Historied downtowns are like grandpas.
They’ve been around awhile, as evidenced by their time-warped edges and drooping facades. They tend to take naps at 5 p.m. And boy, do they have stories to tell — stories about Main Street parades, first dates at the corner diner, or quasi-legal pawnshops run out of the back door of an uncle’s shoe store.
Unfortunately, the youngsters don’t typically care to hear them — not with all this shiny new stuff to look at instead. Besides, we figure if the stories are any good, someone will make them into a movie with lots of explosions.
In an effort to turn a little attention to downtown Biddeford, the nonprofit organization Heart of Biddeford is offering a rare peek into some of the city’s under-lock-and-key locations during its upcoming “Secret Spaces, Historic Places” tour, from 1:30 to 5 p.m. Saturday.
The self-guided excursion includes stops in four historic locales, from stories up in the City Hall clock tower to below ground in an under-mill lagoon. Knowledgeable guides will be on hand at each stop to share the site’s story, and balloons and volunteers will help show the way from place to place.
Delilah Poupore, interim executive director at Heart of Biddeford, hopes the event will help folks “realize the incredible value of downtowns — the place and the history it provides.”
It’ll also be plum interesting:
O.H. STAPLES BUILDING
In the floors above the now-vacant space once occupied by Reny’s (aka the O.H. Staples building) is a large and dormant theater. The dancing of dust particles seems to be the only theatrics these walls have seen in decades, though the peach-colored paint continues to peel in dinner plate-sized flakes, revealing a undercoat of mint.
It’s rumored the space may have been used for boxing matches and movie watching, though neither of those explain the theater’s peculiar door to nowhere — which, if ever walked through, would drop a person onto a staircase 15 feet below.
Visitors can soliloquize onstage, spectate from the balcony or wonder over the theatrical remnants of trapdoors, curtain pulleys and stage-left storage rooms.
It’s a mystery what rituals took place in the ballroom inside the Laconia Building when the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) were there.
The fraternal organization was dedicated to altruistic and charitable acts. Or, if you have a devious imagination and/or read books by Dan Brown, they may also be the keeper of centuries-old secrets and religious relics.
Keen-eyed tour-goers can extrapolate for hours on some of the space’s details: The IOOF’s signature symbol of three linked rings on the chandelier, the peephole on the door (for secret password checking, no doubt) or the bas-relief of interlocking hands above the entry door.
Attendees should scope out the old-timey safes tucked into a side room. They’re empty now, but is that the dust outline of a 2,000-year-old chalice I see?
CITY HALL CLOCK TOWER
Alternating and incongruous staircases lead the way up to the City Hall clock tower, where the historic clock is on “sleep status” until funds are raised to repair it. Meanwhile, it’s one o’clock all the time.
The clock was built in 1895 by Howard Clock in Boston, but was mechanized in the 1980s. The bell stopped ringing a while back, but the clock itself went kaput just last year. There’s also some entertaining writing on the walls up there, including “Robert Bedard 1964” and “O.J. Simpson 1982 I didn’t do it.”
NO. 10 MILL LAGOON
Under the No. 10 Mill — a place once flooded by cotton and Vellux blankets — is a hidden lagoon. Redirected water from the Saco River flowed through the underground tunnels beneath the building, the currents keeping the sewing machines going on the floors overhead. The space was a secret of sorts even in its heyday, and was kept under tight wraps — mill workers rarely even saw it.
The water stopped flowing decades ago when that newfangled electricity took over, but the huge subterranean room still exists. The space is still and quiet now, aside from the echoing trickle of groundwater and, possibly, Chunk from “The Goonies” hanging out in the lightless tunnels with a Baby Ruth and a pirate skeleton.
The lagoon alone, said Poupore, is worth the $25 ticket price, even for folks who may have seen the other locations during previous tours.
And while access to Biddeford’s secret sites is the major draw, Poupore says the event also offers tour-goers an opportunity to socialize and connect with each other: “Just getting to walk around town and see neighbors filling the sidewalks,” she said.
If we take the time to hear the history, Poupore added, we might realize what we have and why it’s worth preserving.
Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at: