July 4, 2014

A Window on the Past

Red Men’s Hall, 71 School Street

 By Craig Skelton

I wanted to learn more about the Red Men’s Hall, so I spoke recently with Ralph Cary, a South Portland resident and member of the local Red Men’s Hall for more than a half century, to learn more. The Red Men were a group of colonists that spun off from The Sons of Liberty in 1765.  Their origins share a moment in time with the likes of the Minute Men and the midnight ride of Paul Revere; however you won’t find the Red Men listed in any history book.  Had their identities been known, they would all have been hung for crimes against the British Crown. 

The statute of limitations surely has run out and I don’t think Ralph was in any danger of telling me that a group of Red Men disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.  That little gathering was on December 16, 1773, and serves as a benchmark of the organization’s desire to openly defy English dominance.  The Tea Party was the final straw following England’s failure to respond to all other colonists’ protests on the issue of taxes imposed on English tea. 

Members of the secret society took up arms and joined the Continental Army.  Following the Revolutionary War, secret societies continued as brotherhoods or fraternities and many of those organizations merged into what is now known as “The Improved Order of Red Men.”  The common bond bringing them all together was a pledge to high ideals of Freedom, Friendship and Charity.

David Lintz, Director of the Red Men Museum and Library in Waco, Texas, told me that the Madockawanda Tribe No. 100 of South Portland was instituted on May 19, 1905. I think the local club borrowed the name from a story about Chief Madockawanda who reportedly unified the Penobscot Nation.

Over the years that followed, the Red Men Museum records indicate the local Red Men held meetings at the Knights of Pythias Bayard Hall, then located at 53 Preble Street, and also held meetings at Arey’s Hall which I believe to be the meeting place for an organization better known today as the Eagles.  When I asked Ralph about using other organizations’ meeting halls, he said it was known as a visitation.  It wasn’t until 1925 when visitations ended and the Red Men held meetings at their own lodge on School Street.


        Patty Van Tuyl and husband Bob Ketzer took this photo before renovations to the building began in 2001

Ralph handed me a manual given to new members and as far as I could tell, it was written in a whole other language.  He also handed me his greeting card and after his name it said, “Past Great Sachem.”  Without the manual, you would not be able to decipher he is a past president.  New members were tested in this way, he says.  They would have to learn the language and were asked random questions at meetings.  A member could not advance through the tribe otherwise.  At this point, I was ready to have him write the article because I was fast becoming overwhelmed with the vast amount of information he was offering.

“I think it important that people know we took care of our own.”  He stressed that the Red Men were particularly concerned about taking care of orphans.  He gave me a copy of “Early History of Redmenship” covering the first 100 years of the organization in Maine; it is obvious that their focus was on orphans.  Specifically, their goal was “that no son or daughter of a deceased Red Men be sent to an orphanage.”

Certainly there were other worthy causes and Red Men raised money to purchase ambulances for military hospitals during WWI and over the years for such causes as the blind, the cancer society and efforts to eradicate polio.  Locally, Ralph said they raised money through raffles, Beeno and dances held at the hall.  The funds were put toward local efforts to provide turkeys and chickens to those in need during Thanksgiving and Easter.  

Fast forward to today and I can tell you the former Red Men Hall has been transformed into a lovely home.  The current owners Patty Van Tuyl and Bob Ketzer gave me a tour, highlighting the changes while they shared some stories about the two-year renovation.  This was a project no one else would have attempted, they said.  From what they shared, they both deserve praise for turning the old hall into a beautiful home as well as being part of what has been a wonderful revitalization of the Ferry Village neighborhood.

The thing mentioned most often by visitors who stopped by to check out what was going on, was their memories of dancing there.  During three quarters of a century, thousands of feet must have padded across that floor.  For anyone that might share that sort of memory, I can assure you that Bob and Patty did a wonderful job of saving the floor and preserving your fond memories for decades to come.

