Dance Halls and other Gatherings
Excerpted from a talk by Ernie Wood, Old Berwick Historical Society Lecture, November 17, 2005
In early 20th century South Berwick, those who did not have the pleasure of attending boxing matches passed the time listening to the radio to sporting events and programs like the Jack Benny Show and Amos and Andy.
There were also places of recreational interest outside the downtown areas.
Lester Littlefield ran a dance hall called the Crystal Ballroom located at the corner of Agamenticus and Knights Pond Roads, next door to where Pete and Bulla St. Pierre live today. This building was once a general store and post office opposite the railroad junction.
Bulla St Pierre recalls the dances being held on the first floor on a beautiful hardwood floor. Between 50 and 100 people attended each Saturday evening. The Littlefield girls were the musicians, with help from those wanting to join in. Velma played the piano, Bulla the accordion, and Leona the drums. They were good and the tempo fast according to Bulla. The Virginia Reel and the like were favorites. Ballroom-style dancing and jitterbug dancing were also popular. Each of the girls played multiple instruments so as to mix and match, as others joined or sat in for a set without pay.
This took place in the 1940s when the Littlefield girls were in high school. Military service boys stationed at Mt Aggie loved to come to the dances and have a good time. Seems the sisters were so talented that they had other engagements that paid them $15 a night in Portsmouth at the Townsend Club and other dance halls. Bulla says they played almost every night while still getting good marks in school. Lester and his wife Sarah kept a close eye on them and made sure their love of music was tempered with good behavior and good grades. “Sadie,” as she was called, was always on the watch for undesirable behavior. Lester also had a policeman come by to curb the drinking and rough behavior sometimes associated with dance halls.
Lawrence Kimball remembers his dad playing there as well as the talented Littlefield girls. Others remember Montana Fat playing at the dances. Owen Stevens had this take: “it was a place to have fun and meet women--- wild times with moonshine.” Owen obviously did not meet up with Sadie Littlefield or the local constable.
The Quamphegan Grange Hall located on Knights Pond Road across from the Town Farm beyond Pond Road leading to Spring Hill, were another popular place for dances. Mrs. St. Pierre remembers she and her sisters playing there as well. Pat Krupsky has converted the Grange into her home.
Anyone remember the “Muck?” Ice-skating was very much in favor during the 30's. In a low-lying area of Powder House Hill, the “muck” was a place to lace up the ice skates, according to Cecil Horr.
Many community benefits were held in halls and private homes. Accounts and announcements were circulated in the local newspaper. The South Berwick Woman's Club held concerts and benefits. The Red Men held dances regularly on the third floor of today's Civil Consultants where, I am told, under the present carpet lies a beautiful rock maple dance floor. Junior Roberge told me that someone once brought a dressed up sow pig to a Sadie Hawkins dance there. Pranks were fun and innocent enough in those days.
The old town hall was the center of a lot of activity in the 30s and 40s before burning in 1950. Located where Ocean National Bank is now, the building held the fire department in the basement, town offices, and a big hall for recreational use. Basketball games, dances, benefits, shows, and other assorted recreational activity took place.
I found a 1937 clipping describing an all-female 20-piece band headed by Babe Sutherland playing there.
Cy Chase remembers the lights being shot out there at one of the dances. Seems someone took the weapon right out of the policeman's holster and shot out a light.
(Of note: Cy confirmed my earlier suspicions that the up-town, Point, and Landing kids didn't get along. Fights were a rite of passage among the young. This might explain why some remembered going to the Palace while others never set foot in it.)
Back to the old town hall: Owen Stevens remembers George Jutras being the only referee at the BA basketball games played there.
Owen also remembers court being held there. Seems Judge Spinney and recorder Roger Miller were processing a rental dispute case involving two women. Judge Spinney traveled by train from North Berwick to Cummings Station where he would head for the Town Hall to hold Court. During this case, recorder Miller was also tending the wood stove. Suddenly, the judge remembered he had another appointment. Since both he and Miller had previously heard the case, Judge Spinney asked Miller to render the decision. Upon being asked later about the verdict, the woman who lost the case remarked, “Of course I lost. The judge heard the case and the janitor made the decision.”
Teen Haven was a popular recreation spot for teens in the area. My interviews gathered conflicting views as to its location although it may have moved. Joe Scanlon recalls it being in a wooden barn like structure probably the area where the Vet clinic is now on Goodwin St. The old Legion Hall possibly? Others remember it at the Central School gym, home of the recreation department of the era. In any event, teens looked forward each week to the dances with live bands like The “Twilighters” with Eddie Hersom on trumpet as a feature. Estel Keelty ran the center for a number of years and was coincidentally the first female police officer in South Berwick.
Another teen hangout, according to Tom Keelty, was the vestry of the Federated Church. There was a room with snacks and a bowling alley.
On Highland Avenue in the early 1900s, the bicycle shop of inventor Mark A. Libbey was located where Dr. Zois's dental office is now. Inside, high-wheeled bicycles were ridden to music.
Later Mr. Libbey used the crank organ to play music to roller skate to. The organ is still in great working order today, and preserved by Bill Johnson on Route 1 just north of where you turn off to go to Kennebunkport.
One cannot forget our local fraternal organizations with their rich historical past. Two early ones come to mind. On June 3, 1845, ten South Berwick men founded a chapter of the Order of Odd Fellows . Charter members included three doctors, one of whom was Theodore H. Jewett, age 30, recently married and soon to be father of author Sarah Orne Jewett. The South Berwick chapter was named Olive Branch Lodge No. 28. The three-story brick building housing the 3 rd floor meeting hall was built the same year for $5000.
An even older fraternal organization, the Masons, had formed a South Berwick chapter, St. John Lodge, about 18 years earlier on February 13, 1827, and apparently built their Masonic Hall at the site of Civil Consultants today. Later the Masons moved to the end of the business block. Remnants of the original Masonic Hall foundation and walls remained when the first building was remodeled as the Huntress/Ross block in the late 1800s.
Parades were a favorite form of recreation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.