Friday, December 31, 2021

A New Year’s resolution: Windham Historical Society vows to open a portion of its Village Green history park in ’22

Village Green History Park. Exterior paint and modifications
are slated for 2022. Windham Historical Society will build
displays and Eagle Scout candidate Joseph Lopes plans to
create walkways and signage. Much of the park could be
open to the public in 2022. From left are the South Windham
history building, one-room schoolhouse (currently
operational), gazebo and blacksmith shop. The Old Grocery
Museum is not shown. PHOTO BY WALTER LUNT
By Walter Lunt

It was early July 2015 when 11 members of the Windham community posed with smiles and gold shovels as they turned over soil during groundbreaking ceremonies for the Windham Historical Society’s Village Green history park. Included in the group were civic and business leaders, Windham’s legislative delegation and members of the Society’s Board of Directors.

Since that time, the two-acre parcel, located between Windham Town Hall and the W.H.S. brick museum off Windham Center Road, has grown from three historic buildings to seven. Each unit holds a special piece of the town’s history and heritage. The park will be dedicated to the preservation of Windham’s stories and artifacts from its early settlement in the mid-18th century to the present.

According to the president of the all-volunteer Society, Susan Simonson, “We’ve come a long way (in six-and-a-half years). But that might not be visually apparent to the casual visitor.” She points out that infrastructure had to come first; construction of slabs and other site preparations had to be completed before the placement of new buildings could be achieved. There was the installation of underground utilities to bring in water and electricity, which is now complete. After building placements, excavation of the grounds and plantings of grass and flowers needed to be done. Two of the new buildings required the construction of ramps, decking and sidewall replacement. Hidden from view to the general public is the construction of an annex onto the yellow library building.And all the while, fund raising was an on-going necessity to pay for it all.

“We are still active” says Simonson, but COVID-19, she laments, added one more obstacles to progress. Still, “our biggest accomplishment during Covid was relocating the Old Grocery from Windham Center to the Village Green,” and now that the obscure infrastructure pieces are nearly finished, “…we will focus on aesthetics, the interiors of the buildings and the (museum) displays.”

To that end, Simonson has a goal, or call it a New Year’s resolution: “I want at least half of the park to be open for visitors this year.”

When that happens, here’s what visitors can expect to experience:

The Town House Museum, built in 1833, was Windham’s first town hall. Later it housed the first high school, and still later elementary classrooms and the office of the superintendent of schools. Today it serves as the offices and research facility of the Windham Historical Society.

The old Windham Center Library, built in the late 1800s,  became Windham’s first circulating library in 1907 and boasted a collection of 800 volumes. It was originally located across from Corsetti’s Store next to the Old Grocery (both buildings have been moved to the Village Green Park). Now located next to the W.H.S. Town House Museum, it will eventually commemorate the lives and work of former Windham physicians and highlight the stories and artifacts of now defunct organizations, such as the Grange, Redmen, Knights of Pythias and Windham Kiwanis. And yes, a few of those old books from the collection of 800.

The Old Grocery, originally a tailor’s shop, this historic building was built before 1838 and later had multiple uses including a grocery and grain store, meeting house, headquarters for a garden club and a community theater. Old timers claim it briefly served as a library, auto garage and a cobbler shop. Moved this year from its location at Windham Center to a new site on the Village Green Park, the Old Grocery will display early kitchen and farm items like a butter churn, a grindstone, typical dry goods once sold in a general store and an early cash register. “We still have many of the items from its former life.” says Simonson. The building’s most distinguishing feature will be preserved – the carved wood oak leaves and acorns on the front gable.

The old South Windham Library once served reading enthusiasts in the busiest part of town – Little Falls. Situated on a knoll just past the bridge on the Gorham side of the Presumpscot River, the tiny building served both towns for many decades. Closed in the 2000s, it was saved from demolition by the Windham Historical Society and moved to the Green where an annex, that architecturally resembles an early railroad depot, was built onto the building’s east side. This structure will tell the story and feature artifacts of the bustling South Windham Village, with its diverse population, paper mill, school, railroad depot, residential units, and businesses that included stores, a barber shop, apothecary, doctors’ offices, and trolley stop. According to Simonson, “we even have the old-barred window and counter top from the South Windham post office.”

The blacksmith shop was built on site and designed to simulate the style and appearance of these once ubiquitous structures, known for the sound of a clanging hammer and billowing smoke. The blacksmith shop on the Green will feature a pan hearth forge and period bellows and a bonified blacksmith, Sam Simonson, demonstrating heating and bending techniques in the construction of fireplace pokers and S-hooks.

The one-room schoolhouse is currently up-and-running and fully operational. With period desks and benches, 19th century schoolbooks, quill pens, a slate chalkboard and potbellied stove, Society member and schoolmarm Paula Sparks leads visiting school children through a typical school day in the 1890s.

The gazebo stands front and center in the Green, a decorative and welcoming structure, whose presence was typical of early town squares. The gazebo may be used as a venue for outdoor history programs or “concerts on the Green.”

Stepping into the Village Green and viewing the set of historical buildings, it’s easy to sense the architectural harmony of an 19th century town center.

