Thursday, June 20, 2002

Cape’s original summer center

Published in the Current

When Barbara Steele and her husband Bob were buying a house in Cape Cottage 50 years ago, they first visited the site on Woodcrest Road by the direct route from Oakhurst Road. The second time, they came up through the Cape Cottage Woods area and got thoroughly lost.

“We couldn’t find the house we’d bought,” Steele remembered. Even now, once past the stone pillars next to St. Albans Church, it’s not easy to find a route through the twisty roads of Cape Cottage. Fortunately, she found it and hasn’t lived anywhere else since.

“The night we moved here, we stayed at the old Cape Cottage Hotel,” Steele said. A fixture of the neighborhood then was the foghorn at Fort Williams.

“The big thrill was the foghorn,” Steele said, remembering its “mournful sound.” But after a time, it became part of the normal life near Fort Williams. “We heard it when it stopped,” Steele said.

The fort’s horn was eventually discontinued, making the nearest horn the one at Two Lights, which can’t be heard at Steele’s home.

The area around the fort used to be the center of Cape when it was a town of mostly summer homes. The police and fire station were there. The Cape Cottage Hotel and the Casino were big draws to the area, as well as the trolley park, at the end of the trolley line leaving South Portland.

The Cape Cottage neighborhood was on one side of the fort area – now a much visited park and home to Portland Head Light — and Delano Park was on the other.

The casino is now a nursery school. Some of the older homes in Delano Park have been torn down.

But kids still skate on the pond in Fort Williams, and the Cape Cottage beach remains a beautiful crescent with big cottages and blue water, very much the “movie set” Steele recalls.

Still making memories
In Cape Cottage, the beach association hired neighborhood girls as lifeguards, who also taught kids to swim in the protected cove. Adults weren’t so brave, Steele remembered.

“If you walked in, you couldn’t feel your feet. It was freezing,” Steele said. “But the kids didn’t mind a bit.”

Steele also remembered the two stores on Shore Road, Chaput’s and Armstrong’s. The latter, now the Cape Cottage Branch post office, “carried everything,” Steele said.

Her kids went to Cottage Farm School, a building on Cottage Farms Road that is now apartments. “It was just like a private school,” Steele said.

But despite the nearness, they had to take a bus. Back then, Oakhurst Road didn’t go through to Mitchell Road.

“There used to be nothing beyond our driveway,” Steele said.

Kids were a big part of the neighborhoods, and still are.

“It’s a great neighborhood. There are a lot of kids, and good people,” said Martha MacKay. She is, with her husband, secretary of the Cape Cottage Beach Association.

“The kids sort of travel in a gang in the streets,” MacKay said.

“It is just as popular now with young people as it was 50 years ago,” Steele said. “It’s a neighborhood feel.”

On sunny days after school, the roads ring with the shouts of children. The neighborhood still gathers for beach clean-ups and an early summer party and ends the summer with a lobster bake in August.

The beach association is a big reason for the popularity of the neighborhood, and the beach itself is reason to stay. It sits, a sliver of soft sand, in a quiet cove with views of Portland Harbor and Fort Gorges.

“You find a lot of times that people move into the neighborhood and they don’t leave,” MacKay said.

“We thought we were moving to the ends of the Earth, absolutely the end,” Steele said of her first impressions of Cape Elizabeth. But, after two weeks, “we thought we’d never leave,” she said.

They didn’t. Her husband turned down three job transfers so the family could stay in the area. Steele herself also found work in the area, selling real estate for several years before taking a job at the high school, where she was secretary to three principals over 20 years.

Postmaster Ann Burke, known as “Annie B” to her customers, also hasn’t left. In September, she will have spent 58 years working at the Cape Cottage Branch post office on Shore Road.

The office itself is 100 years old, and contains mementos of post office-box holders and neighborhood characters, including a lampshade decorated with stamps by Joan Benoit Samuelson, who grew up on Wood Road.

Some of those whose pictures and artwork hang in the little post office are dead, and others have moved to Piper Shores, Burke said. “It’s sad for me, but it’s nice for them,” she added.

Burke, a spunky, sprightly woman, lives her job: Her home is only feet from her desk. Everything she points to has a story, and she is more than happy to share them. She remembers a neighborhood boy who came back after he turned 30, and Burke was able to tell him which family he was from, though she didn’t know the boy’s name. Now he lives out of state, but sends Burke photos of his children.

Some things, like the stamped lampshade, have been made specifically for display in the office. Others, especially the obituaries cut out of local papers, represent people who are no longer Burke’s regulars.

“Everything seems to have a meaning here,” Burke said.

She remembers how things have changed, too, from the trolley tracks in front of the building to the kids at the bus stop across the street. “It’s mostly now older people,” Burke said. “I miss those kids.”

