Westbrook's pocket of time
This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of the Strange Maine Gazette. I was reluctant to post it on the blog, being a little worried that more adventurous/less responsible folks might take it upon themselves to liberate the time capsule. Recent email from the City of Westbrook has relieved me of that worry -- the city has the capsule in safe-keeping, and I'll be working with them on a follow-up article about what they found in the capsule (I can't wait to find out, myself!). They are indeed going to incorporate the time capsule into their bicentennial celebration this summer. Hooray!!!
Westbrook’s Pocket of Time
How may of us remember putting together a time capsule as a kid? Whether contributing to one as part of a class project or sealing up one no one else would ever know about, setting aside a piece of the present for a future self or someone else seems to be a habit of humans.
It seems that Mainers are no different. When I was skimming through the book Highlights of Westbrook History, compiled by Ernest R. Rowe, as part of an ongoing research project, I came across mention of a 100-year-old time capsule that is due to be opened very soon, on June 9, 2014, in honor of the city’s 200th anniversary. It seems unlikely that this memento from Victorian Westbrookians of a century past is remembered in the halls of their city government today. If it has indeed been forgotten, hopefully this article will serve as a timely reminder. Back in 1914, it took the people of the city only 4 months to plan and assemble their gala centennial celebration. Can the Westbrook of today do as well, given over 2 years’ advance notice? One can only hope!
On the chilly winter day of December 18, 1914, the centennial celebration of Westbrook’s continued existence was brought to a close when a sizable boulder, hauled from nearby Rocky
Hill during the earlier summertime festivities, was ceremoniously and firmly cemented onto a permanent base in Riverbank Park.
The base of the monument contained a small opening into which, before being sealed, was entrusted “a sealed box of heavy metal containing records of the Centennial Celebration, newspapers, photographs of the parade and a packet enclosed in lead foil.” What was in the packet? We will find out in 2014!
Also included in the box was a letter from William B. Bragdon, President of the Westbrook Board of Trade, in which he with great seriousness addresses Westbrook-to-be:
Westbrook, December 18, 1914Upon reading this tidbit in Highlights of Westbrook History, my first thought was to wonder whether or not the great stone still sat along the banks of the Presumpscot River. I and my friend Salli made a springtime fieldtrip to Riverbank Park in Westbrook, and without much difficulty we found the old boulder, still sporting its ceremonial metal plate after all these years, surrounded by early spring flowers and waiting patiently for its imminent upheaval.
To whom it may concern or the community that may represent what was the City of Westbrook on the above date, which we trust may be considered in 2014 under the same name, City of Westbrook.
We give to you a greeting, and trust that the documents found within the sealed box, facts and figures may be of interest to all concerned. The document, herewith, came to hand late and therefore was not included with the contents of the box, as you will find.
The box and contents were sealed in the monument this day, December 18, 1914, (Friday).
Will Westbrook refresh the time capsule within, updating its contents to reflect the pride and hopes of what has proved to be a fastmoving century of progress? Will the city fill the summer of 2014 with celebratory events as they did a century ago?
It was in February 1914 that the Anniversary Executive Committee was formed, and from it were pollinated an astounding 21 other committees, and from those sprang 7 sub-committees. Let it not be said that the citizens of Victorian Westbrook did not possess
The celebrations occurred across three days, June 7th through 9th, and included concerts, parades, speeches, baseball games, artillery drills, bayonet races (sounds hazardous!), an athletic meet, and finally, fireworks. I dug around in the microfilm reels at the Portland Room in the Portland Public Library, and found some highlights as reported in the Eastern Argus.
Baseball and canoes seem to have been popular focal points for the celebrations, with multiple games of the former being played at various levels of skill. For instance, “one of the big athletic events of the season was the ball game between the Calendar hands and the Truckmen of the coated calendar department of the paper mills on the Scotch Hill grounds Saturday afternoon.”
However, not all the athletic contests went smoothly – the much-vaunted June 8th afternoon revival of rivalry between the Old Presumpscot and the Old Yarmouth baseball teams, made up of players locally famous some 25 to 30 years previously, did not exactly bring the old-time “pep” to the playing field for the expected crowd of “hundreds of people who will go to any expense and trouble to see these oldtime stars in action again.”
