Site No. 17.  Mathes Building

    There has been a tavern here since 1978.  In 1983 it became “Riverworks.”  Much earlier, Benjamin Mathes’s 1840 building housed his family’s grocery and dry goods stores, as well as a millinery shop. 

    The Benjamin Mathes estate was sold at auction in 1903.  The Kent family then owned the building for over 60 years.  For much of that time, the Newmarket Telephone Exchange was upstairs where operators manually connected one caller to another.  Downstairs there were cobblers and a tin shop, as well as a succession of grocers—Mariotti, Cierri, Marelli, Zocchi, Malo, Loiselle and Caswell. 

    But there is an earlier story. Over 200 years ago Benjamin Mead had a tavern here. Behind it near the ledge, there was a long straight enclosure extending north about 250 feet.  This was the Lamprey River Village ropewalk, where a rope maker would walk along, twisting individual strands of hemp together.   Around 1800, James Cram used to hire boys to help make ropes here.  The only early town ropemaker on record, Cram was a blacksmith with a wharf nearby, so he most likely had a hand in shipbuilding. 

    By 1719 rope was received at the New Hampshire treasury, in place of money, at one shilling per pound.  Well before the Revolution, rope exports to the colonies were allowed only for English ship construction.  Merchant and fishing vessels required rope too, so most Seacoast towns back then had a rope walk. By 1776 Portsmouth had three.

    By 1812, ships were no longer being built here on the Lamprey, so this ropewalk probably wasn’t used much after that.  We have no pictures, but an 1896 newspaper article describes a runaway horse sticking his head through a window in the old rope walk.  And when this building was sold at auction in 1903, the deed mentions “the land of said Mathes being two feet easterly from the front of the old ropewalk.

    Incredibly, parts of the ropewalk remained here until sometime in the 1950s, when its final demise was described: “Barney demolished what was left of the old rotting structure.  This would have been while Barney’s brother-in-law Beef was working in the grocery when it was leased by Beef’s father-in-law Jimmy.” 

    Now to decipher the nicknames: “Barney” was Romeo Arthur Turcotte.  His brother-in-law “Beef” was Romeo Charles Loiselle.  Beef’s father-in-law “Jimmy” was none other than Giacomo Marelli, whose son owned Marelli’s Fruit & Real Estate.  But that’s another story.

    To see the next several sites, use the crosswalk over to the American Legion Building.

    END OF AUDIO TEXT. See below for photos and more information.

    17  (164 Main St.)  MATHES BUILDING – 1840.  Earlier still, Newmarket’s old rope walk from the town’s shipbuilding days hugged the granite ledge out back.

    Mathes Commericial Building/ Riverwork’s Tavern was once the site of Benjamin Mead’s tavern.

    The Widow Mead’s small wooden house was adjacent. Benjamin died in 1807, and his widow Sarah Mead sold the property in 1818 to Attorney William Tenney.  Upon Tenney’s death in 1838, Benjamin Mathes, Sr. purchased the property from Tenney’s young heirs William and Caroline Phebe Tenney.

    Mathes immediately tore down the old wooden structures between 1838 and 1840 and brought in brick and stone to construct the three buildings which still stand today at 164 & 170 Main and 1 Exeter Street. The rubble stone is the same as the NMCo Mill No. 4, the Stone Church and the Stone School.  All buildings have rough cut quoins of granite framing their corners; while granite lintels above the doors and windows provide the only other decoration.

    The records don’t stipulate where the brick and stone came from other than “local”; in the 1840s there were at least 40 brickyards along the Oyster and Cocheco Rivers, and Benjamin’s father owned six of them; also his cousin Jacob Mathes was a stone cutter with a Durham Point quarry. [1]

    This building is described in the Newmarket Historic District by Dr. Richard Candee (1983):

    “The Federal style building is an outstanding example of brick and granite construction in excellent condition and has had relatively minor alterations today.  Its exterior is composed of solid granite piers and lintels forming the openings of its doors and windows with granite ashlar at the corners. It has a central entrance to upper floor, original chimneys in end walls, second story windows have granite lintels, sills and wooden shutters.”[2]

    The building remained in the Mathes family for 65 years.  Benjamin Mathes, Sr. and his two sons were merchants here for most of that time.  The grocery business begun by Benjamin Sr. was continued by his son Benjamin Jr. (who brought his brother-in-law Milton Lane into co-ownership in the 1860s).  His son Constantine Blodgett Mathes also ran a dry goods shop here until his death in 1896. Constantine outlived his father and brother by just over a year.  His 85-year-old father passed away in October 1894, followed by Benjamin Jr. the following month.

