In last week’s column, we mentioned the unfortunate fire in January of 1874 at John L. Parrott’s store on Ocean Stree. That fire also consumed the town hall that was located next door. Let’s take a look at some of the various meeting and town halls that South Portland has used over the years.

A depiction of the meeting house for which Meeting House Hill got its name. Members of the Second Parish of Falmouth had this building erected for their church services. After our community became the district of Cape Elizabeth in 1765, town meetings were normally held in this building. Image from the book, “A Pilgrim People Still, a history of the First Congregational Church UCC.” Courtesy image

When the town of Falmouth incorporated in 1718, it encompassed the area now covered by the current-day towns and cities of Falmouth, Portland, Westbrook, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth. The European settlers in this area had also formed the First Parish of Falmouth, which was a religious organization, but I mention it because our community’s history of meeting spaces is so closely tied to the history of the church.

Keep in mind that there weren’t all that many families living here at that time. As the European settlers forced out the Native peoples who had used this area as their hunting/fishing ground, it was a violent time. Houses erected in the 1600s were all destroyed in the ensuing conflicts. Most dwelling houses in Falmouth in the early 1700s were located on the Neck (now known as the Portland peninsula) and thus the town/government meetings normally took place there.

In 1733, when the parishioners on this side of the Fore River were desirous of having their own minister and regular church services, they split off from the First Parish and became known as the Second Parish of Falmouth.

There were two named portions of this area – names that were derived from the Wabanaki – the northern section was known as Purpooduck and the southern portion was called Spurwink. Church services in Purpooduck were held at a block house at Spring Point, in the area where the campus of Southern Maine Community College is today. The log house structure at Spring Point was used as a combined garrison and meeting house.

Members of the Second Parish voted to build a new meeting house atop a high point of land in Purpooduck. Construction of this Purpooduck meeting house started in 1733 and it was completed and opened in 1734. Sometimes called the North Meeting House, it was located in the southwest corner of what is now Mount Pleasant Cemetery. This building was, of course, how Meeting House Hill got its name.

After 100 years in service, it was decided by members of the church to tear down the old meeting house and build a new building, known as the Old North Church, on the same site. This view from the Sawyer Street side of the cemetery gives a feel for where the original meeting house once sat. The church, shown here in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, faced Ocean Street. The building was later moved across the street to its current location. South Portland Historical Society photo

In 1765, after several previous attempts to separate from the town of Falmouth, residents here on the south side of the Fore River finally succeeded in becoming the district of Cape Elizabeth. We still couldn’t send our own representative to the General Court (we had to join with the town of Falmouth in selecting a representative), but we did start performing all of the other activities of a town at that time.

We were finally given the distinction of becoming the town of Cape Elizabeth in 1775. For many years, since the town did not have its own meeting house or town hall, meetings were held in the Purpooduck meeting house, although occasionally, such as in the winter when the meeting house was considered too cold, people would meet in a local tavern. The following description of the Purpooduck meeting house is found in an old news article:

“The old Meeting House was a large, square, two-storied, unpainted building, without a tower, with a porch on the front end which served as an entry. There were two outside doors, reached by two steps which ran the entire length of the porch. It was a great barn-like looking structure.

“The interior was rather more inviting in appearance. A high gallery ran around three sides of it. The front gallery was the singers’ seats, which were filled with good singers on Sundays. The pews were large and square, with high straight backs…The seats ran around three sides of the pews. The pews were built to accommodate large families. When the congregation was seated, only the top of the taller persons’ heads could be seen above the backs of the pews.

“The pulpit was an elaborate affair. It stood on one post elevated about eight or ten feet above the floor. It was reached by a flight of winding stairs.”

That 1734 meeting house existed for a full century and was replaced by a new building, known as the Old North Church, built on the same footprint in 1834. The new church building was completed and dedicated in July of 1835. With the old meeting house gone, the town held its meetings from 1835-1837 in the Friends Meeting House (members of the Society of Friends were also known as Quakers). The Friends Meeting House was located on Sawyer Street, near Ocean Street, on a spot that is now covered by the Bay View Cemetery. That cemetery had originally begun as a Quaker cemetery, known as the Friends Burying Ground.

At a town meeting in 1837, residents voted to go ahead and build a town house. We’ll take a look next week at this first meeting house that was actually owned by the town.

Note: South Portland Historical Society is always seeking pieces of our community’s history. If you have photographs, documents, or other items or information to share, please contact the society by mail at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106, by email at [email protected], by phone at 207-767-7299, or message us on Facebook.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]

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