July 11, 2014

A Window on the Past 

Bix Furniture Stripping

By Craig Skelton


My first boss was Earle Angell who some folks may have known for his many years of service with the fire department or the Bix Furniture Stripping business he operated at 158 Pickett Street.  I didn’t work for him at Bix, however.  I was working with another teen, mowing grass and digging graves at Mount Pleasant Cemetery which didn’t require his constant supervision.  Earle was also the cemetery superintendent and would come and go in a big blue Ford van, used to cart furniture around from his Bix shop. 

Bix Furniture Stripping started out on Broadway and was operated by Harvey and Fran Fotter who purchased the franchise around 1963 according to their son Steve.  Steve and his sister Ellen Jamison could not recall where the original location was, however Carolyn Billen, a volunteer at the Cushing’s Point Museum, found a reference in the old directories for 795 Broadway.  Readers of Kathy DiPhilippo’s book, “South Portland: A Nostalgic Look At Our Neighborhood Stores” would recognize that as the location of Mid-Town Market operated in the mid-1970s, however the building is now gone and Evergreen Credit Union now occupies that location.  

Steve says he worked a summer there but it has been far too long for him to remember where it was on Broadway.  He remembers stripping merry-go-round horses and at least one 6-foot ship's wheel and that Harvey and Fran had a VW bus with a sun roof that allowed them to schlep things to and fro, with the difficult bits poking out the top.  What do you think the chances are that the merry-go-round horses were from the old carousel at Old Orchard Beach?  I’d like to think they are good. 

Steve and his wife Abby found Harvey’s diary which indicated the business was moved to the Pickett Street location in February of 1969.  An entry in Harvey’s diary for January 3, 1973 reads, “Had meeting at shop with Mr. and Mrs. Earle Angell – bank has OK’d their loan – we to finalize sale Jan. 8.”  The Fotters moved to North Carolina shortly after selling the business and records indicate Earle operated Bix out of the Pickett Street building until about 1981.

I had occasion to go to the shop, not on cemetery business, but because my mother from time to time would take furniture there to get countless layers of old paint stripped off.  The 1970s might have been a time of re-awakening from the standpoint of an appreciation for the natural wood grain look.  Prior to that time, folks had covered everything with paint and Earle certainly found a niche in stripping a lot of that away! 

And I, too, think that back then we weren't a throwaway society like we are today.  Many of the furniture pieces my mother took there were something she or one of her brothers or sisters had salvaged from the old homestead before the carpet baggers made off with the rest.  That old stuff surely had a modicum of sentimental value on top of being well made and worth the trouble of saving it.  Fact was, though, that often Earle would uncover something hiding under all that paint such as an imperfection in the wood, a putty filled crack or broken spindle.  All that said, I still have a small rocking chair that mom presented to Marcy and me when our daughter was born that she fondly remembered her grandmother rocking babies in.  

 Stepping inside the Bix shop was tricky and I remember furniture was stacked floor to ceiling in the left side of the building, naked of any paint, awaiting their owner to come and pick up it up.  Just as you would walk gingerly around a pyramid of tomatoes at the grocery store, you didn't want to brush your shoulder on anything in Earle's shop for fear of bringing chairs stacked to the ceiling down on top of you.  In a way, though, it was more like being in the natural history museum surrounded by precariously stacked dinosaur bones rather than tomatoes.

 The right side of the shop was the messy side of the business.  Earl had a really big tub as I remember.  It was more like a giant baking pan on short legs.  In this pan, he would position a piece of furniture and smother it with furniture stripper.  It was separated from the other room by a half wall that helped to contain some of the flying debris when Earl unleashed a hose to rinse off the gunk.  He was wearing rubber gloves of course but short of a space suit, there wasn't much you could do to protect your clothing.  One thing I don’t ever remember seeing was Earl with a mask on.  Those fumes must have been awful.