    In an old Riverworks menu there is mention of Constantine’s twin daughters Maud and Mable operating a millinery shop upstairs; and this story made it onto the historic plaque on the front of the building.  However, several sources suggest otherwise. The year their father died (1896) they both graduated from Newmarket High School, and both continued their education in the fall.  Mabel attended a year at Plymouth Normal School, returning to teach in Newmarket for ten years.  Maud became a nurse, working in Dover and Exeter before moving to Boston.  Maud and Mabel grew up across the street.  (Their stories are told in more detail at Site No. 16.)

    After the Mathes brothers died, the building continued in commercial use.  The heirs of Benjamin Mathes Jr. sold the building on 2 Sep 1903 to Ernest P. Pinkham who turned around and sold it to John E. Kent by the end of the month for “one dollar and other considerations”.  Whatever those considerations were, they were not spelled out in the deed.


    Italian Grocery

    Most interesting was a succession of Italian-owned grocery markets specializing in fresh fruit and locally grown vegetables in season, ice cream and cigars —complete with a horse cart tethered out front.  Immigrant Daruis Mariotti was the first, in 1904; Vincent Cierri bought him out in 1913; and he in turn was bought out by Jimmy  Marelli in 1915.  Marelli ran the store for a few years as an adjunct to his own Fruit & Real Estate store just a few blocks away. 

    From many years the Kent family leased the top floors of the building to the New England Telephone Company, and the building became known as the Newmarket Telephone Exchange.

    Kent and his heirs held the property until 1969.  In addition to the Telephone Company, various other businesses leased the downstairs over the decades.  Here are just a few:

    • Joseph Shina’s Shoe Repair (in the 1940s)
    • True Smith’s tin shop
    • Joe Caswell’s Grocery Store (see Nov. 1960 ad)
    • Butler’s Shoe repair (1969)

    In Dec 1969 the building was sold to Merle D. Jr. and Helen L. Straw of Hampton, NH who sold in Oct 1970 to Robert L. DiBerto.  He kept the property for a decade, opening the Lamprey Tavern in 1978.  He sold in 1980 to C. Chandler Robbins. Mr. Robbins’ son Kendrick bought the property from his father in 1983 and started the Riverworks Tavern.  In 2002 Jennifer Jarvis purchased the property, beginning a twenty-year tenure with the restaurant. In 2022, Marcy Curtis and Scott Moreau took over.


    The Rope Walk

    In a 1903 deed:  A certain lot or parcel of land with a brick store and other buildings thereon, situate in said New Market and bounded as follows, viz: northerly by land of James Brennan, Thomas O’Brian heirs and land of Sarah A. Doe, easterly by Main Street, southerly by a passageway twenty feet wide, and Charles H. Mathes and westerly by land now or formerly of the New Market Manufacturing Company, the land of said Mathes being two feet easterly from the front of the old ropewalk and one foot southerly from the end thereof.”[3]

    Sylvia Getchell writes:

    The old Rope Walk was a long narrow building which stood in the lower village behind the telephone exchange. We are told that a large iron ring set in the granite ledge there was used by the workmen to stretch out the rope as they twisted and walked with it.[4] 

    This relic of the Newmarket’s old shipbuilding days [5]  was behind Benjamin Mead’s Tavern, and it could have predated his building.  Extending along the ledge (behind today’s Riverworks) to Church Street (which it predated), it remained there through Mead’s lifetime, during the property ownership of William Tenney, of the Mathes brothers, and well into the 20th century.  Large iron rings were attached to the ledge; these rings held layers of fibers up off the ground allowing them to remain dry as they were twisted into rope.  A rope walk’s length determined the maximum length of cordage that could be made on site.

    Why a rope walk?

    The age of sailing ships had turned rope making into a vital industry. Phoenician ships were held together by rope. Columbus had 15 miles of rope on his ship.  Thousands of pounds of hemp line created the rigging on the U.S.S. Constitution.  Rope walks appeared wherever ships were built; and during the colonial era, Newmarket had its share of shipbuilding activity. 


    Ropewalks consisted of long, straight enclosures where individual strands of (usually) hemp could be stretched. A rope maker would then walk along, twisting the strands together into a rope of the required length and girth as he went.  By the 1700s, the use of a crank to twist the fiber strands helped to increase production.  Many colonial seaport towns had to make their own rope right up to the advent of steam power.  Every Seacoast community of any size had a ropewalk.   Local farmers were kept busy supplying jute, flax and hemp which was spun and then woven into rope. 

