Friday, February 18, 2022

Before the memory fades: Long-time Windham residents remember the crippling blizzard of 1952, seventy years ago

Orange Walter Truck: A 1931 Walter Snow-Fighter truck
used in Windham and surrounding communities from 1943
through the 1950s is shown. Equipped with a high V-plow
and 12-foot wing, this powerful machine busted through tall,
hard-packed snow drifts. The distinctive chug-lug-lug sound of
its engine signaled snow-bound residents that their roads
were about to be cleared out. The truck was owned and
restored by Windham's Don Rogers.
By Walter Lunt

It was starting to snow as Windham Center resident Lloyd Gilman, 19, pulled out of his driveway in the late afternoon of Saturday, February 16, 1952. Despite the threat of a storm, Gilman was determined not to miss the movie playing at the Star Theater on Main Street in Westbrook.

By the time he emerged from the theater later that evening, the storm had picked up immensely. “It was coming down hard and blowing a gale. I had my father’s big, heavy Buick with summer treads. There were cars (that had slid) off the road. I just kept hoping the cars ahead of me didn’t spin out on the hills. I knew I’d be okay if I could just keep rolling.”

Gilman made it home, only to discover a very high snowdrift had formed across the end of his driveway. “I (backed up and) half buried the car right into the drift…and went to bed.” He shoveled it out the next day.

A savage nor’easter, working its way through New England, delivered blinding snow and turbulent winds to Southern Maine on that Saturday, seventy years ago this week. Weather forecasting was less sophisticated then – most people expected snow, but the severity was a surprise.

In what became known as the great Blizzard of 1952, the storm turned out to be two days of blistering cold, howling non-stop winds, and blinding snow. The Weather Bureau, as it was known then, later estimated it had dropped 25.4 inches of snow, bolstered by 45 mph sustained winds and gusts to 65 mph. Drifting snow mounted to 15 feet, higher in some spots. Up to that time, it was estimated to be the third worst snow event in greater Portland history. “It was a doozy,” said one resident.

Whole communities were marooned for up to 48 hours following the storm. Photos show drifts that climbed up the side of houses to the roofs, and children sledding out of second-story bedroom windows. One South Portland resident reported he couldn’t push his front door outward against thickly packed snow and had to exit a second-floor window onto a porch. After jumping into a snowbank, he observed his driveway was completely clear of snow. It was not uncommon to see tunnels, rather than shoveled paths that led from front doors to a driveway. Newspapers’ banner headlines announced most roads were impassable and filled in again almost as soon as they were plowed. All activity, except shoveling, was restricted for two days for most citizens.

Teams of shovelers helped to open up town squares so that snowbound residents could reach essential services like grocery, fuel and pharmacies. Carrol McDonald, 97, lived at Baker’s Corner (Binga’s) at the time. “All the roads were blocked. You couldn’t go anywhere (and) everything came to a halt; you couldn’t even get to South Windham.” But, he added, there was plenty of coal in the basement to keep the fires going, and plenty of canned preserves from the garden.

Statewide, the Portland Press Herald/Evening Express reported there were an estimated 1000 travelers stranded along roadways; main streets appeared as “ghost towns;” hand-drawn signs that read “Careful, this is a car” were posted atop snowdrifts that concealed vehicles within; mail in some isolated hamlets was delivered on horseback, milk from farm to dairy was delivered by horse-drawn sleds; an expectant mother gave successful birth after being drawn on a toboggan several miles to a hospital and 200 travelers crowded into Union Station in Portland after being rescued from their stranded vehicles on Route 1 near Biddeford by a Boston & Maine railroad train.

At sea, in what is regarded as one of the most daring rescues of the U.S. Coast Guard, 32 crew members of the storm-stricken tanker Pendelton, which broke in two off Cape Cod, were rescued. Eight, however, were lost.

Longtime Windham resident and businessman Don Rich remembers two heroes of the great storm, both non-human: the bulldozer and the Walter truck. Both possessed unmatched plow power through high, wind-packed drifts, and were used on roadways to literally clear the way for conventional snowplows.

The Walter, manufactured in New York by Walter Motor Truck Co., was known chiefly for snow removal equipment. Called the Walter Snow-Fighter, it was a heavy-duty, all-wheel drive truck with a specially designed chassis. In winter it was equipped with a giant V-plow and a 12-foot-long wing. Built mainly from 1929 to 1980, it was well-known and appreciated by public works personnel, private contractors and the general public.

Rich was a volunteer firefighter at the time of the great storm, and recalls just as the storm had subsided, the siren at the North Windham fire barn screamed out the unthinkable: a house fire while the roads were still clogged with drifts. Living on Route 302, Rich waited to hear the familiar chug-a-lug-lug of the Walter advancing slowly toward his house, pushing aside the great drifts, a (tank pumper) fire truck right behind it. He boarded the fire truck and learned the fire was located near the sharp turn on Highland Cliff Road, the Kneeland House. Rich knew the family and feared they would arrive too late. Unfortunately, he was right. As the slow-moving Walter and fire apparatus rounded the corner on Highland Cliff, “…the (complex) was half burned down – we could see there was no hope of saving it.” The Westbrook American newspaper reported “Besides the house, a shed, garage and a barn with 50 tons of hay were lost.” The total loss was estimated at $10,000. All the occupants got out safely. Few possessions were saved.

In Raymond, however, there was tragedy. Equipment from Windham was being used to clear Egypt Road. According to Rich, a Walter truck, operated by private contractor Joseph Gerdis, was attached and being pushed by a bulldozer. Gerdis, it seems, sensed a problem, opened the driver’s door, and leaned out of the truck to look back. He slipped, fell out and was killed.

