Friday, July 10, 2020

A matter of historical record: Popeville: from industrial mecca to sleepy hamlet

A tiny portion of Pope Road at the Pleasant River bridge was once a thriving commercial district

By Walter Lunt

A casual drive on Pope Road between Windham Hill and the intersection with Gray Road (Route 202) holds nary a clue of what once was.
Two-hundred years ago the area was teeming with mills, stores and other businesses that made it the most important commercial district in Windham. 

Isaiah Allen (1832-1914) was the grandson of Ebenezer Allen
and Charity Pope. COURTESY OF LEE ALLENAdd caption
Today, there are no visible signs, and no physical testimony of the once bustling industrial site between the intersection with Swett Road and the Pleasant River bridge. Tucked between these two points, on both sides of the road and on the river, were several mills and businesses that served the needs of merchants and farmers for decades in the early to mid-1800s from Portland and points north.

As noted in many of our earlier columns, public buildings, roads and famous homesteads were often named after the families who lived there. Such is case for Pope Road and the neighborhood (just described) of Popeville.

Elijah Pope came to Windham from Falmouth (Portland) in about 1769. He was a blacksmith and purchased property near Pleasant River, where built a shop. Many townspeople did not welcome his presence. Pope was a Quaker and followed the ‘peculiar’ tenets of drab clothing, conversation sprinkled with ‘thee and thou’ and conducting religious services in silence. Alarmed at the arrival of Pope and others of the Friends Society persuasion, congregationalist minister Peter T. Smith wrote in his journal, “…kept a day of fasting and Prayer on account of…Many strange Quakers in town.”

A bustling Popeville Center is
shown on a 19th century map
of the Town of Windham.
It is a proud testament of the town of Windham and its people that Elijah Pope soon became an accepted and highly respected member of the community. History records that he was master workman with a large number of customers.

Pope married Phebe Winslow of Falmouth in 1768. They had 12 children, none of whom died young (as did many children in those times). Their third child, Charity, married Ebenezer Allen, also a Quaker (The Windham Eagle – June 26, 2020). Fifth child Nathan was born in 1775 and married Ebenezer’s sister, Phebe. Nathan is well-known in Windham history for his famous walk. 

Determined and entrepreneurial, the 18-year old walked from Popeville to Beverly, Massachusetts where he apprenticed himself to a clothier for five years. Returning to Windham, he started a clothing operation at Great Falls (North Gorham) and later purchased the water rights near his home on Pleasant River where he built a small woolen mill, the first of its kind in Windham. Machinery for the operation was hauled from Andover, 
Massachusetts by teams of horses. By 1804, at age 29, Nathan Pope was in the wool manufacturing business and was already a successful businessman.

Nathan and Phebe had nine children (the fifth child, Elijah, lived only six months). The sixth, who was also named Elijah, studied at Vermont Medical College and later distinguished himself when he and a colleague became the first dentists to perform a pain-free tooth extraction by administering ether to a patient; the first use of anesthesia in dentistry. Dr. Elijah Pope returned to Windham and opened a practice during the latter years of his career. But we digress.

By 1841, three of Nathan’s sons, Isaiah, Oliver and Joseph took over and expanded the family business at Popeville. Soon the tiny neighborhood was a thriving commercial district with no fewer than 12 mills and businesses. Known as Isaiah Pope & Co., there was a  blacksmith shop, fulling mill (for making felt), grist mill (for grinding corn and wheat), cotton mill, dye house, warehouse, office, store, carpentry shop, coopers shop (for making barrels), sawmill and a boarding house (for workers), all located between Swett Road and the river. One business was a custom-made clothing facility. One could only marvel at the open field near the river where row after row of tender-bars displayed colorful cloth hanging in the open air to dry. Daily, teams of horses carried orders for table and piano covers, horse blankets, felt skirts and boot linings to Portland, returning with supplies and raw materials for the busy company. 

To say the least, business was booming in the 1840s and 50s in Popeville.

Next time, a decision to further expand Isaiah Pope & Co. to North Windham proves disastrous.  <

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