Oral History: Orissa Bowering

Following is the partial transcript of an oral history interview with Eva Orissa Curtis Bowering (born 1908) surrounding her growing up at 86 Beckett Street on Munjoy Hill in the early part of the 20th century. Orissa became a schoolteacher at age 18 and was active in that role for several decades, both at Monument School and eventually teaching the third grade at the new Marada F. Adams School in the 1960's while living nearby on the corner of Wilson and Munjoy streets.

The interview, conducted in 1984, comes courtesy of the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine, Orono. MFC hosts the collection: Victoria Society Portland History Series, a series of 51 interviews about the history of Portland, Maine. Mrs. Bowering passed away in 1995.

1984 Interview: Eva Orissa Curtis Bowering (76 years old):
ORISSA BOWERING: Going back to my father, his father was a sea captain for many, many years before settling in Portland, and for many years he was what they called [sounds like... ] boss city carpenter in Portland. He worked for the School Department, did all the repairs, he was the head man. My grandmother, Lavinia, from Harpswell, was a [sounds like…] bidder. And I remember Grammy as being a tiny, little lady with a lovely voice who used to teach school at Harpswell. My father was educated in the school there, but also came to Portland and went to the Portland schools.

INTERVIEWER: Orissa, getting back to your grandfather, the sea captain, do you remember anything about any of the sea voyages? Did your grandmother go with him?

OB: I remember sitting on my grandfather's right knee when we was on Beckett St. My brother who was a year younger sitting on his left knee. And his telling us about his days at sea. He was a very young boy when he first went to sea. He told us that on his back you could still see the stripes where he was whipped because he had done something that the captain didn’t approve of.

And as time went on, his skills improved, and he was a captain of a sailing vessel. He told us about going to foreign countries, and I always remember of his telling about throwing hardtack against the Rock of Gibraltar. Also about visiting churches in Rome and in one of them, he mentioned a church where the interior was made of bones of former priests.

I think he found it a difficult life after he married and had three sons and he was away from home a lot. My grandmother was a rather quiet, understanding lady and I know that when Grandpa would come home, that the boys were, from what he said, pretty frisky at times.

And I remember once of my father saying that he took his sled out and slid down the hill and went right out onto the saltwater, which frightened Grandpa a great deal. And he retrieved the sled and brought it up and hid it. Then, at supper time that night he said to Grammy and her three sons, "I retrieved the sled and I’ve hidden it where no one can find it, right up in the hayloft in the barn." And for sure, when he sailed, the boys were up there fishing the sled out in no time.

INTERVIEWER: What were the years, do you know about what years that would have been? 1875?

OB: Oh, really back there in those days, and it was a hard life and it was very difficult for Grammy but she kept very busy. I remember that she told me about raising ducks there in Harpswell and plucking the feathers and selling them and saving the money to by the organ. It was an organ that she pumped. And many evenings as a little girl I would go down and sit on the organ bench and sing the hymns along with her, she would be playing the organ. And she must have taught her boys well, because my father, when we went to church, he didn't have to use a hymnal. He knew all the old hymns. Because he'd learned by his mother's side.

INTERVIEWER: Did he have a singing voice, as you do?

OB: My father had a beautiful singing voice, as did my brother. My brother sang professionally. Clarence Jr. And Staten has a good voice; she belonged to glee clubs and groups in Boston.

INTERVIEWER: And Your mother?

OB: And Mama sang, and when we lived on Beckett St. of course, the windows were open in the summer and they used to like to sit in the dark and rock us kids and sing. And Mrs. Carr especially, Marion’s mother, Marion Carrr’s mother across the street, she’d say that really, the neighbors didn't want to gather around the house, but they really enjoyed the singing, father and mother singing together those songs! After the Ball is Over, etc.

INTERVIEWER: Now, what about your mother’s early life?

OB: My mother was born in Portland on Franklin St. and she’s told us many times about the lovely home in which she lived with a garden out back. Her father graduated from Portland High School and that was a rather unusual thing, in those days to be a high school graduate. And Mama said that he was like the lawyer on the street that nobody signed leases and nobody said yes to certain documents without coming to the house to let Jimmy Rand read it first. He was I suppose, a bookkeeper for the old Portland-Rochester Railroad Co. and, from what I can gather, was a very quiet, understanding individual. But also good to his children.

And she was an ice cream lover from the time she was born to the day she left me, and she said that many cold nights in a blizzard on Franklin St., she’d sit in front of the old black stove with her little feet up getting warm in front of the oven and she’d say to her father, “Oh wouldn’t a dish of ice cream taste good?" And he would don his clothes and go to the corner store and bring her home ice cream, which she would put in a dish and put in the oven to melt a little bit. She always liked it a little softer. And my brother Staten likes his ice cream that way too. My mother’s people came from Windham Hill, her grandfather and grandmother, but their folks came from Scotland. They were Andersons from Scotland. Grampy’s people, the Curtises, were English and then Belgians.

INTERVIEWER: You said you lived on Beckett St. What was the neighborhood tike in those days?

