August 1, 2014

A Window on the Past

Historic Cooking Demonstration ~ Early Methods of Making Chocolate

 By Kathryn DiPhilippo



On Sunday, August 3, Susan McLellan Plaisted will return to the South Portland Historical Society’s museum to offer another of her popular historic cooking demonstrations.  This Sunday, Ms. Plaisted will present another entertaining and educational living history program - “Early Methods of Making Chocolate” - from 1 to 4 pm at the Cushing’s Point Museum, 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland.  

At this special afternoon event, Ms. Plaisted will demonstrate the use of the metate to process chocolate nibs to pure chocolate. Please come and visit at any time during the 1pm-4pm program, as this will be an on-going demonstration.  This is a free event, but donations are most welcome.

We have found Ms. Plaisted’s programs to be well-researched and fascinating to watch each year. In 2012, Ms. Plaisted demonstrated the types of foods and methods of cooking on the wooden sailing ships of the mid-1800s. Last year’s program covered the types of foods and the cooking methods of the native Wabenaki people of this area.

Susan McLellan Plaisted is the proprietress of Heart to Hearth Cookery, a food history business based in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  She offers demonstrations of 17th century through 19th century Colonial American and European cooking methods, practices, and recipes, as well as pre-European-contact and post-European-contact Native American foodways. Her repertoire ranges from open pit, through down hearth, raised hearth, and cookstove cooking.  Ms. Plaisted is originally from South Portland and presents her annual cooking demonstrations at our historical society in honor of her parents, Guy Stanwood and RuthEllen McLellan.  

The Cushing’s Point Museum is open to the public daily, from 10am to 4pm, with no admission charges. Exhibits cover a wide range of American history themes, told from a South Portland perspective. To reach the museum, take Broadway east to the ocean, turn left onto Breakwater Drive, then right on Madison Street that leads right into the park. For more  information, call 767-7299.

August 8, 2014

A Window on the Past

More on Sears Homes

By Craig Skelton

 The last article on Sears homes was just a warm up because there is an overwhelming amount of information out there and so much more I’d like to share with you. The country was in the throes of an economic boom when Sears, Montgomery Ward and a few others like them were shipping construction materials.  As early as 1895, building supplies were available through Sears, Roebuck and Co., however it wasn’t until 1908 when the first specialty catalog titled Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans was available.  There were 22 home styles to choose from ranging in price from $650 to $2,500.  What could you buy for $650?  Well, it was probably a cottage with no bath or kitchen.

 Even prior to the Civil War machines were commonly used in American manufacturing.  Increases to production capacity, a growing network of railways across the country, inventors developing new products the public wanted that could be made in large quantities, investors ready to pony up money to buy stock, and banks eager to lend money in growing companies all contributed to a new phase in this country’s industrial revolution. 

 That was only part of the equation.  The growth of industry saw big business tapping into America’s abundant natural resources such as water, forest products and minerals.  We shouldn’t forget one other main component of industry and that was people.  Between 1870 and 1916 there were 25 million immigrants that entered the United States and new large manufacturing firms in some cases were hiring people by the thousands.  The influx of people to cities to fill those factories contributed to urban sprawl when the growing middle class found they could move out of the cities and build or buy an affordable home. 




Fueling the availability of affordable homes was in part due to new developments in construction practices.  Let’s break down the construction of a building to illustrate this.  You start with a foundation, upon which you frame the skeleton of the building and next comes sheathing, siding and roofing.  Completing the inside of the building would involve plaster and lathe for the ceilings and walls and then laying down of a flooring material.  Cabinetry, window and door trim would finish out the interior.

 Prior to advancements in industry following the Civil War, the foundation of a building might consist largely of stacked granite or stone with some application of mortar holding them in place.  Again, this was a trade or skill perhaps not shared by all.  The introduction of cinder blocks, manufactured in large quantities with their equal proportions, simplified construction of the foundation making it possible for someone with little or no skill.  Framing required several men or more to lift and assemble massive posts and beams much like you see in an old barn.  Those posts and beams were literally a tree with the bark trimmed off.  The introduction of milling machines sawed trees into lumber that was smaller dimensioned and easier to handle.  Framing that largely consisted of 2x4s and 2x8s could be accomplished in some cases by one or two people and no longer required brute strength and larger numbers of men to handle the huge beams. 

 Roofing material such as slate, tile, metal or wood often needed at least some specialized skills or tools.  The latest advancement of the time was asphalt shingles that could easily be nailed into place and cut to size when necessary.  Siding, like dimensional lumber also was easily made in great quantities using new milling machines and it too became easy to handle and apply.

