Thursday, March 24, 2022

An old-fashioned mystery from Raymond’s past

By Ernest H. Knight

A plank of wood of a dimension seldom found these days though once a common product of local sawmills was at the center of a full-fledged mystery in Raymond in the 19th century.

Panther Pond is shown near where Raymond resident Henry
Britton went missing on the evening of Easter Sunday, April
14, 1895. A massive search of the area ensued in the
community for much of the next month trying to find out
what had happened to him. SUBMITTED PHOTO
It had all the elements of a whodunit – a disappearance on a Sunday, strange lights on Panther Pond that night, a broken umbrella on one side of the road with its handle on the other picked up by a suspect but not reported, blood spots on discarded work clothes, a coat hung out to dry that had not been in the rain, the hat of the missing person found in a gravel pit on Thursday that could not have been missed by several people on Wednesday or earlier, a scattering of lead pellets on and by the road, and conflicting statements as to the drinking habits of the people involved leading to a proliferation of random speculation in and about Raymond Village.

On Easter Sunday, April 14, 1895, Henry Britton, who lived alone in a house on Route 85, went to visit friends on the Meadow Road. It was a cold and rainy day and very few were out that afternoon to notice who might be on the roads, but Henry did stop at Smith’s Hotel at the corner of Main Street and Meadow Road for something to ward off either chill or snake bite.

When he failed to appear for a job he was supposed to do on Monday, his house was entered on Tuesday, where it was evident he had not been around for several days. A massive search was made by groups of people from in and around the village sweeping over wooded areas and the Jordan River with no results other than some perplexing items noted above.

Henry was accustomed to crossing the river in his travels to and from the village by means of a bridge consisting of a single plank some 36 feet long by 11 inches wide, an immediate and logical suspect as the cause of his disappearance. But with no corpus delecti to offset all the other evidence at the Meadow Road end of his Sunday jaunt, the search and investigation continued.

The Cumberland County Sheriff made a number of visits to Raymond, once arriving late at night to personally talk to a man who had seen the strange light on Panther Pond.

After getting directions in the village, he arrived at the house at midnight. He knocked at the door and to quote the newspaper account “the person who came to the door opened it and disclosed the form of a woman in her nightdress. At the same time that she opened the door she said in an affectionate tone ‘Is that you old honey bunch?’ This sight and the greeting took the sheriff by surprise, but he pulled himself together and managed to answer ‘Yes.’ It was now the women’s turn to be surprised and pull herself together, which she accordingly did. She finally explained that she was expecting her husband and thought it was him of course.”

But on Sunday, May 12 as arrests were about to be made, the bubble of mystery was exploded by the finding of the body of Henry Britton in the river only 50 feet or so below the bridge when it arose amid its own air bubbles to the horror of men working nearby.

Having been missed in the searches of the river, helped by closing the spillway in the dam at the outlet of Panther Pond, and freed from being trapped in a deep hole, the authorities concluded that the body was dislodged by the concussion of logs being rolled down the steep banking from the road into the water.

As Henry’s watch and money were safe in his pockets, foul play was ruled out and his demise was officially attributed to his unstable condition when trying to perform a slack wire act on the bouncy 36-foot plank in the darkness of a stormy evening.

Henry Britton was laid to final rest beside his parents that same night and Raymond returned to normal.

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, March 18, 2022

A matter of historical record: In 2022, the Windham Public Library celebrates its 50th anniversary

Windham Public Library Director Jennifer Alvino
displays an early 20th century 'traveling library.' 
The carrying case hold 50 volumes; many were
distributed by the Maine Library Commission to
rural towns that had limited access to books.
The cabinet case and collection were donated to
the library by the family of Ken and Lena Cole.
In the foreground is a photo of Mrs. Myrle Cooper,
Windham's first town librarian from 1971 to

By Walter Lunt

From its humble beginnings in the private homes of farm families and as a 50-volume “traveling library,” the Windham Public Library has progressed right along with the literary, cultural and educational needs of a growing, thriving town from the mid-1800s to the present day. Its modern and spacious facility at 217 Windham Center Road represents the culmination of an institution that has served Windham for over 150 years.

