1920s to 1950s
By A. Elwood Willey
For Scarborough Historical Society and public use with customary credit to the author
Pleasant Hill is a place located in the Eastern part of Scarborough bordering the South Portland line. During the 1940s and 50s, it was indeed a pleasant place for a young farm boy to grow up and ram around the neighborhood by foot or bike making each day a new adventure. In 2011 this more carefree rural farming environment and culture seems like light-years away compared to today’s cheek-by-jowl houses built on disappearing farmland, the busy and noisy roads, and the hectic, fast paced bedroom community way of living.
The geographic and community epicenter of the Hill was located at the intersection of the Pleasant Hill Road and Highland Avenue by the Pleasant Hill Hose Company. There were no flashing lights or 4-way stop signs, and there was much less traffic. The Hill extended South past the Robert (Bob) Nutter farm (221 Pleasant Hill Road) and the Coulthard farm, East on Highland Avenue (often referred to the Bog Road) past the Jasper Willey fields, North up the Pleasant Hill Road and steeply down to Cooks concrete plant, and it was bounded along the North and West by the Chamberlain Road. From a community sense, the Pleasant Hill families and farms extended South to the Fogg Road and up Beech Hill, North along the Pleasant Hill Road to Nonesuch Corner at Route 1, and along the Chamberlain Road and Highland Ave. toward the stretch of woods along the Boston & Maine Railroad separating the Hill and Black Point.
At the top of the Hill, one could see Two Lights Cape Elizabeth during the day and the flashes of the light at night, the city of Portland skyline, and – with less light pollution – the stars which seemed within reach. There was also much less noise pollution due to lighter road traffic – the put-put of John Deere tractors among the fields was easier on the ears. On foggy days one could hear the horn at Two Lights, and daily Boston & Maine steam engines whistled at the Pleasant Hill Road crossing and Bill Winslow’s road (to the West toward Black Point off Highland Ave.). The rattle and bang of freight car switching at the Rigby railroad yard even drifted up over the Hill. The Hill’s higher elevations, on the steep North side, disappeared mainly due to the W. M. Lynch Co and later Cook & Co. gravel pit operations. The more recent Pleasant Hill Road reconstruction has also smoothed the steep hill and sharp turn making for safer motoring up and down the Hill.
The Jasper Willey Farm
My father and mother, A. Jasper “Jap” Willey (1900 – 1990) and Fern (1902 – 1993), moved down from Limestone, Aroostook County; and in 1925 they purchased what was known as the Peterson farm located at 196 Pleasant Hill Road. This tract of land, along with others on the Hill, was first laid out in 1720. The Peterson Farm, the Joseph Larrabee place (208 Pleasant Hill Road), and the Isaac Willey farm (Dad’s Uncle Ike at 212 Pleasant Hill Road) were rectangular tracts running East from the Pleasant Hill Road to the watershed for the Spurwink River. Uncle Ike’s land ran all the way to the river, and today the tree lines which separated the three pieces of land can still be seen.
The Willey house, at 196 Pleasant Hill Road, was built in 1857 for Sumner Libby. The Petersons, John C (1837 – 1920) and Elena (1838 – 1921), were immigrants from Denmark who purchased the property in 1876. Page 75, in Rodney Laughton’s Images of Scarborough, shows Mrs. Elena Peterson (known as “Grammy Peterson”) at the mailbox with the connected house, shed and barn in the background. The photo likely dates from 1903, or there after, since the mailbox indicates that rural mail delivery by horse had arrived. A close look at the photo shows that the lid lifts up making it easier for the mailman riding the route on horseback.
Dad bought the property from Walter and Frank Berry. The 1925 bill of sale noted inclusion of the following items: “one horse rake, one mowing machine, one single rigging, one express wagon, one buggy, one pung, one set single sleds, also all hay, grain and wood and one kitchen table.” The horses were long gone; however, horse drawn equipment was modified for Willey-farm tractors including a manure spreader, mowing machine (Uncle Ike’s), and a spring-tooth harrow. The Jasper Willey farm continued across Highland Avenue from the Pleasant Hill Road and the land was cultivated for crops was on both sides of Highland Ave.
