Courtesy of Guy Gannett Publisher, 1947
The historic Biddeford meetinghouse’s pews were filled to near capacity last night as we all took a trip back in time to the Fires of 1947 and discovered the profound effect the fires had on people’s lives.
Jo Radner, a professional storyteller, brought us back to Brownfield, Maine and the events leading up to the Fires of 1947. The stories were of real people who were struggling to save their things and each other in the face of a fire that took down 80% of the town in its wake. People scrambled to save furniture and shift it to “safe places” to avoid the flames. In one of the last shifts of furniture, they had to leave a beloved piano behind. It is ironic that the piano was the only furniture to survive. All of the other furniture burned.
Jo pointed out that Brownfield was not an affluent town like Bar Harbor. Many people lost all of their possessions and had to buy “tin houses.” In fact, the school that was rebuilt after the fire was a combination of four tin houses. Tin houses were comprised of corrugated metal pieced together and built on top of plywood floors. When mothers washed the floors of their tin homes, a thin sheet of ice would appear. They had to put blankets on the walls to ward off February’s frosty winds.
There was a “make-due” spirit with the Brownfield survivors. They felt fortunate to have tin houses and to be alive. They were not victims of the fires, but proud survivors.
After a brief intermission, we were privileged to hear first accounts from people who remembered the fire.
These stories were our windows into this event. They brought us the emotions, the sounds, the smells and the color of the fire so we felt that we were there.
A 94 year-old man told us how he fought the fires in Biddeford and how devastating they were.
A man who was six years old at the time relived the event for us. He said he was in class at St. Joseph’s School and the teachers told the class they needed to go home now. It was an emergency. He said he ran as fast as he could to Five Points in Biddeford. He lived in a duplex that is now the parking lot for TJ’s Pizza. He described how scared he was and how they watched the fire from a distance. With four gas stations at Five Points, he told us that if the fire reached Five Points, we would no longer have a Biddeford. He said that all that he could smell was smoke.
A woman whose family lived on Oak Ridge Road told how us how the fires touched her life. She was born much later than 1947, but her parents and brothers remembered the fire. Her family owned the Tanner Inn in Fortune’s Rock. Once the fire swooped into Fortune’s Rock, all that was left was the Tanner Inn sign.
A woman who was 11-years old at the time of the fire said how annoying it was that her mother would wake her and her siblings up during their sleep. She later learned that this was because her mother was afraid of her children suffering from smoke inhalation.
Another person said her parents were dating at the time of the fire. This was well before she was born. Her father went off to fight the fire and was missing for three days. Her mother thought that he was dead. He was saved by the wet hose around his neck and woke up to see the trees and earth burned around him.
These are only a few fragments of the stories. At our next Fireside Chat on Friday, November 10th at 7 pm, we will show a short video on the first accounts of the fires.
The Fires of 1947 are a story of devastation, but they are clearly a story of triumph. It’s the power of the human spirit, of community and of bravery and courage. The volunteer fire fighters risked their lives to save Biddeford today. Brownfield nearly had their whole town consumed in flames, but they survived. Biddeford mothers did everything they could to save their families.
A big thanks to our co-host of this event – The McArthur Library. And thank to you Jo Radner and all of our attendees who shared how these fires affected their lives.
If you have stories of the fire that you would like to tell, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
A big thanks to Zuke Roofing for their help in restoring the roof of our beautiful meetinghouse. With their generous rates, we were able to put on a new roof and avert serious damage to this magnificent 258-year old structure. Our 1759 meetinghouse is the earliest meetinghouse in Maine and the oldest public building in Biddeford and Saco.
She has been with us before we were a country—when we were just a little town in the wilderness.
She stood proud when all of our forefathers and foremothers gathered to read the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776.
The Biddeford Greats —Jeremiah Hill, Samuel Pierson, George Thatcher, and Benjamin Hooper—sat in her pews.
She was there when the British attacked us during the War of 1812.
Civil war soldiers gathered on her doorstep before they went off to fight and their photos are hanging from her walls.
She witnessed the American Revolution, War of 1812, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and many other conflicts.
But, she is in desperate need of help. She has been sitting on granite rubble for 177 years and is in urgent need of a new foundation. We only have five more years left and she will start to crumble.
She has been there for us—isn’t it time we are there for her?
Biddeford was a tiny town back in the 1700s and on the edge of the wilderness. How did our forefathers and foremothers settle disputes? Were disputes adjudicated in courts or were our early taverns the site of adjudications? Who were the judges? Where were these legal happenings held? What did the judges wear? How were the judges elected? Were women allowed in the court proceedings?
