January 10, 2014
By Craig Skelton, member
It is a wonder that I am not claustrophobic. One of my early jobs involved working inside a bank vault. Yes, I said inside a bank vault. The walls were a couple feet thick and as you can imagine, there were no windows. It wasn’t my first job. I started my career digging graves and mowing lawns for Earle Angell who was the caretaker at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Some of you may remember Earle’s contributions to the Historical Society.
Working at the cemetery was a normal step for me as I was following in my brother’s footsteps by taking his old jobs when he moved on to the next. Such was the case too when I took over his paper route. We didn’t dig graves in the winter time so there were no snow bankings to climb over and there was the added benefit of a lot of cemetery jokes like having a lot of people under me! I could go on and on.
The Casco Bank job (sounds like a robbery) was the result of a very thoughtful guidance counselor named Andre Hemond who called me one August day. It was weird getting a phone call from my guidance counselor during summer vacation. The adult equivalent would be having a message left on your answering machine from the IRS, I suppose. He asked me to come to the high school to sit down with him. Talk about putting the fear of God in you.
So I rode my bike to the high school for this mysterious meeting with Mr. Hemond. It turned out that Casco Bank was looking for a coin roller. Go figure! There is actually a job description for a “Coin Roller.” “They are looking for a trustworthy individual to handle money,” he went on, “and I thought of you.” For sure he wasn’t thinking about one of my older brothers, I thought.
I worked at the bank through high school and after graduating from college was offered a supervisory position by Carolyn Murphy, then Vice President at the Main Office Branch. I worked there long enough to receive a five year award from the President of the bank, Jack Daigle. It was not a big ceremony yet was quite an honor receiving a watch band with the bank logo on it from him. I still have the watch band and every glance upon it reminds me of some fond memories working there.
As a supervisor in the Cash Vault, I dealt with verification of large commercial customer deposits and shipping excess funds to the Federal Reserve. I also was charged with getting rid of all that Canadian money branches would send to us in the summer time. The way it worked, if we sent it with the weekly deposit to the Federal Reserve in Boston, the Fed would charge an unfavorable exchange rate so we found other ways to usher Canadian money back across the border. A gentleman from Quebec would come down once a month and make the rounds to local banks to buy Canadian currency from us. I would place a call upstairs to Gordon Faunce, one of the Vice Presidents who would give me the exchange rate for that day. Usually it was better than the Fed would give us and a little better than the going rate so our friend from Quebec could make a few bucks in the process. I met a lot of nice people like Mike Kaplan who would bring in bags and bags of coin for deposit from his family vending company. We also had the account for the guy that filled all those penny gum machines who would bring in thousands and thousands of pennies each week.
I still have a photograph of the $1,000 bills we kept in my desk. Once in a while, the president, Jack Daigle would give someone a tour of the bank and eventually he would stop by the vault and ask me to show his guest the bills that were no longer in circulation. The $1,000 bills were technically still legal tender in the US, however the Federal Reserve stopped printing "high-denomination" bills, being anything over $100 dollars on December 27, 1945 and discontinued circulation of those bills in July of 1969. We kept one or two of the Thousand and Five Hundred on hand for when the President came by!
Sally Hinckley was a manager at the South Portland branch at Legion Square and stopped by recently to see if the vault was still in there. The way they build vaults, a tornado could take out the rest of the building and I’m sure the vault would still be standing. She went on to tell me that she gets together with some of the retired officers of Casco Bank for lunch a few times each summer. If I ever hear about a gathering, I’ll have to drop in and show them my watch band.
January 17, 2014
Coastal Artillery Corp.
By Craig Skelton, member
I really admire someone who can sketch or paint. Not being one of my talents, at best I could rough out a few stick figures on paper and hope you recognize those shapes standing next to a cannon at best. It is with that sort of difficulty I attempt to paint a picture for you about the Coastal Artillery Corp. When I first discovered the memorial plaque to the Corp I thought I would be able to search and find historical reference with a simple explanation of who they were. Such was not the case as it turns out the Artillery Corp spanned 137 years of service on these shores beginning just prior to the war of 1812 all the way through WWII.
