‘It’s still here for a reason’

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Lisbon’s old high school has a lot of stories within its walls, none of them lost on builder Bob Strout as he prepares it for more.

LISBON — When the “for sale” sign first went in the ground at the old Lisbon schoolhouse, there was much speculation about the future of the dilapidated building.

Some locals thought the Open Door Bible Church would buy it and raze it for a parking lot. Then word trickled out that Bob and Aline Strout were looking at the building. In July, Haggerty Realty’s Kathy Harris stuck the “sold” label on the sign and soon after, Bob Strout hammered his R.L. Strout & Son sign on the building. The rumors were confirmed.

According to Rick Mason, a local excavator who will be working on the Strout’s renovation project, “Bob should have been born 100 years ago.”

It’s true. Bob Strout loves history. He’s one of those people who posts old pictures on Facebook. Like his late father, Sherwood, Bob is a member of the Joshua Chamberlain Civil War Roundtable. He remembers spending time as a kid with his uncle on his mother’s side of the family, Lester Olson. Uncle Lester “loved to tell the story of the ancestors and what they did,” said Bob. “I think that’s why I got so passionate for history.”

His wife, Aline, remembers Bob’s early renovation jobs, working for older families in the Lisbon area. “He would come home and tell me who was related to whom,” Aline said.

“I worked for a lot of Slovaks and they would tell me their family story,” Bob said. “And you start connecting all the dots together.”

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Those stories told by his construction clients included memories of the early years of Lisbon. And their homes would tell stories too. “It’s like archaeology,” Bob said. “You start ripping something apart and you find there was something else there before that. This is where the old sink used to be. People would show me receipts from Hahnel Brothers. Like one client, Eddie Butler. His mother had tin ceilings that were put in in the 1930s and it was $35 for this room and $25 for that room. It was all done by Hahnel Brothers and she had the slip” to prove it.

When he thinks about the old high school he’s now renovating into apartments, Bob can’t help but smile and reminisce. “Think about it,” he said, “it was standing here 10 years before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. Think of all the things this building has survived . . . it’s still here for a reason, I think. I think it’s the reason we’re here today.”

COLORFUL HISTORY INCLUDES PERSHING, HOLLYWOOD 

The schoolhouse that is now the focus of Bob’s attention started out as the Lisbon High School in 1893. It was built by Joseph Philbrook and constructed on the corner of Route 196 and Gartley Street.

According to Francis W. Plummer’s 1970 book “Lisbon; the history of a small Maine town,” Philbrook built houses, schools, commercial buildings and even a ship named the “Red Jacket” before he settled in Lisbon Falls. His first building still extant in the Lisbon area is the house on the corner of Main and Maple streets in Lisbon Falls, across from Haggerty Realty. He worked on buildings for the Worumbo Mill and even the University of Maine’s Coburn Hall. As Plummer writes in his history, “Philbrook was in Lisbon Falls at the beginning of its growth and saw it develop into a large town.”

What is now known as the town of Lisbon was once three villages, each with their own identities. Lisbon Falls and Lisbon each had their own high schools. In 1894, the first class graduated from what was then known as Lisbon High school. The building was ultimately used as both a grammar school and a high school; an early “yearbook” published in 1901, The Pierian, documented the school had a gymnasium inside.

According to town reports and the yearbooks (later called the Lisbonian) published in the years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, the school had a colorful and spirited history. For instance, on June 3, 1920, Army General John Pershing toured New England and, oddly enough, made a stop at the high school.

According to longtime Sun Journal columnist Eloise Jordan, who graduated from the high school in 1924, “Everyone worshipped General Pershing as a great hero.”

Jordan later wrote of her memories in a Jan. 4, 1958, Lewiston Evening Journal feature. She outlined how Pershing’s trip to Maine was covered in the press and how excited the students were when they realized he would be passing right by their school as he motored from Brunswick to Lewiston.

“There was no reason on earth why he should visit our town.” And yet he did. Jordan said the students considered many things to impress the general. “. . . We even hoped that we might shoot off firecrackers if we could secure any so far in advance of the Fourth of July.”

Jordan noted that “whenever they heard an automobile approaching there was a great craning of necks. . . . Overzealous, we may have made a dash or two at the wrong car, for in that day and age there were not too many automobiles on the road.”

According to Jordan, the anxious, flag-waving schoolchildren were so excited, they swarmed the road, and Pershing’s car had no choice but to stop. Jordan wrote: “There in the tonneau of the great touring car whose top was down, sat General Pershing in his splendid uniform, looking just like his pictures, stern, dignified, handsome.”

In 1931, town leaders approved a warrant for $4,000 to build an addition to the high school. It offered both a large classroom and a science laboratory with six tables for lab work, gas jets and running water. The basement of the addition was used for manual training. The 1932 Lisbonian noted: “The cost of the digging was paid for by a number of interested citizens and also much labor was contributed.”