On Friday, October 13th at 7pm, the Biddeford Historical Society will give you a peek into the legal past of our beautiful city during our third Fireside Chat. It is fitting that this discussion is held at the historic Biddeford Meetinghouse—the earliest meetinghouse in Maine and the very place that one of our Biddeford greats, Jeremiah Hill, was tried for heresy. Although not a legal trial, it would be a religious trial that shook the foundations of religiosity in Biddeford.
Judge Michael Cantara will lead us three hundred years back in time to explore how the early court system worked, not only in Biddeford, but also in York County. He will give us invaluable insight on the court structure and the venue. He will provide a window into court cases that were significant and their implications for even today’s litigation.
A few people can make a difference. On September 8 at 7 pm at the Biddeford Meetinghouse, we will find out more about those generous and forward-thinking individuals who gave many acres of land to the City of Biddeford, which is known as Clifford Park. Who were they? Where did they live? Why did they decide to donate this amazing parcel of land replete with brooks, pristine forests and the remnants of an amazing quarry?
To many of us, we think of Clifford Park as the little playground and tennis court on Pool Road, but this is only a fragment of the natural beauty that constitutes this beautiful park. Clifford Park consists of:
A Quarry. Clifford Park contains the old quarry roads that mined granite that built the Lincoln Memorial and the Brooklyn Bridge. Regal schooners moored on the Saco River alongside Decary Road and waited for the massive stones that they would sail across the country.
A Site for Music and Bands. Our Biddeford predecessors came here for music and picnics from the late 1800s up until the 1950s. The granite stairs leading up to the bandstand are still there, overlooking the Black Trail.
An Early Cemetery. Reverend Jordan and his family are buried here. Let us tell you about Reverend Jordan and the mark he made on Biddeford and help us uncover the notable people buried there.
Brooks. Brooks teaming with brook trout, right here in Clifford Park. These brooks are surrounded by 150-year old trees.
Picnic sites. Back in the 1800s, Clifford Park was the site of picnics. Come and see the photos of families dining there.
Join us as we celebrate the people who thought of future generations such as ours when they gave this valuable land to Biddeford. Without their generosity, we would not have this treasure that all of us can enjoy. Let us celebrate their lives and their gift – the magnificent Clifford Park – that we are all so lucky to enjoy.
Friday, September 8 @ 7 pm at Biddeford’s Historic Meetinghouse
Refreshments and desserts provided.
Admission is free. Donations are appreciated.
History lovers came out tonight for our first Fireside Chat.
Dana Peck, a Biddeford native and entrepreneur, led us on an amazing journey back in time. It was the 1920s. The Depression had set in and there was a need for work and industry. Our local men who lived on Guinea Road and the Old Pool Road (now the Meetinghouse) were skilled carpenters, but work was hard to find. Through ingenuity and collaboration, a boat yard was born. This boat yard was located at the end of Marblehead Lane and was called the Marblehead Boat Yard.
Dana brought us back to the Guinea Road area in the 1920s through the 1940s. It was a true community. He read off the names from the 1930 census – Johnson, Staples and Piper. He mentioned that the only immigrants in the area were his grandparents who hailed from Germany. He enchanted us with stories of local characters. He talked about one man who was in his 80s that would dock his rowboat at what is now the Marblehead Boat Launch and row along the river every morning.
He helped us to discover the early beginnings of Rumery’s Boatyard and to our delight, we had its present owner in our audience.
Dana made it abundantly clear that the true power of history is in its stories. The dates and the names of the people are just the framework. What galvanizes our interest is what people did with their time here – how they struggled, how they triumphed and where it led them.
Paul McDonough, historian and Biddeford Historical Society board member, calibrated our discussion with the backdrop of history. He said we all have to remember that we have inhabited these shores for only 400 years. We must think of the First Americans who were here for 1500 years. Earlier explore Champlain described them as beautiful. The men were tall and muscular and had a salmon or sturgeon tattoo emblazoned across their chests.
Our next Fireside Chat is on September 8th at 7 pm when we explore the magnificent treasure that is Clifford Park. Together, we will uncover the amazing woman who decided to give 140 acres of land to the City. Her only request was that they have a gate with the family name of Clifford on it.
Yesterday, we brought a piece of Biddeford History back to life. The Biddeford Historical Society and guests explored the period leading up to President James Monroe’s visit to Biddeford in July of 1817. The War of 1812 was a war that many of our citizens did not want. Emperor Napoleon was wreaking havoc in Europe. The British fleets were impressing our men. For the first time in over 200 years, we heard again the words of our Biddeford citizens who vehemently opposed the War of 1812.
