Friday, April 23, 2021

Before the memory fades: A century ago, all phone calls began with ‘Number, please’

By Walter Lunt

Telephone switchboard operators, early 1950s. Left
to right, Susan Hanson Allen (supervisor), Doris
Allen Shaw, and Donna Shaw. Manual  switching
boards, or cord boards, provided telephone service
to Windham from 1904 to 1954. COURTESY OF
Before digital, before direct dialing and even before the rotary dial phone, there was the switchboard telephone operator invoking a familiar friendly request, “Number, please.”

Our forebears knew well the routine of making those early telephone calls. The household phone was either a wall-mounted box with a receiver hanging from the side, or a table model that lacked a numbered dial. To make a call, one had only to lift the receiver and wait for an operator to request the number of the party being called (there was no dial tone). For much of the 20th century, a telephone number consisted of only four digits, preceded by two letters which identified the exchange. In Windham, the letters were TW (or TWin-oaks). When placing a call to Portland, the exchange letters were SP (for SPruce). Calls going outside the Windham exchange were toll calls. Connections for all calls originating in Windham were connected by telephone workers operating a switchboard (or cord board) based at Windham Center. Each town in the Portland area had this type of telephone system for 50 years.

Telephone service was established in Portland in 1898. Soon after, an appeal went out for agents who would institute service in surrounding towns. Windham businessman Fred S. Hawkes answered the call, and in 1904 set up a manual switching system in a corner of his general store at Windham Center (now Corsetti’s); the new business was known as Windham Center Telephone Exchange. Hawkes hired both men and women to be operators. At the time, the town’s population was about 2,000 – Hawkes’ six-line manual switching station, the telecommunications technology of the day, could accommodate fewer than 100 subscribers. As more residents signed on, multiple subscribers were placed on the same line, up to 12 or more. That meant a call could be placed only if no one else was using the line. When the line was in use, it was also possible to listen in on conversations. Such inconveniences were acceptable as a price for the service which accommodated communication, especially in times of emergency.

Demand for telephone service increased and in 1917 Hawkes built an annex onto his general store to house a central office and two 60-line (switch) boards powered by storage batteries (later by an electric motor). The old 12-party lines reduced to eight, or four – two party and private lines became available as well. By the 1930s, two operators worked together days and evenings. In earlier times, the telephones were shut down at night.

In order to meet an ever-growing number of subscribers following World War II, three large switchboards were installed capable of serving a population nearing 4,000 residents. Three operators were now needed to handle the busy hours.

New England Telephone now determined Windham was ready to convert to a dial telephone system. The switch, however, was postponed due to the shortage of copper caused by the Korean War.

The necessity for party lines persisted into the 1950s. Four to eight families were linked, often resulting in long wait times to make or receive calls. In Gorham, a woman whose home was experiencing a chimney fire, picked up the receiver and begged the party using the line to get off so she could call the fire department. The party refused, believing the story was a ruse just to free up the line. Fortunately, a volunteer firefighter lived just a few doors down and the woman was able to run down the street to summon help. 

It was not uncommon for people to carefully lift a receiver and listen in on conversations. In particular, children were guilty of this. Eric Nason, who grew up in Windham, remembers it was a practice he engaged in from time to time when he was about 6 years old. Interviewed for this story, he chuckled as he recalled being chastised by the party he was snooping on, “Is that the Nason boy again? You get off this line right now or I’ll call your mother!”

Late in 1953, New England Telephone announced plans to install dial equipment in a brick building under construction near the Windham Center store on Route 202. The so-called “cut-over” took place on July 29, 1954 at 7:30 a.m. The conversion eliminated the need for operators, and for the switchboard system that had been in effect for half a century. Windhamites could now dial Portland, Westbrook and Gorham toll free. The modernization cost subscribers $1 more on their monthly bills.

Nason, who today is president and owner of New England Communications in Portland, has worked with antique and modern telephone systems and waxes nostalgic about the days operators, party lines and (as he calls them) cord boards.

The operators, he says, knew the people of the town, “… they brought the town together. They were the personality of the town.” <

Friday, April 16, 2021

Windham student Will Colby uses lessons in he learned in boxing to teach self defense to others

By Matt Pascarella

Will Colby does pad work with North Waterboro eighth-grader
Emma Brown at Recon Fitness in Westbrook on Tuesday, April
13 during his Introduction to Striking class for students. 
Windham junior Will Colby started watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship with his dad when he was 3 years old and ever since then he’s been interested in combat sports.