If you haven’t seen the movie Master and Commander where sea captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey sails the high seas, then you will have to borrow a copy from the library. It would give you a feel for a time when sheets were hanging from the yard arms and vessels quietly slipped through the waters. The year is 1812 and I imagine soldiers standing watch would have witnessed the beauty and elegance of sailing ships pass Portland Head Light commissioned by George Washington and quietly slip between rugged granite forts such as Fort Preble on our shore and Fort Scammel facing us from House Island just across the harbor. Even the noise from dropping the anchor through the wooden hawsehole would have been dampened by the wooden hull and barely audible over the cry of sea gulls.
The many forts found in Portland Harbor include Fort Preble which was one of ten built along the Maine coast with the stated purpose of protection from British attacks. Construction was authorized by the Secretary of War in 1808 to improve coastal defenses that were, prior to that time, largely mounds of dirt.
The next generation of soldiers manned the artillery at a time when steam ships with massive paddle wheels on each side churned the waters as they approached their anchorage. No longer was there a threat from the British, yet turmoil could be described as coming from within our own borders. Strategic importance of shipping gave renewed importance to coastal defense as our country became embroiled in the Civil War. After cessation of hostilities from the war of 1812 Fort Preble continued to serve as a troop training center.
The Spanish American War brought again a new generation of men and machinery and the ships that steamed in and out of our harbor had smoke stacks in place of masts and sails and wheels on their sides were replaced with unseen propellers. The image that comes to mind would be one of a ship like the Battleship Maine belching smoke from the coal-fired engines and an inward sweeping bowline. Wooden ships would have all but disappeared and the unmistakable sound of anchor chain clanking through the steel hawsehole would have been heard for miles around.
A rebuild of the fort was done in 1904, however in such a short span of time since the Spanish-American War, it was possible that some of the same soldiers manned the new guns as had manned the old ones. Very little design changes to ships of the time were seen as the Artillery Corp stood watch during WWI.
Time and personnel changed and not more than a couple decades passed before the Corp saw to the defense of Portland Harbor during WWII. A new unseen and unheard threat could approach our shores underwater and fortifications were built on almost every island found in Casco Bay.
There are many visitors to the SMCC campus at the easternmost point in South Portland, and Fort Preble is still there for you to see and climb about. Try to imagine if you will, what was seen and heard through the eyes and ears of one of many of the thousands of members in the Coastal Artillery Corp who served our community and country during five wars.
January 24, 1014
The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company
By Craig Skelton, member
The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known as the A&P, was located at 170 Ocean Street across from the well-known Uncle Andy’s Donut Shop. The British Empire sure left their mark all over the world and, if nothing else, the British are known for their dominance of the tea trade. I never knew they were a tea company. My memories of the A&P swirl in a cloud of coffee aroma. Consider the irony though, that a so-called “tea” company would devote a large portion of an aisle to the grinding and sale of coffee. It was the British blockade following the start of the Revolutionary War and tea shortages that led to colonists’ fascination with coffee.
If it didn’t come out of a box or a can, it probably wasn’t in the Skelton household when we were growing up! That didn’t stop me from marveling at the coffee grinder half way down one of the middle aisles at the A&P. I ached for my mother to dispense some whole beans and dump them into the grinder, but as that would have been a luxury in our home, I had to depend upon other shoppers to see the machine in operation. I hope that when I stood watch near a shopper grinding their coffee that they didn’t think it odd.
You will have to pick up a copy of “South Portland: A Nostalgic Look at Our Neighborhood Stores” written by Kathy DiPhilippo. In it, I lost count at 11 locations around South Portland where an A&P once operated. Her book is a wonderful look back with photos and descriptions that serves as a great reminder of days long past. It is evident that the A&P was a placeholder in the evolution from small to large grocery stores in South Portland.