Paul McDonough, BHS board member, gave a captivating presentation of the period, showing us the different architecture and the prominent citizens of Biddeford. He talked of the rivalry between Daniel Cleaves and Thomas Cutts. Thomas Cutts had his grandiose mansion, but Daniel Cleaves in his palatial home on Water Street laid the claim to having the most chairs in York County. Daniel Cleaves was the first in the area to house his horses and animals in an area under his house. With all the heat from the animals, his house was the warmest in the area.
Paul showed us the homes of the period from the 1790 commoner’s house on Guinea Road to the palatial Seth Springs’ house that now is the home of Biddeford Lumber. He showed us the site in Biddeford Pool where the British invaded and the actual place where Thomas Cutts’ schooner is buried after being gutted by British troops. War was right here in Biddeford – in our midst and damaged beyond all repair the marine store of Thomas Cutts.
Dan LeBlond, BHS board member, gave us a fascinating view into James Monroe. He was described as handsome with froths of black hair and sharp blue eyes. Over six feet tall, he was imposing for the time. He gave us insight into the Monroe Doctrine and the War.
Denis Letelier, BHS board member, introduced George Thatcher. A graduate of Harvard, he was a prominent lawyer and he was the person that Monroe was had breakfast with. George Thatcher was a Maine Supreme Court Judge and pivotal in the founding of Bowdoin College. Denis showed us an early daguerrotype photo of George Thatcher. Denis talked about the invasion of the White House and how Dolly Madison saved important documents including a painting of George Washington. She had set the table for a big dinner and before the British troops destroyed the white house, they ate the fine dinner that was meant for the Madison guests.
Charles Butler, BHS board member, unearthed early Biddeford documents and published accounts of Monroe’s visit. Monroe’s visits were timed to correspond to breakfast, lunch and dinner (6AM, noon and 6PM). He described the people waiting around in their finest outfits since it was a momentous occasion to have a President visit. For Biddeford, it was the first time ever that a President visited our town. Charles described the arches that were constructed for the President’s entrance into the town. In Saco, they were fashioned out of Balsam fir. In Portland, they were garlands of flowers. To our delight, Charles recounted how Portland had live eagles on their arches and when President Monroe passed under these, the eagle auspiciously spread its wings. For the second time in history, we heard the words that were read to President Monroe.
Monroe was here to unite our country. To banish all the divisiveness and go back to what our citizens wanted prior to the War of 1812 – peace. Monroe, a handsome and imposing figure, bedecked in his Revolutionary War uniform was a reminder of what we fought for during the war. On Saturday, we had the opportunity to remember this and bring the words of our Biddeford ancestors back to life.
Biddeford history is your history. Each one of us has the opportunity to bring our history back to life. We can all be historians and discover and breathe life into these documents and places.
We hope you can join us at our next event – Clipper Ships on the Saco: The History of Biddeford Boat Building on August 11th at 7 pm at the historic Biddeford Meetinghouse.
Below is the petition that Louise Merriman, BHS board member, read:
July 27, 1812
To James Madison, President of the United States of America – The Freeholder & Other Inhabitants of the Town of Biddeford in the District of Maine in legal town meeting assembled having seen your Manifesto, The Act of Congress, declaring war against the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland, and your proclamation of the same, feel in duty bound respectfully to state some of our ideas respecting this subject; some of us bore a heavy burden in the Revolution, which achieved our independence but our heads are now heavy and our limbs enervated by time; our young men have heard what their fathers have told them concerning these days of old, this former years of visitation; the most of us look back with pleasure on the prosperous years that succeeded the adoption of our federal constitution and ask why our gold (has) become dim, why are those happy, thrice happy times, changed, we see no sufficient reason for it, the great belligerents of Europe ever cordially hated each other, their trade and their delight is in war and when get engaged therein, the smaller states and kingdom are obliged to give way in small matters; The Emperor of France at this time making monstrous strides over the Continent of Europe, we view with horror.
