A Brief and Interesting History
Hackmatack Playhouse was founded in 1972 by S. Carleton Guptill. He envisioned a summer stock theatre that would showcase the talents of professional and developing thespians from the regional area.
Many theatre-goers have called Hackmatack one of New England’s most charming and quaint summer theaters. Some have even said that summer in Maine is not summer without a trip to Hackmatack!
Much of the allure of this playhouse is its scenic location and historical presence. Hackmatack Playhouse is located on the Guptill family farmstead- a property first purchased by the first Guptill (then Gubtail) who make the long trip to “New England” from the native British Isles in the mid 1600’s. Thomas Guptill built the first home: a log house which sat in the far left of the present-day field overlooking the irrigation pond. According to family legend, this home was burnt down by Indians during one of the many raids on the Salmon Falls river region. The farmhouse seen today was constructed between the years of 1716-2005 to appease the needs of an ever-changing diverse and dynamic Guptill family. When it was first constructed, the house was a large cape sitting endwise to the road. It was occupied at one point by two Guptill brothers, the younger of which deciding that he would like to have a modern two-story cape. His older brother in typical conservative fashion said “the house is plenty good enough the way it is”. The younger brother replied, “My half is coming off”, proceeding to saw his half off and tear it down, ultimately building his family a two-story cape on the end of the original house, parallel to the road, giving the house its shape. Minor reconstructions have taken place since then to create a more modern and functional house for the current Guptill family.
Prior to the year of 1972 when the theatre was established, the Guptill family farm functioned like many other farms at the time. The barn was the focal point of the farm. The current barn has an interesting story much like the original house. One of the first barns was struck by lightning and burned in July of 1934. Haying had just been completed for the season, and it is thought that the heat from the newly cut hay attracted the lightning. Almost immediately, Lewis Guptill began looking for the right barn to replace what had been lost. He finally purchased one- a large, old structure with pegged timbers measuring fifty-four feet long and forty-two feet wide. It was the perfect replacement for the old barn. However, there was one small problem: it was located across the street.
Luckily, the Guptill’s have always been known for their ingenuity. It was with this cleverness that Lewis decided it would be easier to move the barn rather than disassemble it and rebuilt it. The entire barn was jacked up and rollers were placed underneath it. A cable was attached to one end of the barn that ran though a large turnstile. An old white horse was hitched to the turnstile and walked in circles, stepping over the cable on every lap. The leverage was great, and each time the horse made a circle, the barn moved one half-inch. Progress was slow. The entire operation took about three days, a day of which was spent crossing Maine Route 9. However, in 1934, Maine Route 9 was much less-traveled, and everyone cheerfully watched or made their own route around the barn.
After the theatre’s first decade, the barn was expanded to the structure that you see today. An addition was added to the back, cement was added to form the floor, and the stage was expanded. These changes made room for the 218 seats the theatre houses today. It is rumored that back in 1972 patrons sat on hay bales to watch the show. However, the original playhouse actually had seats that were salvaged from a Durham, New Hampshire movie theater.
The grounds of Hackmatack Playhouse and the area surrounding the theatre host many other buildings built and used by the Guptill clan over the years. The yellow family of buildings just south of the theatre (now owned by the Mills family) was originally built by Samuel Guptill in the early part of the last century. Known as the Forget-Me-Not, these buildings housed services for early automobile travelers, including fuel for the autos and food for the hungry. Visitors could rent a cabin, and were in luck if they happened to stay on a Saturday night, because Saturday-night barn dances were regular events!
The oldest building on the farmstead is the “woodshed”, which is just south of the house. This building dates back to the 1600’s and has been used for many purposes over the years, such as drying meat and serving as a slaughterhouse. It is now used for rehearsal space and prop storage.
The “mill” is across the orchard from the “woodshed”, and now houses the theatre’s shop operations and costume collection. However, during the years of self-sufficient farming, it was one of several lumber mills built on the property by Lewis Guptill in the middle part of the 1900’s. This was a complete finish lumber mill powered by an Allis Chalmers tractor. If you listen carefully through the whirr of the belts and the screech of the saws you might just be able to hear Lewis & Almon Allen and young Carelton Guptill preparing a load of lumber for the newest construction project.
The Guptill family has a long tradition of entertaining locals and summer visitors in the Beaver Dam section of Berwick. Samuel’s weekly barn dances at the Forget-Me-Not were a popular favorite during the early decades of the 1900’s. His son Lewis, a local and state Grange Master, was also a master of many musical instruments. He had a passion for starting bands and performing in Beaver Dam and across the state of Maine. His son Carleton would organize several theatre groups, first at the Beaver Dam grange, and then at his barn, now called the Hackmatack Playhouse.
Every year, thousands of people gather outside the Playhouse with tickets to the summer’s productions. Every year, talented actors audition for their chance to perform at Hackmatack Playhouse, and to experience the history and excitement of being part of Hackmatack’s family. The farm and its building have many stories to tell. Perhaps 200 years from now Guptill great, great-grandchildren will be telling the story of the Barn to aspiring actors nervously waiting for their audition slot, and to friendly crowds waiting to take their seats.
After the death of the founder in 1995, the S Carleton Guptill Memorial Fund was established to preserve and improve our historical buildings. The fund is also dedicated to advancements of dramatic arts, both for the participant and the community, and to the commitment of providing quality family entertainment and drama at a reasonable price. Contributions are always welcome. We thank you in advance for helping us secure the future of Hackmatack Playhouse for potential Hackmatackers.
Hackmatack exists because of the generosity of its patrons, friends, and those who appreciate the theater’s contribution to local culture and community. It is committed to the advancement of dramatic arts and to providing quality family entertainment at a reasonable price.
We ask that you would please consider a donation, and thank you in advance.