2014-09-05 / Community

What is the city’s oldest business?

By Duke Harrington
Contributing writer

With Legion Square Market celebrating its 75th anniversary this year — which could be pushed to 77 years if one counts the two years it operated under a different name — it’s natural to ask, “What is the oldest business in South Portland.”

The answer is not as easy to determine as it might seem. According to city licensing administrator Jessica Hanscombe, South Portland discards all records three years after a business changes hands.

“So I really don’t have any way to trace the history of any particular business in town,” she said, suggesting code enforcement or the assessing department might be a better resource.

Assessing is more interested in the building than the business, but city appraiser Andrew Kriger, a lifelong South Portland resident, suggested Portland Pipe Line Corp, founded in 1941, Red’s, which began serving up ice cream in 1952, and Shaw’s, which opened it’s supermarket doors in 1955, as the oldest businesses he could recall. All venerable concerns, to be sure, but none older than Legion Square Market.

“Going back that far lets out all the shopping centers, the businesses at the Maine Mall area, and all the converted gas stations,” said Deputy Assessor Robert Tripp. “I don’t believe Dipietro’s is that old, I wonder about Campbell’s Market. None of the businesses and stores from my old neighborhood are still there.”

According to Kathryn DiPhilippo, executive director of the South Portland Historical Society, Campbell’s opened in 1958. It’s reportedly still in the hands of its founding family, so could challenge the Smaha’s streak of same-family ownership from 1937 to 2012 in another 19 years, if it doesn’t change hands by then.

According to a Sept. 20, 2013 “Window on the Past” column in the Sentry authored by Craig Skelton, DiPietro’s was a different business known as Sue’s Variety Store at least as late as the 1975.

But what if we extend the definition of business to nonprofits?

“The Home for Aged Women at 521 Ocean St. was built 1893 and the newest deed is from 1942,” said Kriger, “but that may not be considered a ‘business’ for this purpose.”

Officially known as The Cape Elizabeth Home for Aged Woman, and just the Cape Elizabeth Home since it began taking in men in 1989, the home has been in continuous operation since 1915, according to its website.

DiPhilippo points out that almost the entire western half of the city is out of the running. Businesses did not start springing up along Western Avenue until the 1960s, or out by the Maine Mall until the 1970s.

“Next in line for retail business, after Smaha’s and Campbell’s would probably be the Bridgeway Restaurant,” she said. “It was started by another owner around 1949. I think the Notis family took it over in the early 1960s.”

When the question of South Portland’s oldest business was posed on Twitter, Adrian Dowling, a self-professed train buff, pointed to the Rigby rail yard. Although absorbed into Massachusetts-based Pan Am Railways in 1983, Portland Terminal Company, a consolidation of several lines and rail yards created in 1911, is still maintained as a separate Maine corporation, he said. Rigby Yard itself was built in 1922.

Dowling also nominated Coast Line Credit Union, which has operated in South Portland since 1927. First chartered as Railroad Workers Credit Union of Maine, it initially served employees of the Portland Terminal Company, as well as those of the Maine Central Railroad Company. It took its current name in 1996 to reflect an expanded field of membership.

Meanwhile, Bob O’Brien says his agency, Noyes, Hall & Allen Insurance Agency, can trance its roots to 1933. The modern company is the result of several mergers and acquisitions over the years, but the oldest among them was the Blake & Hamilton Agency, which opened its doors on Cottage Road four years before Smaha’s sold its first apple under its original name of Columbia Market.

Finally, there is the Aspasia Marina, located on Front Street. According to City Councilor Tom Blake, who teaches a course on local history at Southern Maine Community College, the marina can trace its roots to the Portland Shipbuilding Company, founded in the mid-1800s. According to Blake, the marina still keeps enough of a shipbuilding face to maintain its reputed designation as the nation’s second-oldest shipyard, but it’s been almost a century since a ship was actually built and launched from there and most of the site’s buildings, as well as the Merchant Marine Railway line that once ran straight into the bay, are dilapidated almost beyond repair. It’s probably better to think of Aspasia as a business operating on the site of a 19th century firm, rather than as a genuine continuation of that concern.

And that’s where the trail runs cold. Not even the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber of Commerce could provide much information beyond its current members.

“Gee, I really couldn’t provide that type of information, either,” said Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette. “I have been around a long time, but not that long. In your article, could you put out a challenge for any other local business to come forward that may have been established since before the 1940s?”

A good idea. And so, we put it to you, Sentry readers — can you name a business in South Portland established before 1939? Send your nominations to us and we’ll run a list in a future issue.

Until then, the list of oldest South Portland businesses appears to be as follows:

1. Portland Terminal Company — 1911 (operating at
Rigby Yard since 1922)
2. The Cape Elizabeth Home — 1915
3. Coast Line Credit Union —1927 (as Railroad Workers
Credit Union of Maine)
4. Noyes, Hall & Allen Insurance — 1933 (as Blake &
Hamilton Insurance)
5. Legion Square Market — 1937 (as Columbia Market)
6. Portland Pipe Line Corp. — 1941
7. Bridgeway Restaurant — 1949
8. Red’s — 1952
9. Shaw’s — 1955
10. Campbell’s Market — 1958

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