If (illegible) the fate of Holland, reduced to a Province of France as well as other republics on the Continent of Europe, nay several of the kingdoms of Europe are obliged to bow to the mighty Emperor we see him shedding blood of millions to give supremacy over Spain and Portugal we view Great Britain as fighting at this time for her very existence of this mighty Emperor subjugates Europe. We shudder, we tremble at the thought, when will his pride be satisfied with Europe, will he not spend conquests around the Atlantic, we tremble when we contemplate these thing, we abhor an alliance with a nation whose ambition knows no bounds, we remember what our Father Washington said, “Why by enterweaving our Destiny with that of any part of Europe. Entangled our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, we frequently hear how this Monarch daily treats us by burning, sinking and destroying our commerce on the ocean without any legal process, but by caprice of an individual Master of armed vessel belonging to an aspiring usurper for universal dominion we also see many things arbitrary in the Conduct of the Government of Great Britain we see the Commanders of British armed vessels – vessels domineering over our unarmed merchant men pressing and forcibly carrying away our seaman…….
Earnestly supplicate our President to take Constitutional measures to bring about this most desirable object and restore the United States to peace if it can be done on honorable terms. And then break the fetters on commerce, which will restore our revenue to its wanted channel and fill again our Exhausted Treasury, then set up a strict impartiality with all nations and we shall again set us in the Days of Washington, under our own vine and our own fighters and have none to make us afraid, and the town of inhabitants will ever pray.
Voted a copy of said petition be sent to the President of the United States, signed and moderated by the Selectmen and attested by the Town Clerk.
The year was 1817. Biddeford had weathered a fierce battle against the British resulting in the complete destruction of Thomas Cutts’ marine store in Biddeford Pool. One of his sloops, the Equator, was damaged beyond repair, and the other, the Equinox, was taken for ransom.
The War of 1812 was a war that very few in Biddeford wanted. Many of our citizens were so fired up that they drafted a petition voicing their disapproval and sent this petition to Congress. Many citizens felt that their Massachusetts government didn’t care that the British were wreaking havoc on our town and our industry.
It was during this period of unrest and discontent that the fifth President of United States decided to pay one of our Biddeford Greats, George Thatcher, a visit.
President Monroe’s goal was simple: He wanted to bring the country together. He wanted to temper the bitter political divisions between the Federalists and Republicans, between the North and South and other rifts that threatened to tear our country apart.
He was intent on cultivating, as one Boston journalist put it, “an Era of Good Feelings.” To usher in these good feelings, President Monroe embarked on goodwill tours from 1817 and 1819 and Biddeford, Maine was one of the first stops on his tours.
It is unfathomable for us in 2017 to imagine the excitement and fanfare of a President visiting Biddeford in 1817. Biddeford was a small place in 1817. There were no mills, no Main Street as we know it and it still had the feel of an agrarian society.
President Monroe presented himself as the consummate statesman on these goodwill tours. He wore his Revolutionary War uniform and tied back his powdered hair in 18th century fashion. He was dashing and evoked valor and bravery.
Many of our townspeople could still remember the American Revolutionary War and no doubt, witnessed one of their own – Jeremiah Hill and his men – marching down Guinea Road to the war front. Many more were present at the Biddeford Meetinghouse when the Declaration of Independence was read in front of the crowd that gathered.
President Monroe, in his Revolutionary war garb, symbolized where we had come as a nation. He never came across as a leader of a triumphant party, but instead as the head of our country. To those who met him on these tours, they said he radiated kindness and peace.
And President Monroe was here in Biddeford, Maine. He was here to have lunch with one of Biddeford’s prominent citizen’s, George Thatcher. George Thatcher was a practicing lawyer, a graduate of Harvard College and a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress. He was instrumental in helping to sponsor the creation of Bowdoin College because he believed that Maine needed its own institution of higher learning.
Join us as we celebrate this Presidential visit to Biddeford on July 15, 2017 at 11 AM. We will set the stage for this visit, read excerpts from George Thatcher’s letters and give you an inkling of what life was like in Biddeford in 1817.
Let us honor the man who blazed a path for us in bringing Biddeford history to life — Raymond Gaudette. Last night, people from many different organizations and his family and friends gathered in Clifford Park to remember and treasure the great gifts that Raymond Gaudette brought to our community.
Raymond saw what many people in his time could only dimly see—the power and majesty of 400 years of magnificent history. He was passionate about unearthing, saving, and preserving it. For over 50 years, he was the catalyst to get the community interested and intrigued about the lives and events of time past. To him, it wasn’t just an old building, but a place infused with drama, with emotion and real people just like us. He was zealous about saving the meetinghouse and getting it recognized as a national treasure. He was passionate about projects that could shed light on an event or a person.
He was the volunteer that everyone in the community could only aspire to. He set up hours one day a week at the McArthur Library so he could be available to visitors who wanted to learn about Biddeford history, and kept up this volunteerism within months before he died. It wasn’t enough to know and write about history for Raymond. He wanted to see it in action. He wanted to see their faces light up and watch their interest deepen as he gave them more information. He created in each and every person he met the thought that they could discover history as he did. They could uncover amazing stories if they only had the faith to dig.
