February 6, 2015

Thornton Heights Hose Company No. 6

By Craig H. Skelton, member

aw6_Engine_6_41_Mack_10221958.jpg[Photo courtesy of Joe Nalbach: 1941 Mack Fire Truck; “Engine 6 10/22/1958” left to right 1st Lieut. G. Jenness; Capt. G. McCubrey; driver F. Richardson; 2nd Lieut. R. Moore; T. Valente: H. Flynn; K. Moore: A. Dean; C. Myers]

For readers who remember the recent closure of Broadway during major re-construction on the section between Cash Corner and the golf course, you can truly understand the definition of frustration.  So too did the residents about 100 years ago in the area of Thornton Heights and Cash Corner.  Follow along in this brief excerpt from the 1995 Fire Fighters Year Book describing the creation of Thornton Heights Hose Company No. 6:   

 “When construction of the Skunks Hill Bridge (Rigby Rail Bridge) on Main Street began in 1923 the only access to Thornton Heights was by either a detour across the tracks to Mardale or by way of Broadway to Crockett’s Corner, then up Westbrook Street. With the increase in train service and the detour being time consuming, the area residents, concerned with the delay, petitioned the City Council and the Fire Department to supply better fire protection. Answering the citizens’ concerns, the city established a new volunteer company to protect the Thornton Heights area. This company was called Thornton Heights Hose Company No. 6. The department gathered equipment from other companies and equipped a Model-T Ford for service. The vehicle was stationed in the Thornton Heights Garage operated by Mr. Honan who was also the chief operator. In 1939 the city built a new one bay station on Union Street for Hose 6. The company moved into their new quarters in January 1941, where they remain today.”

 In a prior story, we touched upon the ingenuity of Pleasantdale Hose Company who built more than a few trucks over the years.  The phrase “hand me down” came to mind during a discussion with Joe Nalbach, a retired Captain of the fire department and member of Hose Company No. 6.  You have to know the lingo because during a conversation when Rick Cotton, Captain of Call Co. 3 was also present, they talked of fire engines as pieces, sort of like pawn pieces in the game of chess.  My head was spinning with the list of pieces that were moved from this station to that station as they were shuffled around as the result of a new city purchase.

 So Joe says, you never know if these things are planned or not but there was a council meeting being held to discuss replacement of Engine 1 which at the time was a 1914 Commerce fire truck.  At the same time a fire call came in.  As Engine 1 was going by City Hall, a wheel came off.  The council voted to give Engine 1 a new truck and that old 1914 Commerce was transferred to newly formed Engine 6.  To get an idea of what this old truck looked like, picture the magical car Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and you’re surprisingly close!

 You may not remember that, prior to the 1950s, Westbrook Street used to run behind the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant and connect to Main Street right where the turnpike “T” Spur intersects now across from the Merry Manor.  That section of the road has since been vacated and the Royal Motor Inn was built in its place.  If the Call Company was heading out Main Street and needed to take that tight turn, almost heading back in the same direction from where they had come, the rear wheel would fall off their 1914 Commerce! 

As frustrating as the Commerce may have been, it is nice to know that Company 6 eventually ended up with a real winner.  They are still the proud owner of the 1941 Mack shown in the picture.  To have kept that piece as long as they have is a true testament that the wheels weren’t coming off that piece.  Looking forward, there may come a day that Company 6 could become a museum in which you could see that Mack and a whole lot of other really cool Fire Department memorabilia.  Many thanks go out to Captain Joe Nalbach and Captain Rick Cotton for the incredible assistance developing the hose company series and heartfelt appreciation for the men and women of the South Portland Fire and Rescue.


February 13, 2015

Early Ambulance Service

By Craig H. Skelton, member

Ambulance_Hobbs_Hearse3.jpgAmbulance_Hobbs_Hearse2.jpg

Photos courtesy Jeff Hobbs, Hobbs Funeral Home. 1947 Chrysler ambulance 

 Perhaps it happened this way in cities and towns all across the country.  Prior to establishing any type of ambulance service, if not by good Samaritan, local and state police were enlisted to transport injured parties from an accident scene to nearby medical help.  At the time of the Long Creek Air Tragedy in 1944, Rachel Deans, a long time South Portland resident who worked at Maine General where the victims were taken, said, “We didn’t have any ambulance service then. It was the policemen that were the ambulance.”

 A transition appears to have occurred locally after World War II.  Both Hobbs on Cottage Road and George Henry Funeral Home on Ocean Street owned vehicles used for ambulance duty that were not hearses.  These folks worked in conjunction with the South Portland PD.

 About that same time in neighboring Scarborough, the State Police would call a local funeral home that then transported injured parties in a hearse.  There was no well-established communication network and in the time it took to transport victims with traumatic injuries, they would often die en route.  Dr. Philip Haigis who lived across from the current Cabela’s Store and adjacent to a road now named for him, knew that time was the critical factor.

 According to Michael Thurlow, Fire Chief of Scarborough, Doc Haigis devised a plan to organize a group of local residents that he trained in first aid and vehicle extrication techniques.  Through his connection with the Scarborough Lions Club and their generous support, Doc Haigis and Lions Club members were able to raise money to purchase a van and, in October of 1951, organize the first volunteer rescue unit in the state of Maine.   

