March 4, 2010

Memories give Biddeford heart


— By

Staff Writer

Fifty years ago, downtown Biddeford was a bustling hive of consumer activity, with mills running at full capacity and every storefront occupied.

As mill work declined, demand for parking increased and big box stores lured shoppers away, many shops closed their doors as owners relocated or retired.

The familiar brickwork facades are all that remain of department stores such as Fisherman's, Nichols, Woolworth's and Butler's and specialty shops like Potter's Furniture and The Children's Shop. But the sight of those places still stirs memories.

Peter Danton recalled bowling at Pastime Lanes for 10 cents per string, watching wrestling and boxing matches in its upstairs roller-skating rink, and viewing cowboy movies and vaudeville acts at nearby City Theater.

Priscille Rousselle, 73, remembered buying records at Murphy's Music Store and new dresses at Simensky's with money she earned as a salesclerk at Fisherman's Department Store.

Priscille Gagnon, 69, recalled seeing her first movie, ''Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,'' at Central Theater (now the Biddeford Police Station) and buying her children pajamas for Christmas at JCPenney.

Her husband, Roland J. Gag- non, 70, spoke of their first meeting at a St. Joseph's Parish Hall dance. Back then, a their dates included a movie, followed by a hotdog and chocolate milk at Nadeau's Lunch Van, all for just $1.

The Heart of Biddeford downtown revitalization group is wagering that memories of the past will serve as an effective tool in shaping the city's future. On Thursday, it launched a ''HeartSpots Memory Lane'' project to capture public reminiscences. Wooden HeartSpot signs have been affixed to select building fronts, inviting people to share their memories of those sites. Those messages are being digitally translated and posted on a Web site for all to see. The effort is being headed by HOB's Heart & Soul Community Planning Project, founded 14 months ago as part of a two year strategy to create a master plan for downtown development.

''Rather than telling the community what we (envision) for their future, we're asking them what they would like to see,'' said HOB director and project coordinator Rachel Weyand. The hope is that those recollections will spark a sense of community pride and generate new opportunities for revenue and recreation in the inner city.

As part of the project, three student fellows from the SALT Institute were hired to create a 30-minute documentary highlighting integral components of the city's make-up they wanted to focus on in planning for the future; those included downtown and coast areas, its workforce and emerging arts community. Weyand said the film's debut ''was a huge hit, with about 120 people attending.''

The screening followed with a brief walking tour of the city to acquaint attendees with memory lane locales such as the Happy Dragon Restaurant (formerly the Puritan) on Main Street.

The Puritan was a popular hangout for teens and older generations of immigrants, who plunked down five cents for Coca-Cola and shared news of the day. It's where Priscille Rousselle, then age 17, met her husband, Roland.

''He was standing on the corner watching all the girls go by,'' said Priscille. ''I used to wear my hair in a ponytail and he'd pull it when I walked by. It was his way of teasing me.''

''Reminiscing makes me think how fortunate we were to have had such a close-knit community,'' said Priscille Gagnon. ''I'd like to see the downtown back to the way it was before. I hope others will come forward to share their stories.''

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at:

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