Tarbox Cottage was built in 1849-50 by Cornelius Tarbox Jr. His father, Cornelius Tarbox Sr. had come to Westport Island in 1770 from Biddeford, Maine and built the house and barns of the original Tarbox Homestead – the yellow house just up the hill — shortly after they settled here. Cornelius Sr. and his wife Bethiah Tyler had 8 children, and Cornelius Jr. and his wife Ruth Riggs Jewett had 12, which accounts for the number of descendants of this branch of the family still living on the island and surrounding area. The brother of Cornelius Jr. was Samuel Tarbox, and his homestead survives today as the Squire Tarbox Inn, on the Maine Road. The little red house next door to Tarbox Cottage was built by Cornelius Jr. in 1830 as a wedding present for one of his daughters, Jane Emeline, who died shortly after she was married. Later it was purchased by the husband of one of Cornelius’ younger daughters, Phoebe, as a gift for his wife; after that the house was known as “Phoebe’s nest.” The graves of a number of Tarbox family members can be seen in the cemetery next to the farm road.
Tarbox Cottage is a remarkably well-preserved example of Greek Revival vernacular architecture, and it is best known for the marine murals decorating the main stairwell of the house. The painter’s name is unknown, but the style is a rare blend between a trained canvas painter’s style and a folk art style, as found also in the earlier murals by Rufus Porter and Jonathan Poor; examples of their work are exhibited in the Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton, Maine. The subject of our murals is somewhat mysterious. You will notice that a flag on the large ship carries the initials, WFT, which must refer to William F. Tarbox, youngest son of Cornelius, Jr. Research aimed at solving the mystery of the murals is in progress. We have also started the long and expensive process of having these rare murals consolidated, restored, and cleaned. We therefore urge you to use care when carrying suitcases up and down the stairs. “Look but don’t touch” is our maxim regarding the murals. Please help us preserve them for future generations to enjoy.
The ruins of a large wharf at the end of the path down to the waterfront and Tarbox Cove indicate that this area must have been a hub of activity in the nineteenth century and earlier, with fishing and trading ships docking here and participating in a vigorous trade up and down the Atlantic coast and around the world. The Tarboxes owned a large number of ships over the years; some town records and history have been assembled by Cora Tarbox in a very readable account, A History of Westport Island, available at the Town Offices. See also Westport Island, Maine, once Jeremysquam, by the local residents, John and Louise Swanton, a copy of which is in the cubby-library between the dining room and the east parlor. According to local knowledge, trade consisted not only of merchant marine operations, but also of fish drying, salting and shipping, lumber sawing and transport, and trade in granite, and bricks. There was a store on the waterfront used by area residents and merchants. All the properties on the island were once run as farms, at least to some extent, but members of most families were also engaged in the maritime activities of the area. Today, many residents are still connected with the ongoing shipbuilding operations of the Bath Iron Works in Bath, ME as well as with fishing and lobstering.