Bathras Market in Willard Square stood out in my mind as a wonderful example of the Mom and Pop type store where Pop could be found walking behind the meat counter to wrap a cut of your choice then and there and Mom would be waiting at the cash register to help you check out. Bathras Market was about 1,500 square feet in size and in it you would find a selection of basic family needs.
If you ever shopped at Eddie Mardigan’s Hillside Red & White Market, featured in a recent article, you would know that his store carried more products and in some cases more than one brand. The greater selection could only be made possible because his building occupied about 5,000 square feet. Eddie could be found going back and forth from the meat counter to the check-out, yet given the size of the store it was more likely you would be greeted by one of a few employees Eddie would have had to hire to manage his much larger store.
The A&P on Ocean Street represented the next step in local evolution toward the supermarkets we know today and it occupied just over 10,000 square feet. With that larger area you might have found more than one brand of the same product and necessities not found on the shelves in a corner store like Bathras. The sign on the front of the building included the words Super Market yet I don’t think the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company had any idea of the nature of “supermarkets” that were to come.
Although I marveled at the Eight O Clock Coffee being ground on the spot, my mother was sure to find a can of coffee under a different brand name and she would have chosen any brand with a lower price! The meat counter or the check-out register would have been staffed or tended by one of a greater number of employees needed to operate a business in the larger environment.
Fast forward to today and those who shop in the Mill Creek area would find themselves in one of a couple stores featuring multiple selection of countless items within buildings hovering around 50,000 square feet. To keep that in perspective, you could fit 30 Bathras Markets in either of the modern day grocery stores found in Mill Creek today.
In spite of all the changes South Portland shoppers have seen over the years to the places we get our groceries, I will never forget that wonderful smell of freshly ground coffee when shopping with my mom at the Ocean Street A&P.
January 31, 2014
John Calvin Stevens
By Craig Skelton, member
The name John Calvin Stevens became well-known amongst designers and architects and those wealthy enough to engage him to design “shingle style” summer cottages along the New England coast. Our story begins in Loveitt’s Field, South Portland, where a beautiful example of his “shingle style” designs sits atop Channel Road. Stevens was known for not only designing a home, but also locating his creations on the lot. Reported to have been built in 1904, you should know that Loveitt’s Field at that time was truly a field when the two Loveitt brothers were selling lots from land previously used for grazing. At that point in time, I imagine Stevens stood where the home now sits and was able to view an almost panoramic view from Portland Head Light to Peaks Island, now partially obscured by other homes and matured maple and oak trees.
Not too far down the road, just beyond Portland Head Light, is Delano Park where several examples of the shingle style designs of John Calvin Stevens can be found. Delano Park was a summer colony formed by a group of Portland businessmen in 1885 at a time when South Portland and Cape Elizabeth were all one town. Stevens lay to paper the designs for 4 of the original 25 cottages in the park. In 1901, Delano Park was expanded by an additional 14 lots and again Stevens was called upon to design 4 more cottages.
The “seeing of the site” was, to Stevens, ceremonial. It was said that he recorded every contour, tree, rock, stream and spring on a drawing board in his mind. His visit to each site gave him an opportunity to sculpt in his mind the orientation of each home to capture the best of an ocean view.
Some years ago, I spoke with a surveyor visiting my office to conduct research. He described performing a site evaluation at Delano Park as a nightmare. He exclaimed it was not uncommon to find a building too close to a property line causing what is known as an encroachment. Remember that the wealthy of the time were commissioning the design and construction of summer cottages and borrowing money for such a thing was not a thing of the time. Financing property through a mortgage is now a common practice and where a building sits and how far it is from property lines has become a matter of importance because an encroachment found today complicates the bank lending process.
The location of homes in Delano Park designed by Stevens was based on that drawing board in his mind that took into account his vision. It was said that the sketch developed from his site visit and the finished product were like mirror images.
Many of the cottages that John Calvin Stevens designed a century ago continue to serve as a handsome example of his well-known “shingle style.” I hope you have an opportunity to get out there and see firsthand an example of his talent.