Down East 2013 ©
Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Portland natives and residents both past and present, should welcome the long-awaited arrival of Deering: A Social and Architectural History (Greater Portland Landmarks, Portland, Maine; hardcover; 216 pages; $45) by William David Barry and Patricia McGraw Anderson.
A companion to Greater Portland Landmarks’ 1972 architectural history, Portland, this richly illustrated history for the first time tells the stories of the suburban neighborhoods that fan out from the Portland peninsula to the banks of the Presumpscot River. Here, finally, are the histories of East Deering, Lunt’s Corner, Martin’s Point, Allen’s Corner, Northgate, Riverton, Morrill’s Corner, The Highlands, Deering Center, Woodford’s Corner, Nason’s Corner, Oakdale, Rosemont, Stroudwater — familiar places where generations of Portlanders (once known as Deeringonians) grew up, worked, played, and lived in relative ignorance of the their own local history.
In a very real sense, historian William David Barry is a survivor of these Portland suburbs. He refers to Deering: A Social and Architectural History as “my land war in Asia,” a protracted and frustrating eleven-year, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, street-by-street, house-by-house slog of researching, writing, and editing during which both his co-author, Patricia McGraw Anderson, and the book’s first editor, Margaret W. Soule, died of cancer and his own wife became seriously ill.
Patricia Anderson had written the architectural text for Portland and subsequently an architectural history of Bowdoin College. In 1999, Greater Portland Landmarks commissioned her to do the same for Deering and commissioned Bill Barry, co-author of five books on Maine history and a contributor to many more, to write the social history of the area. Deering turned out to be a far more substantial book than Portland, but neither author had any idea what they were in for when they set off for the suburbs in 2000.
“I wrote a state history [forthcoming] in a year and half,” says Barry. “A United States history would have been easier to write. Nobody knew anything about Deering.”
Deering was Portland’s “back forty,” the hinterlands, terra incognita. All of the research Barry and Anderson did had to be original, digging out the stubborn facts and piecing together the puzzle of how today’s Portland suburbs evolved from forest, fields, and farmland.
From statehood in 1820 until 1871, Deering was actually part of the City of Westbrook. From 1871 until 1899, when the Maine Legislature allowed the City of Portland to annex it, it was a town unto itself. Sorting out how colonial mast roads turned into stagecoach routes and roadways and how canals, railroads, highways, and industrial and residential developments transformed the landscape was a labor of tough love.
For the most part, Deering consists of alternating chapters of social and architectural history bookended by the personal recollections of two eminent Maine historians who grew up in the area — Maine State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., who evokes the Woodfords-Baxter Boulevard neighborhood of his youth, and University of Southern Maine history professor Joel W. Eastman, who recalls the post-war years in Sagamore Village.
In Deering, Barry and Anderson have performed the great and good public service of unearthing not just local history but the raw material of personal history as well. Anyone who has ever lived in or visited Portland will find parts of his or her past illuminated and amplified.
In my own case, my grandparents lived on Ludlow Street behind Deering High School, but I had no idea that the playing fields behind the school had once been a horseracing track called Presumpscot Park. I visited my grandfather’s insurance office on Forest Avenue many times, but who knew that main artery was once paved with crushed seashells and called Shell Road?
All things Deering take their name from James Deering (1766-1850), the first Portland businessman to settle off the peninsula and, thus, Portland’s first suburbanite. The Deering Estate was Portland Junior College when my father attended it, the University of Maine in Portland (UMP) when I attended, and has long since been swallowed up by the University of Southern Maine campus. All that is left of it is the little farmhouse at the corner of Falmouth Street, though we did try to save the Deering stables, which had become the college gym, when I was a student there.
And there on page 135 is a photograph of Valle’s Restaurant at Woodford’s Corner in 1945. My father, having just returned from the war, was sitting in Valle’s having a drink with a couple of buddies the first time he saw my mother. She was walking by with a friend, just as the two young women in the picture are doing. Could it possibly be?
In the end, Barry credits editor Susan L. Ransom, who stepped in when Maggie Soule became ill, with pulling together all the material and cutting the original manuscript down to a publishable size. Copies of the original Deering manuscript, with all its excised Indian lore and extraneous details, such as long-forgotten turkey drives, will be available to view at both Greater Portland Landmarks and Maine Historical Society, where, as a research librarian, Barry continues to labor faithfully in the vineyard of local history.