By Walter Lunt
For as long as anyone can remember it was known as Windham’s Old Grocery. For the last 20 years it has served as a museum, a replica of its earlier time, featuring displays of the services and products it brought to the community. It will continue to do so in its new location on the grounds of the Windham Historical Society’s Village Green history park. The wood-framed building’s 182-year span at the old Windham Center address saw just five owners – the longest, three generations of the Hawkes family from 1845 to 1954. It is probably Windham’s oldest commercial structure.
The earliest historical record reveals the building was relocated from somewhere on Windham Center Road (possibly near the intersection with Nash Road) to a leased lot at the corner of Gray Road (Route 202) and Windham Center Road in 1838 by William Goold and used as a tailor shop. Around 1840, Goold purchased wood carvings of oak tree branches adorned with leaves and acorns from the original St. Paul’s Church in Portland, which was being torn down. He affixed them to his (Old Grocery) shop’s façade. The ornate carvings were believed to be created in England some time before 1802. Goold was also an author and historian, and later wrote in his book Portland in the Past, “The beauty of Old St. Paul’s was its interior. The most elaborate ornamentation was in the chancel (which) I have preserved. The oak symbolized the English parentage of the church.” The carvings remain on the building to this day – some restoration will be needed to bring the features back to their former luster.
Opening almost simultaneously across the street from Alley’s Hawkes’ store in the early 1850s, Stephen Staples opened a similar establishment. The two stores were in competition, and in what must have been a very partisan time, Democrats patronized the Staple’s store while Republicans supported Alley Hawkes’ store.
Years later when Staples closed his store, Fred S. Hawkes, son of Alley Hawkes, opened a grocery store on the site. All told, three generations of Hawkes family members were storekeepers at Windham Center corner for over 100 years.
A typical general store of the 19th and early 20th century was generally warm and welcoming. Patrons and proprietors usually knew each other and were on a first name basis. Customer contact often lingered beyond the financial transaction as visitors sought to catch up on local news and community gossip – or maybe engage in a game of checkers near the pot-bellied coal or wood stove. Store interiors tended to be dark as there were usually few side windows. Shelving, stocked high and jammed with all manner of goods lined all the walls; boxes, barrels and bins took up most of the floor space. Next to the scales for weighing merchandise was the limited counter area reserved for point of purchase. Customers could buy just about anything: locally produced perishables, flour, sugar, spices, baking powder, cigars & tobacco, tools, crockery and dry goods, patent medicines and elixirs. Molasses was a big seller – often more than a hogshead (about 60 gallons) would be sold in a single day. Vinegar cider, crackers and cheese were a favorite for the road. Cleanliness was not a priority; dirt and even animal waste was dragged in from the street – soot from the stove settled on the merchandise. On occasion, a proprietor would extend credit or barter with trustworthy patrons.
The mid-1950s saw the end of Hawkes general stores at Windham Center. The ‘Old Grocery’ closed in 1954; two years later, the building was deeded over to a local garden club that used it as a meeting place for many years. Following declining membership, the club turned the building over to Windham Center Stage Theater, which was unable to raise funds to make necessary repairs to the aging structure. Finally, ownership was transferred to the Windham Historical Society.
After hundreds of hours of fund raising and volunteer work, the Society completed badly needed repairs and renovations and opened the building as the Old Grocery Museum in 2000. Items once sold in its past life were returned as historical displays. But lack of parking and pedestrian safety concerns hampered the development of programs.
On Oct. 30, the Old Grocery was lifted off its ancient stone foundation and rolled up Windham Center Road to join a number of other historic buildings that combine as the Windham Living History Park, keeper of the historical record. <