 Moving to the inside, plaster and lathe that required a certain amount of skill was being replaced by a simple process of cutting and nailing up sheets of drywall.  Although I consider mudding and taping drywall as an art, the amount of labor involved was greatly reduced and with a little practice almost anyone could accomplish it. 

 In the final stages of building the mail order home, trim around the doors and windows was also pre-cut allowing someone with even the most basic of skills to finish the interior with tight joints.  In short, the mass production of materials and simplification of construction techniques contributed to the ease at which suburbanites could build their dream homes.

August 15, 2014

A Window on the Past

Gordon-Van Tine: Craftsman Homes

By Craig Skelton


Almost new reproduction of a Craftsman style home of the 1920s built on Chase Street by Mark Loring.

Gordon_elevation.JPGHome No. 584 from the Gordon-Van Tine Co. 1923 catalog, courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia and Dover Publications, Inc., copyright 1992.

 When it comes to Craftsman style mail order homes from the early 1900s, the name Gordon–Van Tine should be just as well-known as Sears, Montgomery Ward, or Aladdin. When I asked Henty Larou, one of my South Portland history detectives, if she knew anything about Sears homes, she told me to call Mark Loring.  “He built some Sears homes up on Chase and Taylor Streets behind Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.”  Mark and I go all the way back to high school and a couple decades ago, he was our early favorite to build a new home for Marcy and me.  We went with a different builder when we learned Mark had gone into the restaurant business.

 Several successful restaurants later, he is now the owner of the Saltwater Grille.  Marcy and I have enjoyed many a wonderful evening at the “Grille” taking in the beautiful view of the harbor and Portland skyline.  We sat outside on the deck one pleasant evening and I wondered how many patrons knew of Mark’s home building past or that of his brother Joe who had also jumped ship from the building trades and is now owner of Joe’s Boathouse.

 It turned out Henty was right about one thing; Mark just couldn’t stay away from building houses.  I dropped by his restaurant and in his office, he reached behind his desk and grabbed a couple catalogs off a book case.  Slips of paper were poking out from various pages of the Gordon-Van Tine catalog and I was surprised to read in the first few pages that they were in the lumber supply business as far back as 1866.  They operated a saw mill in Davenport, Iowa, where the Mississippi River and Rock Island Railroad intersected.  This turned out to be a prime location for moving lumber east, south and especially west, helping to fueling America’s expansion.

 Although easily mistaken for Sears homes because of the similarity across catalog lines of the Craftsman style, the homes Mark has been building are based on a Gordon-Van Tine design.  He tells me, however, you wouldn’t want an exact replica of a plan in the catalog because by today’s standards, we would not be satisfied with little or no closet space and tiny kitchens.  If you think about it, a hundred or so years ago, folks had their daily work clothes and their Sunday best.  Unlike the vast wardrobe and shoe collections we have today, folks from the past were able to keep everything in a couple drawers in their dresser.  Closets were an afterthought and the ones we had in our last house were so shallow that when you slammed the door, anything on hangers would punch holes in the back wall.  In recent years, I’ve been in homes with bigger closets than the bedroom my brother and I shared growing up.  No kidding.

 Beyond that, the kitchens on those old plans bore a resemblance in size to closets of today and even the most talented carpenter couldn’t shoe horn in all the modern appliances we depend on. I have a great appreciation for what Mark has done.  South Portland has seen many houses sprout up on old grandfathered lots and in some instances, they just don’t quite fit in.  There are many older neighborhoods graced by Craftsman style homes and I thank Mark for his part in respecting the character and charm those neighborhoods have to offer.

August 22, 2014

A Window on the Past

L.C. Andrews Homes

 By Craig Skelton



 As we wind down our series on catalog homes, this installment introduces a home grown version of a catalog seller you might have heard of.  When I hear the name L.C. Andrews, I think of log homes - which is what may come to mind for you too.  Having been on the scene in Maine since 1926, though, it is not hard to imagine that they dabbled in other areas of home construction, too.



L.C. Andrews Catalog image credit: “Jeff G. Tounge, CEO Maine Cedar Log Homes, LLC, Windham Maine”

L.C. Andrews put out a catalog titled “1950 Building Values” and featured two different ranch floor plans as well as a Cape Cod and garrison style to choose from.  Even though in more recent times they were a leader in log home sales, a feature of “Cedar Log Cabins” on the back cover of the 1950 catalog appears as if an afterthought.

 The South Windham company even had a sales and display room at 187 Brighton Avenue in Portland, which certainly must have planted them firmly in the greater Portland home buying market.  I spent several days driving through South Portland neighborhoods looking for that tell-tale style featured in their catalog and it wasn’t hard to find that there were at least a few takers of what the catalog had to offer at that time.  One neighborhood in particular consisting of Church Street and Lee Avenue off Lincoln Street gave me the impression that a local builder must have purchased building material exclusively from L.C. Andrews and fancied their small Cape Cod style 41A.