 Still, a bit further south, George Gorman, the fire chief in South Berwick, tells me that a funeral parlor in Dover, NH, would come across the river and handle ambulance duty before formal ambulance rescue service was established in the Berwicks.  George recalled that back in the 1960s there used to be a company called Earle’s Ambulance in Eliot, Maine.  The local firefighters at the time used to refer to the company as the Scoop & Screw.  He says that when one of the ambulances would show up at an accident scene, the attendants would scoop the injured party onto the stretcher, strap them on and toss the whole rig aboard the ambulance and then the guys would jump in the vehicle and screech off toward the nearest hospital. 

 In 1954 the City of South Portland purchased a Packard ambulance from George Henry Funeral Home and assigned Llewellyn McGouldrick and Earle Angell as the first firefighters to provide ambulance service.  The fire department continued to store the ambulance in the funeral home garage as it was across the street from then Central Station on Thomas Street.  Mark Angell tells me that having small children at home, Earle found the work particularly difficult when young victims were involved.  The two firefighters worked opposite shifts and individually would work with a police officer to transport patients in emergencies. 

 Our own Joe Nalbach, member of Thornton Heights Company No. 6, remembers that the Portland Police in the late 1960s was using the paddy wagon for double duty. One time, Joe says, an officer driving the paddy wagon was dropping off a drunk at the police station.  At that time the station was next to the county courthouse and the parking there was really tight.  He got a call pressing the paddy wagon into ambulance duty and quickly jumped in, threw it in reverse and smashed into a couple of sheriff’s cars, slammed it into gear and drove off.  The damage was mostly superficial but both cars were missing grilles and headlights from the encounter.  He also reflected that the paddy wagon smelled pretty bad after tossing drunks around in it on their way to the slammer.  Enough said there. 

 It is interesting to note that the Chrysler ambulance owned by Hobbs is not a wagon and yet reflects an innovative way to fit a gurney inside a sedan.  Station wagons around that time and prior evolved from trucks and consisted mostly of wood boxes built upon a steel frame.  Woody wagons required a lot of maintenance including recoating of the wood finish and tightening of bolts and screws that loosened when the wood expanded and contracted throughout the seasons.  It wasn’t until 1949 when Chrysler introduced the first all-steel wagon as the result of new advances in production techniques developed when post war automobile manufacturing resumed.  All-steel wagon bodies eliminated the cost of maintenance associated with woodies and resulted in a much quieter ride.

 In 1963, our fire department began recording ambulance calls and for that year there were a total of 53.  Today, rescue calls total into the thousands each year and the quick response from our ambulance service and the emergency training they now receive has resulted in saving countless lives.  We owe a big thank you to all our firefighters and paramedics.


February 27, 2015

Yerxa’s

By Craig H. Skelton, member

Yerxa1.jpg

[PHOTO: Yerxa Oil delivery started in 1938 and operated out of this location at 35 Mildred Street.]

My wife describes me as “provincial” in my ways because I rarely stray outside the borders of South Portland.  Why would I have to?  I love this city and, frankly, I can find almost everything I need here.  

That was until the snow blower starting leaking gas everywhere. I needed repair parts and Yerxa’s Lawn and Garden Center that used to be a short hop, skip and jump down to Broadway would have been my first choice as I knew I could get exactly what I needed there.  They moved a few years back which meant I would have to venture across the river.

I arrived at the Warren Avenue location of Yerxa’s and made my way to the counter.  Nicole Yerxa helped me get exactly what I needed in just a few moments.  I told her I missed their South Portland store and she said, "We get that a lot!"  While waiting, I glanced around and noticed old pictures on the wall of the Yerxa businesses.  My favorite picture is of the fleet of vehicles in front of 740 Broadway.  Many of you would recognize the unmistakable shape of the roof in the background of the building that later became home of Cap’n Newick’s Restaurant.  The vehicles in the photo brought back a wave of memories from the 1960s and ‘70s.  You will have to stop in their showroom to see the photos for yourself.

Yerxa’s started out as an oil and kerosene delivery business on Mildred Street in South Portland.  The business was started by Philip Yerxa in 1938 who hired one driver to help out with the deliveries.  During the summer, he wanted to keep his driver busy so he bought a lathe to sharpen the blades on those old reel style mowers people would push around on their lawns.  I don’t remember them being a lot of fun to use, especially if the blades were dull.  Even when they were sharp, you would have to go over the same spot at least a couple times to cut the grass. 

Someone had the genius to put a gas engine on them and with that, and the later development of the rotary type mower, it seemed that everyone wanted one. According to Dick Yerxa, the business just took off.  It is not unusual for an oil delivery business to try to combine their operation with something else because you would have truck drivers that otherwise would not be busy in the summer as the oil delivery is most commonly done through the winter for home heating.  An example of a logical combination would be a well known “oil and ice” business in Portland.  The truck drivers are busy year round delivering oil in the winter and ice in the summer.  The Yerxas simply found a different niche to fill with the lawn and garden business keeping them busy in the summer, too. 

Yerxa’s moved their oil office from the Mildred Street location to 753 Broadway and shared the building in the 1950s with the Twin City Discount store whose address was 741 Broadway.  Even though there were two addresses mentioned here, “A Nostalgic Look at Our Neighborhood Stores” by Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo tells us that you could walk through Yerxa’s to reach the department store.

The Yerxa’s Lawn and Garden Center opened across the street at 740 Broadway and operated in the 1960s there.  It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the lawn and garden business moved across the street combining the oil office and the lawn business in one location.