Friday, April 29, 2022

Before the memory fades: Nondescript, historic house near Windham High School has an unusual and surprising past

By Walter Lunt

Nearing retirement, Sally Colegrove was looking for a place to live in Windham. She told her real estate agent that she preferred a Victorian style house with first floor amenities – a difficult find, she was told.

One hundred years ago, this familiar house next to Windham
High School was The Peoples Church of Christ. Recent
renovations uncovered its surprising past. The huge silver
oak tree, mere feet from the Route 202 travel lane, is 
believed to be one of the oldest in Windham.
Colegrove was pastor of Windham Hill United Church of Christ for over 18 years and resided in the parsonage next to the church. “I like the people here and the feeling of community,” she said. And despite owning property in Camden, Maine, “I decided I wanted to stay and split my time between the two towns.”

Surprisingly, the retirement home Colegrove was seeking turned up at 424 Gray Road (Route 202) next to Windham High School, a short distance from where she lived before.

Built at the turn of the 20th century, the 46-foot by 25-foot Victorian style building is known to Windham longtimers as the home of Lawrence and Beatrice Rogers, who ran a small eatery and gasoline station next door from the 1940s to the mid-1960s.

Colegrove admired the elegant simplicity of the building’s architectural style. She would clean up the long-neglected grounds and hire a contractor to tear down two aging sheds and do some major renovations to the interior of the main house.

But then, how could she have known that this property was more of a perfect fit than she could have imagined? A friend, who is a house historian, told Colegrove that the house bore structural evidence of a tabernacle – perhaps, in its past life, a neighborhood free-standing church. Supposedly, a bible belonging to its former minister had been donated to the Windham Historical Society, along with a diary.

An inquiry was made to society historian and archivist Penny Loura who began a records search of the property. The bible was located in the society’s climate-controlled vault – between its ancient, thumb worn pages was a hand-written note indicating that it had been given to the society by Windham Center resident Edith Fogg, and that it had belonged to the minister of the Peoples Church of Christ of Windham Center, which later became a house owned and occupied by the Rogers family.

The note reads Bible of Miss Cynthia S. Carter, minister of small church beside (telephone building) in Windham Center on Route 202 around turn of the century – made into a house c. 1930? (later) owned by Lawrence and Beatrice Rogers. On the Bible’s front cover, in monogrammed gold lettering, is the pastor’s name, C. S. Carter. Her diary has not been found.

Also tucked neatly between the Bible pages were numerous pressed flowers, tree leaves and four-leaf clovers, along with dozens of hand-written notes, all of a religious nature – bible passages, inspirational quotes and what appeared to be notes for sermons.

Further research, conducted on-line, revealed Carter was born in Nova Scotia in 1840 and later lived in Boston. It appears she moved to Windham around 1889 and rented a house on Windham Center Road at Windham Hill where she lived with a younger sister, who was widowed. Carter never married.

Unknown is when the church was built or how long Carter spent as its minister, although reasonable speculation is that she came to Windham to fulfill her calling and that the church was built around the time of her arrival.

Carter died in 1921 in Windham in the care of Windham undertaker Charles Nichols and was returned to Massachusetts for burial.

Town records indicate the church was converted into a house about 1930. It is not known whether it continued as a house of worship between the time of Carter’s death in 1921 and 1930, but records do confirm that the Roger’s family purchased the property in 1939.

During renovations to Colegrove’s home, contractor Jim Hanscom, no stranger to historic houses, took note of the structural changes that had evolved over the past century. High windows along the length of the house were now closed off at the top, and the first-floor ceiling appeared to have been added long after the initial build - clear evidence that the entire downstairs must have been an open hall, typical of church architecture.

Structural elements on the Gray Road end of the house indicate the possibility of a balcony – perhaps for a choir. The chancel would have been located on the Windham Middle School end of the house.

Colegrove surmises the old church was successful, filled with dedicated parishioners and led by an energetic and devoted pastor, Rev. Cynthia S. Carter. Observed Colegrove, “It was certainly prosperous enough that it lasted a long time” – conceivably for 32 years.

Colegrove is still settling into her new home, the one she most wanted - the Victorian style house with first floor amenities. What she didn’t know immediately was that it came with an astonishing surprise: in its earlier life, it was a church led by a woman minister. Sally Colegrove was the long-time pastor of a near-by church – both Churches of Christ.

A dazzling coincidence? Kismet? Fate? God’s will?

Colegrove is not sure. She sports a slight grin and says, “I was happy with finding the house I wanted, the rest is just icing on the cake.” <

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