Old Town, New Village: The Revitalization of North Berwick, Maine

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North Berwick, a small town on the Salmon Falls River in southwestern Maine, has been facing the challenge of revitalizing its downtown area for years. The heart of the town, a former leather tannery, has sat vacant for a decade, leaving behind hazardous waste and an empty space in the center of town. However, the community has come together with a vision of transforming their old town into a new village, bringing back the charm and economic vitality of years past. This article will delve into the history of North Berwick, the rise and fall of the tannery industry, and the current efforts to rebuild and rejuvenate the downtown area.

History of North Berwick

North Berwick, originally part of Kittery, Maine, was settled in 1631 and called Kittery Commons or Kittery North Parish. It gained incorporation by the Massachusetts General Court in 1713 and was formally named Berwick. South Berwick was later set off from the town in 1814, followed by North Berwick in 1831. The town was primarily settled by farmers and millwrights, who harnessed the power of the Salmon Falls River for lumber mills and shoe factories. Over the years, North Berwick saw the establishment of various small leather tanneries, including the Prime Tanning Company, which would become a major employer and central to the town’s economy.

The Rise and Fall of Prime Tanning

In 1935, Morris Kaplan, a Russian immigrant, brought Prime Tanning to North Berwick. The tannery grew over the years, becoming a significant employer in the town with 750 employees by the end of the 20th century. However, changes in the leather tanning industry’s economics led to Prime Tanning’s bankruptcy and closure in 2008. The closure left North Berwick without its major employer and 11.7 acres of industrial buildings standing empty in the heart of downtown.

The Impact on the Community

Prime Tanning was not only a place of employment but also a pillar of the community. The Kaplan family, who owned the company, were known for their philanthropy, donating money to various projects and supporting local initiatives. The tannery provided stability and financial security for many families, and its closure had a significant impact on the community. Local amenities, such as the water and sewage plants, were designed based on the tannery’s needs, so their closure disrupted the town’s infrastructure.

The Cleanup and Revitalization Efforts

In 2014, the town of North Berwick acquired the Prime Tanning property due to owed back taxes. However, the property was filled with hazardous waste, requiring an extensive cleanup. The contaminants left behind from years of tanning operations included chromium, fuel-related contaminants, and chlorinated solvents. The cleanup project began with the involvement of the bankruptcy court and the formation of a company called the Fund of Jupiter. The town used the owed taxes to fund the cleanup and secured additional grants for the project.

Vision for a New Village

With the tannery property under the town’s control, the community began to envision a future for their downtown area. They aimed to create a vibrant new village, reminiscent of the town’s past glory. The key goal was to build up a tax base and attract businesses and people willing to invest in the town. The residents wanted to recapture the essence of the old downtown, with small businesses, a bustling atmosphere, and a true sense of community. The revitalization project had the potential to transform North Berwick into a destination for visitors and a place residents could be proud to call home.

The Road Ahead: Challenges and Optimism

The revitalization of North Berwick’s downtown area is a long-term project, expected to take five to seven years. The journey comes with its challenges, including finding new businesses to fill the vacant spaces, addressing the infrastructure issues caused by the tannery’s closure, and reinvigorating the local economy. However, the community remains optimistic and excited about the future. They believe that the transformation of North Berwick will bring back the charm, economic stability, and vibrancy the town once had.


North Berwick, Maine, is on a mission to revitalize its downtown area, which has been hit hard by the closure of the Prime Tanning Company. The town, with its rich history and resilient community, is determined to build a new village that captures the essence of its past. Through cleanup efforts and a vision for a vibrant downtown, North Berwick aims to attract businesses, create a tax base, and bring back the sense of community and pride that was lost. Though challenges may arise along the way, the people of North Berwick are eager to embrace the journey and shape a bright future for their town.

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