Windham’s library got its meager start from a group of Windham Center women (farmers’ wives, if you will) who liked to read. They would share books with each other and eventually decide to expand their love of literature to the entire community by establishing a library. Familiar old names like Marcia (Bishop) Hanson, Nabbie Goold, Ann Louisa Hawkes, Charlotte Cobb and Mary Anthoine conducted “sewing circles,” at which they would donate pennies and nickels toward buying new books. By 1870 they had collected more than $100; more books were purchased and soon the Windham Center Circulating Library Association was formed. Mrs. Hanson, the first librarian, began lending volumes from the collection she stored in a closet in her home. The books were rotated among the homes of the library directors, who each became the librarian for that period of time.

By the late 1800s, the directors knew they would need a library building. Young, educated residents, including men, helped increase the demand for books. Storekeeper Fred S. Hawkes offered to rent a small room in a building across from his grocery at Windham Center (now Corsetti’s). It was situated beside another store known in modern times as The Old Grocery (recently moved to the Windham Historical Society’s Village Green). At this time, the directors stepped-up fund raising by sponsoring benefit lectures and encouraging more donations. The growing fund was augmented by a $400 gift from the estate of Windham resident Joseph Walker (the rest of his estate was dedicated to the building of the Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook). The library association was finally able to buy the Hawkes building in 1907 for $500, and the following year some 800 books were in the collection. Association members proclaimed the newly remodeled building, “…shall be a credit to the town and a memorial to the noble women who founded the association.”

The Windham Center Circulating Library, a privately funded institution, served the literary needs of the Windham community and its schools until 1971, over 100 years – of that, 65 years in the tiny Windham Center building. On Dec. 27 of that year, about 2,000 books, cash assets and furnishings were donated and moved to the new Windham Public Library near Town Hall.

A fascinating side note to Windham’s early library history was the existence of the State of Maine’s 50-volume “traveling library,” which consisted of a small, but heavy, carrying case, or cabinet, issued to small farming communities throughout the state in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Access to books at that time was difficult, if not impossible. The traveling library (pictured here) was issued by the Maine Library Commission and would be sent to any town requesting it for $2.50 for six months. The portable library would travel by horseback to the various neighborhoods of the town. Each temporary “librarian” was provided with the cabinet containing 50 books (new or in good condition ready for circulation) and a simple “charging book.”

One antique library, quite possibly used in Windham, was donated to the Windham Public Library in 2009 by the late Lena and Kenneth Cole. Lena was a library volunteer for many years; when she and husband Ken passed away, the family felt the rightful place for the portable library was the Windham Public Library, where it rests to this day. WPL director Jennifer Alvino says many of the books are in a state of decay, but hopes “…they can be restored, if restoration is possible.”

Among the collection, when first examined eight years ago, then library director Inese Gruber observed that most of the books are from the mid-1800s and include such titles as “The Maine Townsman: Laws for the Regulation of Towns,” The Bible, and “Intellectual Arithmetic Upon the Inductive Method of Instruction,” a math textbook from 1858. Speaking to a reporter, Gruber read a math problem from the textbook: A man divided some corn among six persons, giving them one-third of a bushel apiece. How many bushels did it take? Gruber then observed, “We certainly don’t think in bushels anymore…it’s interesting to see into a little part of people’s lives (back then). She added, “100 years ago, if you wanted to visit the library you had to wait until it came to you.”

Our story now takes us from the historical record to before the memory fades. By the late 1960s it was apparent that the very small and very old library building at Windham Center could no longer serve the needs of a growing town. A building committee was formed to examine the feasibility of a larger, more modern building. The names are familiar to Windham long-timers: William (Bill) Crane- chairman, Robert Wescott, Jack Fraser, Robert Smithson, Fred Williams-selectman, Walter Johnson-construction chairman, Robert Nunley, Maurice Rogers and Glenn Libby. The goal was to achieve adequate library service and a building of quality construction and low maintenance.

