Friday, May 13, 2022

Before the memory fades: Harness racing on the Windham Hill Driving Park

This 130-year-old poster (or perhaps a
broadside) publicizes horse races, games,
competitions, and animal shows at a two-
day agricultural far being held on the
grounds of Windham Hill Driving Park.
By Walter Lunt

The Windham Hill neighborhood is much quieter today than in earlier times when race day attracted hundreds of spectators to the “driving park,” located near the intersection of Park and Pope Roads. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term driving park referred to a “racetrack used for harness racing.”

“My grandfather, Robert “Dag” Timmons, used to race his horses there,” said longtime resident Roger Timmons, “…a long time ago a lady showed me a race card from way back. My grandfather’s name and the name of his horse was on it. (I was surprised) to see how much they could win back then…it was pretty good money.”

Timmons remembers seeing the outline of the oval track on Windham Hill around 1950, long after it had closed, “You could see where it used to be; the ground was different.”

He said he wasn’t around when grandfather raced on Windham Hill, but driving parks continued to be popular into the 1950s in the nearby communities of Gorham, Cumberland and Cornish, where his grandfather continued to race “right up to the time he died” in 1958.

Timmons lived briefly with his grandparents on the big farm on Swett Road (often referred to at that time as the Dag Timmons Road) and in the 1940s observed his grandad training his race horses.

“He’d have them jogging in a big circle in the farmyard, and he’d harness them up and ride the sulky down Swett Road (toward Route 202), turn right onto Town Farm Road, another right onto Pope Road all the way down to Chute (Road) where he’d join up with Swett Road again. His little dog, Smokey, would run all the way with him under the sulky seat.”

The workouts were designed to strengthen the horses for racing. In the early days of harness racing the horse’s owner was both the trainer and driver.

Timmons said he loved helping his grandad with the standardbreds, and still remembers their names: Gracious Lee, Goldie Brewer, and Goldie’s offspring, Penny Lee.

Asked if he had seen evidence of a grandstand that might have stood on the Windham Hill site, Timmons said no, but other parks did have one, and its likely Windham had one too because “…they’d need the height” to overlook what seemed to be a half-mile oval track.

Today, Windham Hill Driving Park has disappeared, overtaken by nature and a few houses. The area is remarkedly flat with spectacular views of the region; and for some, it’s easy to picture what it must been like to see and hear the flying sulkies, the even beat of the trotters, and the whoops, hollers and roar of the crowds.

Evidence of the park’s very early years will soon be on display at the Windham Historical Society’s Village Green, a re-creation of an 1890s public square now nearing completion behind the Society’s brick museum at Windham Center.

A tattered and yellowed poster announcing an upcoming agricultural fair at the Windham Hill Driving Park in 1892 describes a two-day event that will feature horse races, oxen and draft horse trials of strength, trotting (featuring a $40 purse) and ladies’ competition for speed in harnessing horses.

Tax records dating from the turn of the century show the owner of Windham Hill Driving Park to be Charles M. Stuart, who paid a total of $20.32 on real estate and personal property that included his homestead and the park valued at $1,035.

In the 19th century, harness racing attracted spectators from all walks of life. In some communities the event was so popular that businesses closed for the day. It is not known if that was the case in Windham.

With the advent of the automobile in the early 1900s, many driving parks throughout New England were transformed into auto racetracks. Not so in Windham however, many longtimers remember the Windham Hill Driving Park turning into a lovers’ lane in the 1930s.

The next time you’re jogging or driving on the hill, listen carefully for echoes from the last two centuries; “Heeeeeere they come!” <

Friday, May 6, 2022

Songo Lock bears witness to history of commerce in Lakes Region

A postcard shows a steamboat carrying passengers through
Songo Lock during the 19th century. The lock remains to this
day but was originally part of the waterway system created
during the heyday of the Cumberland & Oxford Canal.
By Ernest H. Knight

A local territory that has been important through the years not only to Raymond and Casco but to all the towns around Sebago and Long Lakes is Songo Lock. A stone’s throw from the original Raymondtown and present-day Casco, before land to the north of Crooked River was taken to help form Naples, Songo Lock is the key to travel by boat between Sebago and Long Lakes.