 Fast forward to today and a visit to the shop will fill your nostrils with the delicious smell of coffee brewing and bagels being toasted.  The restaurant is called simply 158 Pickett Street and has become a favorite weekend morning stop for Marcy and me.  We go there at least once a month on our rotation of favorite places.  There is something about their sour dough bagels we can’t resist. 

 Sitting there, I can’t help drift back in time to the image of what it looked like some 40 odd years ago.  The Steam Punk theme room divider along with metal tables and chairs, and a bunch of kitchen equipment all occupy space once dominated by the bones of old furniture and stripping equipment, however it hasn’t escaped me that very little in that building has actually changed.  One thing I’ve noticed for certain is that it has a new coat of paint.  

 My thanks go out to Sally Hinckley who put me in touch with Ellen Fotter Jamison and her family.  Her brother Steve and his wife Abby found the picture of the Bix building in an old photo album and were able to provide other important information from a diary kept by Harvey Fotter.

July 18, 2014

A Window on the Past 

Fred Hale, Sr.

By Craig Skelton

Our story this week is about a long time resident of this city who passed away when he was 113.  One period of time I find of great interest is the early part of the 20th century.  Imagine traveling back in time and gathering together the likes of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers and throw in Teddy Roosevelt, Admiral Peary and perhaps J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, too.  


Fred Hale Sr. and Jr. in Baldwinsville, NY on December 3, 2003, two days after the elder Hale's 113th birthday. (Photo courtesy of Richard Rubin)

Fred Hale, Sr., whose life touched upon three centuries, having been born in 1890 and passing away in 2004, lived during that time and would have read news reports or heard on the radio of great change brought about and tremendous accomplishments of those folks and many others like them.  His life spanned change that included the advancement of human kind from horse drawn wagons to space travel.  In his later years, he was most often asked what he attributed his longevity to.  The fact that Guinness World Records named him in 1995 the world’s oldest licensed driver when 107 and again recognized him as the world’s oldest man on March 5, 2004 when he was 113 should not lead you to believe that his secret of life will be a life changer for you.  That is, unless you want to stake your chances of living that long on a spoon full of bee pollen each day and an occasional shot of whiskey.    Frankly, I think he lived as long as he did because of his family genes.  As far as the bee pollen is concerned, one article records he started eating it when he was 90 years old, so from an actuarial stand point, bee pollen may not have become a factor in his life until he was older than the age most people live. 

Of all the material I found on Fred, it was perhaps what I read in The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin that startled me the most.  Rubin writes, “From 1921 to 1937, Fred Hale rode his bicycle to work, a distance of five or six miles each way, every day.”  Year round. “Didn’t make any difference if it was raining or snowing or what,” his son explained.  “It snowed a lot in Maine.  He didn’t own a car until he was in his late 40s.”

You can start eating bee pollen and drinking each night, but I think the bike riding is going to make the biggest difference in your life if you’re going to follow the “Hale” plan to long life. Yes, Fred would have seen some amazing things over that span of time - some of the highlights include the sinking of the battleship Maine, the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, Charles Lindberg’s solo trans-Atlantic flight, the beginning and end of half a dozen wars.  You might also find it interesting that he was around for the Battle of Wounded Knee, the first modern Olympic Games, the Boston Red Sox defeating Pittsburgh in the early part of the 20th century and besting those damn Yankees in the early part of the 21st.  Fred was around during events like the San Francisco fire, the sinking of the Titanic and Armistice Day, ending World War I.  He was also around when Prohibition began in the 1920s and ended not so long after that.  That perhaps might have put a kink in his occasional shot of whiskey for a period of time. 

The list would be endless if I included some of the most noteworthy events in his more than 100 years with us, but it would not be right if I didn’t mention that Fred, who rode a horse as a young boy to get around on the family farm, also saw in his lifetime, man walking on the moon.