Before 2022 comes to an end, one more ingredient will be added…visitors. That’s a New Year’s resolution. <

Friday, December 17, 2021

Before the memory fades: Of grain bags and skunk oil – yesterday’s ordinary days may be the source of fascination today

By Walter Lunt

Phrases like party line, rabbit ears or green stamps may bewilder young ears, but elaborating on the stories associated with them often produce eager listeners. The people, customs, and events of our past, unless told or written down, can disappear into the fog of history. The past, which should resonate today and influence tomorrow, is too often left unsaid. Stories told and diaries kept are key to preserving the past; a past which children and grandchildren should know about and appreciate – they are moments in time that transcend to the present.

A 1930s girls' sack feed dress as advertised by 
Windham’s premier advocate for recording life’s memories was the late Kay Soldier, historian of the Windham Historical Society. From articles in local newspapers, to books, to storytelling to anyone who would listen, Soldier used the spoken and written word to share daily life as she experienced it in Windham during the 30s and 40s.

Two of Soldier’s narratives were about recycling grain bags and bartering for skunk oil. Back in the day when nearly 90 percent of Windham families were involved in some type of farming, a common commodity was feed grain. In an article she titled “Save those grain bags,” Soldier recalled the sacks were 100 percent cotton, and off-white in color. Some, she pointed out, were floral prints or plaid, but the best ones were the calico bags - her mother would transform them into pillowcases and clothing. “…mother would wash the empty bags and after drying on the clothesline, she’d take them apart down the long seam. In a few days, she’d turn these cotton bags into aprons, quilts and most often, into dresses for her three oldest daughters. (They had) buttons in the back, lace at the cuff…and a long sash to tie in a bow in the back.” Soldier went on to observe, “It wasn’t until I took sewing in high school home economics class that it dawned on me what a talented woman Mom was.” Soldier’s conclusion from this historical anecdote: “Think of the packaging material we get today…and haul away. Bring back the traits of the old days: Waste not, want not.”

In another missive, Soldier went further back into the 20th century, recounting a time when she begged her mother to tell stories of her childhood: “She said her life wasn’t exciting and that she didn’t have a lot of kids to play with…so she accompanied her mother whenever she went anywhere.”

It seems every couple of weeks her mother would hitch up the horse and wagon, pick up her grandmother, (Soldier’s) great- grandmother, and travel from Webb Road to the home of a couple who lived near “dead man’s curve” on Land of Nod Road. The two families would barter household necessities. Soldier’s family “would trade butter and milk for skunk oil.” Young Soldier’s reaction of shock and disgust was tamed by her mother’s explanation: “…skunk oil was used as a kind of liniment for rheumatism, and it had no smell.”

More stories and lessons from Windham’s recent history or, as some call it, “the good ole days,” are told in Kay Soldier’s two publications, Memories of Windham and The Days Gone By. Both are sold at the Windham Historical Society’s research museum on Windham Center Road.

Some of the most interesting historical stories, whether or not they contain important lessons for us to live and learn by, are found in personal journals or letters written by those who preceded us. Historians encourage these stories be written down. People want to know more about their ancestors, beyond just the names listed in their genealogies.

So, tell your stories. Write them down. And don’t be afraid to draw conclusions, even if they lead in unexpected directions. Do it…before the memory fades. <

Friday, December 10, 2021

Church’s iconic weathervane creation part of Raymond’s rich history

By Ernest H. Knight

It has been suggested that as a facet of Raymond history, a subject could be the weathervane on the Raymond Village Community Church, rebuilt and restored to the steeple after a lapse of 40 years or more. As well as being of historical importance, it is surely interesting and unique.

The current weathervane at Raymond Village
Community Church is an exact copy of the
original made in the 19th century by Sumner
Plummer and uses all its original parts except for
those made of wood.
The church building was the culmination of many years of effort by the “Ladies Mite Society” and residents of the village to provide a formal place of worship. Erected in 1878 and dedicated in 1879, it was a typical New England Meeting House of Free Will Baptist affiliation with a resident pastor in spite of a declining population resulting from the changing economy of rural Maine after the Civil War.

But as the church needs a steeple and surely as a steeple needs a weathervane, that deficiency was overcome by Sumner Plummer who lived next door to the church. Besides having the best interests of the church and village in his nature, he was also an artist, tinkerer, maker of unique signs, proprietor of a girls’ school, undertaker, and practitioner of the theology of “laying on of hands.” He also was perhaps a little critical of his neighbors and townspeople.

The present weathervane is an exact copy of the original made by Sumner and uses all its original parts except those made of wood, which had weathered badly in the more than 60 years it faced the elements until removed in the 1940s after storm damage to the steeple.

It has a graceful wooden vane with filigree cutouts above a wind direction indicator, surmounted by a bronze spearhead topping an iron rod which also held a crown of thorns. The crown was made of a sapling hoop of wood wound with pointed strips of lead for thorns. Under the iron plates providing reinforcement for the shaft hole on which the vane turned in the wind was found the original paint, a bright gold color which was copied in the repainting.

