Did you ever wonder how Harpswell House got started? Well, we did a bit of research…..
It all began in 1959-60 when Winthrop L. Brown moved his family to Topsham, Maine. They bought the old Rackley place in Topsham – “a lovely brick building built in 1858 by the same brick-mason who built the old buildings of Bowdoin College, just across the river in Brunswick.” The house needed modernizing as it had no electricity or plumbing; and was missing lots of window panes – 93 according to the news article! But it did have living space for a family and an attached shed.
With years of experience in designing and developing new products for major companies, Win Brown knew he could start his own business – he just needed a material no one else was utilizing to make his products unique. A state geologist told him about slate from Monson, Maine. Win was able to get samples and began experimenting. He was ecstatic! It was a material that was impervious to the changes in weather, was soft, silky/velvety to the touch, could be kept clean/looking like new with a bit of household oil on a rag, and it was easily worked. In one article he’s quoted: “Monson slates are the most beautiful in the world. They are entirely free from impurities.”
He and his associate Bob Ellis began making tiles with an inlay medium developed by Win. These were intended as fireplace surrounds or other decorative uses. They also explored the furniture and architectural avenues – using slate to make coffee tables or occasional tables, lamp bases, and candlesticks. Locally, they made a Paschal candlestick for St. Paul’s church in Brunswick, ME. There was also a gift line: cigarette boxes, a lighter holder, ashtrays, trivets, and trays were among the products.
By 1962 they were incorporating wood in the process – making coffee tables, bookends, ashtrays, lamp bases, trivets and other household accessories using slate with walnut, teak or rosewood inlays. A number of these early products are still in use today, and we occasionally get calls from people who have something treasured passed down from a parent or grandparent and want to know how to care for it or how to repair minor blemishes after years of service.
An article from The Casco Log September, 1965 featuring Harpswell House, Win, and their products, noted expansion of the product line to include wall clocks and desks in addition to all the aforementioned items. It also noted that they opened a gift shop on location from which they retailed their own gift products and other “quality New England crafts items, with the accent on Maine crafts.”
Continued from the article: “Today, five years after he came to Maine, Winthrop Brown and his creative slate work are known across the country. In the past two years his contract architectural work has outstripped his gift and accessory business. He and his staff of skilled craftsmen are now creating almost thirty tables for the new Bowdoin College Library and recently they executed many of the desk accessories for the executive offices of Harvard’s new Countway Library of Medicine.”
And from an article in the Boston Globe, July 2, 1962: “The finished product has an artistic appearance in a subdued sort of way, and it appears to fill the wants of decorators who are looking for this effect in home furnishings.”
Over the years the product line has continually evolved; the focus currently on cremation urns, donor recognition plaques and gifts, and the return of the retail gift store with some of the office and home gifts from past years as well as many new ones – only now it’s online for your convenience. Check us out and see how we’ve kept Win’s vision alive!
Compiled from articles in:
Topsham Has Interesting Industry, ‘Harpswell House’, Artists in Slate Unidentified (probably Brunswick Times) newspaper dated June 2, 1960
“Monson Slate Is Being Used To Produce New Products” Probably from Brunswick Times from 1960
Topsham Industry Expands to Produce New Gift Line Probably from Brunswick Times, approximately summer of 1964
Winthrop L. Brown and Harpswell House The Cross-Country Craftsman, mid-October 1960
Win Brown Bonds Wood, Slate in Home Furniture by Joe Harrington The Boston Globe, July 27, 1962