SOUTH PORTLAND (July 7, 2005): Yesterday was the 95th birthday for Marion Minerva Upton Burnham, a lifelong resident of South Portland, whose descendants now number 70, with another on the way.
Burnham, born July 6, 1910, is the eldest of five living generations of girls. Her eldest daughter Ruth has an eldest daughter Cathy, whose eldest daughter Melissa has a daughter Marissa.
“I went to two parties yesterday,” Marion said during a June 28 interview. One was for the 70th birthday of her son, Allen, who lives in Gray. The other was the first birthday for a great-great-granddaughter who lives in Westbrook.
She has twice been uprooted by development in the city. “Oil tanks took my folks’ house,” for the construction of the Portland Pipeline along Front Street, precipitating a move to Preble Street in Ferry Village.
But then World War II came, and the shipyards took that house.
“When they put the railroad track in for the shipyard, it went right through our house,” said Marion’s son Allen Burnham. Marion’s mother used to sell ice cream out of a cart to workers coming off shift at the shipyard. She gave the proceeds to her church.
The family moved to Thornton Heights, where they stayed for years, until Marion’s husband Ernest had several heart attacks in 1956. Then the family moved to a single-story home in Stanwood Park.
“I’ve lived in all parts of South Portland,” Marion said.
And all those years – even today – she has had company. Marion took care of her own mother, Ernest’s mother and his aunt, and her sister and brother-in-law, at times when they needed help. “My husband and I only had about two years together” with no one else in the house, she said.
Years of togetherness
“We’ve always been kind of close,” said Ruth Small of Portland, Marion’s eldest daughter, beginning an oft-repeated chain of different voices continuing each other’s thoughts and sentences.
“We see each other often enough,” said her brother, Allen.
“That’s what’s great about this family,” said Ruth’s daughter Cathy Lemar of Gardiner.
“I remember growing up, every Sunday the family got together,” Ruth said, ending the thought.
And they’re closely tied to South Portland. After Marion married Ernest – who was from Boothbay – the couple moved to a Portland apartment for a brief time.
After about two months, “I was ready to come back,” Marion said. They moved in with her parents for a time, and their daughters Ruth and Beatrice were born in the house on Front Street. Allen, the youngest, was born at the Maine Eye and Ear Infirmary in Portland.
Ernest worked at the Chaplin Motor Company on Forest Avenue. Marion, who had picked sardines during school, worked first in a rug shop and then in food service at Mercy Hospital.
Of her six siblings, Marion is the oldest and the only one still alive. Her children stay close by – Bea lives the longest distance away, in Texas with the husband she met in the Army.
“They’re awful good to me,” Marion said. Bea visits several times a year, to see her active mother.
"You rattle the keys and she's ready to go," Bea said in a phone interview.
Marion’s memory remains sharp – "she's got a better memory than I do," said Bea – and she has an endless supply of stories about her life and her family. A family favorite is about her driving lesson out in Scarborough, with Ernest giving her directions.
She came to an intersection, and Ernest told her to turn one way. She did, but he realized his mistake and told her to turn the other way. “We took down mailboxes,” Marion said, drawing peals of laughter.
Marion also remembers embarrassments with good humor. A longtime member of local churches – People United Methodist until the early 1940s and Thornton Heights United Methodist for the 62 years since her move to that neighborhood – she recalls hosting a church group at home, where she and Ernest raised hounds.
During the gathering, a hound gave birth. “Was I ever put out,” Marion said.
In addition to Marion’s stories, other family members have collected many more.
Bea remembers the house on Front Street was just over the fence from school. "We used to just push the boards to the side and crawl through."
She also recalls "Old Joe's skating rink," a frozen pond near the Coast Guard station where everyone went skating. "That was back in the times when everybody went out and you didn't have to worry about your kids."
Family historian Carol Campbell of South Portland – whose grandmother was a first cousin to Marion’s father – has collected many of the family records and has researched the stories.
Marion’s earliest identified American ancestor was an indentured servant from Scotland, captured by Cromwell at the battle of Dunbar in 1650 and imprisoned in England. Very few survived the harsh conditions of imprisonment, but among them was an Upton, who was sold to Saugus Ironworks in what is now Massachusetts. He worked off his servitude, and one of his descendants, David Upton, served as a Minuteman during the American Revolution and later settled on Chebeague Island, where he is buried.
One story Carol told at a recent family gathering was a story Marion’s daughter Ruth Small had never heard, about her great-grandfather, who was lost at sea.
That man, Marion’s grandfather, Horace Upton, died at sea in an August storm in 1893. When he left for that trip, his youngest daughter, then 3, cried and didn’t want him to go. He came back to the house, sang her the old hymn “Throw Out the Lifeline” to comfort her, and then left again on a trip from which he never returned.
“I just got goosebumps!” Ruth exclaimed as Carol told the story. She remembered the hymn – “I haven’t heard it for a long time” – with its lyrics about a man at sea, “drifting away … sinking in anguish” and in need rescue.
Horace’s two brothers, Capt. George Upton and Capt. Joseph “Joad” Upton, were ferry captains on the Lottie and Mae, running from Ferry Village over to Portland.
Joad also worked as a lighthouse keeper. His last posting was at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, where in 1934 he was found dead at the foot of one of the light towers, having fallen from the top after suffering a heart attack or stroke at age 65.
Another lighthouse also figures strongly in Marion’s life: She and Ernest were friends with the Holbrooks, who were the keepers of Bug Light back when there was a keeper’s house next to the beacon. The Holbrooks stayed a bit inland with the Burnhams during the winter, and the Burnhams would visit at the Holbrooks at the seaside during the summer.
Marion’s granddaughter Cathy, in particular, has gotten interested in some of these older stories, fueled in part by the interest of her own grandson, Christopher Armstrong, 10, who loves to hear the tales.“It never seemed that important to me but it does now,” Cathy said.