Friday, April 1, 2022

Before the memory fades: known famously for beautifying ‘the corner’ and ‘the heater-piece’, Windham Hill Club carries on 85-year tradition

The Windham Hill Club celebrates 85 years of community
service. From left are Jane Diamond, Sally Colegrove, Patty
Meyer, Deb Davis and Paula Smithson. Not shown are
Julie Moore, Jane Pringle, Phylis  Hall and Louise Rochette.
By Walter Lunt

Tradition says that in 1937 Emily Aikins gathered a small group of her Windham Hill neighbors in her home to socialize, enjoy sips of tea and darn their husbands’ socks. Later, Aikins was instrumental in transforming the tiny sewing circle into an enterprising community service organization – The Windham Hill Club.

Formerly known simply as the Hill or “the corner,” Windham Hill was once the main through-fare for stagecoaches and wagons carrying people and goods between Portland and Fryeburg. With the opening of what would become Route 302 (Roosevelt Trail), traffic was diverted away from the center of town. The Corner was transformed from a community center with taverns, stores and service shops to a sparsely populated neighborhood of small homes, farms and a church.

At the turn of the century and up to the depression years it was common for farming women to form small, neighborly coffee klatches, particularly during long, isolating winters. Aptly named The Windham Hill Club, it began as a way to socialize and to seek ways to upgrade and improve the neighborhood. As membership grew, the WHC initiated ornamental bush and flower plantings at the corner, and on Pope, Windham Center, and Ward Roads. In 1938, the group built a float and participated in the town’s bicentennial celebration. The lengthy parade featured floats created by Windham Kiwanis, the Fire Department, Highland Lake Beach Association, Pleasant River Grange, Hiawatha Council No. 58, the Quakers, and the Girl Scouts (upon which rode the writer’s mother, demonstrating health and safety).

WHC members Jane Diamond, Sally Colegrove, Patty Meyer, Deb Davis and Paula Smithson, all recently spoke proudly of the club’s heritage and accomplishments. For example, they felt that the organization would have participated in World War II relief efforts in the early 1940s. Sally Colegrove speculated that the women probably engaged in projects like knitting socks for soldiers, rolling bandages or metal and newspaper drives; and they likely provided comfort and service to local blue and gold star families.

By the early 1950s, membership had grown to nearly 30 ladies, and two triangular plots of land became the focus of their beautification efforts; one at the intersection of Windham Center Road and Pope Road, the other at the opposite corner running alongside Ward Road. Both lots had adjacent roadways that formed a triangular plot of land, the larger of the two along Ward Road was known in Old New England as a “heater-piece.” The neighborhood one-room schoolhouse was once located on the site.

Before the straight entrance to Pope Road extension was eliminated and replaced with utility poles and traffic signs, the WHC adorned the heater-piece with ornamental bushes and colorful annual and perennial flower beds. The area, frequented by walkers, joggers and bicyclists, spoke to all passers-by that these residents were proud and caring of their neighborhood.

In 1950, long-time member and WHC historian Winnifred “Bunny” Stevens built a wishing well on the corner of Windham Center Road and Pope Road. Back then, Pope Road assumed a Y-shape as it approached the stop at Windham Center Road. The wishing well was built in the center of the Y, and attracted loads of attention, not just from the residents of Windham Hill, but from all over town. Children especially loved it. They would encourage their parents to take them there so they could toss coins into the well while making a wish. The coins always seemed to remain there; pilferage and vandalism remained at a minimum, even on Halloween.

In the 1950s and into the 1960s, the WHC expanded their service work beyond the hill. Dues-paying members raised additional funds through auctions, fairs, yard sales and open-house tours. Donations were made to schools, the fire department and rescue unit, churches, A.F.S., senior citizens and the Windham library. Bunny Stevens, writing about the organization in conjunction with the country’s bicentennial in 1976, said “We welcome newcomers to our group…because we feel that in working together an exchange of ideas and a sharing of minds will help ALL of us.”

It was about this time that some residents, both on and off the Hill, were reluctant to join WHC, feeling that the group was too exclusive, welcoming only members of the town’s “upper crust.” But in the history of the organization, nothing could be further from the truth, according to member Jane Diamond, saying that membership has always come from all walks of life. She cited numerous examples. Still, the perception persisted with some folks.

Although not directly related to the club, Paula Smithson remembers the patriotic assemblage on the Hill during 9/11. “It was a spur-of-the-moment gesture…we just started calling people we knew, and it spread word-of-mouth.” Up to 40 Windham residents gathered on the heater-piece during the early evening of 9/12; the tower bells of Windham Hill Church chimed, Bob Smithson played guitar and the somber group sang God Bless America.

“It made us feel a little better.” said Diamond.

From the high of several dozen a few decades ago, membership in the Windham Hill Club has fallen to just nine, due in part to the passing of many longtime members and to the two-year long pandemic. The current membership even includes some who moved away but return for the organization’s infrequent meetings. Smithson, who now lives in Gray says, “It’s like coming home…it’s amazing (how) we’ve all stuck together.” Patty Meyer said, “Now we talk a lot about the ’good ole days.’”

Today, the club no longer engages in beatification on the Hill. The most recent project was the erection of an elegant sign on the corner that proclaims “Historic Windham Hill – Settled in 1792.” The small group now focuses on two projects near and dear to their hearts: Christmas nightgowns for the ladies at Crossroads (sometimes “it’s the only gift they receive at Christmas” – Colegrove), and gift cards to qualifying teens through the Windham Food Pantry.

The WHC now meets about four times a year. They enjoy tea, coffee, light snacks and they socialize. Sally Colegrove’s observation: “We’ve returned to the way the club originated – we are now an exercise in creative anachronism.” <

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