Let’s take a look at the area along the edge of the Pleasantdale neighborhood that was formerly known as the Broadway Plate Yard during World War II. The land is located between Evans Street and Lincoln Street Extension (between Amato’s and AutoZone on Broadway).

If you look at the site, you’ll notice that a train track runs along the length of the property. That train track was originally constructed by the Portland, Saco & Portsmouth Railroad in 1841 (the track was completed and rail service began in 1842).

In this circa 1951 view of the South Portland Planing Mill, the planing mill, trimming sheds and other buildings are visible on the site (the cluster of buildings just to the right of the train track), along with large amounts of material stored about the yard. The long Quonset hut, semi-cylindrical building on the right, was home to R.J. Peacock Canning. We’ll look at that business next week. South Portland Historical Society photo

After the United States agreed to start building cargo ships for Great Britain in 1940, Todd Shipyards Corporation of New York partnered with Bath Iron Works of Bath, Maine. The resulting Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation began construction of its shipyard at the east end of Broadway (where Port Harbor Marine is today) in December, 1940.

Starting in January, 1941, with very limited space available in the shipyard area, Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding began acquiring that land along the railroad tracks in Pleasantdale so that they would have a storage area for the large steel plates and other materials needed in the shipyard operation. Trains could arrive and drop materials in the plate yard there (or at their other storage location at Thompson’s Point in Portland), so that they would be available to be moved quickly down to the shipyard by rail, when needed.

After the war ended, the shipyards and the plate yard in South Portland were all vacated. In 1946, a newly-formed corporation known as Portland Plateyards, Incorporated, acquired the land which had been home to the plate yard for roughly $25,000.

Not much is known about Portland Plateyards. It appears to have been a real estate holding company formed to facilitate the creation of the lumber milling company, the South Portland Planing Mill. We are publishing what we have learned thus far and hope that if there is someone reading this who knows more about the company, they will contact us to share the information.

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James A. Gillies, Jr., president of Portland Plateyards and South Portland Planing Mill. South Portland Historical Society photo

What is apparent is that the South Portland Planing Mill was organized and owned by a number of leaders in the Maine lumber industry. A lot of Maine timber was cut and sent out of state to be planed and graded. With a planing mill in South Portland, it would create a lot of jobs (it was indicated that 150 people would be employed there) and the various lumber yards would have readier access to lumber and better wholesale pricing.

South Portland Planing Mill, Inc. was established in 1947. It quickly sought and obtained permits to construct buildings on the site (in the area where the Casco Bay Steel building is today). The primary planing mill building was completed in October, 1947, and was reportedly 104 feet long by 62 feet wide, with equipment capable of processing 100,000 board feet of lumber each day.

There were also other buildings on the site, including trimming sheds and a sawdust storage silo (one of the trimming sheds was destroyed by fire in 1960). Much of the land was open, however, to facilitate storage of material in its various stages of completion – from green wood that would be left to dry/season, to finished lumber waiting to be shipped. Lumber was moved on-site via forklifts. End product was shipped via truck or train, depending on its destination.

With much of the wood stored outside, the planing mill often had shut downs in the winter when wood was either stuck together by ice or otherwise covered in snow/ice and not able to be processed. Workers would be called back when the weather conditions permitted the work to resume.

A circa 1953 advertisement for the South Portland Planing Mill. South Portland Historical Society image

In a manuscript in the archives of Maine Historical Society, a first-person account of the mill was documented sometime circa 1950. The writer, who is not identified, indicated that there were 25 men employed in the yard at that time, with the crew augmented by high school and college students in the summer months.

Production was more in the vicinity of 45,000 feet of lumber each day. A large four-sided planer was a significant piece of equipment in the mill. The planer allowed for all four sides of a board to be planed at the same time. The writer also indicated that a large fan would blow the board shavings into a vault and the shavings were then sold to a plastic manufacturer.

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The president of both Portland Plateyards and the South Portland Planing Mill was James A. Gillies, Jr. The son of a lumberman, Gillies lived in Bath and knew the ins and outs of the lumber industry. He was a principal and investor in numerous companies related to lumber, including the Ezra D. Fogg Company, Bath Box Company, Bath Lumber Company, Waterboro Box Company and the J.A. Gillies Lumber Company.

After the massive Maine wildfires of 1947, Gillies also served as a director of Western Maine Timber Salvage, a nonprofit organization that formed to attempt to salvage the millions of board feet of lumber from the affected areas. The nonprofit was based out of the Portland Chamber of Commerce offices.

Another principal associated with Portland Plateyards was Chester G. Abbott, its treasurer and an investor. Abbott was born in 1890 in Lynn, Massachusetts, graduated from Bowdoin College, and worked in the Portland area for most of his life. He started his career in the automobile industry (he worked at a Hudson dealership in Portland, at a time when automobiles became affordable to the general public), and later moved into banking. He was president of the Portland Chamber of Commerce, incorporator of Maine Savings Bank, investor in a number of businesses and served as chairman of the board of Maine National Bank.

The man in charge of the day-to-day operations at the South Portland Planing Mill was James R. Thompson, Chester Abbott’s son-in-law. During World War II, Thompson had served as a captain in the U.S. Army.

Also active in the actual operation of the planing mill was John E. Sturm, treasurer and general manager. Sturm was born in 1886 in Pittsburgh. Early in his career, he had worked as an accountant in the lumber industry on the west coast. In 1942, he had moved east and was working for Todd Shipyards Corporation in New York. He moved to Portland in 1943 when he came to work for New England Shipbuilding in South Portland as its treasurer.

He was a widower when he married Dorothy Tuttle in 1947. Dorothy was a nurse and had been in charge of the hospital and first aid room at the New England Shipbuilding yards throughout the war. When the planing mill was established, she worked there in the office, as well. John Sturm died unexpectedly at home in July, 1948, at the age of 61.

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Other principals of the South Portland Planing Mill appear to be investors in the company and served on its board of directors, but did not have much to do with the daily operation of the mill.

– Robert E. Cleaves, Jr. – vice president of the planing mill, president and owner of the R.E. Cleaves & Son wholesale lumber company of Portland (originally founded by his father), and president of Western Maine Timber Salvage. Cleaves was a Navy veteran, having served during World War I. He served as a state representative from 1943-44, and as a state senator from 1945-1948, representing Portland. He was also the president of the New England Wholesale Lumbermen’s Association and president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

– Kenneth M. Hancock – secretary (and later treasurer and president) of the planing mill, and president of M.S. Hancock & Son (now Hancock Lumber Company). Kenneth was the fourth generation of the Hancock family to run Hancock Lumber – his grandson, Kevin Hancock, now runs the company. Kenneth Hancock was also the vice president of Western Maine Timber Salvage.

The South Portland Planing Mill continued in operation into the 1960s. In January, 1966, Portland Plateyards sold off the land and buildings (that had been home to the planing mill) to the Megquier & Jones Corp. of Portland, which then opened its fabrication plant there.

MEMBERSHIP DRIVE 2022: The South Portland Historical Society researches and documents local history. If you enjoy reading about South Portland history, please lend your support. A one-year family membership is only $25 and supports our mission of preserving local history. Donations can be made through our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com, or if you’d prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. Thank you. If you need to contact the Society, we can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 207-767-7299.

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

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