But the unique elements of Sumner’s creation was in the vane. On the front, fashioned as a finger pointing into the wind which would sooner or later point in the direction of everyone. And in large letters on both sides of the vane was the biblical scripture “Mat. 23:27.”

The admonition of this verse from Matthew is one that can be given serious thought by almost everyone, excepting “me and thee” of course, and probably Sumner was sending the message intentionally which Matthew gives as “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones and uncleanness.”

And perhaps that reminder is why he erected the heavy and awkward assembly alone at night, a feat that surely warranted divine guidance and protection.

But there are two features of the original design and incorporated in the reconstruction. The heavy five-foot tall wooden bollard interposed between the top of the steeple and the weathervane was omitted as a practical structural safety precaution. Its omission emphasizes Sumner’s sense of proportion and esthetics as the present stubby arrangement does not quite measure up.

And the top edge of the full length of the vane of the original had sharp pointed needles inserted every inch as a deterrent to the roosting of pigeons. There seems to be few pigeons around today. Perhaps there are a lack of horses and oxen to attract a population of those scavengers looking for the easy life.

Raymond Village Community Church was chartered in 1928 and affiliated with the Congregational society. At that time, it was part of a multi-church Presumpscot Union Parish. A vestry was added in 1960 and then later an addition was built for classrooms and office space. In 1986, the Presumpscot Union Parish dissolved, and the Raymond Village Community Church was ready to be on its own with a full-time pastor. The church purchased a parsonage next door, restored the weathervane on the steeple and renovated the sanctuary. <

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, December 3, 2021

A matter of historical record: The Cumberland & Oxford Canal – an epilogue

Gerry Smith of Harrison (center in white hat) and crew
sail the maiden voyage of the MARYC on Long Lake in
August 2005. Built by Smith and others in conjunction
with the town's 2005 bicentennial, the vessel measures
6 x 32 feet, roughly a half-sized replica of a Cumberland
& Oxford Canal boat. COURTESY PHOTO 
By Walter Lunt

In the recently concluded multi-part series on the Cumberland & Oxford Canal, this column examined the need, construction and operation of the 20-mile, hand-dug waterway, extending from the basin of Sebago Lake to the Portland waterfront, and its impact on the citizens’ lives and the economy of the region. So, what is left to report? In the spirit of the late broadcast newsman, Paul Harvey, here is “the rest of the story.”

Fast forward from 1872, when the last cargo boat traversed the canal, to 2005 when Harrison resident Gerry Smith, a civil engineer during his working life, was working up a project for his retirement years. At the time, Smith was president of the Harrison Historical Society, and had an enduring fascination with the C. & O. Canal, which had its terminus in Harrison, located at the northern tip of Long Lake.

Years earlier, utilizing old photographs of decaying canal boat remains along the Long Lake shore, Smith had built a wooden table model of a canal boat. Now, in 2005 - Harrison’s bicentennial year - Smith entertained the idea of building a life-sized model.

Considering the availability of manpower, a limited time frame and the expense, construction of a full-scale vessel was dismissed in favor of a half-scale model. The original canal boats were built to accommodate the limitations of the dug canal and its lock systems, 60 feet long and 10 feet in width, so Smith’s replica would measure 30 X 5.

However, since the ultimate goal was to set sail on Long Lake, it was determined that a vessel only five feet in width would be “tippy,” and therefore dangerous to maneuver. The compromise was to extend the width to 6 feet.

The intent was to have a canal boat once again unfurl its sails and ply the waters of Long Lake after a 133- year absence. And, perhaps, pass through Songo Locks, one of 27 lock systems between Long Lake and Portland Harbor that lifted and lowered the cargo boats during the old “canal days” between 1830 to 1872.

At the Red Mill in Casco, Smith spotted a fresh shipment of spruce decking, “…the best I had ever seen.” After securing three truckloads, construction began in Smith’s garage in April, 2005.

First, the keel, made from the lamination of five 2 X 8s. Ribbing was attached at right angles, followed by the spruce decking. Toward the stern, a cabin was built – used in the early days by the crew for sleeping, meal preparation or to escape weather. Lastly, two masts with sails were constructed, designed to fold down for passage under the numerous bridges.

In a 2005 news article, Smith reflected, “I had a lot of help, lots of advice and a lot of people worried (about) this boat.” He said upwards of 40 people helped out with the project from basic construction, painting, sawing lumber to moving and hauling.

From conception to its maiden voyage, the project took 9 months to complete. On August 5, 2005, the HHS MARYC, with its historically accurate proportions of a Cumberland & Oxford Canal boat set sail on a six-mile cruise on Long Lake. According to Gerry Smith, “She sailed like a charm – as stable as the Queen Mary.”

In June of 2009, at the request of the Windham Historical Society, Smith brought his canal boat replica on a trailer to Windham to participate in the Windham Summerfest parade. The boat was displayed for several hours at the high school fairground and attracted many spectators who had a myriad of questions for Smith.

Today, the canal boat replica is on display at the Harrison Historical Society red barn museum on Haskell Hill Road in Harrison. It tells…
 the rest of the story. <