2014-11-14 / Front Page

Everyday Maine: Jean Allen

‘Raising a family was my main point in life’
By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Jean Allen, 87, poses in her Boothby Avenue home with the Camp Fire Girls headband she made as a 12-year-old girl. (Duke Harrington photo) Jean Allen, 87, poses in her Boothby Avenue home with the Camp Fire Girls headband she made as a 12-year-old girl. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Born on Thornton Heights, raised in Ligonia and Pleasantdale, and a resident since the mid-’50s of Boothby Avenue, Jean Allen has experienced South Portland from one end to the other during her 87 years. Recently, she sat down to share her experiences as a lifelong city resident.

Q: Where and when were you born? A: I was born on Thornton Heights in December 1926.

Q: Do you remember any of the Great Depression at all?

A: I don’t really remember much of that. Looking back I can see times were hard, but back then I never figured I was a poor person, because we weren’t really starving or anything. My dad raised rabbits and he had a big garden. So, we were fed well.

Jean Allen as a teenager in the early 1940s, sitting outside the family home on outer Broadway. (Courtesy photo) Jean Allen as a teenager in the early 1940s, sitting outside the family home on outer Broadway. (Courtesy photo) Q: What did your parents do?

A: My mother worked for Maine Central Railroad before she was married. She was an immigrant from Canada. My dad came from England. He was a garage man, but not a mechanic. He was a tin-knocker. He would knock out dents.

Q: How big was your family? A: I had a brother and a sister. They’re both gone now.

Q: What was that end of South Portland like when you were young?

A: Well, we didn’t live in Thornton Heights for long. Just after I was born we moved to Main Street, and then to Broadway. We lived in the Ligonia area and it was very rural. I had to walk through a big field to get to Lincoln School. That field is all houses now, it’s Ridgeland Estates.

Q: What’s your most vivid memory of that time?

A: I remember that Broadway had the trolleys come up by us, and in the wintertime they’d spark because the cable hit the snow, and they would sparkle. It cost a nickel to go to town on the Ligonia trolly. We didn’t get [city] buses until I was in high school, and school buses weren’t even thought of then.

Q: What did you do for fun as a child in the city?

A: We didn’t have playgrounds except for our own yard. We were not near to many other children in the neighborhood. We met at church activities and at school. There was a beach behind the Forest City Cemetery where we went swimming in the summer time. It was fun, but cold. Very cold. And we never thought anything to see a skim of oil on the water. One of the other fun things we would do was, we would take two pins, cross them and lay them on the trolley tracks. When the trolley would go over them, it would fuse the pins together, and we’d pretend we’d made a pair of scissors that we could use at school, or when playing dolls and stuff. It was just something to play with. But other that that, we were content to jump rope, play hide-and-seek, kick-the-can and play statue.

Q: Do you have any memories of anything that’s since disappeared, that young people today might never have heard of?

A: Well, I was terrified of Vaughn’s Bridge, which was a big, iron, turntable bridge that ran from the end of Main Street over to Portland. The center part turned to let ships pass through. A good many times we’d walk over into Portland, especially at Christmastime to see Santa Clause come into Union Station. I hated to cross the bridge because there was a space about this far [holds hands about five inches apart] where they turntable would go around. I would hold my breath and jump across the gap. It wasn’t that big, but I was sure I could fall though it.

Q: What was Christmas like you were young?

A: Christmas was a lot different then. Your stocking that you hung up wasn’t a fancy one. It was one of our own stockings that we used to wear. They were quite long and you’d always get an orange in the toe, and maybe some nuts and other things, but never a gift.

Q: What was school like back then?

A: It was quite different because you had boys on one side and girls on the other side, and never the twain shall meet. When you went into school they had a record player going and a teacher there sorting us going up the stairs, saying, “Left, right, left, right.” My class was quite small and we were usually grouped in with another class. But at Lincoln School they built a special room in the basement so we could have a room of our own. Lincoln is a Christian school now. Where I went to junior high, Reynolds School, is gone now.

Q: Do you remember what you were doing when news came of the attack on Pearl Harbor?

A: No. It wasn’t a big event for me, except that my father was very into the news. He wasn’t a young man, but he still didn’t know whether they would draft him or not. I do have a better memory of D-Day though, because that happened on my Class Day, as I was getting ready to graduate from high school. We were in assembly when we heard it was D-Day.

Q: What was South Portland like during the war years?

When we walked down Broadway to go to the high school, which is Mahoney Middle School today, we’d pass the armory, which was housing Coast Guard people. Right where Mill Creek Park is was a dump, but they had a little tiny store there so that kids, when they got out of school, could go across the street and get comic books and stuff. The shipyards were quite a going concern, but, of course, we didn’t live in that area, so we didn’t get that traffic. But that was the time when Peary Village was built, and the Mountain View area was built around where the high school is now. That was all housing for the shipyard workers.

Q: Were you personally affected by World War II?

A: We weren’t concerned about it, unless you had somebody in the service. My brother was not drafted. They made him 4-F for some health reason that I didn’t understand. He was devastated. But after it was all over he joined the National Guard and served for quite some time. He got worked up to a sergeant.

Q: Did you participate in any wartime activities?

A: In high school I was taking the commercial course and we were asked to help in typing forms people used to get qualified to use rationing books, and also in the issuing of the books.

Q: Was your family affected by rationing?

