You Should Have Been Here Yesterday – Part 2

When you ride the Peaks Island ferry at night, the ocean sparkles with the reflection of the lights from Portland. The city skyline is vastly different from the one my Dad sketched in 1985 – when the highest points were the spire of the Cathedral and the dome of the Observatory.

Today, instead of decrepit wharves and fish processing plants sprawled along the waterfront, there are gourmet food trucks, cruise ships, oyster bars, and boutiques. Newly built hotels are located across the street from historic brick buildings constructed after the Great Fire of Portland, July 4, 1866.

 http://www.whatwasthere.com/

There is always nostalgia with regard to the past…for the history as well as the architecture. There are still cobblestone streets in Portland made from the ballast of ships that entered the harbor and stone fountains for horses that no longer walk the streets.

cobblestones

Following the demolition of Union Station to make way for a strip mall, preservationists within the community joined together to form the Greater Portland Landmarks.

The_Union_Station,_Portland,_ME

 

http://www.pressherald.com/2011/08/31/the-ugly-birth-of-preservation_2011-08-31/

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

I was raised to believe it is possible to affect change. When the Munjoy Hill East End Beach was closed due to pollution (before the construction of the sewage treatment plant), mothers (including mine) marched to City Hall to demand a pool be built so that kids would have a place to swim that summer.

Recently, a referendum was put to a vote by citizens of Portland to halt the sale of the Congress Street Park to a developer. As a result, the city is now creating a city-wide plan for open space.

http://www.pressherald.com/2013/06/14/congress-square-park-part-of-a-global-struggle-for-public-space_2013-06-14/

Prologue

It was July 4th weekend when I finally arrived in Maine. Peaks Island traditions include a participatory parade, family picnics and cookouts on Back Shore, culminating in a fireworks display over Casco Bay.

When I was in 6th grade we had to memorize the preamble to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. At that time is was a memorization exercise; now it is the blueprint for nations around the globe who are pursuing democracy.

When in the Course of Human…

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths..….

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_history.html

I am still conflicted about the concept behind the pursuit of happiness.

Is it happiness for an individual or for the greater good?

Do we pursue happiness for its own sake or to benefit others?.

Guide to Being an Aging Activist

On a holiday weekend, I paddle my kayak between 5:30 am and 9:30 am to avoid boat traffic. It is a quiet morning when I approach the osprey nests located in the bell buoys at either end of House Island.

House Island osprey nests I have never been on the island as it has been privately held for many years. The owner purchased the island to preserve it and prevent development.

The doctor’s house, the old quarantine station and a smaller structure have always been visible. The 1904 immigration building had been demolished but the remaining foundation outlined the footprint of the structure.

Fort Scammel – built in built in 1808 of blocks of granite –anchors the opposite end of House.Fort_Scammel_East_-_3

As I circumnavigated the island, the sounds of the osprey and her fledges were replaced with the sounds of machines. There was excavation equipment clearing the area near the former quarantine station.

Demo pix House IslandSomething felt wrong. Yes, the island had been sold but no plans had been announced. Yes, the island did not have “official” historic designation, but Fort Scammel has long been a companion to Fort Gorges. I wondered if there were permits for what was taking place.

 

 

How to find a reporter on a holiday weekend

The Vinograds (David and Miranda) hail from England but have been long time summer people on Peaks. They have a penchant for old buildings – going so far as to dismantle one scheduled for demolition and then reconstructing it. (Their favorite bumper sticker: Gut Fish, Not Houses.)

When I shared with them the apparent demolition, they suggested I research recent articles about House Island and it’s sale. Sally Oldham (married to Ted the photographer of the 20,000 buildings in Portland….See most recent blog.) wrote an op ed piece in June, 2014 entitled: Properties in Peril. House Island was one of two properties featured.

She concluded:

…Physical preservation of the buildings and landscapes that embody these stories, such a rich part of Portland’s history, could make them the linchpins for successful developments.

