The Grace Darling and Newichawannock Hall
Excerpted from a talk by Ernie Wood, Old Berwick Historical Society Lecture, November 17, 2005
Simeon P. Huntress (1844-1923) owned Eagle Stables on Portland Street, at the site of the present Mobil station. In the late 1880s, with the South Berwick and Salmon Falls mills booming but before the advent of trolleys, he operated horse-drawn carriages to the beach called the York Beach Daily Stage Line. His famous horse-drawn omnibus “Grace Darling” still exists at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages in Stony Brook, New York.
Across the street from the Eagle Stables was the business block we know today. Upstairs, Newichawannock Hall , located where Wadleigh Ballroom is now, was a center of a variety of recreational activities over the years.
It all started with the Newichawannock Hall Association that formed in the late 19 th century to create a new citizens' hall. Abner Oakes, a noted attorney and judge in South Berwick, headed up this committee at an early stage. Many an act, movie, and activity graced this hall under many different managements.
Over the years the hall was the site of: a dance hall, two movie theatres, a benefit performance hall, club meeting space, boxing, basketball, roller-skating, Mark A. Libbey cock fighting, and Jack Hogan's restaurant.
In the South Berwick Village fire of 1870 , one of the casualties was a community assembly hall, upstairs in a brick building destroyed in the blaze. “It was something of a sigh of regret for the past,” wrote local resident Rebecca Young years later, “that we recall the panoramas, the slight of hand matinees, the exhibition of Tom Thumb and Dolly Dutton and their kind, and also the noisy band concerts.” We believe it was in, under, or near the anteroom of the hall that the fire of 1870 began.
After the fire, citizens rallied to create a new hall. Newspaper records of The Maine Centennial Biddeford indicate the following activities at the Newichawannock Hall:
-- 11/22/1882 - Gilman's Coronet Band gave an oyster supper
-- 11/28/1883 - E.O. Lord and J.A. Hooper's “Mill Whistle” playing
-- 10/10/1883 - Skating rink opened. Interesting that M.A. Libbey bought his crank organ for Roller Skating in 1888. He may have run the rink here as well as the one later on Highland Avenue.
-- In 1916 the hall was known as the “Home Theatre” and managed by a group out of Boston headed by Dr. Thomas Harward and Mr. F.H. Crane. Various acts and movie billings were the fare.
In the 1920's the hall became the Strand Theatre, “home of good pictures.” Thomas P. Higgins was the manager. At this time, there were also many benefit dances held by groups such as the Katahdin Mountain Boys. Donald Doane was “Slim,” Dave Avery was “Hank,” Louie Hatch was “Blondie,” and Bill Freeman was “Shorty” Carol Paul's aunt married him.
In the 1940's and 50's Newichawannock Hall became the Park Theatre under the management of a Mrs. Fifefield. There are still many recollections of this theatre. Cecil Horr recalls “holding hands with lovely young ladies” including “two sweeties, one already chosen.” Reo Landry recalled the movies at the Park Theatre. There was a double western feature on the weekends for 10 cents.
Carol Paul recalls that Gary Garvin passed out flyers to the movies in order to get in free. She remembers the price at 7 cents. She remembers it being called the “Scratch House.” This is disputed by Tom Keelty who worked the projectors at times. Tom knew a lot about what was going on in town. He claims that Junior Roberge lived a sheltered life in comparison.
The Park Theatre had a balcony, and one 75-year-old gentleman, Russell Rogers from Dover, remembers removing those balcony seats when the space no longer was used as a theatre. He also said there had been cock fighting there, probably at a much earlier time.
Cy Chase remembers Sunday night movies for ten cents. One particular movie stood out for Cy, “You Can't Take it With You.” Seems Robert Chagnon “let a huge gas bomb go, and said as the movie ended, ‘You can't take that with you either.'” Cy says Robert's mother nearly killed him.
Carol Paul remembers the Park Theatre management raising funds for a “cure for polio and its victims.” The management stopped the movie and passed the plate.
Carol also remembers Father Lamb, of the St. Michaels Catholic Church , sending his housekeepers to the theatre to “check up on” the kids' behavior. She said they would then report to the parents on Sunday at services. Carol recalls “a lot of fun being spoiled by those housekeepers. We did not get our 10 cents' worth.”