We mentioned Sam Silverman in last week’s column, when his expertise was called upon to catch a monkey that had escaped from a traveling carnival. In his time, Samuel Silverman was a well-known member of the South Portland community. Let’s take a look at the life of this interesting entrepreneur and his wife.

View of Willard Beach in the early 1930s. From left: The Willard Inn at 6 Willard St., the small Sam’s Pop Corn Stand, the greased pole, Willard Beach Bath House/Sam’s Lunch, and the large Henry Griffin store. South Portland Historical Society photo

Silverman was born in Portland, Maine, in 1905, the son of two Russian-born, Jewish immigrants: William and Rebecca (Druker) Silverman. His father and mother immigrated to the United States in 1892 and 1894, respectively. Sam was only 13 years old when his mother died in 1918.

In 1929, Sam married Lillian Rapoport, also of Portland. They reportedly “eloped on the back of a chicken truck” to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for the ceremony. When they first married, Sam and Lillian lived in Portland and Sam owned and operated a restaurant called Sam’s Grill at 435 Commercial St.

While he was running Sam’s Grill in Portland, Sam saw a summertime opportunity in South Portland. By 1930, he had obtained a food service license and began operating two businesses on Willard Beach, at the end of Willard Street – the Willard Beach Bath House and a second restaurant, known as Sam’s Lunch. These were located just beside Henry Griffin’s large two-story store on the beach.

A rare newspaper image of Sam Silverman. South Portland Historical Society is seeking additional photographs of Silverman. Those with a photo to share can call the society at 207-767-7299. South Portland Historical Society image

Throughout his life, Silverman made his own opportunities and he enjoyed finding ways to bring a crowd to his businesses. Always thinking of ways to bring in customers, he would sponsor swimming races, bathing beauty contests, gum-chewing contests, and he put up a greased pole (which beachgoers could attempt to shimmy up in order to reach a prize at the top).

He also kept animals in cages next to his bath house. He had a bear cub named Bingo that would drink soda from a bottle, a monkey named Bridget that would “raise the devil” with her antics, and at one point he had seals in a pool of water that would flap their flippers if given an ice cream or other treats.

Advertisement

Sam Silverman was also known for running beano games around South Portland, including at the Willard Inn, Willard Hose House and the Car Barn in Knightville.

In February of 1933, during the winter when the buildings were vacant, a fire destroyed the two-story Griffin store and badly damaged Silverman’s store and bath house next to it. Luckily, Sam was able to fix the damage and reopen by summer.

Everyone was not in favor of the carnival atmosphere at the beach and the year 1935 appeared to be a tough year for Silverman. A local resident circulated a petition and made incendiary remarks in an attempt to drive him off the beach.

After a Sunday beauty contest, the resident made a complaint that resulted in Sam being arrested for supposedly violating an old blue law. They then had a local attorney file a request with the city to have his food-service license revoked due to the arrest. The complaint about the blue law violation was dismissed in municipal court, and Sam subsequently sued the man for $5,000. Upset over the whole situation, several local residents appeared as witnesses at the trial and testified that the defendant had made anti-Semitic remarks about Silverman while collecting signatures and at a meeting at the Willard Hose House. After the testimony was made, the case was settled out of court.

By 1936, Sam and Lillian had moved to South Portland with their two young children, Bob and Joanne. They lived at 22 Willard St. In May of 1936, Lillian Silverman acquired the New Willard Inn property at 6 Willard St. from Charles J. Willard; they kept Fred W. Richardson on as the inn manager. This added yet another property to the Silverman compound on the beach.

Sam had already opened a smaller refreshment stand next to the New Willard Inn, known as Sam’s Pop Corn Stand. This was in a small building next to the inn (the little building is still there, sunken down in the sand somewhat). He hired local teens to help operate it.

Advertisement

Bridget the monkey at Willard Beach. South Portland Historical Society photo

While Lillian was busy in the 1930s and early-40s with their two children, she would also help in the summertime when she could, making her lobster rolls and clam cakes at the refreshment stand. During World War II, with the shipyards creating a huge demand for housing, they converted the New Willard Inn building into use as a lodging house with Lillian as its manager.

In 1940, while still running the summertime operations at the beach, Silverman began running a restaurant in Knightville. Known simply as The Barbecue, it was located in the former American Legion building at 20 E St. The building had a large dance floor and the floor above was only a perimeter floor where you could look down on the dance floor below. They took advantage of that by making it a dining and dancing establishment.

A bear cub in an enclosure at the Willard Beach Bath House at the end of Willard Street. South Portland Historical Society photo

In the 1940s, Sam Silverman began his transition into the used car business. In 1944, he leased three buildings on the corner of Ocean Street and B Street. Included in the lease were the top two floors of the building at 60 B St., a garage at 60 B St., and a small building at 55 Ocean St.

He also took over the operation of the service station at 63 Ocean St. He had some major setbacks, however. In September, 1944, he had about 50 cars stored in and around the two buildings on B Street; a fire broke out and destroyed the buildings, along with 20 of Silverman’s vehicles. Then, in December, 1945, another fire brought about a significant loss. An article in the Lewiston Daily Sun provided some detail: “A spectacular fire, fed by gasoline and fanned by strong winds, burned out part of Sam Silverman’s wooden used car building on B street, in the congested Knightville section tonight…Silverman said there were from 35 to 40 cars stored on the first floor. The upper two stories were vacant…The fire started…in a repair shop built on to the main building.”

The Silverman family moved back to Portland in 1948 where Sam continued in the used car business, at 441 Forest Ave. in Portland. He later operated a car dealership on Route 1 in Scarborough.

Throughout their lifetime, Sam and Lillian were a fun-loving and social couple who enjoyed spending time with others. They traveled when they could, often heading to Miami Beach in the winter months. They both valued their Jewish heritage and traditions. Lillian was a founding member of Temple Beth El in Portland in 1948. Sam was a founding member of the Temple Beth El Brotherhood and the Temple Beth El Memorial Park.

A 1940 advertisement for Sam Silverman’s “The Barbecue” restaurant at 20 E St. South Portland Historical Society image

Sam Silverman died in 1994; Lillian in 2011. They are buried together at the Temple Beth El Memorial Park.

We would love to find more photographs of Sam Silverman, his restaurants/businesses or activities that he sponsored. If you have any images to share, we would love to hear from you. South Portland Historical Society can be reached at 207-767-7299, by email at [email protected], or by mail or in person 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 [email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.