Friday, December 9, 2022

A matter of historical record: a rich history but decades in decline, a make-over may finally be underway for South Windham-Little Falls

By Walter Lunt

It’s been obvious for a long time that South Windham village was in need of more opportunities and a serious face lift, more specifically, new life, vigor and well-balanced growth. A new progressive and rehabilitated look may be in the offing over the next five to 10 years, fueled by a planning process now in the works called the Little Falls-South Windham Villages Master Plan, a collaborative effort between the towns of Windham and Gorham, North Star Planning of Portland and citizens.

The Hanson House in South Windham is the red building
shown. In the 1800s before the three buildings to the left
were constructed, it was a vacant lot for public use. Known
as the 'village common,' it was used for ball games, traveling
show presentations and for grazing cattle and sheep.
The goal is the development of a community-guided vision for improvement in the neighborhood of South Windham village and Little Falls in Gorham which spans the boundary of the Presumpscot River. Part of any future design will hopefully include keeping its history. The neighborhood’s historic roots are deep and rich. It is Windham’s oldest industrial area, and its early success provided assurances that the tiny hamlet of New Marblehead would grow and prosper following its difficult beginnings on lower River Road in the mid-1700s.

The revitalization group has recommended that the 200 years of rich heritage be captured in some way as the rehabilitation progresses. A comprehensive history of the villages would easily fill 500-plus pages, but a quick overview of its busy and robust times gives one an informed appreciation of what was once the hub of Windham’s living and working environment.

A saw mill was erected at Little Falls some time prior to 1756 by Maj. William Knight who claimed to have been the first settler on the Windham (New Marblehead) side of the river. The Presumpscot was also known to have accommodated logs that were floated down to Westbrook from the Sebago Lake region, prodded along by pole-wielding “rivermen” – a dangerous occupation.

The later 1700s and into the 1800s experienced a surge in the construction of saw mills, grist mills and carding mills. Saw mills at South Windham operated 24 hours sending board lumber down the Cumberland & Oxford Canal to Portland (the canal bisected the main road at Little Falls on the Gorham side). In 1832, a cotton mill was built, employing more than 150 men and women. The employer, Casco Manufacturing, built tenement housing nearby to house many of the workers. Twenty-four years later, in 1856, the mill caught fire; its factory bell sounded the alarm and rang until flames burned through the rope.

Two structures on lower Main Street in South Windham that today are considered among the most prominently historic are Oriental Hall and the Timothy Hanson building. They were built 65 years apart – the Hanson house in 1838 and Oriental Hall in 1903. Hanson’s three-story brick house, which is now painted red and located on the corner of Main and Depot Streets, was home to several generations of the family; his son, Jonathon, opened a grocery store on the ground floor. In the 1900s, it became a sandwich shop, laundry, and beauty salon.

The sizeable two-story Oriental Hall, located three lots north of the Hanson House, was built by the Knights of Pythias and provided residents with a multitude of family events that included dances, silent movies, and basketball games.

In earlier times, these lots adjacent to the Hanson House were vacant and set aside for public use. Known as the “village common,” ball games and other sports were played there along with traveling show performances and, occasionally, it was used as a grazing ground for cattle and sheep. Main Street in those “horse and buggy” days was a dirt road; pedestrians walked on plank sidewalks.

Across the street on Depot was the “public house,” or tavern, which served up tankards of rum to the scores of mill workers. Much later it became Patsy’s Market, home of Windham’s first and best Italian sandwich.

A short distance up Depot Street, which was once named Cross Street (as in “crossing from Main Street over to River Road”) was the town railroad station, or depot. Mill products and raw materials were shipped in and out of town daily. The trains also carried passengers. Residents living today remember standing on the depot platform waiting for the Maine Central train to arrive at South Windham. Many veterans of World War II arrived home in 1945 and 1946 on the South Windham train. Depending on wind and weather, farmers who lived along River Road or at Windham Center could hear the train whistle as it arrived or departed. Many swore that if they could hear the whistle, it was going to rain.

Little known about the cultural history of the village is the diversity within its population. Well into the 1900s, the community was a linguistic laboratory consisting of individuals and families of numerous languages and countries of origin. One longtime resident of South Windham said, “You could always tell if someone was from the village by their accent.” Another resident observed how all the people interacted as one big family.

Since first settled over 275 years ago, the South Windham-Little Falls neighborhood, or village, has turned out innumerable businesses and careers: sawmills, grist mills, carding mills, a cotton mill, woolen mill, grocery stores, sandwich shops, taverns, carriage makers, carriage and sleigh repair, a bank, apothecary, carpenters and joiners, blacksmiths, stables, brick makers and masons, wood pulp producer, iron foundry, wood flour, retail stores, post office, firefighters, doctors, millinery shops, an undertaker, boarding houses, lending library, church leaders, barber shops – not to mention the trades associated with the later advent of the automobile. Just about every mode of transportation known to mankind was utilized in the village to move people and products: horses, oxen, horse and carriage, canal boats, trains, buses and electric cars (the trolley ran from Portland/Westbrook into Little Falls with a waiting room at Sawyer’s Variety).

As mentioned years ago in an article by the late Windham historian Kay Soldier, “the village was a busy, busy place.”

North Star Planning and the town has expressed an interest in somehow including history in the revitalization plans. There are many possibilities. Perhaps a small park near the river with informational kiosks summarizing the rich history of Little Falls. Another idea surfaced during a recent virtual public hearing: a boardwalk connecting Main Street at the bridge to the Mountain Division Trail to the east; one can picture a river walk with lighting, benches and kiosks. Also, many of the buildings are among the oldest in Windham and Gorham. Renovation and preservation, instead of teardowns, would probably add much character to the upgrade.

Judging from the citizen feedback thus far, parking and growth density seem to be the main concerns. May we add history? <

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