Saturday, October 13, 2018

A matter of historical record: History on the Hill tour to feature historic homes and storied tales of Windham’s past

The Edward Anderson House - first stop on the tour

By Walter Lunt

The latest in a series of Windham history tours conducted by the Windham Historical Society will be held on Saturday, October 13. Dubbed History on the Hill, it features several stops at addresses on historic Windham Hill, a neighborhood with a fascinating and storied past, at the corner of Pope and Ward Roads.

Included in each of four tours that day will be the Federal period style Moses Little House and the United Church of Christ, once featured in National Geographic magazine as one of the most picturesque old-style churches in New England.

The first stop on the tour will be the 2 ½ story Edward Anderson House, the oldest residence on Windham Hill, located across from the public works facility on Windham Center Road. Built of post and beam construction in the early 1790s, the mainly Georgian architectural style house retains many original features, including a slight mix of Federal period characteristics.

Edward Anderson built his first home on River Road, the beginnings of what would become the Anderson-Lord, or Maplewood Farm with its distinctive gothic appearance. The Windham Hill house would be his second dwelling and include many of the same features. historian Linda Griffin points out the importance of symmetry to early house builders. “Notice the center door with paired windows on each side…pleasing to the eye.”

Entering through the front door, the room on the right was a formal parlor used mainly for weddings, funerals or special visitors (children were often barred). Wide board wainscoting, wide pine floors and thin raised-panel doors with thumb latches and H and L hinges are original features. Ripples snaking across the flat surfaces of the woodwork and paneling reveal the craftsmanship of early hand planers.

In most Georgian homes of the time a sitting room, or informal parlor, would be located to the left of the entry-way. But in what Griffin describes as a “hall and parlor” layout, this is the kitchen. Twelve over eight pane windows (at least one original remains) admit the light of a southern exposure. Hand-hewn beams line the ceiling and an old brick lined fireplace with a side bake oven are preserved from a much earlier time. Three fireplaces on the first floor linked to a central chimney remind us that these wood burners were the sole source of heat and cooked food.

A back-room on the first floor, commonly referred to as a “borning room” was used to care for the sick, for storage and occasionally as office space, according to Griffin.

In addition to the acquisition of the property at Windham Hill, Edward Anderson also gained mill rights on the near-by Pleasant River. He built a saw mill. To increase water power to the mill, Anderson tapped the waters of Collin’s Pond, creating added water energy to the river via Smith Brook. In June of 1814, strained by the water pressure of spring rains, the mill dam gave way. The resulting flood took out mills and bridges from Windham Hill to Gambo and Mallison’s Falls in South Windham. Subsequent law suits and the loss of his lumber business apparently left him destitute.

Bette Davis and Gary Merrill 
Fast forward to 1947 – the house was purchased by the Sanborn family. According to daughter Ann (Sanborn) Clark, her father bought the place from a descendant of the Anderson family. For several months, the family used an ice box. “My dad had to buy ice every two days.” Ann’s brother, Lee, remembers his father installing the first plumbing and electricity.

The family moved to California around 1950; the house was put up for rent and was vacant for a while.

No one knows why Bette Davis’ eyes fell on Windham in the early 50s, but the legendary film actress and her movie star husband Gary Merrill rented the aged house. As far as anyone can remember, Davis and Merrill never lived there, but did move their furniture into the house for storage.

According to Lee Sanborn, “My father knew of Davis’ reputation as a (heavy) drinker and being concerned about the narrow stairway to the second floor with its treads worn dangerously thin by over 150 years of foot traffic, decided to purchase $20,000 additional liability insurance.” Family and friends told his father the move was unnecessary and tried to no avail to talk him out of it. Davis and Merrill ended up building an estate in Cape Elizabeth, having spent little time at the Windham house.
Later, in the 1960s, the Sanborn’s learned (although they cannot recall where the incident occurred) that Davis had indeed tumbled down a flight of stairs. And sued. “My dad said the (incident) proved he was clairvoyant,” recalled Lee.

The current owners of the Anderson House, Steve Woodward and Jenna Shank, will open their home and share its unique architectural features and its stories this Saturday, October, 13 for four tours beginning at 10 a.m.

Of their participation in the History on the Hill tours, Shank says, “Part of the responsibility of owning a piece of local history is to share it with your community.” 

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