Conrad Lausier remembers vividly how he used to be able to smell his way through a whole meal on his drive into Portland.

“First you’d smell the baked beans from B&M, then that wonderful smell of the bread from Nissen’s bakery,” said Lausier, 67, of North Yarmouth. “Then you’d get Jordan’s Meat. I remember the roast beef.”

The smorgasbord of scents Lausier recounted hasn’t existed since the late 1990s, when the J.J. Nissen Bakery on Washington Avenue shut down. Jordan’s Meats, on India Street in the East End, stopped cooking up hot dogs and deli meats in 2005. The B&M Baked Beans plant, where Lausier worked for 42 years, will stop production by the end of this year, the owners announced in late August.

Jordan’s Meats in 2004, just after its closing was announced. Many Portlanders remember the meaty smell of the plant wafting over the city’s East End and Old Port. Staff photo by Herb Swanson

Portland’s evolution from a working class town of factories and fisheries to a nationally known foodie and tourist destination can be traced through one’s nose. Longtime Portlanders remember when so many of the city’s smells came from bakeries, food processing plants, fishing docks and junkyards. Today the city’s signature smells can be traced to coffee roasters, breweries and restaurants. According to a city database that keeps track of odor complaints, the biggest nuisance smell today comes from the more than 100 giant oil storage tanks across the Fore River in South Portland.

SCENTS OF YORE

There are Portlanders who can remember when the smells of the city were consistently more offensive than they are today – the stench of sewage from Back Cove, the rotten egg-sulfur stink of a paper mill and the smell of burning rubber.

“When the tide was low and the sun was hot on the mud flats, it would create quite a smell of sewage in the Back Cove,” said Maine State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., 73, who grew up near the cove. “There wasn’t really proper sewage treatment there then, and it was an issue the city lived with for a long time.”

Shettleworth recalls gazing out from his home at the tangle of Portland junkyards that once stood on Back Cove’s eastern shore, where trendy breweries, restaurants and coffee shops stand today. Sometimes he could see, and smell, stacks of tires burning. Tire fires in junkyards seemed to be a regular occurrence, and the acrid smell was impossible to ignore, Shettleworth said.

The S.D. Warren Co. paper mill, shown in 1884, was known to generations of Portlanders for its rotten egg smell. Some say it smelled like cabbage. Photo courtesy of Walker Memorial Library and Maine Memory Network

The former S.D. Warren paper mill in neighboring Westbrook made its presence known in the irritated nostrils of Portland residents for generations. But as papermaking in Maine waned, owner Sappi in 1999 closed its pulp manufacturing – a particularly smelly part of the facility  – and the most offensive smells went away.

“It smelled like cabbage, but you got used to it,” said former Westbrook Mayor Mike Sanphy, 74, a Portland native. “It was very potent, and there were times when it blew right to Portland.”

Other smells of Portland’s past were more pleasant, like the aroma of warm bread from Cushman’s Bakery on Elm Street, which operated into the 1960s. But few of Portland’s signature smells remain as powerful in people’s minds and hearts as the sweet scent of molasses and spices wafting from the B&M plant. The bean factory was built in 1913, and its site is slated to become part of Roux Institute’s planned technology graduate school, research center and business incubator. But for many Portlanders, the site will always be remembered for the aroma of baked beans.

“I remember driving by there as a child and we’d always open the windows so we could smell it,” said Nini McManamy, 73, of Portland. “It always smelled delicious, like Saturday night supper.”

McManamy, who has lived on Munjoy Hill for 40 years, said she could smell the beans baking from her house, across the water from the plant. She said the smell was pleasant, more like a home kitchen than a giant factory. Lausier said working inside the plant, the predominant smell was molasses. But after a while workers wouldn’t notice it, until they went on vacation.

“When you’d come back you’d smell it again and then you’d be hungry all day for a week,” Lausier said.

McManamy has fond memories of the time, more than a decade ago, when the B&M plant baked beans for the Old El Paso brand every Tuesday night, filling the neighborhood with the scent of Mexican food.

The aroma of beans baked at Portland’s B&M plant will soon become one of the city’s lost smells. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SMELLS LIKE PORTLAND TO ME

The city has had a significant influx of new residents from places like Boston and New York over the last decade or so. Many are coming from urban areas with their own pungent odors, including pollution or garbage in the streets, so Portland’s smells are probably less offensive in comparison.

“For so many people coming here from out of state the smell of low tide, fish or the ocean is a wonderful, natural thing,” said Raylene Estabrook, a Scarborough-based Realtor. “Those are some of the things that make living here desirable for people.”