Originally a natural waterfall contained in a series of ponds and streams including Long Pond, Chute River, Brandy Pond, Songo River, and Sebago Pond (lake was not a term that was used in the early days of settlement), it was necessary to provide a lock for passage of craft larger than canoes.

This was Lock #28 in the route of the Cumberland and Oxford Canal from Portland to Harrison, constructed between 1827 and 1830, with the other 27 locks being in the dug portion of the route between the “Lower Guard Lock” at tidewater near the present Portland Bridge up through Stroudwater, Westbrook, Gorham and Standish to the “Upper Guard Lock” into the Sebago Basin below White’s Bridge.

To complete the intended route to Thomas Pond (now Lake Keoka) in Waterford more locks would have been required to climb from Harrison along Bear River to Bear Pond and Thomas Pond.

The original lock at Songo Falls was of the conventional construction as were most of the others, laid up stone with plank facing to provide smooth passageway of 10-foot width to pass the standard canal boat of the day. Before the abandonment of the dug portion of the canal route to Portland in 1870, the Songo Lock had been enlarged to allow passage of the newer and more sophisticated side wheel steamboats that gave the first competition to the canal boats on the lakes.

These began with the era of the “Fawn” in 1847, or at about the same time with the “Monkeydena,” depending on the history source you prefer.

Later came the larger steamboats, both freight and passenger with further enlargement until the Songo Lock was converted to cement construction in 1913 to accommodate the largest of the steamboats, the “Goodridge,” which was built that year at Bath Iron Works and transported to Naples in pieces for assembly.

When the canal era created a booming commercial enterprise, the Songo Lock area almost became a canal junction with all the status that distinction would have provided.  The Androscoggin Canal was proposed, which was to follow the Crooked River from Songo Lock up to Songo Pond and then on down to the Androscoggin River in Bethel.   

This would have greatly expanded the inland country to be served by direct route for commerce to Portland. But the advent and development of the railroad had spelled out the death knell of the canal and all expansion of the canal system ceased.

Though the dug portion of the canal with its 27 locks was closed in 1870, canal boats remained in operation on Sebago and Long Ponds, with the one lock at Songo left to salvage their feelings of pride in their traditions.

The Songo River itself did not, however, qualify as a canal as there was no tow path as on the rocked route to Portland for horses to draw the canal boats to the open water where their sails could be used for propulsion. Instead, it was necessary to use poles to push the awkward craft up the snaky stream with seldom a chance for a fair wind for their sails, an experience that would seem more frustrating to us now.

At present time, Songo Lock is operated from May through September for the passage of pleasure boats as a Maine State Parks Service activity. For a small fee charged for the lift or drop, once six cents for a canal boat that filled a lock, but now a dollar per boat for as many as can be crowded in at once, a boater can be convinced of the fact that boats as well as other conveyances can climb hills.

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646. <    

Friday, April 29, 2022

Before the memory fades: Nondescript, historic house near Windham High School has an unusual and surprising past

By Walter Lunt

Nearing retirement, Sally Colegrove was looking for a place to live in Windham. She told her real estate agent that she preferred a Victorian style house with first floor amenities – a difficult find, she was told.

One hundred years ago, this familiar house next to Windham
High School was The Peoples Church of Christ. Recent
renovations uncovered its surprising past. The huge silver
oak tree, mere feet from the Route 202 travel lane, is 
believed to be one of the oldest in Windham.
Colegrove was pastor of Windham Hill United Church of Christ for over 18 years and resided in the parsonage next to the church. “I like the people here and the feeling of community,” she said. And despite owning property in Camden, Maine, “I decided I wanted to stay and split my time between the two towns.”

Surprisingly, the retirement home Colegrove was seeking turned up at 424 Gray Road (Route 202) next to Windham High School, a short distance from where she lived before.

Built at the turn of the 20th century, the 46-foot by 25-foot Victorian style building is known to Windham longtimers as the home of Lawrence and Beatrice Rogers, who ran a small eatery and gasoline station next door from the 1940s to the mid-1960s.

Colegrove admired the elegant simplicity of the building’s architectural style. She would clean up the long-neglected grounds and hire a contractor to tear down two aging sheds and do some major renovations to the interior of the main house.