We hope that there will be easy public access for Portlanders and tourists to the Portland Co. complex buildings and House Island’s Fort Scammel and at least exterior views of the immigration station buildings so important to this city’s past.

Over the coming months, Portlanders will want to carefully watch the developments proposed for each of these key complexes.

http://www.pressherald.com/2014/06/11/maine-voices-two-portland-projects-highlight-opportunities-pitfalls-of-historical-development/

Tom Bell is a long time Press Herald writer and has covered development issues. I emailed him and he wrote back. I sent him photos of the apparent demolition work and all the documents and photographs I had collected. He called me for an interview.

How to contact city employees on a holiday weekend

Sending an email to the City of Portland permits, zoning, inspection, and historic preservation offices on July 4th felt like putting a note in a bottle, casting it into the sea and hoping it would be found quickly.

Meanwhile, the sounds of the machines continued.

I also contacted anyone who might have even a tangential interest in the island including the Audubon Society, Preservation Maine, and Greater Portland Landmarks.

I researched the Seashore Protection Act, Maine endangered species lists, and the decrease in monarch butterflies due to milkweed loss.

EVERYONE was on vacation.

I had no idea if other options were available to me to halt the work – at least temporarily. I needed a legal advisor.

And the machines continued.

How to find a lawyer (quickly) on a holiday weekend.

How would I find a lawyer on a holiday weekend and one that would be familiar with House Island?

Across from the Peaks Island library and adjoining Brad’s bikes is a window advertizing legal services and a number to call if you need a lawyer.

TwainI called. He did not have the expertise I was seeking and referred me to Tom Federle. He provided his cell number. I called and left a somewhat cryptic message. I did not expect a response until the end of the long weekend.

Within a few minutes, Tom returned my call. He was at his summer home on a nearby island.

His advice:

Let the City Offices have time to investigate the situation. Let them follow the established procedures. But, let’s create a Plan B.

But, the machines were still working.

 How to gain the public’s attention on a holiday weekend

July 9, 2014 Portland Press Herald, front page headline:

             Maine Island With Storied Past set for new chapter

http://www.pressherald.com/2014/07/09/a-rewrite-for-island-near-portland-harbor-with-storied-past/

I decide to hide out in the Maine Historical Society (following my attorney’s advice) and conduct more research on the House Island quarantine station. A volunteer historian goes into the stacks and returns with a manila folder marked “ISLANDS.”

There were yellowed newspaper clippings, a few brochures, photographs of a variety of island and island events. Tucked within the mix was a small, 8-page booklet entitled:

Experiences of My Early Life on House Island on Casco Bay in Portland Harbor Portland Maine

by Roberta Randall Sheaff

Self-published in 1983, it is out of print.

It begins:

I was born on House Island, a quarantine station, in 1909 in one of three houses there.

IMG_1439I looked up Roberta’s obituary. She died in Minnesota in 2004 at the age of 95. ‘She is survived by a daughter, son-in-law, grand children and many nieces and nephews.” I found her daughter’s address and telephone number in Duluth.

I called.

Benita Fuller-Fugelso talked freely about her mother and her mother’s love for House Island. Like most surviving children, Benita wished she had listened more carefully to the stories her grandparents and mother shared. She would now have a greater sense of the contribution her family made to the local history.

As we concluded our conversation she added:

“I have about 100 of my mother’s remaining books. I would be happy to give them to you to use in your efforts on my mother’s behalf to highlight the history of House. She would be thrilled to know her words will be shared with those who care about “her island.”…..

Generosity: kindness – willingness to give money, help or time freely.

How to Start a Controversy with Emails after a holiday weekend

Email #1:  Zoning and Permits – Thank you for contacting us. I searched our records of the site and have not found any demo permits.

Email #2: Inspection Services – Inspections Staff will visit the island to ascertain the situation first hand.

Email #3: Greater Portland Landmarks – we request that a representative of the historic preservation office attend the inspection as well.