The Eastern Argus reporter sadly announced the following day, “It is our painful duty to relate that the major portion of the Yarmouth team failed to arrive for the game, but after much waiting a team was made up of several old players and added to the Yarmouth line-up, and a five inning game was played.” The Presumpscots trounced the truant visiting team, 13 to 3, and the crowd appeared happy to entertain themselves razzing the old timers, who were -- to put it politely -- “not as active as in the years gone by.”
The June 8th issue of the Eastern Argus trumpeted the grand canoe pageant slated to occur that evening, “in which hundreds of decorated and illuminated canoes will take part. All canoe owners of Westbrook, Portland and vicinity are eligible to enter the races and the pageant.” Apparently the canoe owners weren’t as enthusiastic as the promoters, because the parade turned out to attract “more than a score” of canoes, a rather smaller total than what they had projected.
However, the canoes were rated as having been “handsomely decorated” and “brilliantly illuminated,” and had no shortage of admirers as they were paddled from the foot of River Street to the Cumberland Street bridge and back, “one of the most beautiful spectacles ever seen here,” and “a feature never before equaled on the Presumpscot.” The canoes weren’t the only evening attraction – the Westbrook City Band was towed ahead of the procession on a large float, lending musical festivities to the evening air.
Reinforcement police were called in from Portland, so even when 4,500 schoolchildren had to be organized into a parade on the 8th, events “were run off without mishap and in perfect order,” whether involving “fancy dancing” or an evening promenade of thousands of citizens en masse under the illuminated decorations and multi-color lights crisscrossing Main Street for almost its full length.
A number of parades and processions were liberally sprinkled through the event lists, and it is interesting to note that “hundreds of members of secret societies” partook in representing themselves, which brings to light that most interesting of phenomena, the very-public-but-secret societies of the Victorian era, a curiosity that was tremendously popular at that time, which still has a few survivors today.
Floats in the various parades were elaborate, some featuring miniature forests, trade products, or other decorative elements. Presumpscot Electrical Company’s large horsedrawn float was not only covered in red and white chrysanthemums, but also topped off with “all kinds of electrical implements.” Charles A. Vallee’s float, promoting his Rexall store, was rated as “one of the daintiest of the many” by the Eastern Argus’ reporter. The Ammoncongin Club’s float, decorated (of course) in club colors of purple and yellow, featured a canoe in which one Mrs. Leighton sat, reading a book as two “Indian maidens” faux-paddled her down the street.
S.D. Warren Company’s paper mills represented themselves somewhat dryly with a float showing off “boxes containing paper and surrounded with placards conveying the information that the mills furnish the paper for the standard periodicals,” while Benoit’s clothing company was more picturesquely present in the form of Sir Galahad riding upon a white horse, hearkening to their currently advertised line of stylish Galahad suits for men. Paul Lebarge’s float was topped with a giant imitation loaf of “Paul’s Bread” – I wonder if that’s sitting out in the back of someone’s barn still!
Other standout entries included that of Pike, the photographer, who went all out with a clown bearing a placard on which was printed: “Pike takes all kinds of faces. He took mine.” No doubt a few of the more literal-minded children spent the rest of their childhoods hoping that their parents didn’t take them to Pike’s, living in fear that after the photo they would be left with the face of a clown after Pike “took” their faces too.
An event that likely has few equivalents today is the series of hose-coupling contests which occupied the various local firefighting teams in competition on the 9th, which must have been quite dramatic for the watching crowd, occasioning as it did the only reported casualty of the festival, when Hoseman Sullivan of Hose 1 was “slightly injured” (according to one report) or “suffered a badly strained leg” (according to another report) and hurriedly taken to the Barrett Hospital for treatment.
The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.)* seized the opportunity to exhibit their collection of “rare and valuable historical relics” in their hall at Bridge and Maine streets, taking their place as one of the important features of the celebration, and reported via the Eastern Argus of June 9th that “nearly 1,000 people visited the rooms and much interest was taken in the display of implements of early warfare, minerals, etc.” I’d love to see some photos of that display.
Of especial interest to us is the fact that Riverbank Park, where our time capsule awaits revelation, was created during these festivities, and awarded to the citizens of Westbrook at that time. The dedication took place at 2:00pm on the afternoon of June 9th, and occasioned many speeches about Westbrook past and future.
