One of the things I love about South Portland is our blue-collar roots – we have a history of residents and businesses working together to make this a great place to live. Residents appreciated that many of these businesses offered well-paying engineering and mechanical-type jobs. And the businesses were funded and headed up by people who lived in the local community and cared about it.

We take a look this week at a lesser-known but important business, Noyes Machine Company on the Ferry Village waterfront.

Milton D. Thompson, inventor and propeller expert. South Portland Historical Society photo

While it can be tough to get started on understanding some industrial businesses, we got our break this week with Noyes Machine Company when looking into an inventor who lived in South Portland, Milton D. Thompson.

Thompson applied for and received a patent for his invention of a new propeller in 1909.

Thompson was born in 1867 in South Bristol, Maine, the son of Oren and Phebe Thompson. When he was first working, he listed himself as a boatbuilder and ship carpenter, but he soon took an interest in mechanical engineering. He first moved to South Portland about 1907, taking a job at Portland Shipbuilding on Front Street in Ferry Village. While in the process of applying for a patent for his new “automatic folding propeller” in 1909, he appears to have made plans with Charles N. Trefethen (the same Trefethen who served as South Portland’s mayor in 1901 and 1902) to found a company to manufacture the propellers.

On June 30, 1909, Thompson Propeller Company was organized with Charles Trefethen as its president and Milton Thompson as its treasurer. It is unclear what happened to this company. It may have only existed on paper as Thompson appears to have gone in another direction.


In late 1909 or early 1910, Joseph C. Noyes founded a new company, Noyes Machine Company. Joseph Noyes had been a draftsman working in Portland. He opened his new machine shop on a wharf in the Portland Shipbuilding and Marine Railway complex at 257 Front St. in South Portland. This was a perfect fit – Portland Shipbuilding and the Marine Railway worked on wooden boat building and repairs, while Noyes Machine Company built and repaired engines. When Noyes Machine opened, however, one of its first employees was Milton Thompson, who was considered their “propeller expert.”

Milton Thompson’s 1909 patent for the Thompson’s automatic folding propeller. The propeller was manufactured and sold by Noyes Machine Company in 1910. South Portland Historical Society image

One of the first activities of the new company was to exhibit at the Portland Motorboat Show in February, 1910. A description of the exhibit appeared in Motor Boat magazine: “Thompson’s automatic folding propeller, intended for use on auxiliary craft, yachts, fishing boats, and in fact wherever sails are sometimes used with motor power, was attractively displayed by the manufacturers, the Noyes Machine Co., of South Portland, Me. The appliance is designed for heavy duty, and is constructed of two blades, which may be folded together in line with the propeller-shaft. When the engine starts ahead, the blades automatically open and propel the craft ahead, and when the engine is reversed, the blades reverse; but at all times when the engine is not running the blades automatically fold in a line with the shaft. This feature makes the appliance suitable for use on craft designed for sail or motor power, as when the motor is not in action there is no ‘drag’ caused by the propeller. The demonstrative portion of the exhibit showed one of the automatic folding propellers in operation in a large glass tank filled with water.”

Milton Thompson would continue tweaking and working on propeller designs throughout his lifetime, receiving at least 10 patents. While he was at Noyes Machine, his “Thompson” propellers contributed to the company’s success. According to The Iron Age in March, 1912, “The Noyes Machine Company, South Portland, Me., which has been conducting a jobbing machine shop, has begun the manufacture of new gasoline marine mortar and a feathering propeller.”

A description of the propeller manufactured at Noyes Machine in 1912 appeared in Motor Boating: “It is known as the Thompson Automatic Feathering Propeller, and it is designed particularly for auxiliary craft, the blades of the propeller operating automatically and feathering edgewise with the water when the motor is at a standstill, thus practically eliminating all drag and resistance.”

The Noyes Machine Shop was located on Front Street in Ferry Village, within the Portland Shipbuilding complex. South Portland Historical Society photo

In 1913, Noyes Machine was doing very well; they opened a second machine shop in St. John, New Brunswick, where they manufactured propellers and other brass specialty items to service its Canadian customers.

After the company exhibited at the New York Boat Show in 1914, Yachting magazine had this to say: “The Noyes Machine Company, of South Portland, Me., caught the sailing man’s as well as the motor boat man’s eye by exhibiting a feathering propeller, which they demonstrated in a big tank of water at the back of their booth.”


About 1915, Milton Thompson left Noyes and moved with his family to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, where he established his own machine shop and propeller repair business, M.D. Thompson & Son. His sons, Milton Jr. and Warren, joined him in the business and continued it after Milton’s death in 1944.

After Thompson’s departure, the Noyes Machine Company continued in their successful business of the manufacture and repair of marine engines and machinery. The company did have a major setback on July 6, 1924, when their machine shop was destroyed by fire. Luckily, Merchants’ Marine Railway had insurance on the building, and Noyes Machine had insurance on their machinery and inventory, allowing them to remain in operation.

An advertisement for Thompson’s new feathering propeller appeared in the March, 1914, edition of Yachting magazine. South Portland Historical Society image

About 1940, when he was about 65 years old, Joseph Noyes finally closed the business and retired. Noyes Machine Company had been a fixture on South Portland’s waterfront for 30 years, but the landscape of our waterfront was about to change as World War II activities were on the cusp of taking over our community.

Note: South Portland Historical Society offers a free Online Museum with over 15,000 images available for viewing with a keyword search, and we are adding new content regularly. You can find it at and, if you appreciate what we do, feel free to make a donation by using the donation button on the home page. If you have photographs or other information to share about South Portland’s past, we would love to hear from you. South Portland Historical Society can be reached at 207-767-7299, by email at, or by mail at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

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

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