In the tradition of previous Windham libraries, volunteerism and donations and extensive community involvement helped to achieve the goal. Individuals, service clubs and businesses contributed greatly. Construction began in August 1971 with completion the following December at a total cost of $31,000.

Along with the new, modern colonial style building came the formation of a five-person Board of Trustees and “Friends of the Library,” which donated countless volunteer hours toward the library’s success. The new library’s first full-time director was Myrle Cooper, a former proof-reader for Guy Gannett Publishing. Library usage surged under her leadership. She and a team of dedicated volunteers introduced many varied and innovative programs, including the inclusion of large print books, talking books, cultural presentations and a film series on great art. June Hawkes is credited with bringing library services to local nursing homes, and Susan Dries with creating the preschoolers story hour.

The tiny library replaced by the new one was briefly abandoned but soon became home to a garden club and later a theater group. Eventually, it was moved up Windham Center Road to a spot beside the new library where it was used as a medical equipment lending facility, known as the “loan closet,” run by the Windham Health Council. Its third and final move was to the historical society’s Village Green where it stands today beside the brick museum, still facing Windham Center Road.

Windham’s population had more than doubled in the 1970s and ‘80s. By 1990, the need for library expansion was apparent. A new building committee was formed and on Oct. 17, 1993, a sizable addition to WPL was opened. In addition to improved space for collection materials, there was a public meeting room and an elevator for handicap accessibility.

In the years since 1993, WPL has automated many of its services, moving from paper to digital records and computerizing tracking of library materials. The card catalog of yesterday was replaced by patrons searching for materials on the internet. Customers could also use free wi-fi access. In 2014, the library connected with Minerva, a statewide library consortium enabling patrons to self-request millions of materials from other libraries.

An extensive renovation in 2018 improved the circulation area and opened several study rooms.

Asked to compare the available number of books and materials between the old Windham Center Library in 1971 (about 2000 volumes) to today’s library, Director Alvino said the physical materials within the building probably total near 45 thousand. However, adding digital access through interlibrary loan, the number goes into the millions. “The reach is extraordinary,” she added.

This year, 2022, the Windham Public Library celebrates its half-century anniversary. Library Director Alvino says the celebration will be multi-faceted and observed for four months, from December to April, avoiding large gatherings but highlighting many of the library’s many special features. Among them: historical materials like the old card catalog on display in the circulation area, exhibits in the upstairs display case showing the extraordinary work over the years by Friends of the Library and the Windham Historical Society, special programs for children and interesting informational displays in the lobby and in the library newsletter as well as posts on the Facebook page.

The formal re-dedication will coincide with National Library Week (April 4 to April 9) with the proclamation and recognition of the Windham Public Library’s 50th anniversary, the exact date and time to be determined soon.

Alvino’s goal for the future seems to align with one the ladies of the mid-1800s would have set, the library will be “welcoming to all community members and responsive to their needs.”

Simple and well stated. <

Friday, March 4, 2022

Before the memory fades: More stories of the Blizzard of 1952

'He was my best friend and I never saw him again.' Roger Timmons, Windham

By Walter Lunt

Revisiting notable events can lead to engaging and stimulating conversations. Our recent story about Windham during the Great Blizzard of 1952 apparently rekindled a few memories from Windham long-timers. Following our publication of the story (Feb. 18, 2022), we heard from several readers who offered to recount their own stories. As a result, here is part two.

A 30-hour nor'easter paralyzed Maine
with two feet of snow and gale force
winds on Feb. 17 and Feb. 18, 1952.
Top, a resident digs out from the
storm. Bottom, a road is plowed
by a Walter snowplow truck.
At the time, the storm was determined to be the third worst snow event in greater Portland history. The savage nor’easter delivered over two feet of snow amidst blinding snowfall and winds gusting to 65 mph. As described in local news reports, whole communities became ghost towns.

Life-long Windham resident Roger Timmons called to say he was 12-years old when the turbulent storm hit Maine in February 1952. “It’s one of those life-enhancing events one never forgets. It was the toughest storm I can remember.” It lasted two days, “but we were all shut down for a week. People were skiing down 302 to get to work.”

