspaper accounts noted he used to rent oxen to the Navy yard for heavy workloads.
Articles also reported an open house party was held to mark his 98th birthday, and that legendary Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith sent him a congratulatory letter. The articles described the still-active Rogers as “an ardent gardener,” growing both vegetables and flowers.
At the time of his death, Rogers was living with his sister, listed as “Mrs. Frank Hibbard,” on Rogers Road, which was named for their family. He was the town’s oldest male resident when he passed away, and the oldest living shipyard retiree. The year before he died he served as honorary chairman of the town’s Little League.
During an article concerning his 98th birthday, Rogers was asked for the secret to his longevity.
“I’ve never smoked,” he said, “and always go to bed early and get up early. Maybe that helped.”
Barry Fitzpatrick was a young boy when he knew Rogers. He and his father Paul Fitzpatrick, also a Navy yard employee, used to look in on the old man. Barry says he was just a kid when his father and Rogers taught him how to farm with old-fashioned tools like scythe and sickle.
“He was very patient,” Barry said of Rogers. “He was quite a laid-back old gentleman.”
Historic document discovered
The Fitzpatricks eventually bought Rogers’ home, and as he left behind no children they have come across many surprising treasures over the years. After his mother Dot passed away in 2017, Barry made a surprising discovery in the bottom of her sweater drawer – a document commissioning their friend’s ancestor and namesake Richard Rogers as a captain during the Revolutionary War.
The commission authorized by the Council of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay appointed this Richard Rogers to his rank in the Fifth Company of the Second Regiment of the York County militia, under Col. John Frost. (Maine was considered part of Massachusetts before it became a state in 1820.) Capt. Rogers was stationed at Kittery’s Fort McClary among other posts, and was later assigned to Winter Hill, Massachusetts, to help guard British soldiers taken prisoner after the surrender of Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga.
It appears the colonists somehow acquired the form from British forces, as they simply crossed out the date description “in the Sixteenth Year of the Reign of his Majesty, King George the Third” and replaced it by hand with “In the Year of our Lord, One Thousand, Seven Hundred, & Seventy Six.”
The family’s original American ancestor Thomas Rogers, who arrived in the New World aboard the Mayflower in 1620, was a signer of the Mayflower Compact but died during that first brutal winter in Plymouth, Massachusetts. His son Joseph, just a teenager during the historic voyage, lived on to sire several children of his own.
According to multiple accounts, the Maine resort town of Old Orchard Beach was named after a family orchard in that area owned by another ancestor named Thomas Rogers. This ancestor relocated to Kittery after his home was destroyed and family members killed during the long-running warfare between settlers and Native American tribes. In 1958, Richard Rogers was presented a golden apple during a ceremony in Old Orchard Beach honoring his ancestors.
Kim Sanborn, executive director of the Kittery Historical and Naval Museum, said this week the Rogers family had a “huge impact on Kittery which is still remembered today.”
“Although to many Rogers Road is just a name on a map, it signifies the generosity of one family in Kittery’s history,” she said.
A neighborhoods project put together by the museum for the town’s 350th anniversary back in the 1990s pointed out that the original Rogers Farm area included what is now the Dairy Queen location, as well as the Town Hall complex and the Kittery Community Center. It essentially extended from Memorial Circle down Rogers Road to the current Best Automotive location.
Rogers Park has recently become a local focal point due to recent debate in town over dog access to public areas. The wide, clearly marked trails throughout the woodland site and views of Spruce Creek has made it a favorite spot for residents taking their pets for some outdoor exercise.
And now they know who to thank for this hidden forested paradise.
D. Allan Kerr has made Kittery his adopted home town for the past dozen years. He may be found on the Sloth Blog at https://slothonline.com/portfolio/d-allan-kerr/ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/D-Allan-Kerr-354849648605637/?modal=admin.