When he was 14, he decided to check out Recon Fitness, a gym in Westbrook that teaches boxing and Mixed Martial Arts. He immediately started boxing along with Mixed Martial Arts and has stuck with it since. In 2020, he started teaching an Introduction to Striking class for youth at Recon Fitness.

Colby has been training as a boxer since 2018 working with coach Darren Elder. Elder has helped Colby grow tremendously as a person and boxer by encouraging, motivating and teaching Colby all Elder’s skills and knowledge. While Colby’s main focus is boxing, he does some Mixed Martial Arts with coaches Ernie Ornelas and Aaron Waite.

Colby wanted to start boxing because he has always looked up to boxers and fighters as physically and mentally strong men, which is what he strives to be.

In 2020, Colby had been preparing for a fight for about a month before Covid-19 shut everything down. He had been training with Ornelas and Elder who have helped Colby with their extensive knowledge and passion of the sport. Unfortunately, that fight, which would have been Colby’s first amateur boxing match in April 2020 was canceled.

Once Colby learned that the 2020 fight was canceled and Recon Fitness was closed temporarily because of COVID-19, he felt very discouraged and very disappointed he would not be able to test the skills he had gained over his time training. Colby did temporarily stop training in 2020, but quickly began training again and continued to motivate himself.

Will is a particularly kind and patient individual, said Elder. “Will has made massive gains both as a fighter and a young man. He has been consistent in focusing on his fundamentals and becoming comfortable in the uncomfortable. Whatever his role, be it training for his own contest, assisting one of his training partners, or coaching kid’s class, Will is the sort of guy you hope for.” 

In the fall of 2020, Elder saw potential in Colby to be a coach at Recon Fitness. Once Colby was offered this opportunity to coach, he said he was nervous and felt unprepared at first but honored that Elder had chosen him to coach the Introduction to Striking class for youth.

Colby’s Introduction to Striking class is for kids ages 10 to 13. Over time, Colby became very comfortable teaching the class and really enjoys it. He believes his responsibilities as a coach are to make sure the kids in his class are enjoying the sport as well as learning from it. Since he began as a coach, his class sizes have grown from one student to 12 students or more a class.

“I try to teach them to become comfortable in the uncomfortable just as my coach Darren had taught me, I try to develop their fundamental skills and grow their technique over the time of their training,” said Colby. He added it is encouraging to see kids coming to the class and sticking around.

North Waterboro eighth-grader Emma Brown has been participating in Colby’s class for three or four months. She likes the class because a lot of the time, it’s very one-on-one and it is a good way to learn self-defense. Brown said one of the things she enjoys most about the class is getting her anger out in a healthy way.

“He creates an environment conducive for the kids in his class to improve their skills as well as their sense of self; Will is exactly what the kids need,” said Elder.

Colby is currently looking for a boxing match he can fight in this summer. He is working towards getting ready for more training. He said he plans to continue to teach his classes at Recon Fitness for as long as he can. <

Friday, April 9, 2021

Before the memory fades: The police car caper that happened in North Windham, 20 years before the movie

By Walter Lunt

One of many local hangouts in Windham in the early 1960s was the business and entertainment district in North Windham.

Convivial groups of youths, mostly teenagers, would gather along the busy corridor between Boody’s Corner (Route 302 and Route 115) and the Lakeland roller skating rink located approximately on what is today the western edge of the Hannaford parking lot.

Rowdiness, hot rodding and sportive mischief were the rule on Friday and Saturday nights, especially during the summer and fall months.

A humorous artist's conception of the North Windham 'police car
scene' -- early 1960s.
Occasionally, the pranks became creative and were the result of payback, settling a score or just sending a message.

In those years, there were three police agencies patrolling Windham: state police, sheriff and local part-time constables known as reserve officers. Officers from all three departments became well-known for their individual policing style and personalities, and the young mischief-makers had their own opinions of each patrolman. The stern, no-nonsense officers were well known for displaying little tolerance of youthful shenanigans.

One officer, in particular, was the object of much ridicule.  The youngsters would often complain about the officer’s supposed harassment and abusive behavior.

One among the assembled youth, we’ll call him Johnny Doe, decided it was time for payback; he’d carry out a creative stunt that would send the surly officer a serious message and make him change his ways.

One evening, according to sources who remember the event, the “offending” officer parked his police vehicle at the Lakeland skating rink parking lot. It was left locked and unattended while he rode with another patrolman. It was this situation that gave the knavish Johnny Doe a chance to exact his creative revenge.

As the story goes, the young Doe wrapped a heavy chain around the parked police vehicle’s rear axle, and attached the other end to an immovable object, possibly a tree. Then, Doe and an accomplice waited for the officer’s return. When this occurred later that night, Doe, driving his own car along with his companion, hot rodded past the Lakeland parking lot (laying down rubber all the way) as an enticement to draw a chase.