Email #4: Lawyer – I made the argument that he is re-engaging in demo work and that requires a demo permit. If he is removing foundations, I would argue it is demo, not clean up as he stated.

Email #5: Me – I request that House Island be considered a historic district.

Email #6:  July 16th, the Historic Preservation Board meets to determine if they will move forward with the nomination of historic district. There is a multi phase process that culminates in 2 public meetings:

Preliminary workshop – August 6th to share report on history and significance of House Island.

Public Hearing – September 3rd

Email #7:  Following the inspection, a stop work order was issued.

The machines stopped for 7 days.

 

Epilogue 

I realize I cannot prevent the eventual development of House Island. I hope to encourage an examination and documentation of the buildings, the land, the fort, the untold history. I hope that its historical significance will be proven. Because –

When it’s gone, it’s gone.

I spent the morning, once again, kayaking across the channel from Peaks Island to House Island to observe the osprey. On this particular day, the fledglings were poking up from the nest. Mom and Dad were bringing them food and discouraging me from getting too close.

There is no reclamation of history when the physical evidence is removed.

When it’s gone; it’s gone forever.

Addendum

Please take the time to voice your opinion regarding the historic district designation of House Island, by contacting:

Deb Andrews, Historic Preservation, City of Portland

DGA@portlandmaine.gov

Or attend the public meetings.

 

I wish to thank the Joel and Linda Abromson Fund for their generous support of my research of the history of House Island and its relevance to the immigrant heritage of Portland.

 

Advertisements

You Should Have Been Here Yesterday – Part 1

You Should Have Been Here Yesterday – Part 1

If oral historians had a bumper sticker it would read:

“You should have been here yesterday.”

My hopes of interviewing Aunt Bunny were dashed – she is too ill for visitors. I had driven 10 hours to meet with her. However, her sister was willing to meet with me. So, I made a detour to Massachusetts.

A woman of a “certain age” i.e. over 90, Bobbie lives in a two-story home, bowls twice a week, plays mahjong. She had spent the day before my visit with her son pouring over a 100 years of family photos – and still able to name every person. She handed me a faded photo of Millie.

Mildred Markson. Wife of Maurice. Born 1880.Died February 10, 1966.

Millie is somewhat serious looking. Thin. She was known as the “beauty of the family.” She was a founding member of the Portland Council of Jewish women.

Aunt Bobbie has many stories, especially of her childhood at the family summer compound in Maine. Millie was alive during those years. She often slept on the porch as she had suffered from TB. No stories were told about immigrants or House Island or even the good works that Millie had done. Aunt Bobbie ended our conversation by saying:

“Millie was the most generous person I ever met. She didn’t wait to be asked. She helped everyone in the family – sent me to college, provided for widows, and never expected anything in return….”

You should have been here yesterday…Brandeis Law Library

Generosity: Kindness – willingness to give money, help or time freely.

I had hoped to Bobbie would be able to provide more information but instead, I left with one word – generosity. Millie and the other women who provided assistance to the immigrants were generous with their money, their help, and their time.

I was still in Massachusetts so I checked the map and made another detour.

“Chief Justice Louis Brandeis was born to Jewish immigrant parents. After graduating from Harvard at age 20, he established a law firm and became know as the “People’s Lawyer.” Brandeis later fought against powerful corporations, monopolies, public corruption, and mass consumerism, all of which he felt were detrimental to American values and culture.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Brandeis

Brandeis University was named for him. I am hoping that the Brandeis Library will have a link to the case files related to Bela Gross’ habeas corpus decision. His plight might have been reported in Jewish newspapers or law related periodicals of the 1920’s.

It is summer. The campus was virtually empty. There was a smattering of students following signs to a conference center.  The library didn’t open until noon. I waited. As I entered, I looked around and noticed there were 3 of us at the research desk:  me, the research librarian, and a delivery guy trying to find out who had ordered Indian food for the library.

