I hope all the high school seniors appreciate the importance of the seeds of memory they are planting. These days surrounding graduation are packed with frantic planning for all the special events, and teenagers can’t possibly imagine how so many seemingly minor details might be significant a short 50 years from now.
If I had some kind of memory rewind, I’d go back to the senior banquet of the Edward Little High School Class of 1958. It was held at the magnificent Poland Spring House.
We marveled at the opulence of this historic resort. As we entered, we were astonished by the massive 200-foot-long dining room with windows that showcased the White Mountains.
We joked about proper etiquette in such a place. We puzzled over finger bowls and an array of flatware. We knew which classmates were probably more comfortable in such a place, and which were not.
The efficient army of uniformed waitresses made us feel like sophisticated men and women of the world, but I’m sure there were lots of laughs about our ill-concealed awkwardness when they got behind the kitchen doors.
Now, looking back, I realize I was mostly unaware of the grandeur of the gilded age at Poland Spring. It really didn’t hit me that I was dining where presidents had dined. It was here that Rose and Joe Kennedy honeymooned. Babe Ruth had been here … Betty Grable, Mae West, Joe Lewis, Judy Garland.
Decades before the movie stars came, the resort catered to the elite of Boston and New York.
The Poland Spring House dining room offered a grand setting for the lovely gowns in the early 1900s. They were lavishly trimmed in laces, and many had long trains. The length of the dining room, and the carpeted runner, provided the perfect backdrop for the display of these creations, and some ladies specifically requested tables at the end of the dining room so they could display their finery as they strolled elegantly down the full length of the dining room.
Meals were a lavish affair with numerous courses. The menu for Sunday, Sept. 28, 1884, offered three soups, fish, three boiled meats, five roasts, four cold dishes, four entrees, 10 vegetables, 11 relishes, four pastries, 12 desserts, plus tea and coffee.
The coffee was nothing but Chase and Sanborn blend – probably because James S. Sanborn of the famous company owned Elmwood Farm in Poland, where he raised champion horses.
Little had changed even as late as the 1950s, when the menu was even more extensive. Highlights of the hot choices included cream of asparagus soup, baked filet of whitefish Creole en ramequin, fresh Maine lobster a la Newburg en casserole, and breast of Vermont turkey supreme – and pickled lamb’s tongue on the cold service.
I wish I could remember the details of our senior class menu, and I wonder if our meal was served on the hotel’s custom-made ironstone china with the Poland Spring name and the Ricker Family crest. This china was made in a variety of sizes and shapes ranging from tiny demitasse cups and saucers to large round and oval plates for meat and fish courses. Five different sizes of round plates were used.
In 1958, the wonderful resort had actually been in decline under an absentee ownership for 20 years. We couldn’t foresee then that it would close a few years later, and then undergo a series of sad changes as the federal government turned it into the largest women’s Job Corps facility in the country. The history-haunted rooms and halls were remodeled to conform to government regulations.
A tragic fire leveled the Poland Spring House on July 3, 1975, just one day before its 99th anniversary.
Like today’s proms and parties, that senior banquet was a once-in-a-lifetime event that was here and gone so fast. I hope today’s young people take the time to look around and savor these times. It will be important in the future.