OB: Well, to us, it was a wonderful neighborhood. And I’m sure that Don Ferguson, who has just completed a book on Munjoy Hill, has said the same thing. And it’s so great when I can reminisce with my friends about the years that we grew up on Munjoy Hill. Now, as I go back, it seems as if the houses are fairly close together but we all had nice homes, hardwood floors, steam heat, lovely yards, plenty of grass, flower boxes.

It was just a fine, loving neighborhood and we trusted each other. And if anyone was ill on the street, the cooking went down to the family and somebody sat with the sick person and the children were taken care of. It was just a lovely neighborhood.

Everyone’s yard was fenced in. There was a little gate. And we kids used to swing on the gate and many times we'd break it. It was just a fine, loving neighborhood and we trusted each other. And if anyone was ill on the street, the cooking went down to the family and somebody sat with the sick person and the children were taken care of. It was just a lovely neighborhood.

And I referred to Mrs. Carr a few minutes ago, who had a lovely cherry tree in her yard, and she would always say “Now, I want you children to come over and pick the cherries before the robins do.” So we had climbed that tree so many times we knew exactly where to put the left foot and the right foot and how to get right up to the top. And we were eating cherries while we were there. We’d gather them for her, and then we’d always have some to take home. The robins got a few, but we were pretty good cherry pickers.

She had a sister who lived upstairs by the name of Mrs. Marr. Mrs. Carr lived downstairs and Mrs. Marr lived upstairs. And Mr. Marr’s son grew up to be Fire Chief in the City of Portland, Harry Marr. He was her son. And she had a cat that she called Baby, and Baby always sat on the front window, the bay window, with Mrs. Marr, enjoying the afternoons. But it was a lovely neighborhood.

86 Beckett St. in 1924

Next door to us was a three-flat house with three families of Jewish people. The next house was a three-flat house with three families of Jewish people. The store on the corner was owned and run by a Mr. A. F. Webber. There were Jews, there were Italians, there were Protestants, there were Catholics. We all went our way. Wherever we went to church was fine, but the kids all played together.

The families, we shared food. We loved the matzo that the Jewish kids brought to us. And they were our buddies, that’s all. There were few blacks, but there were a few families on Lafayette St. and they used to come to our church. As I remember, I had no black children in my classroom; as I grew older and was a teacher, now and then we would have one.

But it was a closely knit neighborhood and next door to us, at one time, lived the Reiches, Howard Reiche's family. And my mother always spoke of Howard as what a wonderful boy he was. He might be out playing baseball in the street, and his mother would call him and say "Howard, it’s time to practice." And the bat and the ball would go down and he’d go in and practice.

And Howard has told me… I don’t know whether my brother wasn’t very bright, or whether Howard and his buddies who were seven years or so older, eight years older, but they used to, after a heavy, heavy snow, go up on the third floor of the house next to us, and there was a porch on the back, and they put an umbrella up, and they put my brother up on the railing, and he would parachute down into the snow.

And they thought that that was great fun! And he did more things, because the older boys didn’t quite dare to do it but they’d try it out on him first. And he’d always tell me “I remember the times that brother would parachute down from the third story right down into the soft snow.”

Mr. Reiche, Howard’s father, Robert, they used to go fishing in the spring now and then and, bless their hearts, I don't remember where they went because I was too young to remember, but each one had a fishing basket and when they came home, it was always filled with fresh eggs because they always talked to the farmers. They never caught any fish, but they came home absolutely eaten up with black flies and a dozen fresh eggs in the basket, but no fish.

INTERVIEWER: You spoke about Howard Reiche leaving play to practice. Maybe Some people don’t know what he practiced.

OB: He practiced the piano, he was an absolutely wonderful pianist. Howard will always be remembered because of his music and for his sense of humor. His family, they were just great folks. He was an only child but you never would have known it. He was anything but spoiled, and I think there was no one on Munjoy Hill that didn't know Howard Reiche.

INTERVIEWER: From the time he was very small.

OB: From the time he was a little boy because my mother had a frisky boy at that time too, and she knew a boy that obeyed his mother, and not many kids would leave their baseball and go in there and practice, but he must have loved it because he stuck right with it all his life. And he brought more fore people than anyone on the hill. And he’s played for me many times. He's accompanied me many times and I’m sure that the whole city has lost a great deal.

INTERVIEWER: Now, his wife Laura also was from the Hill, wasn’t she?

OB: His wife Laura came from the Knudsen family. Now I didn’t know them that well, and she was a little bit older than Howard too. And my father always pronounced the name, and maybe that was the old Danish part of it. Many times my mother would say “Well, don’t use that name in public because people won’t know to whom you’re speaking.” But he said “That’s the way they pronounce it is ‘Kanudsen'" And I think he knew Laura’s brother Albert too. Howard went to Portland High School and he went to the University of Maine where he was a fine football player. I think Laura was a good athlete too' as I remember. I think she played basketball with probably Gertrude Prinn and some of the other girls at the high school.

INTERVIEWER: Well, now let’s get back to your father. You were going to tell us a little bit that you remember that he said about the police department and the feelings toward the police department in the era from around 1900 to around 1920.