Other notable moments in the history of the school:

The 1933 issue of the Lisbonian was dedicated to Ragnar Lind, the school’s English teacher. Lind became known in Hollywood as Jeffrey Lynn. Born in Massachusetts, Lind graduated from Bates College and taught at the old high school. He went to Hollywood in 1938. A character actor, he was typecast “the handsome leading man in a string of Warner Brother films,” according to his New York Times obituary.

In the fall of 1934, students formed a Home Economics Club, under the guidance of “Miss Holbrook.” This club was responsible for selling or bartering the first “hot lunches” to students who were not able to go home for lunch. In 1936, the Lisbonian was dedicated to the beloved “Miss Holbrook.” Cooks and foodies today know “Miss Holbrook” as Marjorie Standish, the long-time Portland Sunday Telegram food writer and author of the seminal Maine cookbook “Cooking Downeast.”

In 1944, facing a scarcity of fuel and teachers because of the war, Lisbon High school merged with Lisbon Falls High School in the brick structure located on Campus Avenue. The Lisbon High School was repurposed into a grade school and served as such until 1959. After that, the building was sold at auction and was at times an antique store and a storage business.

PRESERVING, RESPECTING THE PAST

On a recent day, almost 115 years since the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, Bob and Aline Strout looked out from the bell tower of what was once the highest point of view for many a Lisbon village student.

To their left, in what will one day be a driveway, sat Bob’s maroon 1930 Ford Model A. A couple drove by and smiled. They honked. “I’m getting the honks like you wouldn’t believe,” Bob said. “I’m getting the support of the community and that makes us feel good that we did the right thing.”

The Strouts plan to renovate the structure into a five-unit apartment building; they see themselves living there as well.

“The building . . . it’s sunny and bright,” said Aline. “It’s a sunny, happy place. I could see myself living there.”

Bob laughed. “This will be my single biggest remodel. Over 7,000 square feet,” he said. And then he looked a little serious and added, “We’re going to save a piece of history.”

They’re committed to preserving as much of the original bones of the building as possible. Most of the woodwork will stay, with some exceptions. “We’ll try to keep as many of the original floors as possible,” said Bob. “We’ll save all the good hardwood, too, and repurpose it.”

They like how the old stairs are worn a little near the banisters, from generations of schoolchildren going up and down. The front doors are original and the Strouts have recently repainted them. And the white art deco light fixture? Bob has already restored the lens and plans to have it rewired.”

“We’re going to repurpose a lot of the old hanging lights,” he said.

“We want it to feel like you’re in an old schoolhouse.”

The front porch, with the original pillars have already been restored. The cabinets from the lab? They might end up in the small outbuilding in back of the structure. Rumor has it this was once an old jailhouse from Hebron; Bob and Aline see that space turned into a small cafe in the future.

Route 196 regulars can watch the project as it unfolds. The Strouts estimate it will take them approximately two years to complete.

You can also follow Bob and Aline Strout’s adventure on Facebook at The Old Lisbon Village Restoration Project.

Bob and Aline Strout have purchased the former Lisbon High School on Route 196 in Lisbon and plan to renovate the historic building into apartments. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Contractor Bob Strout walks down the main stairwell at the front of the old Lisbon High School. He plans to keep the well-worn stairs. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

When Bob Strout’s friends found out he bought the old Lisbon High School, many began donating items from the original school, including this diploma someone found at a yard sale. Strout hopes to collect more, including the bell that was in the bell tower. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Standing in what was once the principal’s office, Bob Strout pulls down on an original window shade made by a company in Chicago. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Bob Strout stands in the bell tower and shows where he plans to hang an antique light he bought. He plans to keep the lamp lit continually. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

An early form of air conditioning is still functioning in the old schoolhouse. With the pull of a chain, a rooftop opening allows hot air from the ground floors to escape through duct work, traveling up through the interior of the building and out the roof. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

With the pull of a chain, a rooftop damper can be opened, allowing hot air from the ground floors to escape through duct work, traveling up through the interior of the building and out the roof. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Many people have left their mark on the door on the top floor of the former schoolhouse that leads to the bell tower. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Contractor Bob Strout said saving the original pillars and front doors on the former schoolhouse is essential to his renovation plans. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Bob Strout climbs down through a small hatch that allows access to the bell tower in the old Lisbon High School. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

This decorative light still hangs in what was once the principal’s office in the former Lisbon High School. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

The bell tower in the former Lisbon High School. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Bob and Aline Strout have purchased the former Lisbon High School on Route 196 in Lisbon and plan to renovate the historic building into apartments. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Ragnar Lind taught at the former Lisbon High School before moving to Hollywood and launching a successful acting career under the name Jeffrey Lynn. A high school yearbook was dedicated to Lind.

Gen. John Pershing is seen in this archival photo visiting the former Lisbon High School on June 3, 1920.

Marjorie Standish, well-known Maine cook and writer, taught at the former Lisbon High School.

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