A few years ago Nicholas Noyes was in Portland’s Bedford Park when he noticed a sign bearing the park’s name.

“I thought that was strange. We’d always known it as Noyes Park,” said Noyes, 76, whose family sold the land for the park to the city nearly 100 years ago.

Noyes, a retired librarian at the Maine Historical Society, contacted the city of Portland about what he believed to be an error regarding the name – but nothing ever came of it. Then the family discovered that – even though the sign is no longer there – city ordinance also refers to Bedford Park, not Noyes Park. They recently made a request to the city that the name be changed back to Noyes Park.

“It was named in honor of the family and (the Bedford Park name) just takes that honor away,” said Noyes’ sister, Anna Noyes Benoit, 71.

What the family thought was a straightforward request concerning one of the city’s smallest parks, however, launched a complicated process that has raised questions not only about the history of the park itself but also about how the city chooses to name its public parks and lands. And it has led to discussions about how to ensure that the city also is telling the stories of Indigenous peoples and marginalized groups.

“This is not a pointless argument about a small park and a forgotten name,” said Herb Adams, an adjunct professor of history at Southern Maine Community College. “The symbolism is very important and timely.”



Bounded by Deering Avenue, Bedford Street and the discontinued section of Brighton Avenue, what is now called Bedford Park is a three-quarter acre green space located on an outer edge of the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. It’s one of more than 50 parks and public grounds in Portland and was sold to the city by Edward Deering Noyes and his family for $7,215 in 1928.

Both the Deering and Noyes families have deep ties to Portland. The Deering family gave Deering Oaks to the the city and they were the namesake of the former town of Deering, which was absorbed into Portland in 1899. Deering Avenue, Deering Street and Deering High School all bear the family name.

Deerings were early and strong supporters of the abolitionist movement in Maine, Adams said. Along with the Noyes family, they also sold land to the University of Maine System for the University of Southern Maine campus. The modern Luther Bonney Hall stands on the site of their former family mansion.

The purchase and sale agreement between the Noyes family and the city makes no reference to the name of the land that is now Bedford Park. But it was called Noyes Park in newspaper clippings, maps and other records from the 1920s through the ’50s, according to the city’s research.

In November, the city’s parks commission voted unanimously to change the name of Bedford Park to Noyes Park. Staff also recommended to the council that the name be changed.


That recommendation was based on a review of the original purchase-and-sale agreement, documents– including newspaper reports and the 1940 Portland City Guide that refer to Noyes Park, and consultation with Adams and public works archivist George Carhart, who was able to produce two city maps from the 1930s that identified the park as Noyes Park, according to a memo to the council from Portland Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department Director Ethan Hipple.

Hipple’s memo said the city could find no evidence of the council ever approving the Bedford Park name, and Adams, in an interview, said he believes it originated from a developer, J.W. Wilbur, who had a history of naming city streets, including Bedford Street near the park, after towns in Massachusetts. “There is no Mr. Bedford,” Adams said.

“But some 50 or sixty years ago on city maps apparently (the park) somehow came to be identified as Bedford Park. Unfortunately this error was not discovered for many years,” Noyes Benoit wrote to city councilors in November.

She said that as her three brothers age, they would like to see the change made soon. “For them to see this rectified and changed back to what it should be, time is running out,” Noyes Benoit said.


But councilors raised another issue when they took up the proposed name change in November. “I really feel like we’re just uncovering a piece of the history of this spot,” said Councilor April Fournier, who asked that more research be done specifically related to the Indigenous history of the land. “I think for me the story feels a little incomplete – and before considering any name changes I would like to see a little bit more of a complete history.”


Staff returned to the council in February with a report that the general area was the site of what is known as the Battle of Deering Oaks between the French and their Wabanaki allies and English settlers in 1689, but said that it was hard to say what exactly might have happened on the site of the tiny park. Fournier said she was grateful for the research and that she plans to support the change. She hopes to see similar discussions take place in all city work.

“Director Hipple and the city manager have been great about answering questions and working to make the question of Indigenous history part of practice instead of something we have to struggle to discuss,” Fournier said in an email. “We’ve talked about naming other parks with inspirations from the Wabanaki tribal languages, creating educational posts or educational markers within parks as some first steps.”