The land east of Highland Ave. was at one time (1873) owned by Walter B. Nutter, then his son, Col. Charles P. Nutter and later his grandson Bob Nutter and wife Sally. The land, which was mostly woods in 1950 had, at one time, been cleared and was used by the Nutters to pasture cattle; during the 50s, the remains of drainage ditches for the pastures were still evident in the woods. Dad purchased this piece of land in 1949. The wood lot yielded lumber for rebuilding the barn and firewood for my Mother’s Atlantic Range cook stove. During the earlier years, the woodman’s tools were doubled bitted axe and crosscut saw. Later a chainsaw eased the work, and logs (second growth pine) were “twitched” out with a Ford tractor rigged with tracks. Dad had a brow at the edge of the woods and moved logs around by hand with a peavey; logs were then trucked to a sawmill in South Portland. Firewood was cut using a power-takeoff saw mounted on a tractor. This writer spent many an hour helping Dad cut logs and firewood. When unloading the 1946 Ford truck at the barn, the last stick of firewood was always “the one we were looking for!”
It was the writer’s daily chore to fill the wood box to feed the ever-demanding cook stove. An early lesson learned was being diligent and keeping the wood box full, which resulted in fewer stern reminders and family harmony. During the cold-weather months, the kitchen was toasty warm and a favorite spot for family reading, school work, being drilled in the multiplication tables or spelling, listening to radio programs, or board games. Saturdays were baking days with Mother producing donuts, puddings, pies, and cakes. The welcome wood smoke and sweet aroma just might capture the interest of someone driving by on a tractor who would drop in for a visit and sample.
Farming and Conservation Practices During the 1950s
After World War II and his service in the South Portland shipyards (East Yard), Dad was able to devote more time to farming and getting more acreage into crop production. One of his major problems was soil erosion down the east side of the Hill; the erosion was so bad that he could not drive his tractor through some parts of the field between the Hill and Highland Ave. He had a long standing interest in conservation practices; and in 1948, he entered into an agreement with the Cumberland County Soil Conservation District (Winfield Prout, Fogg Road, was District Supervisor) for a major survey for improvements to lick the problem. The most significant recommendations were for the construction of a diversion ditch running North to South on the east face of the Hill, strip-cropping with alternating crop production and cover crops, and contour plowing. The diversion ditch was constructed and the practices employed, which together eliminated the soil erosion issue, improved the soil, improved moisture retention, and increased crop production. Dad admitted that it took some time to get used to the curved contour plowing which caused some consternation and a bit of cussing as straight line plowing was easier. More land was cleared on both sides of Highland Ave., and eventually Dad had about 20 acres in crop production.
During the late 40s into the 50s, Southern Maine experienced periodic droughts, and one of Dad’s main crops was sweet corn, which for the varieties of the day, required ample rainfall or irrigation to be really sweet to the taste. So around 1950, an irrigation pond was dug by a bulldozer and dragline on the former Nutter land east of Highland Ave. The pond was fed by a spring which in turn fed the Spurwink River watershed. Some 2,200 feet of 2 and 3 inch aluminum pipe and sprinklers were supplied by a 4-cylinder gasoline driven, hand-cranked Worthington engine powering a Gorman Rupp pump. A culvert was run under Highland Ave and irrigation pipe fished through. This was one of the first irrigation ponds dug on the Hill, and crops on both sides of Highland Ave were watered during dry spells over many summers. Lowell “Lo” McLaughlin, a farmer on the Chamberlain Road, dug one of the earlier ponds as well. During one dry spell as crops withered, the Portland Water District banned crop irrigation due to supply concerns, which spurred other area farmers up and down the Pleasant Hill Road to dig their own ponds.