But then, how could she have known that this property was more of a perfect fit than she could have imagined? A friend, who is a house historian, told Colegrove that the house bore structural evidence of a tabernacle – perhaps, in its past life, a neighborhood free-standing church. Supposedly, a bible belonging to its former minister had been donated to the Windham Historical Society, along with a diary.

An inquiry was made to society historian and archivist Penny Loura who began a records search of the property. The bible was located in the society’s climate-controlled vault – between its ancient, thumb worn pages was a hand-written note indicating that it had been given to the society by Windham Center resident Edith Fogg, and that it had belonged to the minister of the Peoples Church of Christ of Windham Center, which later became a house owned and occupied by the Rogers family.

The note reads Bible of Miss Cynthia S. Carter, minister of small church beside (telephone building) in Windham Center on Route 202 around turn of the century – made into a house c. 1930? (later) owned by Lawrence and Beatrice Rogers. On the Bible’s front cover, in monogrammed gold lettering, is the pastor’s name, C. S. Carter. Her diary has not been found.

Also tucked neatly between the Bible pages were numerous pressed flowers, tree leaves and four-leaf clovers, along with dozens of hand-written notes, all of a religious nature – bible passages, inspirational quotes and what appeared to be notes for sermons.

Further research, conducted on-line, revealed Carter was born in Nova Scotia in 1840 and later lived in Boston. It appears she moved to Windham around 1889 and rented a house on Windham Center Road at Windham Hill where she lived with a younger sister, who was widowed. Carter never married.

Unknown is when the church was built or how long Carter spent as its minister, although reasonable speculation is that she came to Windham to fulfill her calling and that the church was built around the time of her arrival.

Carter died in 1921 in Windham in the care of Windham undertaker Charles Nichols and was returned to Massachusetts for burial.

Town records indicate the church was converted into a house about 1930. It is not known whether it continued as a house of worship between the time of Carter’s death in 1921 and 1930, but records do confirm that the Roger’s family purchased the property in 1939.

During renovations to Colegrove’s home, contractor Jim Hanscom, no stranger to historic houses, took note of the structural changes that had evolved over the past century. High windows along the length of the house were now closed off at the top, and the first-floor ceiling appeared to have been added long after the initial build - clear evidence that the entire downstairs must have been an open hall, typical of church architecture.

Structural elements on the Gray Road end of the house indicate the possibility of a balcony – perhaps for a choir. The chancel would have been located on the Windham Middle School end of the house.

Colegrove surmises the old church was successful, filled with dedicated parishioners and led by an energetic and devoted pastor, Rev. Cynthia S. Carter. Observed Colegrove, “It was certainly prosperous enough that it lasted a long time” – conceivably for 32 years.

Colegrove is still settling into her new home, the one she most wanted - the Victorian style house with first floor amenities. What she didn’t know immediately was that it came with an astonishing surprise: in its earlier life, it was a church led by a woman minister. Sally Colegrove was the long-time pastor of a near-by church – both Churches of Christ.

A dazzling coincidence? Kismet? Fate? God’s will?

Colegrove is not sure. She sports a slight grin and says, “I was happy with finding the house I wanted, the rest is just icing on the cake.” <

Friday, April 22, 2022

Settler’s dream results in Raymond’s first inn

Eli Longley was an innkeeper and businessman
and one of the leading residents of the Town of
Raymond who hosted annual town meetings in his
barn for years. He died in 1839 and is buried in
the Raymond Village Cemetery.
By Ernest H. Knight

While he was not one of the earliest settlers of Raymond, having first settled in Waterford, Eli Longley played an important role in the early development of the town when it was still part of the State of Massachusetts.

Eli was born in Bolton, Massachusetts in 1762 and though he was too young to take part in the stirring events in nearby Lexington and Concord that started the Revolutionary War, along with others of his family, he did serve during the later part of the war. He was active in the post-war militia until he migrated to Waterford as a proprietary settler.

Even in his first dwelling there, a log cabin, Longley gave shelter to travelers who were dependent upon the hospitality of the widely scattered settlers but before 1800 he had built a substantial inn as a business along with his farming. He also started the first store in the town and was the postmaster and served in several town offices and in the militia.