Parks are named by the council, usually after a significant person or place. Names are typically reviewed by the parks commission, which issues an advisory opinion, and then approved by the council, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.

The last time a park name was changed was in 2016, when the council approved the renaming of the plaza in front of the Nickelodeon movie theater downtown. Formerly known as Lobsterman Park, it became Menario Plaza, in honor of former City Manager John Menario.

Hipple said the parks department is currently thinking about how it wants to name future parks. “One of the things we are aware of is sometimes (the people we name parks for) represent a pretty small portion of the population. It’s usually men, and usually white men, and we think there are opportunities to honor more people, different types of people and from different backgrounds.”

Libby Bischof, a professor of history and executive director of the Osher Map Library at USM, said there is a need for the city to look more comprehensively at the historical landscape over time, how it’s represented on public lands and buildings and what the city’s role was in Indigenous land dispossession and colonization, the global slave trade and more.


But Bischof said it is also clear from historical evidence and city documentation that the name given to the park near the university is Noyes Park. “Bedford Park was never its formal or official name, and indeed Bedford Street is, apparently, named after the town of Bedford, Massachusetts,” Bischof said in an email. “So, the name change request is about undoing a clerical oversight.”


Not everyone agrees that Bedford Park should become Noyes Park. While the proposal has not drawn significant public comment, one resident, George Rheault, wrote to the council last month voicing his opposition. He said that the Noyes family sold the city the land not as a benevolent act but to make the area more attractive for potential buyers in an adjacent subdivision, also known as Bedford Park, that they were working on with a developer.

Rheault based his conclusions on the deed for the subdivision land sold by the Noyes family to Thomas A. Sanders in 1925, three years before they sold the land for the park. After that sale, Sanders granted them a mortgage on the subdivision in exchange for a $35,000 loan.

“The setting aside of the open space for what some insist should be permanently recognized as ‘Noyes Park’ was a transparent self-serving effort to enhance the value of the joint-venture between the Noyes Family (financing) and Mr. Thomas A. Sanders (entitlements & sales) to develop the Bedford Park subdivision,” Rheault wrote.

Rheault said he has no connection to the park other than as a resident who is interested in seeing the full history taken into account. “It’s important to get history right if we’re going to do it at all,” he said in an interview. “I think if you actually look at the history, there’s another story there.”


His argument prompted the council to again postpone a decision on the renaming and request that city staff conduct a legal analysis.

That analysis, which is expected to be presented to the council Monday, found the documents don’t have any impact on the park or its name. “There is nothing that prohibits the City Council from changing the name of Bedford Park, and there is nothing that requires it to do so. It is a decision that is within the discretion of the City Council,” Associate Corporation Counsel Michael Goldman wrote in the analysis.

Councilor Mark Dion, who at the Feb. 7 meeting urged the council to consider Rheault’s documents, said after reading the analysis he is still hesitant to move ahead with the change.

He said it wouldn’t be wrong for the council to change the name – but if they do so, they should be clear about the reasons.

“We could look at the Noyes family and say, ‘You’re right. We’re paying back a debt for everything you did for the city,'” Dion said. “But I don’t think that’s the case. It was Bedford Park. It is Bedford Park. And if we want to change it to acknowledge your family, it’s not because it was an accident. It’s because we’re intentionally doing it.”

Nicholas Noyes said he was surprised by the information presented by Rheault. He doesn’t know what prompted his family to sell the land for the park or if it had anything to do with the subdivision.


“I still think it was Noyes Park,” Noyes said. “That’s what I always learned it was when I was growing up. That’s what it was in that directory, the City Guide Book. How it became Bedford I don’t know, so why wouldn’t it be called by its proper name?”

On Friday, Rheault produced another document to support his argument – a copy of the city’s 1926 annual report that he found at the Portland Public Library referring to Bedford Park.

Hipple, the parks director, said he hadn’t seen the document but does not plan to change the staff recommendation to the council. He said it was clear in records that after the parcel was sold to the city, it was called Noyes Park.

“Our department position is that we have no objection with reverting to the historical name of Noyes Park, and we also have no problem if they retain the current name of Bedford,” Hipple said. “The council is free to do whatever they want, based on the request of the family and available information.”

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