With irrigation, crop production was enhanced, and yes, the corn was fresher and sweeter. “Jap” Willey’s corn was well known throughout the region, and the Higgins Beach and Prouts Neck summer folks lined up in the dooryard to buy a “baker’s dozen” (13 ears) of Dad’s corn. The corn had to be “picked fresh daily” since the corn varieties of that time did not retain the natural sweetness more than one day. Many crates of corn went to Goodwin’s Red & White store in South Portland, and Carr Brothers on Commercial Street, Portland. Some produce was also shipped to Boston. In 1967, the pond was stocked with brook trout providing some fishing fun and tasty meals over the years. The trout were furnished by the U. S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife from a hatchery in Nashua, NH.
For the strip-cropping practices, Dad grew cover crops of winter rye, buckwheat, and wheat. Each strip was 80 to 100 feet wide; crops and cover crops were alternated to give the land a rest from crop production, and the winter rye and buckwheat cover crops were plowed under to add nutrients to the soil. A drive along Highland Ave. by the fields was pleasing to the eye, particularly with the billows of golden wheat moving in the breeze. Dad was meticulous about mowing the borders to keep the weeds down, which was practical for weed control and tidy as well. In the fall, up to seven acres of wheat were combined by Everett Swanson of Scarborough. The grain was then winnowed, by the writer, using an ancient machine rigged with an electric motor, and bagged for sale so even the “resting” land produced a crop. Further, the stubble was plowed under giving nutrients and humus back to the soil for the following year.
The Pleasant Hill Hose Company
The Pleasant Hill Hose Company (PHHC) was located from the mid-1930s at the intersection of the Pleasant Hill Road and Highland Avenue, which is the present site of the fire station housing the Hose Company, Engine 3 of the Scarborough Fire Department. Beyond the obvious community need to provide fire protection, the PHHC served as a much loved social center for suppers, family celebrations, and dances for the immediate neighborhood and the area surrounding Pleasant Hill as well. This was a time when everyone knew their neighbor, and there was time to participate in community affairs, such as raising funds for the first fire station, called the “Hose House”, or fire fighting equipment by creating from scratch musical or theater entertainment for the town. Great fun was had by adults and children alike while working to organize and equip the first fire company for this part of town.
A 1984 paper by John Harmon reports that the impetus for organizing a fire companies was a wildland fire which swept from Black Point, close to the Fogg Road, and all the way to the Spurwink Road near Higgins Beach. A hose line was laid from water mains at Higgins Beach to help stop the spread of this dangerous fire. There were also barn fires of concern including a barn destroyed at Isaac Willey’s (212 Pleasant Hill Road), and there was another smaller barn fire which spread to the Willey house damaging the attic. The gap in the line of sheds between the house and remaining barn can be seen today. An earlier photo of the Isaac Willey homestead on page 96 of Rodney Laughton’s, Images of Scarborough in the Twentieth Century, shows the small barn which was destroyed later.
Before there was a fire station, the Pleasant Hill Unity Club (PHUC) was formed on March 10, 1927 to raise money for materials to build the station and assemble the early firefighting equipment. From a 1928 show flyer, the purpose of the PHUC was “….fostering and perpetuating a friendly spirit in their community and increasing the social and resident value of their neighborhood. The first common interest chosen was that of raising money for fire hose to be kept in the neighborhood. For the future they have visions of a clubhouse…..” The same flyer advertised a play and dance to be held at the K. P. Hall in Oak Hill; the tickets were 50 cents! The club had 30 members and the roster from the Hill included: Mr. and Mrs. Robert Nutter; M/M Charles P. Nutter; M/M James Littlejohn; M/M Isaac Willey; M/M Jasper Willey; M/M William Robinson; and several others. The fruits of this community effort, without Town expense, gave birth to an active fire company. Residents also funded water mains and hydrants along Pleasant Hill Road for the first public water supply in that part of Town.
