A history walk in Presque Isle

Posted Wednesday, May 25, 2011 in Features

A history walk in Presque Isle

This site was the location of an old Presque Isle high school, built first in 1910.

by Christopher Bouchard

PRESQUE ISLE – Presque Isle's unique past was explained during last Saturday's historical tour of the city. Kimberly Smith, the treasurer and corresponding secretary for the Presque Isle Historical Society, led the tour.

“This is either the third or fourth year we've held tours.” says Smith. “We usually have a tour once a month, but I do set up special tours for groups if they request it.”

The tour takes place on foot, and covers 28 historical locations in Presque Isle.

The Vera Estey house (built in 1875) marks the beginning of the tour. Estey was an entrepreneur from a very well-to-do family. She dated a dentist in Boston, but her father split them apart after he caught them in an allegedly “delicate” situation. Estey wasn't exactly forced to leave the dentist, but her father presented her with a choice: Either Vera could take her father's offering of a diamond ring or she could marry the dentist. Her entrepreneurial spirit prevailed and she ended up choosing the diamond ring.

The Vera Estey House

“Vera hated kids,” says Smith. “My theory on this is that she really wanted to get married and start a family, but since that plan failed it caused her to resent children.”

Estey lived in that house until about eight years before passing away. She was 92 when she died.

A house located at the end of the same road as the Estey house also has an intricate history behind it. The Glidden House on State street was built by Captain Sydney Cook.

The story of the House's construction starts in 1860s, during the Civil War and the Gold Rush. Captain Cook had heard about the wreck of the S.S. Golden Gate. Knowing that this ship typically traveled only the wealthiest passengers, and that it was carrying 1.4 million dollars in newly minted U.S. Gold, he decided to venture out and try to find the ship's watery remains.

Cook put a crew together and, sure enough, he found the ship. He didn't get everything, but he did manage to procure three quarters of a million dollars. San Francisco court later awarded him with a salvage fee.

“[Sydney Cook] was actually one of the forerunners of the marine salvage industry.” says Smith. “He then went back and got more money.”

And that money was used to build the Glidden House on State Street.

The Gidden House

As the tour progressed, Kim Smith revealed the former locations of several old schools.

“Prior to 1920, the school system up here primarily consisted of one-room schoolhouses,” says Smith. “These schoolhouses were actually built by farmers, because they needed the children close by, as they relied on them for labor. If you were to look back at the annual reports you'd see that most schools at that time had a yearly budget of less than $1,500.”

The skeletons of former schools were later joined by a myriad of parking lots around Main Street that marked where other significant locations used to be before they were torn down.

Main Street once harbored two opera houses that were constantly burning down. Oddly enough, this actually helped the businesses. The Perry Opera house would get all the business when the Presque Isle Opera house burned down, and vice versa. The owners of the Presque Isle Opera house once tried to sue the city because the water in their hydrant had frozen during a fire. However, an ordinance had been passed in the name of constructing brick buildings to prevent fires. Thus, the city did nothing to help.

The Perry Opera House was later changed to the State Theater, and the State theater went out of the business once the Braden theater opened. The Braden theater was named after John R. Braden, a very prominent figure in the city during the 1950s. In his day, Mr. Braden raised about $48,000 dollars for the city.

It's also important to note that he was a horse.

The Braden Plaque

John R. Braden was a racing horse that wasn't even raised as a racing horse. He was taken from the farm where he was born and entered into the local races at a young age. Braden did so well in these races that several parties were held for him. One of these gatherings actually involved Braden drinking champagne out of one of his trophies.

Fred P. Steven's store sits across the street from the Braden theater, and though he has passed, the store still retains his name. Not only was he one of the longest running businessmen in the city, but he played an interesting role during World War II. American spies would visit his establishment late at night to purchase suits and Stevens would cut the labels off to protect the identity of the spies.

The tour ended at the former site of the Cunningham School. This was the first high school to be built in the area. Erected in 1910, it remained for almost a century (though it was burned and rebuilt). It was eventually demolished in 2007, leaving nothing but a white cross on a small brick pillar.

The Historical Society holds these tours regularly, and occasionally puts together special events. They have the local middle school participate in a “scavenger hunt” where the kids have to bike from landmark to landmark and memorize other clues in order to receive a hint for the next landmark.

“Our mission is to promote the history here,” says Smith, “and, to me, this is a very good way to do it.”

blog comments powered by Disqus