But during the cold years of 1815 to 1817 which were so devastating to the farmers of Maine, Longley decided to sell his holdings and migrate to the west where he had heard the land was lush and the climate more agreeable. Yet when he had found a spot in Pennsylvania which seemed to fill his expectations and was about to make the purchase, Longley got up one morning to find frost on the ground and the crops ruined.

Deciding that he was no better off there than in Waterford, he returned to reestablish his roots there. Unable to regain any of his prior property free from its new owner, Longley took the road back to Raymond and there, in 1817, found his new home.

With his experience as an inn keeper and town official in Waterford, it did not take him long to build a hotel on the busy route of trade and travel between Portland and the many new towns to the west, on the site where the Raymond Post Office once stood.

His hotel was appropriately named the Lafayette House and as Marquis de Lafayette was touring the United States for the 50th anniversary of independence.

Longley’s patriotic pride as a veteran of the Revolutionary War had also prompted him to name one of his sons George Washington Longley, thus honoring two of his heroes. George Washington Longley’s dwelling still stands on Meadow Road, Route 121 a half-mile from the old Lafayette House site.

Besides managing his inn and serving in town offices, Longley continued to host meetings, as he had in Waterford, and for many years the Raymond Town Meetings were held in his barn up the road from his hotel.

The Lafayette House burned down about 1898. At the time it was called Smith’s Hotel and was still operated by a descendant of Eli Longley. The barn burned in 1950.

After one of Eli’s daughters married John Sawyer, he relinquished some of his inn and civic duties to his son-in-law.

When the new State of Maine separated from Massachusetts and one of the first acts of the legislature was to provide for the Cumberland & Oxford Canal, a committee was formed to plan for its construction and Eli Longley served on that committee.

This was a challenge and an honor for a non-professional citizen as transportation was vital to the growing commerce of the growing state, and he was one of the signers of the report of the engineers they had engaged from the recently completed Erie Canal in New York State.

While the committee was specifically for the purpose of providing a waterway from tidewater in Portland into Oxford County, its recommended terminus was Thomas Pond, now Lake Keoka in Waterford, which just happened to be Eli Longley’s earlier hometown.

Another indication of his interest and influence was that at the end of the report was an added paragraph which said, “The committee would beg leave to submit, though it does not strictly speaking come to within the sphere of their present duties, that one of its members had taken the trouble to view the route for a Branch Canal leading from Sebago to Painter’s Road (Sebago Lake to Panther’s Pond) and from that to Great Rattlesnake Pond (Crescent Lake) and thence to Thompson’s Pond.” Of course, the unnamed member would have been Eli Longley.

The Cumberland & Oxford Canal was a great success for 40 years and had the recommendation of the committee been followed, the canal boat traffic through town as well as landings on the Raymond shores of Sebago Lake would have been substantial. 

Eli Longley died in 1839 at the age of 77 and is buried in the Raymond Village Cemetery. His hotel and barn are gone, as well as his canal.

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646. <         


Friday, April 15, 2022

Before the memory fades: The Great Maine Eclipse of 1932 creates rare pocket of prosperity in Lakes Region during Depression era

The path of the solar eclipse on April 8, 2024 is shown.
Windham and the Lakes Region will experience only a 
partial eclipse. For best viewing, plan a trip to Mars Hill
in Maine.
By Walter Lunt

As summer waned and the Depression deepened things began looking up for Windham and the surrounding lakes region communities in 1932, if only for a brief period. On Aug. 26, the front-page banner headline of the Portland Evening Express proclaimed “Southwest Maine, Northern New Hampshire In Eclipse Path Over Which Totality Will Occur.” The Boston Post called it “Wonder Sight.” 

The rare event would help lift many, if only for a moment, out of the Depression era doldrums while at the same time promote science for the masses. Eager sky watchers could witness a rare celestial dance: the moon around the Earth, the Earth and moon together around the Sun, and Earth, all the while, turning on its axis. And on this rare occasion, a total eclipse of the sun.

For several days before the Aug. 31, 1932 event, newspapers all over New England heralded the upcoming spectacle with illustrations, charts, graphs and astronomical explanations of a solar eclipse – an event “… the greatest and most beautiful that has not been witnessed in many a generation.”