Longtime and well-known Windham resident Norma (Kimball) Rogers said she remembers the great blizzard. “I was just out of high school, and I lived with my family on Albion Road. I missed a few days of work at Blue-Cross in Portland because of (the storm). I also remember my brothers building (snow) forts out in the yard. We were snowed in for days.”

Norma later married Don Rogers of Windham who worked at his father’s trucking and excavation business at Windham Center. While his future wife was snowed-in on the Albion Road farm, Don was working the storm in his 1931 Walter truck. He told a reporter in 2012 (covering the storm’s 60th anniversary), “I plowed all night and all the next day – the worst one we ever saw here.”

Perhaps Roger’s favorite story of the blizzard concerned the “freeing” of Windham Hill residents. As he opened the road at the top of the hill, he was greeted with hoots, hollers and clapping by a crowd of citizens on snowshoes who had heard the chugging strain of his Walter’s engine coming up the steep grade.

Don Rogers passed away in 2020.

These are just a few of the memories of the storm many were happy to forget. But all had to admit, it really was a doozy. <

Friday, February 4, 2022

A matter of historical record: The ancient firearm used against Chief Polin during battle in 1756 – does it still exist?

Windham Historical Society member 
Alan Anderson examines the historical
society museum's recent donation of a
French-made Charleville flintlock musket
(circa 1717-1746). It represents one of at
least four muskets in Windham claiming to be
the firearm that killed Chief Polin during the
final battle between settlers and natives in
By Walter Lunt  

The package arrived at the Windham Historical Society Museum by USPS late last spring. Carefully wrapped and quite heavy, its content revealed a very old firearm – well-worn and missing some of its parts. The sender, unknown to W.H.S. staff, was a man from Colorado who wrote that the gun’s origin was Windham, Maine and had been in his family for years. He indicated that his forebears believed it was the gun, a flintlock, that killed Wabanaki Chief Polin in 1756.

The donation, as is the custom, was noted in the W.H.S. newsletter, and it caught the attention of Society member and Windham history buff Ray Philpot. He examined the gun at the society’s museum, and it piqued his interest. “I enjoyed the thought of (its) connection with Windham.”

Philpot contacted Alan Anderson, also a member of the historical society and a black powder gun enthusiast. Anderson became intrigued by the age and hand-forged features of the firearm - the high-quality manufacture, brass fittings and bayonet. He immediately engaged in research to learn all he could about the gun’s history and its possible connection with the tragic 1756 battle between the Sebago Natives and the town’s first settlers

The first white settlers of European heritage arrived in what would be called New Marblehead, later Windham, in the late 1730s. The area had been home, at least seasonably, to scattered members of the Wabanaki Nation for hundreds of years. The encounter would be a conflict of cultures. The Native Indian band, led by Chief Polin, protested the construction of dams along the Presumpscot River which blocked sea-run fish that were a major source of food. Also, they condemned the confiscation of lands that drove off wildlife, another source of sustenance.

On May 14, 1756, following nearly 20 years of strife, armed conflict broke out between a band of warriors and a group of farmers and militiamen, including Ezra Brown and Stephen Manchester.

The encounter was described by Thomas Laurens Smith in his 1873 book History of Windham: “(Polin)… concealed behind a tree, (and had) previously shot Brown, was the first to begin the bloody combat. He discharged his musket at Manchester, but without taking effect. In his eagerness to reload his piece, the body of (Polin) became uncovered and exposed to the view of Manchester (who) instantly leveled his musket, took deadly aim and fired; swift as lightning the fatal ball sped its way, and (Polin), the warrior king…fell to rise no more.”

The brief battle, which took place off Anderson Road near the original New Marblehead settlement, ended all hostilities with the Native population in the Sebago region.

The whereabouts of Manchester’s firearm, if it still exists, has been debated for years. In recent decades, according to David Manchester, a direct descendant of Stephen, no fewer than four individuals claim to own the flintlock musket that killed the great Chief Polin. One Windham family, who prefer to remain anonymous for fear of theft, claim the musket they own is most likely the real thing, due to documentation they have that accompanies the gun.

Alan Anderson’s exhaustive research into the flintlock recently acquired by the historical society indicates that it too might be a candidate, “but there’s no way to know for certain.” He observes that certain features of the musket indicate the possible time of its manufacture to be between 1717 and 1746. “That’s my best guess, but if (an expert) disputed it I’d be likely to go along with them.”

Distinguishing characteristics, according to Anderson, are the downward curve of the gunstock, the barrel held to the stock by pins instead of bands and a brass nosepiece, all typical of a so-called Charleville musket manufactured by French gunsmiths during that period. It is a one shot .69 caliber long gun with a 46-inch barrel and a total length of 62 inches. It has a walnut stock and weighs 10 pounds.

The flintlock was a vast improvement over its predecessor, the matchlock gun. A matchlock utilized a strand of flammable material, or cord, that smoldered into the firing pan. The flintlock fired when a spark, generated by a piece of flint striking a steel surface, ignited the gunpowder.

The Charleville musket was in use from 1717 to 1816 – more than seven million were produced. The American version, the Springfield, was nearly an exact copy of a later model of the Charleville.

Unfortunately, the newly acquired historical society musket is missing its lock assembly, including the (gunpowder) pan, hammer, flint and trigger, leading Philpot to speculate it may have been a “parts gun” at the end of its useful life. Nevertheless, those who have handled it agree that it’s a historical beauty and will be displayed for public view.

One question, however, remains: which, if any, of the four Windham muskets was the one used by Stephen Manchester in that infamous battle?

Asked if he had any idea, Dave Manchester (the direct descendent), seemingly tired of the debate, waved his arm and postulated, “Maybe…he had four guns.” <