From pickle barrels to ‘the Spillings gentleman’

Burger day tradition, wine room among features of longtime general stores
Thu, 09/22/2022 - 8:45am

Among the treasures of the Boothbay peninsula are its three general stores, offering sustenance, warmth and a gathering place for the communities they have served for more than a century.

These stores on Southport and in Trevett and East Boothbay have seen better and worse times and two have been rebuilt after fires took them. Their existence is a testament to the part they still play in their communities and the lure of old and new that pulls customers through their doors.

Built in 1882, E. E. Pinkham & Son, today’s Southport General Store, burned in 1895 taking with it the post office and most of the town’s records, according to information provided by resident Donald Duncan. The store was so vital to the island community, Duncan said, that it was rebuilt in less than one month.

Over the years, merchandise included  “Sugar and coffee, 100 pound bags of beans, corn and grain, barrels of molasses, linseed oil, and turpentine as well as batteries for flashlights and records for Victrolas and many kinds of common clothing. There were all kinds of salt fish ...,” Duncan said.

Filled to capacity, directions to the location of any item in the store were given as the number of paces north, south, east, or west starting at the pickle barrel. 

“In the winter, when fishing and work on summer cottages was slack, many of the men would gather around the big coal stove in the center of the store to read the Boston Globe, swap yarns and wait for the mail,” Duncan wrote in comments for the Jeffersonian Society in 2013.

From Everett to his son Charles and for almost 100 years, the store was owned and operated by members of the Pinkham family until 1972. Other owners followed and, in 2019, it was acquired by Barbara and Todd Leland.

“We wanted to be all things a general store should be,” Barbara Leland explained. “We worked hard at keeping everything going to make it a place where people could gather.”

These days, the general store has traded the pickle barrel for a wine room with more than 300 labels and a gift barn that opened in 2012 and showcases Maine-made items.

This also included opening a back dining area and adding specialty coffees to the store’s menu.

The unseen addition to the store is the SGS Gives program which donates part of its proceeds to island organizations.

Store manager Nancy Long said the 25 year-old tradition of “Thursday burger day” continues thanks to Mike Beane who mans the grill. And throughout the summer, the barn managed by Emma Gay offered programs featuring local artists and their work.

As Barbara Leland explained, “The store is the one place on the island where all the ‘worlds’ intersect, year-round and summer residents and those working nearby. It’s unique to Southport.”

Seavey’s to Farmer’s to Brightside

Owner Liz Evans said East Boothbay General Store was built by Frank Seavey from Kennebunkport and opened around 1893 with “The same footprint and general look as today.” Seavey sold bulk dry goods, molasses, coffee, beans, flour and cheese and whatever fruit or vegetable was in season, she added.

It closed in 1930 and re-opened 1946 when it transitioned through owners and names including Callnan’s Market, Millers Market and Brightside Market. In 1990, Don and Diane Jackson bought the property and called it East Boothbay General Store, operating it for six years, according to Evans.

The store continued to be a meeting place for people to pass time. “Men would stop in on their way home from work at the shipyard to buy a pack of cigarettes for 50 cents and hear the news of the day. (It was) also a favorite of youngsters who still talk about coming in for penny candy and ice cream,” Evans added.

She bought the store in 2006 after it had been shuttered for almost two years. She moved in upstairs with her two daughters, Sabine, 13, and Astrid, 10.

A private chef on yachts, Evans bought the store thinking it would work as a commercial kitchen for her catering business.

She cleaned it up and applied her unique touch to the business, bringing the store to life with a menu that offered specialty sandwiches, gourmet pizza, chowders, bisques, salads, espresso, breads and breakfast sandwiches and wraps. An open arch and gable area was enclosed and a separate seating space created. Wine and specialty items were added to the store’s shelves.

At times, Evans encounters an unseen earlier occupant of the property who makes his presence known around the walk-in cooler. “Over the years people sense a presence and turn around but no one is there,” she explained. A cousin of an employee asked if they had encountered anything and referred to the presence as someone who lived there around 1969. He was called “the Spillings gentleman. It’s nothing malicious,” Evans said. “Living in this building is like living in a museum.”

 “A nice, old building”

G. Hodgdon and Son (now Trevett Country Store) was built around 1860 and is the oldest of the peninsula’s three remaining general stores, according to information provided by former owner Stan Hodgdon and his daughter, Jennifer Gaudette. It’s also the store that remained with the original family the longest.

Accounts from the mid-1800s show the range of goods, including shoes, pants, teapots, window frames at prices definitely from another time: Nine pounds of rice for $1.08; a boat engine, $15. 

Early on, the building was destroyed by fire but a new store emerged and, in 1882, a post office was added. Stephen G. Hodgdon, the store’s owner, was named postmaster.

“Originally, items were brought by boat,” Stan Hodgdon said. “There’s a freight wheel in the attic that was turned to haul merchandise up for storage.” He remembered that there was dried fish hanging in the store and pieces would be cut for customers.

The family operated the store and post office for more than a century, offering shoes, groceries and fishing equipment. In 1959, the wharf was leased to Mill Cove Lobster. After his father Richard Hodgdon retired, Stan became the fourth generation of Hodgdons to have the store. He was also bridge tender and postmaster which required him at times to leave the building to manually open the bridge.

In 1979, with competition eroding business, Hodgdon closed the store, continuing as postmaster until he retired. Kim and Jeff Lewis bought the property with partner Austin Barter in 1998 re-naming the store Trevett Country Store.

“It’s a nice, old building,” Jeff Lewis said. “I wonder how many generations of people have walked across those floors.”

A grill was added so people could have a burger when they came to shop, “But we never thought it would take off,” said Kim. The food became the draw and they added specials. Today, customers line up for the fried seafood, lobster and crabmeat rolls. “It’s fresh that day,” Lewis explained, thanks to his Mill Cove Lobster business next door.

Unlike their modern counterparts, these buildings define their business. But it takes more than nostalgia to bring customers into an old building, so each offers something unique.

On Southport, Barbara Leland offers the barn, talks from Maine artists, and plenty of food and staples for the island community.

Evans’ culinary skills have earned a reputation for her East Boothbay General Store and draw a crowd looking for her food.

And Trevett Country Store keeps customers coming in for the seafood.

In separate interviews with the Boothbay Register, the owners of all three stores expressed the same appreciation for their businesses’ history.

“Stan and his father had it before us and we’re the caretaker of it,” Jeff Lewis said. “I never thought I’d be the owner; I grew up as a little kid getting ice cream here.”

Barbara Leland also talked about honoring the history of the store. “You don’t own it,” she explained. “You are the current guardian of it.”

Evans said her store became her life’s work. “The store defined me in my life. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”