Tourist promotion seemed to overshadow the celestial event. The once-in-a-lifetime experience was not to be missed, according to various publications, no matter how far from the eclipse path you lived. Travel to Maine for the best viewing was highly encouraged. Maine Central Railroad advertised its Eclipse Train Trip Flyer which ran from southern Maine to Fryeburg.

The moon, perfectly aligned to block the sun, would turn the light of day into the dark of night. Chickens would roost, cows would return to the pasture gate and bird songs would fall silent. Stars would appear in all their brilliance. But not the moon because, in fact, “spectators would be standing beneath the (new) moon’s shadow.” And then there would be “diamond rings,” cast just moments before and after totality while the brilliance of the Sun’s arcing corona would dazzle even the most disdainful viewer.

There were the ubiquitous warnings for viewers to use smoked glass or a developed square of photographic film while looking at the eclipse. Drivers were urged to pull over, park and turn off their headlights during the event, and homes and businesses were discouraged from turning on any lights.

The advance publicity and undeniable momentousness of the occasion drew thousands of visitors to the area, particularly the Sebago Lake region. The 100-mile-wide swath of totality, moving northwest out of Canada to the southeast through Maine and out into the Atlantic Ocean spawned the title Great Maine Eclipse. The sweet spot for viewing was the “center of totality,” where the Sun is completely darkened for the longest period (about two minutes) which, in this area, was a line from Biddeford, through Windham, to Fryeburg. Scientific expeditions focused on this line.

The Perkins Observatory (Ohio Wesleyan University) established a viewing site in an open field near Douglas Hill in Sebago. Their equipment included large telescopes and photographic and spectroscopic instruments. They would study coronal activity during totality to “increase the world’s knowledge of the structure of the atom, energy and the atmosphere.”

When the day of the eclipse arrived, at precisely 4:30 p.m., viewers along the coast were treated to what the Portland Evening Express described as “…the greatest show of nature.” Inland, however, where most of the eclipse watchers had gathered, clouds took over the sky. A grand disappointment for thousands. The newspaper reported the event this way: “Portland people who stayed at home (and) viewed the eclipse through darkened glasses saw (the eclipse) in all its wonders. Those who journeyed afar and climbed high hills…didn’t do as well. It was all an illustration of the old adage that the grass grows greenest under the feet.”

A few weeks later Perkins Observatory published the results of their Douglas Hill expedition in Popular Astronomy magazine. Noting that all was not lost from the experience, they wrote “While cloudy skies prevented direct coronal photographs, a long series of photometric observations of light changes was made (and) may be of some value in determining the distribution of radiation from different parts of the eclipsed Sun.”

A viewer’s first comment after an eclipse is usually a question: When is the next one? The next significant event will take place two years from this month, on April 8, 2024. A total solar eclipse will sweep through the middle of Maine, leaving Windham and the lakes region with only a partial eclipse. Astronomy magazine (March 2022) reports that Mars Hill, Maine (population 1,500) will be “one of the last spots in the U.S. to see totality” as the Sun’s path moves from Mexico in the southwest through the northeast.

University of Maine professor and director of the Southworth Planetarium Edward Gleason says that it’s unlikely that distant scientific institutions will come to Maine for the 2024 event because weather statistics show a higher incidence of clouds here than in various southwest U.S. locations, however we might expect visits from a few New England observatories due to the close proximity. The Southworth Planetarium will offer periodic lectures on the 2024 eclipse starting next year.

Gleason says the next total eclipse in southern Maine, the best one since 1963 (and before that, 1932) will be in 2079. Be sure to alert the grandkids. <

Friday, April 1, 2022

Before the memory fades: known famously for beautifying ‘the corner’ and ‘the heater-piece’, Windham Hill Club carries on 85-year tradition

The Windham Hill Club celebrates 85 years of community
service. From left are Jane Diamond, Sally Colegrove, Patty
Meyer, Deb Davis and Paula Smithson. Not shown are
Julie Moore, Jane Pringle, Phylis  Hall and Louise Rochette.
By Walter Lunt

Tradition says that in 1937 Emily Aikins gathered a small group of her Windham Hill neighbors in her home to socialize, enjoy sips of tea and darn their husbands’ socks. Later, Aikins was instrumental in transforming the tiny sewing circle into an enterprising community service organization – The Windham Hill Club.