Members of the PHUC also organized an old-time string band called the Rube Orchestra or Barnyard Rubes to entertain and help with the fundraising. The band consisted of a singer, four fiddles, and a banjo. Members included Jasper Willey, Col. Charles P. Nutter, Bob Nutter, Louis Chandler, Julia Maney, and Chester Mitchell. The group played at halls around Scarborough and at the Old Orchard Beach Palace. (A photo of the string band is found in Laughton’s Images of Scarborough in the Twentieth Century, page 112.)
Jasper Willey told this writer that early firefighting equipment, a “wagon” which carried a reel of hydrant hose, was kept in a shed at the nearby Isaac Willey place. By 1936, a one bay, wood-frame Hose House, was constructed at the intersection of the Pleasant Hill road and Highland Avenue. About the same time, a chemical and hose fire truck was built by members on a 1931 Chevrolet chassis. This home-built rig had a chemical tank, 185 feet of chemical hose, four pump cans, and 700 feet of hydrant hose. (A photo of the chemical and hose apparatus taken in front of the PHHC Hose House is found in Laughton’s Images of Scarborough, page 80.)
On February 21, 1939, members of the Pleasant Hill Unity Club met for the purpose of reorganizing as the Pleasant Hill Hose Company (although as noted in the reference above, the Hose Company had been operating since around 1927 under the Pleasant Hill Unity Club organization. The published 1936 photo referenced above shows a large Pleasant Hill Hose Company sign proudly displayed on the first Hose Company building. Officers elected at that 1939 meeting were: Charles P. Nutter, Deputy Chief; Neils Johnson, Captain; Laurence Jensen, 1st Lieutenant; and Louis Manter 2nd Lieutenant. Drivers were Jasper Willey, Roy Prout, Dave Morrison, and Billy Fielding.
In 1940 a 1939 Diamond T pumper, built by the Maxim Motor Co. in Middleboro, Mass., was provided by the Town greatly enhancing firefighting capabilities. (A similar model Maxim Diamond T engine had been delivered earlier to Pine Point, Engine 4.) The new Pleasant Hill engine was equipped with a 500 GPM Northern rotary pump, 1,000 feet of 2 ½ inch hose, two beds of 1 ½ inch hose, a few hundred feet of booster line with combination nozzle coiled in an open compartment behind the cab, a wooden 30ft extension ladder carried on top of the rig, two salvage covers, two filter-type masks, straight stream 21/2 inch shut off nozzles, Indian pump cans, and numerous hand tools for grass and brush fires. Protective gear included helmets, rubber coats, and boots carried in a rack on the engine. The Diamond T pumper was in service 33 years until 1973, when it was replaced with a newer engine by the Town.
The fire station grew from the single bay structure over the years as it was remodeled by the members. In 1940, the building was expanded in the rear and a kitchen added; a second story was constructed which housed an apartment. The new 1939 Diamond T pumper needed a more full-time driver in addition to the PHHC volunteers. Beginning in 1940, the first “24-hour man” was Louis E. Manter, who lived in the apartment with his family. Lou Manter also tended a small gasoline station and store next to the fire station where TYDOL gasoline was sold. The gas station, built by members in 1940, was called the Pleasant Hill Hose Co. Service Station. In later years this became a self-serve feature for the PHHC members. This was operated on the honor system; members filled their vehicle and tractor tanks, completed slips, and were billed by the Treasurer, Norman Morse. Other live-in drivers over the years included Harold Richards and his family (during WWII); and in 1948, Percy Gower and his spouse Mary – followed by Jim Clemmons and his wife, Dot, and family during the 1950s.
