Lifelong Westbrook resident Ellie Saunders is the grand marshal of the Westbrook Together Days parade this year.

“I was quite surprised,” Saunders said, “It’s quite an honor.”

Saunders, 87, widow of a former mayor, has been active in the Westbrook Historical Society, its museum and instrumental in sponsoring the Whitney Rose Garden. “She was named grand marshal because of her years of service to the city,” said parade chairman Lisa Glidden.

Saunders’ husband, Don Saunders, was the mayor from 1968 to 1972. He also was a president of the Saunders Brothers mill. “A wonderful man, a gentleman and a gentle man,” she said. “Best thing that ever happened to me.”

“He enjoyed being mayor,” she said. “We were so well treated.”

She and her husband sent Christmas cards to service men and women from Westbrook and received cards in return from all over the world. In 1970, she co-chaired the Westbrook Bicentennial Committee.

Her family roots are deep in Westbrook’s history. Her father’s Conant forbears were the first permanent settlers in Westbrook in 1728. They came from Massachusetts and built a sawmill in 1729. “They were looking for water power,” Saunders said.

Saunders lives in her family’s historic home on Conant Street. The original part of the home was built by an ancestor in 1768. With the exception of only a few months, the home stayed in the family.

She maintains the home and its landscaped 10-acre site along the Presumpscot River. Surrounded by Westbrook memorabilia, she sat in her home recently and recalled her life in Westbrook as a child with two sisters.

After first living on Bridge Street as a youngster, she has lived in the home since the 1930s when her parents, Percy and Eva Conant, bought the property from a cousin. The house was unpainted. “It was sad-looking,” Saunders recalled.

It had fallen into disrepair and wasn’t served by electricity. But her parents worked hard restoring the property and they installed one ceiling light and one electrical outlet for a radio. Passers-by soon noticed the improvements to the home. “My God, there are curtains in every window,” one walking past was overheard to say.

Her dad delivered ice and coal with a horse for the B.G. Pride Company in Westbrook during the depression years. He had weekends off but still was required to care for the horse. “If you had a job, you were grateful,” Saunders said.

Her folks had a market garden and sold produce in a roadside stand. Saunders said they sold enough beet greens to pay the taxes for the year during the 1930s.

Saunders was paid a penny for every two boxes of strawberries she picked. “That was the going price,” she recalled.

To feed the family, her mom canned food and stored crocks of pickles. Her dad kept two cows and raised a pig and a beef “critter” each year. “It was a feeling of security,” Saunders said about all the home-produced provisions.

In those days, they relied on a couple of wood stoves to provide heat and some of the house was closed off during the winter. Meals were cooked on an iron stove. She recalled the family moved to the house in March. “It was cold,” she said about life inside.

The home had a toilet and one water faucet. “It was primitive,” she said.

Saunders and two sisters grew up in the home. A hen house was converted into a playhouse for them. She said the neighborhood girls would congregate there.

“We learned to entertain our selves,” she said. “We had a wonderful childhood here.”

She has a lot of memories about life in the city, too. Church played a big role in her family and others in Westbrook. She recalled seeing, as a child, the boys from the St. Hyacinth’s school practicing marching for a Memorial Day parade. She said the boys wore black knickers and white shirts.

She attended the Bridge Street Grammar School, which had a big rivalry with Forest Street School. Children were marched to the baseball field near the current swimming pool to watch an annual game between the two schools.

She worked several years for Dr. Ralph Whitney, a dentist. “It was like working for a grandfather,” she said.

The doctor’s wife, Mildred, was a cousin to Saunders’ father. The Percy Conant family sponsored the rose garden, honoring the Whitneys.

Whitney’s driver taught Saunders to drive a car in the Saccarappa Cemetery. “She can’t hurt anybody up there,” she recalled the doctor saying.

When she hears these days about downtown parking problems, Saunders just laughs. “We’ve had a parking problem for a 100 years,” she said.

She said a trolley car barn was built on part of her family’s cemetery. The land was supposed to be returned but the family never got it back. Her parents and her husband are buried in the family cemetery.

Saunders has so many memories of her life in Westbrook and she is proud of her hometown. She said it was the mills that made Westbrook grow. “I never felt bad it was called a mill town,” Saunders said, pointing out that her family had the first one.

Industry and hard work runs in her family and she inherited the ethic. She’s been busy cataloging Westbrook memorabilia in volumes of scrapbooks stored in three cabinets in her home. And With the weather warming up, Saunders is anxious to start washing windows in her home. “You don’t want to rust out,” she said.

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