My own path crossed Fred’s briefly when we were attending the Elm Street Methodist Church.  I didn’t know it at the time, yet shortly after he moved to live with his son, another member of the church related a story to me.  It turns out that Fred used to car pool with some of the other men from the church like Gene Hart, Keith Sherrard and I think it was Dick Banks.  One day, Gene called Fred to confirm a time to pick him up and Fred told him, I’m not riding with you guys anymore, you drive too slow.  Fred was an interesting fellow.  I think the story that has made it around town more than once was the one when a neighbor became quite concerned when checking on him after a blizzard hit the area.  He was 103 years old and was found on top of his porch roof, shoveling off snow.  I hope I can get up on my roof when I’m 103.

History Detectives: you might also be interested to know that Fred Hale bought his home in South Portland in 1922 and like many homes of the time, is of the Craftsman style and quite possibly could be a Sears home.  If you have any information regarding Sears homes in our community, please contact me.

July 25, 2014

A Window on the Past 

Sears Homes

By Craig Skelton

Sometimes the next story idea can literally be just around the corner.  After polishing off a 22 pound turkey last Thanksgiving, a handful of 19 that enjoyed dinner at our home set out to walk off some stuffing. As we turned a corner an adorable bungalow on Osborne Ave came into view and my sister Jean, who offers an elective on housing design in her Consumer Science class at Brunswick High School, stated, “That is a Sears home.” 

The obvious question out of my mouth was, “How do you know that?”  Other than the distinctive “Craftsman” style, she indicated the decorative cinder block foundation is often a clue.  She continued to explain that along with all the other construction material you would need to build a house, Sears catalogs also offered cinder blocks and cement.  And it wasn’t just the flat-faced block, because a common distinction for a Sears home was often the decorative textured block look.

As we rounded another corner she said, “I’ll bet there is a small garage on the other side of that house.”  It was a style I called a four square colonial, on the corner of Baltimore Ave.  I’ve seen hundreds of homes like it throughout the city and would never have associated it with Sears until my sister mentioned it.  I don’t know how she knew this but she told us it was common for a catalog home buyer to order a garage to go along with the house too.  Before we got to the other side to see for ourselves, I already knew the garage was gone and told her it had fallen over a few years back.  Like the style of the home, I had seen hundreds of garages like it over the years with the city and could still imagine the garage that once stood in place where a slab of concrete now occupied.

Based on what my sister was telling us, it looked like every home we walked by in the 1920s neighborhood off Anthoine Street was a Sears home.  That just didn’t turn out to be the case.  The more I started digging, the more I realized this wasn’t going to be a simple article where I’d pass along some interesting facts about a company with a name well known for department stores and a catalog.



Readers from a generation ahead of me probably already know that mail order homes were also associated with names like Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, Lewis Manufacturing, Sterling Homes, Pacific Ready Cut Homes and Montgomery Ward. 

Of all the names mentioned, Sears may in fact be the most recognized and I found no shortage of information.  The Sears Holdings website tells the story that their designers generally copied popular styles of the time and if I tore off the cover page from a couple different company catalogs, you and I both would be hard pressed to know which company it was from.  I asked a few home owners if they knew whether they had an actual Sears home and Steve Connolly who I thought owned a likely candidate said no, his home on Anthoine was not one yet he did point me to Christopher and Janice St. John on Grove Ave.  To my delight, Chris told me that they found a Sears label on the sill of a door frame while renovating and adding on to their home.  Chris believes that it was the first owner of the house, Michael Reilly, who built it circa 1920.

Aside from the evidence found on the bottom of the door sill, Chris reports that if you poke your head up into the attic, the branding of numbers is visible on his rafters.  The lumber delivered to the local rail yard from Sears was pre-cut and to make things easier for you to assemble the home, part numbers were branded onto the wood.  A review of the many plans Sears offered brought us to the Fullerton which careful comparison will reveal is not an exact match to their home as seen today.  The Sears Holdings website did offer that it was not unusual for a home builder to stray from the plans, as it appears is the case with the St. John's home.