I handed my list of topics and questions to the librarian. He would research the Brandeis databases. I headed to the stacks.

Many universities are no longer purchasing books or are de-accessing their collections. Colby College in Maine has moved 170,000 of its books to storage. There is even a campaign to bring back the books. 

Button

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/05/college_libraries_should_keep_their_books_in_the_stacks.html

However, the stacks are often where I find what I am seeking — even when I have no idea what I am looking for.

The shelves at Brandeis hold treasures. There are large leather bound books whose content I cannot understand – books written in Hebrew, Islamic texts, Yiddish newspapers. There are Jewish periodicals, Jewish newspapers. Titles refer to Jewish history, Jewish politics, Jewish film.

I am drawn to the film lists. I am looking for films that re-create the sounds and feel of the 1920’s. After an hour of reading film synopses that span the years from 1920 to 1994, I return to the front desk.

The librarian looked deflated. He was an ‘on-line research wizard’ and had pursued multiple avenues to locate the information I wanted. He was stymied. After apologizing profusely he added:

“The Law Librarian just left for the summer. He’ll be back in the fall. (…You should have been here yesterday.)”

You should have been here yesterday… Portland Press Herald

           When we die, we leave behind a midden: photographs, bank accounts, letters, clothes, teeth, bones.         Whatever patterns the artifacts in these piles of rubbish carry are usually and mercifully lost as they are mixed into the compost heap of time past. Biological artifacts are especially evanescent: as fire eats wood by oxidation, so air eats paper. Librarians call this process “slow fire.**”

Without the help of research librarians, I would be lost amidst the miasma of continually expanding information. Fortunately, every library has at least one “gem.”

The Portland Room at the Portland Maine Public Library (PPL) is ‘the city’s hub to preserve and provide access to Portland history.’ The growing collections include printed books and periodicals, maps, archives, manuscripts, photographs, digital records, as well as microfilmed and digitized Portland newspapers. http://www.portlandlibrary.com/locations/main-library/portland-room/

The ‘gem’ at the PPL is Abraham Schechter, Special Collections Librarian and Archivist. http://laviegraphite.blogspot.com/search?q=living+history

Abraham

The day I arrive, Abraham was scanning glass negatives rescued from the basement of the former home of the Portland Press Herald newspaper founded in 1862. These negatives will become the Portland Press Herald Still Film Negative Collection. “….The collection measures approximately 310 linear feet, shelved. There are approximately 550,000 negatives in the collection.” It is a Herculean task.

Within the special collections are Census Books, Federal Court Records with applications for Naturalization, Tax Records, Marriage Licenses, and Obituaries. It is a virtual treasure trove chronicling human existence spanning centuries in the city of Portland, Maine.

To access the information, you must have a name, a birth date and a death date. The best place to find that information is in the obituaries. Although most city data since 1924 is digitized and on-line, the only way to read the 1923 news is via microfiche. There are no newspapers existent.

Scrolling through reel after reel of scratched, dimly-lit microfiche, I find myself reading ads and articles that reflect life today as yesterday. Corrupt politicians, murders, scandals, wars….and sales of the day.

In 1924, the City of Portland tax division took photographs of every building in existence at that time. Markson’s Clothing was one of those images. Beginning in 2011, this same process is being replicated by Ted Oldham. His goal is to photograph each of the 20,000 buildings in Portland. He has already completed 13,000.   He believes that…“Our buildings are a physical expression of what our values are.”

http://www.pressherald.com/2011/12/28/new-collection-takes-shape-man-photographing-20000-buildings_2011-12-28/

Dollar Down and a Dollar a Week.

Markson Bros. Clothing store became known throughout New England for both men and women’s clothing. Bunny/Bobby’s great aunt Millie’s husband, Maurice. – founded Markson Bros. with great aunt Jennie Markson’s husband, Elder. (Whew…family trees are confusing especially if they are someone elses.)

March 10, 1925.