    (photo: an outdoor rope walk in 19th Century Sunbury, England, from:  Village Matters, Sunbury articles, 2015, Illustration of rope Walk.

    The first  American Colonial ropewalk began in Salem, MA in 1635.   

    A book, “The Ropemakers of Plymouth. A History of the Plymouth Cordage Company, written by Samuel Eliot Morison in 1950, covers the history of the North American sailing industry, the price of hemp fiber and cordage throughout the 1800’s, the type of hemp rigging used on the sailing ships of that era, and an explanation of why hemp fell out of favor in the early 1900’s.” [6]  

    This 1755 advertisement promoted the different products available from a ropewalk:

    All Sorts of Cables, standing and running Rigging of every Sort and Size; also Spun-Yarn, Marline, Housing, Amber-line, deep See-Lines, Log-Lines, Lead-Lines, and any Kind of Rope that can be made of Hemp; likewise Sail-Twine, Whipping Twine, Seine-Twine, Drum Lines, &c. Any person wanting a Quantity, not under Five Ton, shall have it delivered at their Landing on this Bay, at the same Price it sells for at the Walk; and all Orders shall be strictly observed, both as to Size and Length.[7] 

    William Saltonstall’s Ports of Piscataqua also describes the importance of rope walks in colonial times: [8] 

    The demand for cordage in Portsmouth by 1700 was growing fast.  It was needed not only for rigging merchant vessels but also to supply the large number of fishermen.  The manufacture of rope was a domestic industry, handed down from father to son in the seaport towns.  At first the yarn for rope-making was spun by hand.  The hemp had to hackled (combed out into long 

    straight fibers), and was then wrapped about the spinner’s waist in such a way that the fibers would pay out freely.  Rope-making, reduced to its lowest terms, was simply a series of twisting processes.  The length of the rope was controlled by the dimensions of the walk…

    …An act was passed by the New Hampshire assembly encouraging [hemp’s] growth, and by 1719 it was received at the treasury, in place of money, at one shilling per pound. 

    …As the Revolution broke out there were three ropewalks in Portsmouth, but these “were insufficient to the demand for cordage.” 

    …Brewster also speaks of the Underwood walk [in Portsmouth] as a favorite place for public dinners, especially Fourth of July occasions during the War of 1812.

    The room was ample for the most extensive companies.  Tables were extended to the length of five hundred feet through the decorated walk, and seven hundred seats were here occupied…

    More about Ropewalks

    A Portsmouth rope walk was used as barracks to house Union recruits for the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry in 1865, as they prepared to head south in the last year of the Civil War. 

    Newburyport’s Bartlett Mall now hosts many  summer festivals and concerts.  A plaque there commemorates the site as one of the first rope walks along Massachusetts’ northern coast. 

    In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Ropewalk (pub. 1858), he evokes the sights and sounds of a ropewalk in the first two stanzas:

    In that building long and low

    With its windows all a-row,

    Like the port-holes of a hulk,

    Human spiders spin and spin,

    Backward down their threads so thin

    Dropping, each a hempen bulk.

    At the end, an open door;

    Squares of sunshine on the floor

    Light the long and dusky lane;

    And the whirring of a wheel,

    Dull and drowsy, makes me feel

    All its spokes are in my brain.


    The remainder of the poem celebrates all of the wonderful ways that rope is used—swings, hauling water from a well, bell ringing, and ships.  Only for “the gallows-tree” does he ask that the “Breath of Christian charity, Blow, and sweep it from the earth!”

    Incident at a Ropewalk, March 1770

    Less pleasant was an incident that took place three days before the Boston Massacre—a time when that city’s colonists were chafing under the continued occupation of their town by the British military:

    A few hundred yards from a British barracks, John Gray had a ropewalk.  He often hired temporary workers in addition to his regular crew of journeymen and apprentices.  It wasn’t unusual for some of the poorly paid British soldiers to try to earn some extra money by working there. 

    On Friday, March 2, 1770, one of the Redcoats from the 29th Regiment ambled by the ropeworks and a journeyman asked him if he wanted to work.  Not knowing he was being set up, the soldier eagerly answered yes.  The journeyman responded gleefully:  “Then go and clean my shithouse!”

    The angry soldier said he would “seek satisfaction,” but the rope workers got the better of him, knocking him down and taking his cutlass (sword).  He left the site, swearing vengeance. Twice the soldier returned with reinforcements.  Each time he brought more men—with clubs and then with swords.   And each time he was met with a larger group of rope workers, who held their ground. 

