It was pretty neat being involved with what, at the time, was one of Maine’s oldest continuously operating businesses. If you were to follow our company closely through the years, you would get pretty decent pictures of not only the evolution of building products from the mid-19th century on, but also of developments in commercial transportation, in local history, and in my family.

Walter S. Rowe

The company I wound up owning was founded as Samuel Beale & Co. (aka, Beale & Morse) in 1842 and was first situated on Portland’s Canal Wharf. In 1870, the company’s name was changed to C.A.B. Morse & Co. A young man by the name of Charles S. Chase also joined the firm in 1870. Fourteen years later, Chase bought controlling interest in the company and the business became the Charles S. Chase Co.

The Charles S. Chase Co. dealt in cement, lime, bricks, and associated products such as horse hair (which was used in the 19th century as an aggregate to make plaster). The lime and cement came to Portland via sloops and schooners from Midcoast Maine (Rockland and Thomaston). At various times following the Canal Wharf years, the company also called Commercial Wharf and Union Wharf home. Charles Chase’s father and uncle, Sewall and Edward Chase, had constructed most of the brick buildings in Portland at that time, including the Grand Trunk Railroad Depot, the Galt Block, and the Thomas Block, among many others.

Allen B. Rowe, Sr.

The company endured the challenges of a Civil War, two World Wars, and other periods of geopolitical strife, as well as the extreme hardships of the Great Depression and other major economic downturns. But it is perhaps most remarkable of all that in its virtual infancy, the business survived Portland’s Great Fire of 1866. The fire wiped out much of the Portland peninsula. As a survivor, the company was able to play a role in Portland’s post-fire reconstruction as a key part of the distribution chain which brought building materials from manufacturers to the builders.

My great-grandfather, Walter Scott Rowe, did the trucking for Charles S. Chase with horse and wagon in the last years of the 19th century. Around 1895, Walter became a partner of Charles Chase and they incorporated their business in 1902. One of the larger single building projects that was supplied by the Chase Co. during that era was Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth.

Allen B. Rowe, Jr.

Late in Charles Chase’s tenure and after Walter Rowe had joined him, the company employed one of the first motorized commercial delivery vehicles in the area. Charles Chase died in 1920. Sometime before that date, my great-grandfather had taken over as president of the corporation. Also during this era, an early corporate income tax return (the federal corporate income tax was initiated in 1909) illustrates the relative simplicity of business/government relations. Gross receipts, less cost of goods sold, less expenses, times the tax rate equaled your tax. Part of one page. Period. Over and done.

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The 20th century brought many changes to the construction trades. Cement plaster and wood laths gave way to rock lath and gypsum plaster, and then to sheetrock. Most notably in commercial construction, metal framing took the place of wood. Various resins, polymers, etc., brought new and exciting options to buildings’ exteriors. As Maine’s infrastructure of roads, highways, and communications improved, the company’s service area, workforce, and delivery fleet grew.

James S. Rowe Four generations of the Rowe family managed the Charles S. Chase Company.

Walter Rowe’s son, Allen B. Rowe, Sr. (my grandfather) joined his father at the Chase Co. around 1919, following his service in the Navy during World War I and after attending the University of Maine. My father, Allen B. Rowe, Jr., joined the firm in 1946, following his own service during World War II in the Pacific Theater with the Army Air Corps and also after attending the University of Maine.

In 1956, the two Allen Rowes moved the company from Portland’s Union Wharf to 8 Kelsey St. in South Portland. The preferred mode of transportation for lime and cement coming to the company had shifted from boat to rail and the company no longer required dock space. Its new home was located on railroad-owned land and had a coveted rail siding. The building also vastly increased the storage space for inventory, and it was soon filled to capacity. Insulation, tile chimney liners, sewer and drainage pipe, concrete blocks, rock lath, various specialty plasters, numerous forms and sizes of drywall and accessories, steel studs and joists, among other things, were added to the company’s product lines during the Kelsey Street years.

It was during the 1960s that rail service began losing its competitive edge to overland truck haulers. Most inventory began arriving via tractor-trailer rigs. By the mid-1970s, the rail siding was effectively obsolete for the company’s purposes.

Charles S. Chase Company moved to South Portland in 1956 when it began doing business at 8 Kelsey St. South Portland Historical Society photo

I joined dad at the Chase Co. following my own graduation from the University of Maine in 1974. I would say that the three most notable developments during my father’s and my tenures were:

In 1976, we were one of the first, if not the first building material supply firm in Maine to use delivery trucks that were equipped with hydraulic cranes (this is now the industry standard).

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In 1986, we designed and built our own 20,000-square-foot state-of-the-art office/warehouse facility in South Portland’s Rumery Industrial Park.

Shortly thereafter, under the direction of my sister Priscilla, we made the switch from an entirely manual bookkeeping and accounting system to one in which all functions were run and integrated by computer technology.

I am proud that during my 35 years at the Chase Co., annual sales increased seven-fold (well above the rate of inflation, indicating solid and steady “real growth”). At its height, the company employed 13 full-time workers and one part-time office helper. Its delivery fleet consisted of four crane-equipped “10-wheelers,” two smaller stake-body flat trucks, and a pickup. Although considered a small business by most standards, the company was one of Maine’s largest suppliers of drywall and metal framing from the 1970s on. In the 2000s, we were also one of the top New England-based members of Amarok, a major nationwide association of independent drywall dealers.

In 1986, the Charles S. Chase Company designed and built this 20,000-square-foot office/warehouse at 177 Cash St. South Portland Historical Society photo

As traditional retirement age loomed, I began to contemplate a career exit strategy. Neither of my sons was particularly interested in adding another generation of Rowe family ownership to the Chase Co., which was fine with me. Given the near-catastrophic economic recession of the last decade, I would not have been particularly comfortable bringing them on anyway. Despite the nationwide economic woes and due to a strong financial position and a fine reputation that it enjoyed in the industry, the Chase Co. was a very marketable entity.

Near the end of 2008, I sold the firm to an excellent regional leader in the same industry and I have not looked back (well, maybe a peek or two, but I’m not obsessed). Was it tough letting go of something to which you and three generations of ancestors devoted entire careers? Absolutely. But I also took great satisfaction in knowing that our company had made real, concrete (literally and figuratively) contributions to this wonderful place in which we live, work, and raise our families – all without compromising the principles that have guided my family for many more generations than four.

Over its long history, the Charles S. Chase Co. provided building products to construction sites throughout southern Maine, mostly from Kittery to Augusta. Among the more familiar projects in which we were involved: the State Capitol building in Augusta, the One City Center office complex in Portland, Portland City Hall, the former Cumberland County Civic Center (now Cross Insurance Arena), the Edward T. Gignoux Federal Court House, Bowdoin College’s Walker Art Building, Piper Shores Retirement Community, the Pond Cove Elementary School and Cape Elizabeth middle and high schools, along with countless other residential, commercial, municipal, and industrial projects.

We took pride in being a responsible corporate citizen. In addition to regularly contributing monetarily to several charities, we offered free or sharply discounted materials to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, the Building Materials Bank, and area vo-tech building instruction programs. We also were very interested in helping out when home adaptation projects were required for people with debilitating disease or injury.

Good and innovative products made by the best manufacturers, loyal employees, and, most of all, terrific customers accounted for a wonderful 166-year run!

If you have photos, artifacts or information to share related to 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 [email protected], or by mail at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

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