Mrs. Jennie Markson , a prominent Jewish woman, died last evening of pneumonia, after an illness lasting a week….

Mrs. Markson was a prominent club woman and an interested and active worker in all community affairs. She was a member of the Council of Jewish women, a director of the United Hebrew Charities, a past president of the Etz Chaim sisterhood, a ….

Jennie died at age 46 from pneumonia on March 10, 1925. Only 2 years after starting the Portland Council of Jewish Women with her sister Millie. Only 2 years after establishing the House Island immigration assistance program.

At the end of a very long day, I had only found obituaries for 2 of the NCJW women. I did find obits for some of their husbands. (If a husband died; a wife sent in an obit. The reverse was not necessarily true.)

You should have been here yesterday…NCJW documents

Faith Rogow’s book: Gone to Another Meeting, chronicles the history of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) from 1893 – 1993. It is a fascinating read because the organization’s history mirrors the trajectory of women’s rights and roles in American society – not just the history of Jewish women.

Cover Rogow

http://www.amazon.com/Gone-Another-Meeting-National-1893-1993/dp/0817306714/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405784278&sr=1-1&keywords=gone+to+another+meeting

The Library of Congress has 48,000 items; 216 containers and 91.8 linear feet of the NCJW documents. The Portland Maine chapter documents are NOT included.

So I write letters:

National Council of Jewish Women Headquarters– DC

Nothing

National Council of Jewish Women Historian – NYC

Nothing

Mary Herman, former president of southern Maine/Portland area

Nothing

ASIDE: Angus King is her husband, Maine Senator and former Governor

Mary directed me to the current NCJW Portland president: Lynn Goldfarb.

Lynn Goldfarb

Nothing

However, Lynn remembered a story about a fire in which the records were destroyed.  MAYBE Gail Volk (several time past president) might be holding some documents “for safe keeping.”

Gail Volk

I call her. She has 2 “clipping” albums. One labeled 1920-1948; the other labeled 1948-1980. They have been in her attic for ‘safekeeping.” Although she summers at the lake and is inundated with relatives and friends, Gail is willing to drive the albums to Portland.

I contact Nina Rayer – a paper restoration and conservation expert – in case the documents need stabilizing before we review them.  We arrange to meet at the Maine Jewish Museum.

We cover a table with plastic, don gloves and masks. Nancy carefully opens the bag and removes 2 scrapbooks. They are literally falling apart.

We document each step in the process. How a document appears; how it is packaged; how it comes apart and goes back together; which items are next to each other…all this matters to an archivist and conservation specialist. It is their ‘art.’

CU album

ribbonThe most recent album is in better condition. Nina recommends we number the pages, separate them carefully and have them scanned.

The older album is held together with yellow ribbon. The front cover is detached from the pages. We carefully remove it and set it aside. We read the first entry. It is a newspaper clipping of an event that took place in 1926.  The first entry is not 1920 but 1926. The primary source materials describing the work of the NCJW on House Island would span the years from 1920-23. Those pages are missing.

First page

We reviewed both albums again, hoping the missing materials might be misfiled but to no avail. (I did, however, confirm that in 1969 I received a college scholarship of $500.00 from the NCJW of Portland.)

 

You should have been here yesterday…House Island sold!!

House Island has been sold. There is an excavator and a bulldozer visible from the deck of the ferry as you approach Peaks Island.

Courtesy Gregg Bolton

Courtesy Gregg Bolton

Rumors abound. Condos. Helipad. No one has seen plans. It will not be retained as a historic site.

Once the existing structures are removed, we will have lost the opportunity to honor those who made the immigrant journey – those who were detained – and those allowed to remain….as well as those who ‘welcomed the stranger.’

We should have been here yesterday.

 

 

 

**A slow fire is a term used in library and information science to describe paper embrittlement resulting from acid decay. The term is taken from the title of Terry Sanders’ 1987 film Slow Fires: On the preservation of the human record.