A: Yes. My parents would take foster children in, so we were set pretty well, because they were eligible to get sugar stamps. My dad tried to get in at the shipyard. He tried working at the Maine Steel Company, where they were making turnbuckles. But my dad was a thin man, and he just couldn’t take it. So, he ended up at a garage called Trefethens, which was were Pratt-Abbott [dry cleaning] is now. It was a Pontiac dealership.

Q: What did you do after high school?

A: Well, I wasn’t interested in going on to college. I figured I’d done my duty through high school. So, I went to work for the telephone company, New England Tel & Tel. I was in the billing department. I think the first check I got was for $14. I was there almost five years before I got $1 an hour. I thought that was a big step. I continued to live at home until I was 19, when I got married. I still have one of my last weekly check stubs, for $36.12, in 1951.

Q: How did you meet your husband?

A: I met him at Highland Lake in Falmouth. We had a summer cottage over there. This was 1945 and he had just been discharged and his parents had a place there as well. He had a big canoe and I was sitting on the dock in front of our cottage. He came up and wanted me to go for a ride and, of course, I said, “Nuh-uh.” But then later on I did go. He had plenty of chances to ask me because, being just out of the service, he didn’t have a job.

Q: So, pursuing you became his full-time job? A: More or less [laughs]. But, it was summertime, and it just happened, I guess. That summer we met, and after a couple of months he gave me a ring, and we got married in the fall, on Halloween. We were married 59 years. His name was Philip Allen and my maiden name was Allan.

Q: So, you only had to change one letter?

A: Not even that. For some reason, my dad was used to people spelling his name “Allen,” and he either didn’t notice, or he didn’t care, because my birth certificate says “Allen,” instead of “Allan.” For the heck of it a few years ago, I entered by name into the computer [at genealogy.com] and it says he only has two children, Alvin and Lois, but no Jean. As far as the Internet is concerned, I don’t exist, or I must belong to somebody else. Well, I always figured I was adopted [laughs].

Q: So, you discovered the error in your name when you got married?

A: No, not for a long time after. It wasn’t until after my mother died that I got my own birth certificate for something and it said “e-n.” I went down to city hall to see if I could change it, but by that time my dad had passed away and there was no one to verify that I was an “a-n” and they wouldn’t change it.

Q: How long did you work at the phone company?

A: For five years. Then I became a home mother until the youngest of my three children in high school, then I went to UNUM. I worked there two different times for eight or nine years total.

Q: And what did your husband do for work?

A: He worked for Cushman Bakery for a while. Then he found that he could be a salesman, so he had several different jobs, selling houses and bakery products and appliances at Hodges, over in Mill Creek.

Q: What sorts of civic activities were you involved in?

A: We were active in People’s Methodist Church. That was a big part of our life for many, many years. I still bake a custard pie every month for their suppers, although I make sure to cut it myself, otherwise they’ll try and get 12 pieces of pie. Can you imagine? I make sure there are eight. My husband was a Lion at one point, and then he changed to the Kiwanis. He was also a Mason. I was a Girl Scout leader for my girls.

Q: Had you been a Girl Scout as well?

A: No, I was a Camp Fire Girl, from when I was 10 until I went into high school. It was a lot like Girl Scouts. We earned beads and badges and made headbands and all kinds of things. The big difference was, it was all things Indian. We got to wear a ceremonial gown, which was imitation leather, with fringes on it, with beads around out neck and headbands. I still have the headband I made for my outfit. But by the time my girls came along Camp Fire Girls had died out, so the only thing for them to do was to go into Girl Scouts.

Q: When did you move into your home on Boothby Avenue.

A: In 1954 or 1955. Our house was two years old at the time, but had only been rented out by the developer. We’ve been the only owners. This is an exceptional neighborhood, but it’s closed in on quite a bit. When we first moved in there was no house there, or there, or there, or there [points out window to neighboring homes]. The wild cherry tree across the street from us measures how long I’ve been here. It’s at least 50 feet tall now, but it was only a bush when we moved in.

Q: How has South Portland changed over the years?

A: Well, it’s grown tremendously. It’s expanded so much you really can’t tell where the borders are. It definitely has become a city. You don’t find as many open spaces any more. Of course where the mall is was a piggery. None of that was there. And Mill Creek was much smaller when it first went in. Of course, the Million Dollar Bridge changed everything. I think when I was younger, and when my kids were in school, we took the “fight for the bridge” in football more to heart. They still make a deal about it, but it doesn’t seem to mean as much. Of course, things have changed a lot with who we play for teams. We never would have played Windham, heavens to Betsy. Even Westbrook, we’d always say we had to go out into the tall grass to play Westbrook, because there were even more rural than we were.

Q: Is there anything you think South Portland still needs.

A: Not a Market Basket. Sometimes I think they need a new council. They seem to do a lot of arguing. I was on the fence myself about tar sands. Ecologically, it shouldn’t be here, but then if it’s jobs, maybe we need to do something.

Q: What would you say was your proudest accomplishment was in life?

A: That I have three great kids, and not bad grandchildren and a great-grandchild either. I think raising a family was my main point in life. Other than that, it was just regular living, I guess. I’m just glad that I was able to live in South Portland the whole time. I’m proud to be from South Portland. I think it treats seniors pretty well.

Q: What advice would you have for a young person just starting out today?

A: Throw away the telephone things. They just take too much time. You very seldom see a young person without something in their hand, texting or whatever. Also, the attitudes of the new generation are too involved in themselves to bother to go to church. I once heard a lady say, “Church is just a habit.” Well, I think it’s sort of an anchor.

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