Formerly known simply as the Hill or “the corner,” Windham Hill was once the main through-fare for stagecoaches and wagons carrying people and goods between Portland and Fryeburg. With the opening of what would become Route 302 (Roosevelt Trail), traffic was diverted away from the center of town. The Corner was transformed from a community center with taverns, stores and service shops to a sparsely populated neighborhood of small homes, farms and a church.

At the turn of the century and up to the depression years it was common for farming women to form small, neighborly coffee klatches, particularly during long, isolating winters. Aptly named The Windham Hill Club, it began as a way to socialize and to seek ways to upgrade and improve the neighborhood. As membership grew, the WHC initiated ornamental bush and flower plantings at the corner, and on Pope, Windham Center, and Ward Roads. In 1938, the group built a float and participated in the town’s bicentennial celebration. The lengthy parade featured floats created by Windham Kiwanis, the Fire Department, Highland Lake Beach Association, Pleasant River Grange, Hiawatha Council No. 58, the Quakers, and the Girl Scouts (upon which rode the writer’s mother, demonstrating health and safety).

WHC members Jane Diamond, Sally Colegrove, Patty Meyer, Deb Davis and Paula Smithson, all recently spoke proudly of the club’s heritage and accomplishments. For example, they felt that the organization would have participated in World War II relief efforts in the early 1940s. Sally Colegrove speculated that the women probably engaged in projects like knitting socks for soldiers, rolling bandages or metal and newspaper drives; and they likely provided comfort and service to local blue and gold star families.

By the early 1950s, membership had grown to nearly 30 ladies, and two triangular plots of land became the focus of their beautification efforts; one at the intersection of Windham Center Road and Pope Road, the other at the opposite corner running alongside Ward Road. Both lots had adjacent roadways that formed a triangular plot of land, the larger of the two along Ward Road was known in Old New England as a “heater-piece.” The neighborhood one-room schoolhouse was once located on the site.

Before the straight entrance to Pope Road extension was eliminated and replaced with utility poles and traffic signs, the WHC adorned the heater-piece with ornamental bushes and colorful annual and perennial flower beds. The area, frequented by walkers, joggers and bicyclists, spoke to all passers-by that these residents were proud and caring of their neighborhood.

In 1950, long-time member and WHC historian Winnifred “Bunny” Stevens built a wishing well on the corner of Windham Center Road and Pope Road. Back then, Pope Road assumed a Y-shape as it approached the stop at Windham Center Road. The wishing well was built in the center of the Y, and attracted loads of attention, not just from the residents of Windham Hill, but from all over town. Children especially loved it. They would encourage their parents to take them there so they could toss coins into the well while making a wish. The coins always seemed to remain there; pilferage and vandalism remained at a minimum, even on Halloween.

In the 1950s and into the 1960s, the WHC expanded their service work beyond the hill. Dues-paying members raised additional funds through auctions, fairs, yard sales and open-house tours. Donations were made to schools, the fire department and rescue unit, churches, A.F.S., senior citizens and the Windham library. Bunny Stevens, writing about the organization in conjunction with the country’s bicentennial in 1976, said “We welcome newcomers to our group…because we feel that in working together an exchange of ideas and a sharing of minds will help ALL of us.”

It was about this time that some residents, both on and off the Hill, were reluctant to join WHC, feeling that the group was too exclusive, welcoming only members of the town’s “upper crust.” But in the history of the organization, nothing could be further from the truth, according to member Jane Diamond, saying that membership has always come from all walks of life. She cited numerous examples. Still, the perception persisted with some folks.

Although not directly related to the club, Paula Smithson remembers the patriotic assemblage on the Hill during 9/11. “It was a spur-of-the-moment gesture…we just started calling people we knew, and it spread word-of-mouth.” Up to 40 Windham residents gathered on the heater-piece during the early evening of 9/12; the tower bells of Windham Hill Church chimed, Bob Smithson played guitar and the somber group sang God Bless America.

“It made us feel a little better.” said Diamond.

