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. <

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