Timmons’s father, Ernest, was a public works employee and remembers the stories he told when finally returning home after several harrowing days trying to open the town’s roads. While plowing in the south end of town, “His truck broke down. (There were) no radios or telephones in the trucks in those days, so (a stranded truck driver) would knock on doors to use the telephone. He told my mother he wouldn’t make it home that night.”

The elder Timmons and another driver struggled through deepening snow and howling wind, returning to the town garage (then located on Town Farm Road at Windham Center). There they started a stove fire and went to sleep on the garage’s cement floor. The next day they would engage in truck repairs 
and more plowing. Timmons finally returned home the following night, struggling over giant drifts to get to the front door and looking like a frosty snowman.

According to Roger Timmons, “Those trucks were always breaking rear axles. It got so they carried spares in the cab. They’d fix them right there in the road – it didn’t take that long.”

At that time, said Timmons, “…the town had maybe four plow trucks and two bulldozers. M.L. Rogers and C. R. Tandberg contracted with the town and helped plow roads, but the plows didn’t (drop blades) until there was six inches of snow on the ground.” At one point during the storm all town-owned trucks were down, either disabled or stuck. “Trucks were broken down everywhere. The only thing that saved us were the bulldozers pushing the Walters.”

The Walter (1939 – 1980), as explained in the Feb. 18 article, was a highly acclaimed plow truck specially built for clearing high snowdrifts. Its official name was, in fact, the Walter snow-fighter. For stubborn, high, tightly packed drifts, a bulldozer could be attached to the rear of the truck for added push.

For Roger, the most disheartening incident resulting from the great storm was the disappearance of his best friend. As explained in the Feb. 18 article, fire destroyed the home of the Kneeland family on Highland Cliff Road during the aftermath of the storm. Many roads were still blocked, and the efforts of a plow and fire apparatus were stymied because they couldn’t reach the blaze in time to save the house, garage, and barn. The family got out safely but lost all their possessions. Ron Kneeland was Roger’s best friend – both were 12-years old. “We knew each other since sub-primary (kindergarten) – we saw each other every day at school; we talked every day. I can’t say enough good about (his family); they were nice, exceptional people. “

Communication wasn’t like it is today. The storm occurred at the beginning of February school break. And even though Roger had heard about the fire, he didn’t know the outcome.

On the following Monday morning, “I was on (Arthur) Tyler’s school bus and we drove past Ron’s house. I was sick inside looking at (the blackened rubble). And he didn’t show up in school. I heard later that they’d moved to Westbrook. He was my best friend, and I never saw him again. I missed him so much.”

Not everyone was out in the cold or homebound throwing wood or coal on the fire. Following part one of our story, Patty Lyons Buck of Windham wrote to say she was in Mercy Hospital in Portland having surgery when the blizzard blew into the state. “Mom stayed with me (and) couldn’t get home for three days. Dad was home with my three brothers and (was) unable to go anywhere.”

On Chute Road, the Kelley family needed milk for their 12-day old baby girl. Fred Kelley, a well-known carpenter and later industrial arts teacher at Windham High School, donned snowshoes and shuffled from Chute Road, across Pope Road, through woods, across Windham Center Road and through more woods to Route 302 to what then was Ledgewood Market where he bought milk, then returned home during the storm. One family member remarked later, “We talked about it for weeks.”

Asked what lessons were learned for public works from the Great Blizzard of ’52, Roger Timmons said one of the biggest problems was the narrow roadway on secondary streets. “The plow banks were so high that the snow slid back onto the road. As a result, road construction was improved. In the early 1950s, many roads were still dirt. As more were tarred, the roads and adjoining shoulders were widened; banks were moved back and sloped downward and away from the edge of the roadway. Ditching was improved to move rainwater away from the road surface. The improvements made life easier for the plow drivers.

Today, the snowplows are efficient and are out the moment a storm begins; roads are built to accommodate the task. And communications between the public, the town garage and the trucks are immediate.

Also immediate would be the response to a house fire, even during a storm. And it’s a certainty the occupants, including a best friend, would not disappear without notice. <