Now, at this point, the reader may be reminded of the 1973 movie American Graffiti, which portrayed a similar incident. The cinematic portrayal shows the police car being upended and its rear wheels ripped from beneath the vehicle. The Lakeland caper, however, ended in a slightly less dramatic way when the officer’s police car merely cinched up on the chain and was unable to proceed.

Whether or not the young Doe and his friend escaped apprehension for their police car escapade is not known, or not revealed by those contacted for this story.

But one thing is certain. According to those anonymous sources, the incident DID NOT change the personality or policing style of the victimized officer.  <

Friday, April 2, 2021

Get outside: Kid-friendly early spring activities

The Pismire Bluff Trail in the Raymond
 Community Forest can take hikers to an
unmatched view of Crescent Pond and
Sebago Lake, all nestling in the shadows
of Rattlesnake Mountain. 
By Briana Bizier

There’s no denying that the Lakes Region is a wonderful place to be, for children and adults alike, almost every month of the year. However, early spring can be a challenge in the best of times, and this year is hardly the best of times. One year ago this week, I posted on Facebook that my children would be out of school for two weeks. As we all know, those two weeks stretched into what felt like an unimaginably long period of staying at home, maintaining social distance, making panicked attempts to find toilet paper, and wiping down bags of groceries with bleach.

Even though we now have toilet paper and are no longer sterilizing the cereal boxes, the coronavirus pandemic still casts a long shadow over this season of renewal. For many people, kid-friendly indoor activities are still off-limits due to health concerns, and spring’s welcome warmer temperatures mean that favorite winter activities like skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling are coming to an end. Yet there are still plenty of fun adventures to be had, even in the mud and slush of early springtime.

One early spring adventure doesn’t even require going very far outside. If your far-flung friends posting pictures of spring flowers on social media has you itching for a bit of color, you can “force” spring blossoms in your own house. If you have a beautiful blooming tree or shrub in your yard, such as apple, forsythia, or lilac, you can cut off a few branches in one- or two-foot lengths. Be sure you cut the branches on a day when the temperature is above freezing, and choose a branch with a lot of fat, little buds; flower buds tend to be fatter than leaf buds.

Once your branches are inside, place them in a vase or bowl of room-temperature water, keep them away from direct sunlight, and be patient. Forsythia branches should bloom in about a week, while apples and lilac will take several weeks longer. If you start now, you might just have fresh blossoms in time for Easter!

We don’t typically associate March with hiking here in the Pine Tree State, but there is a huge advantage to exploring the woods in the Windham-Raymond community in early spring: No bugs! Last April, in the height of lockdown, my fourth-grade daughter and I decided to explore the snowmobile trails behind our house. It was a long, muddy hike, but we managed to follow the trails all the way to Little Sebago Lake without encountering a single mosquito. If there’s a mysterious trail near your house that you’ve never had time to explore, spring could be the perfect time to investigate the forest before the black flies descend.

If you don’t feel like setting out blindly into the woods, the Lakes Region offers plenty of clearly marked trails in our nature preserves. Raymond Community Forest off Conesca Road has something for everyone. The Pismire Bluff Trail, our family favorite, leads hikers to a beautiful view of Crescent Pond, Panther Pond, and Sebago Lake, all nestling in the shadows of Rattlesnake Mountain, while the flat and kid-friendly Spiller Homestead Loop contains colorful signs to help budding naturalists identify local plants and animals.

In Windham, Black Brook Nature Preserve on Windham Center Road is a wonderful local gem with clearly marked, kid-friendly trails that wind through a deciduous forest and explore a marsh. This would be the perfect place to go on a family “signs of spring” scavenger hunt. For older children, this scavenger hunt could even be a competition.

Whether you’re setting out to explore a nature preserve or poking around your own backyard, be sure to dress appropriately. March means slush and mud, so wear boots that can take a beating while still keeping your toes warm. March can also bring drastic temperature changes; it makes sense to carry a backpack with extra layers, as well as water and snacks, in case the sun dips behind the trees while you’re still adventuring.

Finally, a sunny spring day can be a perfect opportunity to take advantage of another one of Maine’s treasures: the beach! Lower temperatures and smaller crowds make spring a great time to go beach-combing for sea glass or special shells, and many beaches allow dogs during the off-season, so the entire family can join you on your seaside adventure.

Whether your outdoor spring adventures take you to the shore, to the trails, or just into your own backyard, I encourage you to get outside and discover for yourself that the Lakes Region has plenty to offer in every season… even mud season. <