While the ceremony opened, like many of the centennial events, with a prayer, one wonders about what toasts were exchanged as the party broke up. Did Westbrookians, as their founding fathers had 100 years before at another speechifying meeting opened with prayer, cheer the city’s charter and “pledge its future in a glass of New England rum”?
The creation of the park was not only meant as “a permanent memorial of this centennial,” an embodiment of 100 prosperous years, but also as part of a crusade by the current town fathers to retain a green and pleasant parkway for citizens to enjoy in perpetuity.
Speaking for his peers, the Hon. John E. Warren went on to relate how they aimed to border it with trees and prevent the dumping of waste in and around its perimeters. They worried that if these measures were not taken along the river’s gracious sides, “sooner or later houses will be built along this bank and ordinarily not of the best class. The location will not be sightly and, indeed, be very likely to degenerate in the slum of the city, if slum there be.”
Allow me to interject that this must have been a tremendously long speech if one judges from the extensive coverage of subjects mentioned in its reportage.
They imagined future citizens taking the parkway walks on their way to work or using them to wander away their free time in pleasant company. They imagined that the property holders of the north bank, the S. D. Warren Mill Trust, would use the riverbank in ways that “will not be detrimental to this stretch of the river.” They speculated about the likelihood that the growing neighbor city of Portland would absorb Westbrook and wipe out its identity, but decided that they “hardly think that this will be the case” in the end.
Be all that as it may, it was finally time to commemorate the event, and for the longwinded Hon. John E. Warren, to bring his speech to a close. “We have brought to mark this event from near the crest of Rocky Hill a great boulder of hard granite and have imbedded in one of its faces a tablet of imperishable bronze, “… the stone carrying in itself a record of the fierce ordeal through which it passed.”
Even in the midst of this most formal and definite occasion, the speaker speculated on what was apparently a personal interest, and what can only have been the subject of romantic terrestrial ponderings during his speech writing: “…I take it that our Presumpscot valley has a geological history of peculiar interest which has not yet been written.” Indeed.
Not yet done, Warren continued, prophesying what the Westbrookians of 2014 might do given another 100 years of prosperity (and I abbreviate his speech for him, for without that merciful cut, you, dear reader, would find yourself a-snoring like Rip Van Winkle):
“The people will again gather … and another tablet will be imbedded in one of the sides of the old boulder commemorating the event.” He imagined that the future citizens will be akin to those standing before him, the men and women of 1914, with familiar names still among them, going to the same schoolhouses, the same churches, traveling the same streets. He envisioned a bridge across the river, and new public buildings and additional school facilities built on the other side of the bank.
“There will still be paper mills at the lower dam and textile mills on the upper, for the industries which we maintain do not rest upon any passing condition. … They will not have wholly forgotten us, and life will go on much as today. … The old boulder will still be here and probably on the spot where we are placing it. It has already existed for no one knows how many thousands of years and it will suffer no impairment with the passing of centuries. … Their faces will still be set to the front but looking back on that occasion they will in spirit clasp the hand which we reach out to them today.”
Wouldn’t he be surprised by where and who we are today?
Well, no doubt the crowd needed a good waking up after that, and as the evening closed it brought with its end the much vaunted fireworks display let loose as a finale. The Eastern Argus had published a very serious-sounding warning from the Fireworks Committee in its June 8th issue, talking much of the “simultaneous discharge of fifty immense 54-pound rockets” and the dire consequences if anyone should be hit by these during their flight (just imagine!), and banning any boats or canoes from coming within 500 feet of the exhibit “except at their own risk” – in other words, if you’re that crazy, go for it, you’ve got nothing to lose!
The display was rated one of the biggest displays of fireworks ever seen in Maine, and closed dramatically when “a most remarkable battle between a fort constructed on the north shore of the river and a battleship on a raft in the river was fought” for its finale.
So, in closing – hope to see you all in Riverbank Park at the amazing festivities in Westbrook a few years from now!
*[Editor’s Note: The G.A.R. was founded in 1866 following the Civil War as a veterans’ organization, which for many years helped vets network with each other, in the process becoming very influential in political races of the time. The group was dissolved in 1956
upon the death of its last member, and is succeeded by other organizations that focus on
the veterans’ descendants.]