    The next day, Saturday, at another ropewalk adjacent to Grey’s, three unarmed apprentices were threatened by three British soldiers. Fortunately for the apprentices, some passersby and a journeyman chased the soldiers from the site.  

    With rumors of impending clashes, the town was tense for the rest of the weekend.  It didn’t help that teams of workers and soldiers roamed the streets, armed with clubs.  That Monday, March 5th it all came to a head in what would become known as the Boston Massacre. [9]  

    Newmarket’s Rope Walk

    Although some rope walks were used until the advent of steam power, it is unlikely that this rope walk was used much after the War of 1812—when Newmarket’s shipbuilding days came to an end.   And there is no story about this town’s ropewalk that can compete with the Boston Massacre.   Despite vestiges of the structure remaining up against the ledge until the 1950s, there seems to be no photographic evidence.  Thus far, only the briefest of mentions have been discovered, such as in the report of an attempted burglary and the death of a policeman in April 1894, where:

    The burglar fled toward the block known as “the old rope walk…A hand-to-hand combat took place ….  The Burglar slashed Dr. Morse’s face in two places with a jackknife…” [10]

    And in 1896, there was a news item about a runaway horse: 

    Two teams driven by strangers met with accidents here last Sunday.  One sleigh was wrecked by a kicking horse, and the horse attached to the other sleigh ran away on Prescott Street, and up the alley in the rear of Mathes’ store and brought up by sticking his head through a window in the old “rope walk.”[11]

    There is also mention of a rope maker in an article titled “Newmarket in 1800,” published by the Newmarket Advertiser:  James Cram (1768-1852) was a blacksmith who “also made ropes, 

    There is also mention of a rope maker in an article titled “Newmarket in 1800,” published by the Newmarket Advertiser:  James Cram (1768-1852) was a blacksmith who “also made ropes, the boys helping him.” [12]   He grew up in Lamprey Village, along the waterfront by a ravine on the east side of today’s Main Street and opposite the Willey Hotel.  The Cram family also owned a wharf adjacent to the Shipbuilding yard. [13]

    So it seems that:

    • Newmarket’s ropewalk had walls and windows, and probably a roof;  
    • at least some of the structure managed to exist downtown for some 150 years after that – well past its intended usefulness.
    • parts of the old rope walk might have been used for storage (given Newmarket’s longstanding tradition of reusing old buildings); and
    • Someone (James Cram) was making rope downtown around 1800.  

    We don’t know whether anyone ever owned the structure, and James Cram is—at this point—the only rope maker we can name, but we do know a bit about how the ropewalk ended.  In a document at the Historical Society there is this one sentence, peppered with family nicknames:

    … sometime before 1960*, Barney demolished what was left of the old rotting structure.  This would have been while Barney’s brother-in-law Beef was working in the grocery when it was leased by Beef’s father-in-law Jimmy. 

    *At the time, that grocery was housed here in the Mathes building (today’s Riverworks), and most everyone in town would have known that “Barney” was Romeo Arthur Turcotte.  Romeo Charles Loiselle was known as “Beef” (not to be confused with his brother “Tiny”); and “Jimmy” was Giacomo Marelli, owner of Marelli’s Fruit & Real Estate…up the street. [14]




    [1] See details on the Longmarsh quarry at Site No. 16 — Mathes Tenement Building.

    [2]  the Newmarket Historic District by Dr. Richard Candee, 1983

    [3]  Deed 598-321/signed 2 Sep 1903 recorded 4 Sep 1903 Benjamin Mathes heirs to Ernest P. Pinkham

    [4] The Tide Turns on the Lamprey, Sylvia Fitts Getchell, Capital Offset Co., Inc. Concord, NH 1984. pg 198

    [5]  Newmarket’s shipbuilding era is described in Site No. 21 (Schanda Park).

    [6]  HEMP IN NEW ENGLAND, By John E. Dvorak, an except can be found online at’S%20ARTICLES/NEWENG.html


    [8]  William Saltonstall, Ports of Piscataqua, pp. 173-175. Harvard University Press, 1941


    [10] This was an attempted postal burglary.  See Site No. 25 (Post Office) for the full story.

    [11]  Newmarket Advertiser, Feb. 1896.

    [12]  Newmarket Advertiser, Feb. 1, 1907 (article submitted by John Savage, from the Collections of the Historical Committee of the Newmarket Club of Boston)

    [13]  For more on Newmarket’s shipbuilding years, see Site No. 21.

    [14]  Yet to be published:  an extensive list of unique Newmarket nicknames.