Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans’ Day evokes memories of Yarmouth’s war memorial bandstand that once stood on the village green.

 In honor of Veterans Day, my focus is on a lost treasure that once graced Yarmouth’s village green, approximately where cars now park in front of the town hall. I’m particularly interested in the date of this year’s holiday (11-11-11) because it carries some hefty historical baggage. In the past there were disagreements about whether a day to celebrate all veterans should be focused on November 11th– which marked specifically the end of World War I. From my perspective this year’s date brings us back to the old time view that the WWI armistice took effect precisely at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” This was the moment when terrifying guns of World War I finally fell silent. It’s also why Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, at least until 1954 when the holiday was broadened to include the veterans of World War II and Korea.

This elegant bandstand was Yarmouth’s war memorial from 1922 to 1953.
The last days of WWI were the most difficult for Yarmouth. One Yarmouth vet, Ernest Storer, was wounded only hours before the truce went into effect. More tragically the town was ravaged that fall by the Spanish Influenza epidemic that killed two Yarmouth soldiers at Ft. Devens. Another fourteen citizens died of the flu in the weeks leading up to the armistice. To make matters worse, there were also two demoralizing false reports on October 11th and November 7th that a truce had gone into effect. Church bells finally rang all day on November 11th 1918 when news was received that the war was truly over. The steam whistles on the pulp mill and sardine cannery let loose their screaming blasts and impromptu parades went up and down Main Street. Of the 107 Yarmouth men that served in WWI, there were three who died and four who returned as veterans wounded in combat.

The town moved quickly to honor its war veterans, a gesture that its dwindling survivors of the Civil War had unsuccessfully advocated for over fifty years. The result was an elegantly designed bandstand that was erected in 1922 in front of the high school and central elementary school that were then located on Main Street opposite the Merrill library. Bearing a plaque dedicated to all Yarmouth servicemen from the Revolution through WWI, the bandstand was an exceptionally appropriate way to honor the veterans. In its very structure and use, the bandstand created a kind of living memorial around which town residents could gather on warm summer nights to hear performances by the legendary Yarmouth band. Located right in front of the schools, it also kept the town’s patriotic heritage directly in the sights of its young people. If you look closely at the picture, you will also see the elements of classical Greek design with eight Doric columns, urn-like balusters and a delicate finial on the roof. Homer got it right. The Greeks knew how to honor the valor of their warriors. The classical style of the bandstand made this a superb memorial for Yarmouth’s war veterans.

However, there was more than patriotic sentiment that pushed this project rapidly forward. Civic progressives such as George Hammond in the 1890’s had been trying to create a true town center to bind together the two distinct halves of 19th century Yarmouth. Between the upper and lower villages (“the Corner” and “the Falls”) was a muddy valley commonly known as Brickyard Hollow. By rebranding this area as “Centerville” and filling the valley with pulp mill ash, they created a space for the new library and centralized schools. During WWI that effort had stalled, leaving several dilapidated private buildings to soak up the floods caused by melting snow and Cleaves Brook. Although past efforts to have the town buy that property had been defeated, it was finally acquired and the buildings auctioned off by the town in 1921––very likely with more popular support because of the proposed new war memorial.

If the town had dithered for another year, the bandstand might never have been built. In 1923 the Forest Paper Company abruptly shut down, laying off the majority of the town’s industrial workers. With the passing of shipbuilding, shoe manufacturing and now the pulp mill, the Great Depression came early to Yarmouth and lasted longer. Perhaps these harsh economic realities also explain why the town did not adequately maintain its elegant little bandbox. Rotting and falling apart, the memorial became an eyesore that threatened the safety of the school children. Carl Winslow recalls that it in its final days the bandstand was wrapped in snow fencing to keep kids from climbing into it. The memorial was demolished around 1953 and its brass plaque was relocated to the nearby American Legion’s log cabin where it remains to this day. Personally, I think the town should dust off the plaque and rebuild its little bandstand right by the flagpole on the village green. With its Doric columns and balustrades, the bandstand would harmonize beautifully with the classical style of the town hall and create an elegant focal point for the civic culture of Yarmouth.

Today’s photograph of the bandstand is from the collection of the Yarmouth Historical Society. The picture posted below is from my own collection and it shows how difficult it was to turn Brickyard Hollow into the town's village green. Floods of this sort lasted into the 1980's when the town finally installed huge drains to carry the water past the library and under Bennett Field to drain into the Royal River. Many local residents have memories of emergency book brigades trying to rescue books from the lower level of the library.

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