While some of the city’s smells have been lost forever, some are ever-changing. The Munjoy Hill neighborhood has become one of the more desirable, and expensive, places in the city to live in recent years. It’s also home to the Portland Water District’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility, opened in 1979. One would think sewage treatment and high-priced homes would be incompatible, but apparently not.

The Portland Water District has spent more than $20 million on odor control equipment since 2003 at the East End Wastewater Treatment Facility, seen here in 2012. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

That could be because the plant’s odor is not detected as often or as powerfully today as it once was. The Portland Water District has spent more than $20 million on odor control equipment since 2003, said Scott Firmin, director of wastewater services for the district. These improvements include covering water treatment areas, which used to be open to the air. The water district also started an odor complaint tracking system in 2015 to help pinpoint the time and possible causes of certain waste water “fragrances.” Since then, complaints made to the treatment plant about the smell have fallen from 88 in a year to just five so far this year, Firmin said.

When Clare LaVergne moved to Munjoy Hill in 2015, she noticed an unpleasant odor during her daily walks along the Eastern Promenade near the plant. But today she says she only notices it about once a week, and only when she’s near the plant. At her home, about a mile away, it’s not an issue.

LaVergne, 32, says the smells she most associates with her neighborhood are probably low tide at East End Beach and the malty scent from Shipyard Brewing Co. on Newbury Street. She can also take in the smell of burning fuel and steam from the locomotives on the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, which runs from the Old Port to the Eastern Promenade area.

A writer and researcher who moved to Portland from the Boston area, LaVergne says she especially enjoys the “marshy” smell of Back Cove. She said she even finds the smells of trucks carrying fish or bait from the waterfront to be comforting reminders of Portland’s unique charms, if also slightly nauseating.

LAW AND ODOR

While Portlanders have dealt with overpowering odors for generations, it wasn’t until 1997 that the city added a section to its land use code to deal with odor complaints. Much of the impetus, according to Press Herald stories at the time, were complaints from people living in the Western Promenade area about nearby food processing plants, including Barber Foods and Cozy Harbor Seafood.

But today the city gets only a few complaints in any given year about food processing plants anywhere in the city, said Troy Moon, the city’s sustainability director. This year, while there have only been one or two odor complaints related to food smells – not specific businesses but the smells – there have been about 80 complaints related to oil storage “tank farms” across the Fore River in South Portland. Those complaints, of an oily, asphalt smell in the air, are turned over to the state Department of Environmental Protection for action.

To trigger city action, at least 10 confirmed complaints must come in “within two separate 24-hour periods,” according to the odor section of the city’s land use code. The odor language can be found in Article 6.8.10, should you want to look it up. People can lodge complaints about specific Portland smells at Fix-It-Portland on Portlandmaine.gov.

Anne Pringle, a former city councilor and mayor who has lived near the Western Promenade since 1973, said the family that owned Barber Foods was very responsive to smell complaints about the plant, which produces frozen chicken entrees, among other things. Pringle, 74, said the family explained their processes to neighbors and spent money on odor control measures. Because of that, noticeable odors from the plant – which the Barber family sold and which is now owned by Tyson – are few and far between, she said. The main thing she and her neighbors can smell these days is the South Portland oil tanks.

Barber Foods produced some of the smells known to Western Promenade-area residents a couple of decades ago, but complaints today are rare, city officials say. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

The company that became Barber Foods was founded in 1955 by Gus Barber, and its St. John Street plant was run by his family until it was sold to AdvancePierre Foods in 2011. While Barber Foods might be a symbol of Portland’s past – and past smells – it’s also linked to the city’s new wave of food entrepreneurs and new smells.

Max and Jack Barber, both in their 20s, grew up around the family business and now run four Mainely Burgers food trucks and two restaurants in Massachusetts. Jack Barber says whenever he smells chicken frying he gets nostalgic, because it reminds him of his childhood. Today he appreciates the new smells of Portland, including the combination of flavors that can be inhaled whenever a fleet of food trucks gathers on the Eastern Prom.

“There are so many interesting smells from each truck, a banh mi sandwich from one, fish and chips from another,” said Barber, 28.

One common bond between Portland’s smells, past and present, is that many still emanate from places of work. Coffee roasters, breweries, food trucks and restaurants are big parts of Portland’s contemporary economy, which has evolved to one largely based around service, food and tourism. The city this year also began granting licenses to stores selling marijuana, which has its own unmistakable smell.

The old smells, like those of warm bread from J.J. Nissen or molasses-infused beans from B&M, were not only tied to places of work but to a very different way of life for Portland residents.

“Those were manufacturing jobs, and those companies supported their employees and their neighborhoods,” said McManamy, a retired teacher. Losing places like Nissen’s and B&M, she said, is “really part of a change in the social fabric of the hill and downtown.”


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