Without history, we see the world in black and white. Our relationship to places and things is distant and detached. With history, we have the compass of context. We can close our eyes and envision these wildly imaginative innovators before us—Pepperell with his schooners emblazoned with dragon logos designed to sway the Chinese merchants; Vines with his heart pounding as he set foot on these magnificent shores and Thomas Cutts who saw the promise of Indian Island. We can see the bones of the past in our buildings, our streets and our mills if we have history as our compass.
Raymond colorized Biddeford for us with his books, his talks and his enthusiastic presence. He was our historical compass. He was and is powerful proof on what a difference one person can make for the community. Most of our meticulously catalogued and preserved history we enjoy today are the work of a handful of people, one of which was Raymond Gaudette. There are so many different documents, personal accounts and stories we would not have if it wasn’t for the tireless contribution of this amazing man.
As you read this know that you have the opportunity to pick up the torch that Raymond left behind— you can help bring Biddeford history to life. Biddeford history is our history. It does not belong to one person or one organization. It belongs to each one of us. We invite you to join us in discovering this magnificent 400-year history that Raymond was so passionate to preserve.
As a historical society, we want to bring Biddeford history to life. We want it to illuminate the streets you walk on, the parks you visit and the buildings you see. When you travel down Bridge Street towards Biddeford Pool, we want you to see the house that once was a 1700s Indian trading post (it’s still standing) and know the spot where Richard Vines landed in 1616. We want you to imagine the harsh winters and the compassion that the Native Americans extended to the European settlers. We want you to feel the passion of Jeremiah Hill and his men who marched down Guinea Road to Boston to fight British rule and know that our community gathered at the Biddeford Meetinghouse in July of 1776 to be a part of the reading of the Declaration of Independence. When you visit our meetinghouse, we want you to envision the familial passion that roared between Jeremiah Hill and his uncle when his uncle tried him for heresy in 1793.
We want you to appreciate the engineering feat that the Laconia and Pepperell mills represent and honor the hundreds of thousands of people who spent 30, 40 and sometimes even 50 years of their lives working in these mills and producing textiles.
And we want you to know about how these mills galvanized people like Israel Shevenell to want for something better. Back in 1845, when he was just 19, he left Canada on foot to find work as a bricklayer here. Travelling hundreds of miles back and forth, he brought his family to our town and catalyzed a migration of French Canadians whose descendants are with us today.
We want you to appreciate the amazing architecture in Biddeford. We want you know the Haley house on Bridge St, a beautiful saltbox constructed in 1718-1719. According to folklore, it served as a garrison during Indian attack. Biddeford women threw pumpkins down the stairs and spoke in deep voices to appear as an army of men. Hearing the voices, the Indians ran away. We want you to know where Samuel Pierson’s house was on Pierson’s Lane and know that our Biddeford greats – Jeremiah Hill and Benjamin Hooper – lived here, in the very house that is now a razed plot of land. We want you to see these buildings juxtaposed against history and perceive their historic value so historic buildings like this are not destroyed before their time.
Biddeford history belongs to all of us. We invite each one of you to become a member and join us on this amazing journey of bringing Biddeford history back to life.
Biddeford’s most valuable treasure is crumbling. The historic Biddeford Meetinghouse is falling apart. Back in 1840, the top floor of this 1759 structure was raised and the building was put on a bed of granite rubble. This granite rubble has served as a foundation for 177 years, but has only a few years left. The building was given a new roof back in the 1970s, but this roof is a dire need of repair.
Our beautiful meetinghouse is a regal reminder to when our country was going through the transition from a colony to independence. Back in 1776, the entire town proudly gathered to hear the reading of the Declaration of Independence. During the emotional upheaval of the Civil War, it was here at soldiers congregated and it was here in 1867 that some of these same soldiers came to have their photos taken.
Our Biddeford ancestors sat in these pews, listened to announcements of births and deaths, arbitrated legal and religious issues. They celebrated the seasons here and bent their heads in prayer. Our Biddeford great, Jeremiah Hill, came to this very meetinghouse to stand up for his right of free speech and thought when he was tried for heresy.
Please help us to bring this beautiful structure – so central to our history – back to life. Save the historic meetinghouse before it is too late.
In the next 6 months, we will be having events to support our capital campaign to #SavetheBiddefordMeetinghouse. Support this worthy cause.