During World War II and the post-war period, the PHHC men and ladies auxiliary put on chicken dinners and shore dinners for various groups, and funds raised help support the Hose Company. These were field-days of the time with baseball played in Nutter’s field next to the fire station, horseshoes, adult beverage, storytelling, music, and just plain fun. The kitchen produced chicken, lobster, steamed clams and all the fixings. The groups were mostly guys including the Todd Shipbuilding East Yard – Jasper Willey, Bill Winslow and Harold Richards, all workers in the East Yard Electrical Shop, were among the organizers. The Portland Police also held field-days at the PHHC.
Over the years, social events held by the PHHC ladies auxiliary and the men included suppers, whist parties, dances, and any excuse for a neighborhood celebration. For example, in 1952 PHHC members and the Diamond T engine “responded” to the Isaac and Jennie Willey homestead (PHHC founding members) to celebrate the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. The same volunteer, help thy neighbor spirit, continued through the 1980s. Benefit coffees for various charity causes were also held with all sorts of potluck goodies to sample. (See benefit coffee photo in Laughton’s Images of Scarborough, page 81.)
Also during WWII, there was a shortage of men as many were working at the shipyard in South Portland or serving in the military. So the PHHC organized a women’s fire auxiliary to become drivers for the Diamond T engine. There were training sessions, including pump class, for these pioneering fire ladies. Eleanor Lorfano was appointed Captain of the auxiliary, and she was a driver as well. The writer remembers Eleanor Atwood running down the Pleasant Hill Road. to roll the engine to an alarm.
By 1948, a new bay was added by the members to house the Diamond T; the first bay was closed off, and a new main entrance to the hall was built. Now there was more room for parties without pulling out the Diamond T. A phone in a security cage and a blackboard for recording fire runs were next to the engine. In 1987, this grand old white clapboard building was torn down by the Town and the existing brick fire station built, which includes a bunkroom for Southern Maine Technical College AS degree fire science students.
During the 1930 and 40s, Alarms throughout the Town were dispatched by telephone operators at Oak Hill who called members by phone. If the 24-hour duty man was away, the first PHHC member to reach the station drove the engine. Others rode the engine or drove to the scene in their cars & trucks. In the late 1940s, a Town-wide Gamewell fire alarm system was installed in Scarborough with horns at the stations and gongs in key member’s homes including Jasper Willey’s. PHHC never had a horn; the nearest ones were at the Black Point fire station, on the Black Point Road across from the Black Point Congregational Church, and a radio controlled horn at Spurwink. The stations were also equipped with Gamewell gongs and punch-tape registers.
During the ’40s and ’50s, there were no fire alarm boxes installed around Town; however, locations were designated by “phantom” box numbers and a running assignment of fire companies pre-determined. High risk buildings and occupancies, such as hotels or schools, were given two digit box numbers. For Pleasant Hill, the phantom boxes were laid out by Bob Nutter and Jasper Willey on “Jap’s” kitchen table; a map with all of the boxes around Town was compiled by G. T, Pillsbury in June 1949. Box alarm posters were printed and by 1952 pocket-size red books, Fire Alarm Signals, Scarborough Fire Department, were printed for the firefighters.
Beginning in 1947, Elizabeth Libby and her daughter Shirley at Newcomb’s Store at Black Point, answered the Town’s emergency fire number (TU3-4542) and dispatched calls over the Gamewell system. This was a 24-hour every day commitment by the two ladies for several years until they “retired” from this dedicated service in 1973. The first Gamewell system was comprised of metal disks for each box number with corresponding notches. The disk was placed on the system apparatus, and the box number was sounded over the horns three times (three rounds). This was a “make & break” type of system with wire strung on utility poles (if a pole was knocked down by a vehicle, one blast on the horns sounded when the connection was broken). Occasionally lightning strikes also disrupted the system. Box 311 for “Pleasant Hill Rd from the Fogg Rd. to Spurwink Ave.” rolled Engine 3 (Pleasant Hill), Engine 1 (Black Point) and Tank 1 (Oak Hill). If a second alarm was called for a working fire, three rounds of the box were repeated to alert the second alarm companies to respond. The “all out” was three rounds of two blasts. Each day, tests of just two blasts were sounded at noon and 9:00 pm. Also during the early 1950s, two-way radios were installed on the apparatus and base stations installed at Elizabeth Libby’s, Oak Hill – Engine 7, and North Scarborough – Engine 5. This radio technology enhanced response to alarms and communications among the fire companies. For example, in 1954 during Hurricane Edna, power and phone line went down; however, the stations were manned and radio communications maintained for emergencies. Weekly radio tests were held on Sunday mornings.
