Let’s take a look this week at a large sardine factory and a South Portland resident who was prominent in the community in the 1920s: William R. McDonald.

The E.W. Brown sardine cannery was located on a wharf on the Ferry Village waterfront. To reach the cannery, one would head down a long dirt driveway from Front Street to the water, next to where the breakwater started and extended out to Bug Light. The cannery was located on a wharf where herring boats could tie up and their catch would be raised in buckets up to the cannery.

Portrait of William R. McDonald. South Portland Historical Society photo

E.W. Brown Company was originally founded in Lubec, Maine, in 1881 by Emilius W. Brown. The U.S. sardine canning industry had essentially been born in Eastport in 1876 when Julius Wolff established the first successful sardine cannery. In light of his success, numerous other canneries were established in Eastport and Lubec to take advantage of the lucrative trade. While most sardine canners in the U.S. were located in that small area, as the fishermen moved to find herring, so did the canneries.

The E.W. Brown factory operated in Lubec for 23 years, then moved to Port Clyde in 1904 where they built a large factory on the water. They hired an experienced packer, William R. McDonald, at the new Port Clyde facility. Emilius Brown died in 1908.

In 1910, the company leased the site in South Portland. An article in the Evening Express gave a nice description of the existing facility: “A lease has been taken by the E.W. Brown company of Port Clyde of the buildings and wharf which have been occupied by the Lord Brothers Fish & Salt company in South Portland. The E.W. Brown company intends to locate a sardine factory plant on the wharf…the buildings on the wharf consist of a shed 60×140 feet and three smokehouses 75×20. It is the intention of the management of the new company to remodel these buildings and make additions…the new sardine factory in South Portland will furnish from 80 to 100 people with employment and this will mean something of a boom to South Portland.”

The first E.W. Brown factory building after it was destroyed by fire in 1914. Brawn-Hooper Collection/South Portland Historical Society

The company constructed a two-story frame factory building on the wharf in 1910. In addition to McDonald, who served as the operations manager of the business, another principal in the E.W. Brown Company was Natt Brown, the son of the founder.

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When the company came to South Portland, Natt moved to a home on the Eastern Promenade in Portland. He served as the company treasurer.

The president of E.W. Brown, George Brawn, moved to South Portland from Port Clyde where he and his family had been active in the sardine canning business. George brought his family with him. His son Guy worked as an engineer in the E.W. Brown factory (working with the canning machinery), and his son Ralph was the bookkeeper. The Brawns remained active in the business until 1914 when they left and formed a partnership with Frank Willard, known as the Brawn & Willard Company. They built their competing sardine factory on Deake’s Wharf in Portland.

Upon the departure of the Brawn family in 1914, William McDonald was named president of E.W. Brown Company.

The two-story E.W. Brown factory building, rebuilt in 1914. South Portland Historical Society photo

Unfortunately, the factory went up in flames in March, 1914. The fire was suspected to be the result of arson, since the building had not been active since the canning season ended in December and the next season would not start until April 15. The building itself was not a huge loss and the company quickly rebuilt a similar wood-framed structure on the same site. It was completed a month later. The machinery inside was the greater loss, however, but the company replaced it and was ready to get back to canning by May.

The herring used in the manufacture of sardines were sometimes caught in a process using herring boats and purse seines – fishermen would go out in search of schools of herring. It was also very common in these early days to catch the small herring in fish weirs or in stop seines used to trap the schools in coves. We learned in a 1912 article in the Lewiston Daily Sun that the E.W. Brown Company had a fish weir located off Broad Cove in Yarmouth.

William McDonald was the son of a ship carpenter. He was born in 1867 in Cutler, Maine. One of his first jobs was driving the mail stage from Lubec to Machias. McDonald first gained his experience in the canning business by working for Eureka Packing Company in Lubec. When E.W. Brown came to South Portland, he moved here with his wife Ada and their two sons. They lived first at 76 Stanford St. for several years, then moved to the waterfront home at 235 High St. McDonald became active in the community and local affairs.

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In 1920, at a time when we had elected mayors in South Portland (serving a one-year term), he was elected mayor. He ran for mayor five more times and was successful in each bid – as a result, he served six terms as mayor, from 1920 to 1925.

Considered a leader in the industry, William McDonald served as the first president of the Maine Sardine Packing Association.

William McDonald was still active and serving as the president of E.W. Brown Company at the time of his death in 1937. He is buried at Highland Memorial Cemetery with his wife, Ada, and son, Islay. The business closed after his death. In 1941 when the World War II shipyards were being constructed in South Portland, the E.W. Brown factory building was demolished to make room for the West Yard.

Membership drive: Have you been reading and enjoying these weekly history columns in the Sentry? These columns are brought to you by the South Portland Historical Society, an active community nonprofit that is supported by local residents and businesses. We have just started our annual membership drive and we need your help! Our membership year runs May-May, so please consider joining or renewing for the 2022-2023 membership year now.

When our members renew now, it also saves us the postage costs of sending membership reminders. A one-year family membership is only $25, but we accept memberships at all levels. For more information, visit our website at www.sphistory.org. You can join or renew your membership by credit card by using the donation button at our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com/ Or you can donate the old-fashioned way, by check made out to South Portland Historical Society and mailed or dropped off at our museum building at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. If you have questions, feel free to call us at 207-767-7299 or send us an email at [email protected] Thank you for your support that helps make our work possible.

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

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