Yesterday, it was raining, so I thought, “Perfect day to visit the History House!” and up the hill I went to that place.
I walked in, and immediately bumped into Jean, the curator, who was waiting for a couple who had called ahead to make an appointment, because! The Harmon Museum and Historical Society closes on Labor Day. Mind you, the sign doesn’t say this, but I am very grateful to the couple who did call ahead for the tour, and graciously allowed me to ride on their coattails.
The Harmon House Museum was given to the Town of Old Orchard Beach by the Harmons, for the use of the Historical Society, so — it’s a 1920’s cottage. The front parlor is where the changing exhibits are housed, and the 2012 exhibit was about Ocean Park. This is where the interest of my benefactors lay, and Jean started the tour in that room.
Now, a word about the tour. I didn’t want a tour, dernit. I wanted to look around and ask questions.
By the time we were done, two hours later, I was so very happy to have had the tour. Not only is the museum a gem of itself, but Jean the curator knows everything. She came to Old Orchard Beach when she was seven years old; the couple who had made the appointment had summered and then lived in Ocean Park since the early 60s. Talking to them was like having footnotes to the tour. It was amazing.
Anyhow, I learned a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. I learned that the first carousel to burn down in Old Orchard Beach had been hand-carved by “a German company” — one of three at that time in the US (not useful not to have the name, but knowing the names of carousel manufacturers is probably a level of geekitude more focused than the broad knowledge base demanded of the curator of the town museum.)
In any case, the second carousel to burn down was the Herschell-Spillman, and that fire, Jean said, sounding just as corked off as if it had happened last week — that fire was “completely avoidable.” Those of us who are older’n spit remember the fuse boxes with the glass fuses. And if a fuse blew, you could kind of hold its place by sticking a penny over the contact? Well, the carousel keeper had just kept adding pennies, and never remembered, or cared to, replace the actual fuses. So the fire started in the fuse box, nobody noticed and by the time they did, and the fire department was called, the ride was fully engaged.
I learned that Old Orchard Beach had been favored as a place for planes attempting the transatlantic crossing to take off from because of the nature of the beach, which at that time had been very broad and packed hard with very fine white sand.
I said that I had read of the powdery white sand of the beach, but had considered that PR, because the sand isn’t particularly white on Old Orchard Beach, and is noticeably coarse.
“That’s because of Camp Ellis,” said the woman from Ocean Park. (Camp Ellis is pronounced locally camPELis, just by the way) Jean agreed.
“Before the Army Corps of Engineers put in the jetty to protect the point, the Saco River and the ocean just sort of. . .met there, and the water action. . .but with the jetty, we get too much sand, and it’s like gravel. the beach isn’t even as wide as it was when I was growing up here.”
I also learned — I’m going to knock this off pretty soon, honest, and not make you listen to all the stuff I learned, fascinating as it was — I also learned about the Dummy Railroad. And! for those who were around for the Surfside*/Surf Avenue discussion, I learned — I love this. . .
There was no Surf Avenue in Old Orchard Beach, but there was, as a convention for the mailman, a “Surf” address. This was to differentiate the houses that faced onto East/West Grand Avenue, and the houses that faced the beach, or, the surf. Those houses had sea walls and steps that went down to the beach — no longer visible because the change in the sand distribution has built up the dunes so much.
OK, I’m done boring y’all with this. I had fun; I got so much information that I came back to Temp Headquarters and took a nap so my head wouldn’t explode with all the Cool Stuff.
If you’re ever in Old Orchard Beach, go to the Harmon Museum. Really. You will not regret it.
Oh, no, wait! I have to tell you about the grand pianos…
See, during the Big Fire in 1907, when it looked like the whole town was afire, all the tourists and a lot of the residents ran to their homes/hotels and filled steamer trunks with their valuables. A couple of the hotels even dragged their grand pianos out — and everybody put their stuff on the nice wide beach, believing that this was the place that was safest from the fire.
Which it was.
What they had forgotten in their fright was that. . .the tide comes in.
And it did, and it swept all the loot on the beach out to sea.
And much of it — but not all of it — came back over a period of weeks, in what condition you may imagine, after having been kissed by the sea…
*Sadly, Jean couldn’t help me with the Surfisde question. All she had in archives were copies of some old penny postcards advertising the Surfside Resort and Cabins, and a copy of the article from the Port Press that was written when the grounds were closed, and sold the the developer of the Sunspray condos.