“I couldn’t have a better job,” Burke said. She has 81 mailboxes to tend, three cats, a large number of plants, and does it all with a smile.

“My body grew old but my mind didn’t,” Burke said. “I think I’m very fortunate to be here this long.”

The things she misses the most? It’s the same answer Steele had. “I liked that old foghorn,” Burke said. “I never got over that old-fashioned sound.”

Fort’s legacy
Before the foghorn left, the fort was once a neighborhood, though people who lived there expected to leave when called elsewhere for military service. And its location at the “end of the Earth” made it a perfect place for artillery positioned to defend the port of Portland.

One of the most notable homes was Goddard Mansion, built in 1858 by Col. John Goddard, an officer of the First Maine Cavalry before the Civil War. He had owned the Cape Cottage Hotel since 1835.

Built in the Italianate style in native stone, the mansion, called Grove Hall by its first owner, was designed by architect Charles Alexander of Portland, and was one of the first truly noteworthy houses along the Cape Elizabeth shore.

Bought by the U.S. Army in 1898, it housed enlisted men, non-commissioned officers and their families at different times. It fell into disrepair after the fort was decommissioned.

The interior was burned in a training fire for the Cape Elizabeth Fire Department March 11, 1981, and the building is now preserved as a ruin.

The fort was purchased by the town in 1964, a year after it was decommissioned by the Army, but was not designated a park until 1979.

“That was the smartest thing the town ever did was buy that fort,” Steele said.

Now the park is an often-visited area of the coastline, and has been seen, from time to time, as a possible revenue source for the town. The problem is the government stipulated when it sold the park that Cape residents would have to pay the same fee as everybody else to get in, so the town has never charged.

Park outside the park
Just south of Fort Williams Park is Delano Park, a privately owned planned community created in 1885, and expanded to the south in 1895.

Bob Shuman lives in the first house ever built in the park, the home his great-grandfather, George Morse, put up in 1886.

“This is a place that has been in my family since it was built,” Shuman said. Morse painted nature scenes around Delano Park and Cape Elizabeth, many of which still hang in Shuman’s home.

In the 15 years Shuman has lived in the house, he can think of two people who took jobs in other areas of the country and moved away. The rest have stayed until they have to leave, he said.

“What’s unique about the park is its location,” Shuman said. It is eight minutes from downtown Portland, but very rural. Cape Cottage has a similar feel, though the roads are wider.

It is a quiet spot with reasonably large lots and a slow turnover.

“The personality of the place changes with time,” Shuman said.

The cycle takes a while to complete, typically starting with a young family buying from an older owner who inherited the property from parents or grandparents, retired to Delano Park, and is now too old to live independently.

Shuman’s two sons and their families are interested in his house, which he said is like “living in a museum.”

“It’s always been in the family, which means it’s never been cleaned out,” he said. In his house, Shuman has found the notice for his great-grandfather to report to the Army for the Civil War and a letter excusing him from service, noting the request of his mother.

The park is rich in history, most visibly in the distance garages are from houses. Most started as stables and were best kept apart from the home. And owning a home designed by John Calvin Stevens is something of a neighborhood status symbol.

Also of importance are ocean views, which are great for some residents, but can cause traffic problems, even on the roads, which are not public ways.

“Whenever we have a storm and the surf is up, people want to see the waves,” Shuman said. Residents, however, are welcome to drive and walk the paths and roads, which they pay to have plowed, resurfaced and maintained. Two areas in the park are preserved as greenspace, and though they technically could be sold, they are more than likely protected wetlands, Shuman said.

Both parks have streams running through them, and while that may sound nice, in the height of summer, some residents might wish them away.

“The mosquitoes are just wild,” Shuman said.

All the same, he thinks it’s a good place for people of all ages to live.

Mark Feenstra agrees. Feenstra, president of the Delano Park Neighborhood Association, has lived in the park for three years.

“It’s hard to go on vacation,” Feenstra said. He feels like he lives on vacation, he said. One of his favorite things to do is something the early park residents also enjoyed: early morning fishing for striper off the rocks.

“I’m usually the only one down there fishing,” he said.

But he is seeing some transitions now.

“It’s becoming more of a family neighborhood,” Feenstra said. Three families are just moving in with three children each. And one house was recently purchased for over $800,000, only to be torn down for another house to be built in its place.

“We’re getting a lot of tear-downs in there,” Feenstra said.

House values are on the rise, and two private beaches don’t keep them any lower.

“The prices have just gone right through the roof,” Feenstra said.

Shuman echoes his concerns. “I’m right on the water and scared to death of revaluation,” Shuman said. His property tax bill has quadrupled in 15 years.

“If they do double the valuation, the handwriting is on the wall,” Shuman said.

Still, “it’s a great place to live,” Shuman said, and most residents wouldn’t live anyplace else.