OB: My father joined the police force when he was quite a young man, and he was considered somewhat of a hero by his cousins and second cousins and third cousins from Harpswell. He has told me many times about the first night that he went on the job. He had a very tough street, which was Washington Ave., because there were saloons on the street, there was a lot of drinking, and he didn’t know it but my grandfather had followed him for many blocks, walking behind him in the dark, and Grandpa had a pistol with him. If you can imagine that! You didn't have to have a license in those days. But if you can imagine that! And my father was actually humiliated until Grandpa caught up with him and said, behind you. This is your first night out and l just wanted to get an idea of what you were up against.”' And l think maybe that first night he arrested a few men for drunkenness. But the police then were respected and they were up until the time he went in 1938.

A friend of mine at church, Mf. Cater, told me that it wasn’t long before my father had gone that he saw him down on Commercial St. and he happened to walk by a young woman and a young man, and the young man evidently was bothering the girl. She didn’t want him with her and this friend of mine, Mr. Cater, he said to me, “Your father stood tall and he pointed his finger at that young man and said, "Get going" and the fellow went and I’m sure that he didn’t return." Because when the police spoke to you (and my mother said that she was brought up to be scared to death of a policeman— and then to marry one was really something), but the policeman’s word was law. That’s the way it was.

And when you went in to court after you had arrested somebody, and I remember Judge Pinansky saying that he’d rather see my father showing up as a witness and then the other man knew, because he kept calm and he told the facts that these cases weren’t just thrown out. They may have been given a little tap on the wrist and then say “Don't do it again", even if they were found intoxicated on the street. They went |n, and perhaps they were fined, or perhaps they’d spend a few nights in jail which may have made it rough on some of the families, but he said that some of them would straighten out for a little while' But very, very much different. I don't know what would have happened in those days if a policeman had been called a P19r of if someone had even thought of spitting on a policeman, or throwing anything at them. That’s where our trouble is right now. It’s because of the lack of respect for the law.

INTERVIEWER: How did your friends react to your father being a policeman?

OB: I think he was greatly respected. He was a policeman, and it didn't mean that we kids could do anything that we wanted to do. He just would tell us “I’m a policeman and that means that you should behave that much better in the neighborhood Don’t let anybody get anything on you.”

Don't let anybody, of course rot' our job was to obey the law, obey your parents and be happy little kids, and look back now and I’m glad I lived when I did. I’m glad l grew up on Munjoy Hill and lived in the neighborhood and that my father had the respect of the people.

INTERVIEWER: What about your mother and life at home? I mean, I know later on she did some practical nursing, but when you were growing up...

OB: Oh Yes, my mother always stayed home and she was always active in church affairs. And my other brother who was a year younger than There were just the two of for seven years and the days that she went to church meetings, we would come home because we had our school clothes on. You didn’t play in your school clothes. You had play clothes and school clothes, and church clothes.

So we had to sit on the front steps until Mama came home from her church meeting and maybe we had to wait 20 minutes but it seemed like a day and a half waiting for her to come home. She was always active in the church, active in the neighborhood affairs, active in the Heart Drive and active in politics. She did a lot of calling for people who were running for office and getting rides for people. And her father was like that. He was very interested.

She was always a stark Republican as was my Grandmother Curtis. But my Grandfather Curtis was a Democrat. He was the one who was the less educated. Grammy with the education and knew all the facts and read everything she could about the candidates couldn’t vote in those days. So there were many hot arguments over politics at my grandmother’s house, and Grampa would stand her knowledge of these candidates as long as he could but then he’d go down cellar, and talk it out by himself downstairs. But he was a very strong Democrat. But my mother was an ardent Republican and, as my brother Staten will Say to me, "Sister you couldn’t vote any other way because you're just like your mother. Couldn't vote any other way but Republican.

INTERVIEWER: Now, your mother was a graduate of Portland High.

OB: No, she didn’t, but she went to North School.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, she went to North School.

OB: Yes she went to North School and, in those days, girls didn’t do that much, but Mr. Parmenter, you’ve probably heard of him. Have you heard of him?

INTERVIEWER: Definitely. [ED: Elmer Ellsworth Parmenter was principal of North School, Portland, from 1894-1935]

OB: He was the principal then and she was a frail child growing up. she used to faint a lot, she said, at the drop of a hat. And she said that he would come into the room every week with his long metal ruler and ask the teacher who needed a little tuning up. And she said he would walk slowly up and down the aisles and she said, "I know I fainted when he went by my desk because he was out of the room and I didn’t know what happened when I came to. " She was that afraid of him. Now that’s bad. And maybe he wasn’t as bad as kids thought he was, but he was strict.

INTERVIEWER: Well, from my mother having gone, and father having gone there to the North school, that’s the same story that I heard of Mr. Parmenter. Everyone was, I think, afraid of him. I think that that was his stock and trade a bit. To have the kids afraid of him.

OB: But that’s terrible. I imagine the discipline was absolutely perfect, and of course, he must have had a lot of difficult children. There were many immigrants then and children who couldn’t speak the language, and it must have been rather difficult.