From the high of several dozen a few decades ago, membership in the Windham Hill Club has fallen to just nine, due in part to the passing of many longtime members and to the two-year long pandemic. The current membership even includes some who moved away but return for the organization’s infrequent meetings. Smithson, who now lives in Gray says, “It’s like coming home…it’s amazing (how) we’ve all stuck together.” Patty Meyer said, “Now we talk a lot about the ’good ole days.’”

Today, the club no longer engages in beatification on the Hill. The most recent project was the erection of an elegant sign on the corner that proclaims “Historic Windham Hill – Settled in 1792.” The small group now focuses on two projects near and dear to their hearts: Christmas nightgowns for the ladies at Crossroads (sometimes “it’s the only gift they receive at Christmas” – Colegrove), and gift cards to qualifying teens through the Windham Food Pantry.

The WHC now meets about four times a year. They enjoy tea, coffee, light snacks and they socialize. Sally Colegrove’s observation: “We’ve returned to the way the club originated – we are now an exercise in creative anachronism.” <

Thursday, March 24, 2022

An old-fashioned mystery from Raymond’s past

By Ernest H. Knight

A plank of wood of a dimension seldom found these days though once a common product of local sawmills was at the center of a full-fledged mystery in Raymond in the 19th century.

Panther Pond is shown near where Raymond resident Henry
Britton went missing on the evening of Easter Sunday, April
14, 1895. A massive search of the area ensued in the
community for much of the next month trying to find out
what had happened to him. SUBMITTED PHOTO
It had all the elements of a whodunit – a disappearance on a Sunday, strange lights on Panther Pond that night, a broken umbrella on one side of the road with its handle on the other picked up by a suspect but not reported, blood spots on discarded work clothes, a coat hung out to dry that had not been in the rain, the hat of the missing person found in a gravel pit on Thursday that could not have been missed by several people on Wednesday or earlier, a scattering of lead pellets on and by the road, and conflicting statements as to the drinking habits of the people involved leading to a proliferation of random speculation in and about Raymond Village.

On Easter Sunday, April 14, 1895, Henry Britton, who lived alone in a house on Route 85, went to visit friends on the Meadow Road. It was a cold and rainy day and very few were out that afternoon to notice who might be on the roads, but Henry did stop at Smith’s Hotel at the corner of Main Street and Meadow Road for something to ward off either chill or snake bite.

When he failed to appear for a job he was supposed to do on Monday, his house was entered on Tuesday, where it was evident he had not been around for several days. A massive search was made by groups of people from in and around the village sweeping over wooded areas and the Jordan River with no results other than some perplexing items noted above.

Henry was accustomed to crossing the river in his travels to and from the village by means of a bridge consisting of a single plank some 36 feet long by 11 inches wide, an immediate and logical suspect as the cause of his disappearance. But with no corpus delecti to offset all the other evidence at the Meadow Road end of his Sunday jaunt, the search and investigation continued.

The Cumberland County Sheriff made a number of visits to Raymond, once arriving late at night to personally talk to a man who had seen the strange light on Panther Pond.

After getting directions in the village, he arrived at the house at midnight. He knocked at the door and to quote the newspaper account “the person who came to the door opened it and disclosed the form of a woman in her nightdress. At the same time that she opened the door she said in an affectionate tone ‘Is that you old honey bunch?’ This sight and the greeting took the sheriff by surprise, but he pulled himself together and managed to answer ‘Yes.’ It was now the women’s turn to be surprised and pull herself together, which she accordingly did. She finally explained that she was expecting her husband and thought it was him of course.”

But on Sunday, May 12 as arrests were about to be made, the bubble of mystery was exploded by the finding of the body of Henry Britton in the river only 50 feet or so below the bridge when it arose amid its own air bubbles to the horror of men working nearby.

Having been missed in the searches of the river, helped by closing the spillway in the dam at the outlet of Panther Pond, and freed from being trapped in a deep hole, the authorities concluded that the body was dislodged by the concussion of logs being rolled down the steep banking from the road into the water.

As Henry’s watch and money were safe in his pockets, foul play was ruled out and his demise was officially attributed to his unstable condition when trying to perform a slack wire act on the bouncy 36-foot plank in the darkness of a stormy evening.

Henry Britton was laid to final rest beside his parents that same night and Raymond returned to normal.

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646. <