Among the early PHHC leaders were Bob Nutter, President of the Scarborough Fire Association (1937), and Col. Charles P. Nutter, “Deputy” at Pleasant Hill. Four generations of the Willey family were active PHHC members. As noted above Isaac Willey was among the founding members, and early fire fighting equipment was housed on his property. Jasper Willey served as Captain of the PHHC, Engine 3 for 15 years and was an active member for over 30 years; he retired from the volunteer post in 1963. Fern Willey served with the ladies auxiliary many years, and also the Scarborough Fire Department canteen unit, which was founded in 1957.
This writer, A. Elwood Willey, became a member of PHHC in 1954, receiving his badge in 1956, and was an active member until moving away in 1957 to attend the University of Maryland and pursue a fire protection career. In 1993, this writer’s son and Jasper’s grandson, Andrew Willey, “bunked-in” at Engine 3 for a year while attending Southern Maine Technical College. Andy went on to become an Air Force firefighter serving a tour in the 2nd Iraq war, and later he became a career DOD fire prevention Captain and firefighter. More recent PHHC Captains, include Richard Lord and Richard Fowler, who also served as a Deputy Fire Chief, and Brian Smart.
The Pleasant Hill Hose Company and the parent organization, the Pleasant Hill Unity Club formed in March 1927, serve as an excellent example of the American way – by ordinary citizens coming together with a do-it-yourself community spirit to enhance the social value and public safety of a neighborhood. With the fundraising shows and suppers, without Town monies, they sparked the beginnings of the volunteer Pleasant Hill Hose Company to provide enhanced fire protection to the eastern part of Town. They started with a home-built engine and single-bay, member-built hose house; and by 1940, the PHHC grew in capabilities with the first Town funded Underwriters-recognized 1939 Maxim-built Diamond T engine. Providing a 24-hour, live in driver at that time, greatly enhanced fire protection; and this manning concept for a small town was way ahead of its time. The Town provided a new engine to replace the Diamond T in 1973, built a new fire station in 1987, provided quarters for students – firefighters, and paid staff during day-time hours. After humble volunteer beginnings 90 years ago, the Pleasant Hill Hose Company continues these traditions as Engine 3 of Scarborough Fire Department.
- Jasper Willey family papers
- Fern Willey’s scrapbooks of news clippings, photos, and material – 1920s through 1980s
- Article: Scarboro’s Battle Against Ravages of Fire Provides Model for Other Maine Towns, Portland Evening Express, January 8, 1941
- Images of Scarborough, by Rodney Laughton, 1996
- Images of Scarborough in the Twentieth Century by Rodney Laughton, 2004
- Scarborough at 350 Linking the Past to the Present, Scarborough Institutions chapter, published by the Friends of Scarborough 350th, 2007
- History of the Scarborough Fire Department, by John Harmon, 1984
- Fire Alarm Signals Scarborough Fire Department, 1952
- Letter regarding the history of the Pleasant Hill Hose Company from Fire Captain Brian Smart, dated May 1991
- Records, photos, and newspaper articles of the Pleasant Hill Hose Company – 1930s to 1960s
- Map of Box Alarms by G. T. Pillsbury, C. E., dated June 1949
- Geographical Survey Map of Portland, Maine, U. S. Department of Interior, dated 1916, reprinted 1943
- The photo collection of A. Elwood Willey