WESTBROOK – While Mike Sanphy might not technically be a Westbrook native, he’s certainly one of the city’s most well-versed residents in its history, and he has just released a book to prove it.

“Images of America: Westbrook” was compiled by Sanphy with the help of other Westbrook Historical Society members, and provides a 127-page history of Westbrook through hundreds of old photos.

Sanphy, who was born in Portland, has lived and worked in Westbrook since the 1960s, when he became a member of the Westbrook Police Department. Retiring in 2008, he was the longest-serving member in the department’s history, at 40 years.

From even before his retirement, Sanphy has been active with the Westbrook Historical Society, and is a walking memory bank of all things Westbrook, perhaps learning from fellow member and lifelong Westbrook resident Ellie Conant Saunders, who is a descendent of the first Westbrook settlers.

According to Sanphy, who is also a city councilor, the historical society will be selling copies of his book, as well as a book on Westbrook mayors by fellow society member Donna Conley, at Together Days this Saturday from noon-6 p.m. in Riverbank Park. All proceeds from Sanphy’s book will be donated to the historical society.

The American Journal spoke with Sanphy this week about his book and the importance of remembering local history.

Q: What inspired you to put together a book on Westbrook? What do you think stands out about Westbrook’s history?

A: I’ve always had great interest in history, a fascination with Portland history and as president of the Westbrook Historical Society, I’m always providing pictures in the newspaper and other things, and some people have asked me, ‘Why don’t you put a book together?’ So I said, why not, especially with the city’s bicentennial coming up. I started out with about nine people helping me, and there were about three that helped me finish the project. It was very, very time consuming, pictures had to be scanned a certain way and to a certain size, but it was a fun project for me. I’ve always enjoyed history.

I’m fascinated with how Westbrook came to be. The old town of Falmouth, when we separated in 1814, at that time, the old Stroudwater village and Saccarappa and Congin and into Portland, was all one big territory. Stroudwater was always interesting, with the Tate House, and the idea that a lot of those original houses are still there. Col. Tate took over for Col. Westbrook as mast agent, and that comes together as part of our history. Even when Portland and Westbrook separated, it’s still that idea that we had that history at one time.

Q: What has driven you to be involved in the Westbrook Historical Society for so long? Have you always had an interest in local history?

A: I’ve been there for about 12-14 years. Like I said, I’ve always been interested in history, but back when I was a police officer, we’d take aerial photos of Westbrook, and eventually I bought the negatives of the photos of Westbrook, and I have a massive collection.

Q: How did you come to work with Arcadia Publishing and Images of America? Did you seek them out based on their series of historical books?

A: I helped Dianne LeConte with her book, “Westbrook on the Presumpscot,” which was published by Images of America. I gave them a call to see if we could do a follow-up book. They sent me data of what the book required as far as photographs, text, size, etc. I couldn’t have done it without the help of Suzanne Roberts Norton, who was fantastic help and a driving force behind me, actually.

Q: Was the book intended to be released to coincide with the city’s bicentennial?

A: I was hoping to have it ready for the bicentennial because I thought it would be interesting for people that came here seeking historical information to have it available.

Q: While compiling the book did you learn anything about Westbrook you didn’t previously know?

A: I learned a lot, and I think a lot of that was due to Ellie Conant Saunders. I would call her for information, and not only would she tell me what I wanted to know, but she’d also give me tons of other facts that just added to my information. Her family has so much history in Westbrook. The Conants were related to the Haskells of the Haskell Silk Mill. She’s told me stories about the mills and now I have a much better appreciation for some of the old buildings.

Q: What do you think is the most interesting time period of Westbrook history? How does it resonate in the city we see today?

A: I’d say the years from around 1890 up to around the early urban renewal years, because that’s when Westbrook saw the most amount of change. When I first came on the police department, William Clarke Drive was a railroad bed, and Main Street was Route 25, period. But I think back in 1890 was when the fire department was first organized, and the police department in 1905. In that period, we went from horse and buggies, to trolley cars to automobiles.

The biggest thing was that urban renewal destroyed our downtown and that was our heritage. At that time, the mindset was to take the federal money and make a better downtown.

Q: A lot of the photos in the book come from your own collection. How have you come by so many historical photos?

A: I take a lot of pictures, and I’ve always carried cameras with me. Urban renewal was a fascinating time, and I would take pictures downtown as the buildings came down. It was the idea that history was disappearing in front of me, with historic buildings that were part of Westbrook, gone forever. That’s the idea of the historical society, the preservation of artifacts and photographs for future generations.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for a city to recognize its history?

A: Like the old saying is: if you don’t remember the mistakes of the past, you’re often doomed to repeat them. I often think of that when I think of our downtown, as we try to restructure it. I think Bill Baker (Westbrook’s director of business and community relations/assistant city manager) is doing a tremendous job doing that, and has really taken a grip on things in trying to promote the downtown. As for the book, I think it’s interesting, and the whole intention was not to make money on it, all the money I make is going to the historical society. I wanted to put something together for future generations that can look at this here, and say, ‘This is Westbrook.’

Mike Sanphy


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