Westbrook has always played a big role in the life for Andrea Vasquez, who writes the monthly “History Matters” column for the American Journal.

She visited the city often as child and teenager because, although she grew up in South Portland, her grandparents and other relatives lived in Westbrook.

In fact, she traces her interest in history back to her childhood, when she’d eagerly peruse her great-grandmother’s scrapbooks of old clippings and photos.

Today, Vasquez is a teacher, journalist and novelist who lives in Westbook. In her newspaper column, she writes about the people, both famous and not, who are part of Westbrook’s history. And now, she is the author of a new book that is a collection of her columns.

Remembering Westbrook: The People of the Paper City,” published by The History Press, tells the stories of the people who helped shape Westbrook. They include Col. Thomas Westbrook and Cornelia Warren, a philanthropist who never lived in the city but gave so much to it that many facilities still bear her name. Vasquez also writes about one of the city’s first historians, Fabius Maximus Ray.

Her book can be found at a variety of locations, including Sportsman’s True Value Hardware, Digby’s, and Good Things Variety, all in Westbrook; The Bookworm in Gorham; Nonesuch Books in South Portland; and Longfellow Books in Portland.

The book also is available at the Westbrook Historical Society, and can be purchased from the online catalogue of The History Press at www. historypress.net.

Vasquez, a graduate of Bowdoin College and the StoneCoast MFA program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine, agreed to answer some questions sbout her new book and her interest in history.

Q: Wow! Your book tells about the secret burial place of Col. Thomas Westbrook. You don’t have to tell us the location – we’ll read your book to discover that – but please tell us who Col. Westbrook was, how the city came to be named after him, and why his burial site was secret.

A: Col. Thomas Westbrook (who was born in 1675 and died in 1744) was an early settler to the Stroudwater area of Maine and a leader in the colonial military during the early conflicts of the French and Indian Wars. Westbrook was also a businessman involved in the British mast trade and later acquired much property and several paper mills in the Westbrook/Stroudwater area.Unfortunately, toward the end of his life, Westbrook was taken to court by his former business partner, a young man named Samuel Waldo (after whom Waldo County is named). Following these possibly biased court proceedings, Westbrook lost everything he had, including his burial plot and home.

When he died several months later, his family was forced to spirit his body away in the middle of a nighttime snowstorm in order to prevent the Waldo family from claiming Westbrook’s remains and holding them “hostage” until debts were paid, as was permitted by English law and custom at the time. Westbrook was thus buried in a secret location that, presumably, only his family knew of. The Knight family (descendants of the sister who helped inter him) kept the secret well – for nine generations – until the location was finally revealed and his burial place unearthed in 1976.

Westbrook came to be named after the colonel when, years after his death, the town first separated from Falmouth and was in need of a name. According to accounts, it was a member of the Knight family -the descendants of Westbrook who were holding the secret of his burial place – who proposed naming the town after him.

Q: Your book is about local history. Please tell us a little bit about your own history. You grew up in South Portland, yet you write about Westbrook. Does the city have special meaning for you and if so, why?

A: Westbrook has always been very important to me, as it was where my mother grew up and where much of her family remained after she settled in South Portland with my father. Although I grew up “across the bridge,” and am very proud of my hometown, I spent a lot of time as a child and teen in Westbrook with my grandparents, great-grandmothers and aunts and uncles.

I actually think my interest in history was first sparked by my great-grandmother’s scrapbooks, with all of the old clippings and photos she had carefully tucked away. When I was little, on every visit to her Cumberland Street house, I’d run straight for her TV stand where she kept them stacked. Because of all of the time I spent here growing up, I felt immediately at home when I finally settled in Westbrook as an adult. It wasn’t until recently that I began some genealogical research and discovered just how far back my own family’s history went into Westbrook’s past. After growing up knowing far more about the recent immigrant pieces of my ancestry, I was stunned to learn that my grandfather’s branch of the Walker family had settled in the Prides Corner area in the mid 1700s.

Apart from my ancestral connection to the city, I just love living here. It’s a great community, and I find it extremely interesting (and fun) to learn these all of these neat facts about Westbrook’s past.

Q: For those who might be new to Westbrook, can you please explain the “paper city” part of your book’s title? Has paper always been important to Westbrook?

A: Westbrook started out as a pioneer’s settlement and then became a little mill town – grist mills and saw mills, thanks to the river and falls that run through the area – and the community that formed around them. In 1854, Samuel Dennis Warren purchased the small Day & Lyon paper mill and essentially changed the face of the city. While the Saccarappa Falls side of Westbrook was later developed due to the textile and other manufacturing industries in that part of town, the Cumberland Mills section began to flourish as the S.D. Warren Company expanded. Of course, eventually, it was the sight and smell of the towering paper mill that grew to dominate the city. And just about everyone in town had a family member who was employed there. The mill was vital to the growth of Westbrook into the city it has become. At some point, most likely in the early 1900s, residents began to affectionately, and proudly, refer to Westbrook as “The Paper City,” which carried over into local newspaper articles, books, and public speeches. It was the pride and affection clearly carried by the nickname that I was drawn to.

Q: Many people enjoy your “History Matters” column in the American Journal. Which column have you most enjoyed researching and writing? Why?

A: It’s hard to pick a favorite, as I’ve enjoyed them all. When writing about a person, I fall headlong into the research; I want to know every detail about him or her, from home address to family ancestry to military records and occupations. Even when I have completed an article, I continue to save photos and clippings I come across about the subjects of my columns.

The columns that have been most special to me, however, have been the ones in which I’ve been able to connect with the person’s family or descendants. Those include the families of John Hay, Paul “Ginger” Fraser, and Beverly Jensen. Hearing a person’s personal story directly from relatives is a very special thing that I always feel honored to be a part of. Sister Therese Grondin (a missionary nun who taught and was imprisoned in China) was the first whose family I was able to speak to, so that was especially exciting and meaningful for me.

