A newly-donated painting tells the story of an interesting episode in Freeport’s twentieth-century history. James McNeely, son-in-law of the late Freeport Attorney Paul Powers, brought in a painting that depicts a sidewalk crowded with passers-by watching a fire. The painting, signed “Maki ’46” certainly looked like Main Street in Freeport, and since it belonged to Paul Powers (a fact which confirmed by a sticker on the back of the frame), we gladly accepted it, promising Mr. McNeely to do some research and try to find out something about both it. Somewhat to our surprise, the explanation came to light quickly in our vertical file, and our collections records answered some questions about the painting itself.
The fire in the painting was clearly the one that burned the building at the corner of Main and Mechanic streets on June 26, 1946. According to accounts in the Portland Press Herald, the fire destroyed the Roma Lunch (where it started), the Freeport Hardware Co. Store, and two apartments, only one of which was occupied. Fortunately nobody was hurt, and the Royal Market, which was also in the building, escaped destruction, although it suffered smoke damage. The total damage was estimated at $35,000-$40,000.
The remarkable thing about this fire, though, was that it came just three weeks after an even larger fire, which destroyed the Clark Block at the corner of Main and Bow, just a block away. This fire, which broke out in the Kimball Pharmacy, caused damage that the newspaper estimated to be $150,000. It virtually destroyed Kimball’s and the Gould-Curtis clothing store, both of which were on the Main Street side of the building. Several other businesses, on Bow St. were heavily damaged. The fire swept through all three floors. Some of the 24 people living in Clark’s Hotel had to climb down a ladder to safety, but “even Miss Margaret Simond’s” Pomeranian was rescued by the firemen”.
These two fires, in the heart of the business district, clearly, dealt a blow to downtown Freeport. But less than a year later both properties were back on their feet again. Harland Heywood, who had owned the building at the corner of Mechanic Street for less than a year, replaced it with a concrete, steel reinforced building, which was occupied by Freeport Hardware (which he owned), Mason’s Drug Store, and the First National Store.
At the old Clark Block, Earle G. Shettleworth (whose son of the same name is so well known to us as the director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission), had grasped the opportunity to purchase the building, whose brick structure had withstood the fire. By January, 1947, according to the newspaper, “in an era market by building material shortages, he has been able to renovate the entire block for occupancy.” Shettleworth, who had managed Woolworth’s Portland for 12 years, opened a store of his own in the rejuvenated building. This turn of events prompted the newspaper to publish “a series of article about enterprising Freeport, a modern Phoenix rising from the ashes.”
As for the painting, one of the newspaper articles mentioned that the Powers Block narrowly escaped the flames, thanks to a firewall between it and the Clark Block. The fact that it made it through two major fires so close by no doubt explains why Mr. Powers had the painting. To find out about the artist we started by searching for “Maki” in our collections database. It turns out that we have five acorn-shaped ceramic buttons in their original packaging, which is a card that says “By Virginia Ladd Maki.” The card also has a sketch of a house, labeled “Mast Landing Hilltop House, Freeport Maine.” Presumably, Maki did the sketch as well. Our obituary file confirmed that the Virginia Ladd Maki, of 96 Bow St., was an artist who “had one-man art shows in Palm Beach, Boston, New York, Ogunquit, and Rockland. She belonged to the New York Art Association, the Ogunquit Art Association, and the Freeport Art Club.”
The relative ease with which this all came to light is a tribute to the remarkable job that Collections staff and volunteers have done over the years in organizing, cataloguing, and documenting the collection.