 This catalog was not filled with dozens of styles and plans as you would have found in the Sears catalogs or those from Gordon Van-Tyne and Montgomery Ward.  The 1950 Building Values catalog was a teaser of sorts that featured roofing shingles, doorways, cabinet hardware, paint and almost everything else you would need to complete your home.  If you found the basic selection of house plans was not living up to your taste or desires, you could visit the showroom and for the princely sum of $1.00 purchase a publication called “Eastern Homes of Individuality” containing many one and two story houses suited to New England home building.  For another 50 cents, you could go home with a Camp and Cottage book containing 58 plans of that nature to choose from.

 No home buyer would have passed up on a garage to go with their new home because the catalog boasted a 12x18 garage was available for $155.00, or $5.17 per month on a 36 month payment plan.  Read the fine print though because that price included materials only.  You were on your own after that. 

 The catalog was also filled with products earlier readers of those other mail order home companies would never have imagined.  Modern Insulated Siding also known as asphalt siding in the business featured numerous choices in color and texture, yet it didn’t stick around too long on the market mostly because I think it too closely resembled the stuff on your roof.  If that type of siding didn’t interest you, you could buy cedar shingles already stained.  Although I don’t think many were sold in South Portland, asphalt treated electrically welded septic tanks were available in 300 and 500 gallon sizes. 

 Moving to the inside, you could do your ceilings in Insulating Tile Board, however 30 or 40 years of hanging up there often resulted in sagging from what I’ve seen.  Also hanging from the ceiling you could now find a thin rope in the hallway.  Pulling on the rope would bring down your Disappearing Stairway!   

 A big surprise to me was the introduction of wood flooring that was finished, waxed and polished at the factory.  This stuff alleviated the home builder of one more step in the construction process and, frankly, I had no idea it was available back then.

 I paused for a moment after taking a picture of this home and tried to imagine moving day when it was new.  Developing in my mind was a picture of the Formica kitchen table and vinyl covered chairs with gleaming chrome pipe legs being carried in through the kitchen door on the side.  The gold cloth couch being turned sideways and carried in through the front door would surely have been covered with clear plastic before the kids were allowed in the living room.  And, no doubt mother would be blushing when dad shouted a bad word as he carried the pine dresser up the narrow stairs and put a dent in the new drywall.

All good memories followed after moving day and I’m sure more than a few large families grew up in these small homes.  

August 29, 2014

A Window on the Past

Bug Light 5K to Support Park, Trail and Historic Preservation Projects in South Portland

 By Kathryn DiPhilippo




 The South Portland Historical Society and the South Portland Land Trust invite you to join us at the 3rd annual Bug Light 5K Race/Walk, presented by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, to be held on Sunday, October 12, at 9am. The scenic, professionally-certified course is ideal for running or walking, starting at Bug Light Park and winding its way along the waterfront, through historic Fort Preble and SMCC, out to Willard Square and then back to the park. Members of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets will be stationed along the course to provide directions. A kids fun run will take place before the 5K, at 8:30am.

 This race/walk is a joint fundraiser for the two community non-profits. The South Portland Historical Society collects and preserves historical photographs, papers, objects and other items significant to our community’s past; it also operates the Cushing’s Point Museum at Bug Light Park which is open to the public daily with no admission charges. The South Portland Land Trust works to preserve open, green spaces and has also worked to increase the number of walking/biking trails through the city. Together, these two non-profits center all of their funding and resources on improving the quality of life in South Portland.

 People of all ages and fitness abilities take part in the Bug Light 5K. Cash prizes are available to the top overall finishers and medals are given to the top finishers by age category. Automated chip timing ensures accurate times. Whether running the race to win an award or to get that personal best time, or just walking the beautiful course with views of Casco Bay and the islands, participants know that they are supporting two worthy non-profits. We also know that walking is a great way to keep your body and mind active and healthy!



Nate Priest from Yarmouth crossing the finish line at last year’s Bug Light 5K. He won with a time of 16:59. Photo by Denise Michaud.

 Registration for the Bug Light 5K is now open and if you pre-register within the next week, you’ll be eligible to receive a free t-shirt, as well. Pre-registration is just $20 and helps us to plan our event; if space is available on the day of the race/walk, same day registrations will be $25. Log on to the race website at to learn more and to register. Thank you so much for your support!  Please consider encouraging other family members, friends and neighbors to come out and join you in the race/walk. FMI, go to the website, visit us on Facebook at Bug Light 5K, or call us at 767-7299.