That same summer, I had the honor of writing about Alice Lemieux Jacobsen (an early flight attendant with Pan Am who assisted in a place crash rescue and was selected to be aboard the first round-the-world passenger flight), and was invited to the family home to spend time with her and her daughter, son, and niece during my interview. That, too, was very special experience.

Q: Which column has been the most challenging for you to research and write?

A: It’s hardest to write the column when information is limited. Of course, newspaper articles of the past were written about the most exceptional people, who were often wealthy or famous in some way. It’s sad to think of how many stories have been lost just because they weren’t recorded and passed on.

George Gore, the major league baseball star of the late 1800s, was a challenge in some ways, as he grew up very poor. Later anecdotes – written when he was a star – recounted that, because of poverty, he was forced to come to his major-league tryout without shoes. There’s no way to say if that is true or not, but it nevertheless demonstrates the economic circumstances of his family. While information about his baseball career was plentiful, finding certain things about his life before the major leagues was difficult.

In general, I have found it especially tricky, and often impossible, to find information about the general laborer class of the 1800s, as, sadly, in addition to not being written about in newspapers, general records on these people were often scarce and less accurate. Gore’s birthplace and birth year, for example, can’t be pinned down because no birth certificate can be found in either of the places (Westbrook and Hartland, Maine) that have been claimed as his town of birth. However, either way, it is certain that he grew up here in Westbrook.

Even census records were tough to find because his family, perhaps because of literacy issues, spelled their surname several different ways.

Q: You write of Fabius Maximus Ray, one of Westbrook’s first local historians. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

A: Fabius Maximus Ray, (who lived from 1837 to 1915) was born in Windham, a descendant of Dr. Caleb Ray, one of the first physicians to settle in that town. He attended local schools and Bowdoin College, and spent some time in Europe studying French and German, which he taught in Saccarappa upon his return. He eventually became a lawyer, establishing a practice here in Westbrook, but was also a well-known poet (publishing several books of verse) and historian, collecting information from elder townspeople and publishing thorough genealogical and historical articles in local papers. These historical writings were kept for years in the Walker Memorial Library until transcribed by one of the librarians there and bound into a published collection. This collection today is one of the most used and recommended by local historians and researchers.

Q: One of the notable women your book talks about is Cornelia Warren. Why was she important to Westbrook?

A: Although Cornelia Warren never resided in Westbrook, she gave much to our small city. The daughter of mill owner S.D. Warren, she was quite a woman, especially considering the times in which she was raised.

An art collector like her mother and scholar like her eldest brother, she later became a novelist and businesswoman in her own right, opening a dairy farm on the inherited family estate in Waltham, Mass. Although Warren gave much to many communities and organizations, including an international girls’ school in Spain, the town of Waltham, and an immigrant resettlement home in Boston, she contributed much to her adopted community of Westbrook as well, both in life and after her death. In addition to funding the construction of the “old swimming tank” that once stood in the Presumpscot River below the Cumberland Mills bridge, she also prompted the conversion of the Warren Block dance hall and offices in Cumberland Mills into a gymnasium – to be used by basketball teams of both genders. She also provided equipment and funding to the Warren Manual Training School on Main Street (which education for both boys and girls in trades), and included in her will an endowment for the city to be used toward educational and recreational resources for the people of the city. Today, many of Westbrook’s best fields and facilities bear her name because of the Cornelia Warren Community Association that she made possible with her generosity.

Q: What’s your advice to other people who want to learn about their family’s history and preserve that knowledge for future generations?

A: Please do it. Start by keeping a notebook for jotting down anecdotes, facts, dates, anything you remember about your past, or that of your parents and grandparents. Write down their names, birthdates, place of birth, military service or immigration information, and for deceased relatives, cemetery or community where he or she is buried – anything you know, even if it isn’t very much.

The information doesn’t even have to be in any sort of order, just clearly marked. Even if you don’t have the time or interest to dig up more now, perhaps your children, grandchildren or nieces and nephews will someday. And for this, any bit of information helps. If ancestors are from or lived in Westbrook at some point, researchers can visit the Westbrook Historical Society archives and begin by looking through the computer index of scrapbooks, cemetery records, old city directories (which listed a person’s address as well as occupation and spouse), marriage information, and genealogy notebooks.

The Walker Memorial Library also has a wonderful local history room upstairs with a lot of similar resources. Other good local places to search are in the Portland Public Library’s Maine room and in their collection of archived local newspapers (for obituaries and other information), the Maine Historical Society in Portland and other local historical societies such as those in Windham, South Portland, and Gorham.

If your ancestors are from elsewhere, looking on the Internet for a nearby historical society or genealogical society is a good place to begin, and records can be requested from the vital statistics desk of a city or town hall. I’ve found historical society volunteers all across the country to be very helpful with my own research. You never really know what you’ll find until you start looking. That’s the fun of it.

Q: Please tell us where we can find your book. Also, what’s next for you in terms of writing?

A: The Westbrook Historical Society will be holding an open house at 17 Dunn St. (upstairs in the parkside Manchester American Legion building) on June 5 from noon to 3 p.m. I’ll be there then for a book signing/meet-the-author event, where I will have books for sale. In addition, I’ll be doing a talk/reading at the Walker Memorial Library on the evening of June 17.

As for my writing projects, my first plan is to complete a novel I’ve been working on for several years, and begin a second work of historical fiction that has been filling notebooks, and my imagination, since I began my research. I’ll continue to write my monthly column for the American Journal, of course, as I already have a list of many more fascinating people from Westbrook to write about – and am always looking for suggestions from people in the community.

Andrea Vasquez, author of a new book on Westbrook history.


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