History of 42 North Portage…Now Known as Portage Pie!

BeeLines - April 30, 2015

By Marybelle Beigh, Westfield Historian

History of 42 North Portage…Now Known as Portage Pie!

It is always exciting and sometimes amazing to me what one little detail in a historic photo can uncover! From the Westfield Historian Facebook page photo of the First Fire Hall, Connie Thayer, proprietor of Portage Pie, recently posted the following: “Do you know what year this photo is? It has what we believe is the earliest picture of the Usborne building. We have always suspected that it once had a different roof line. Our guess was that it had more of a barn roof … It looks like it was made wider, longer, and a second story was added. The building we think is ours is the one between the two tall poles in this photo.”

First stop on the research trail was the set of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps dated 1886, 1891, and 1896. Based on the structures shown in the photo, and the structures shown on those maps, my best guess is that the photo is circa 1890. And yes, the building between the poles on that photo, is single story and has a gambrel roof; it is also in the correct position to be 42 N Portage. The 1886 and 1891 Sanborn maps show a single story structure with a different “footprint” than the structure on the 1896 Sanborn map which is a two story structure.

Second research stop was an earlier BeeLines about the “Vertical History of 42 North Portage” in which some details about William A Usborne’s business ventures provided the next lead in this new “history mystery,” where it stated, “The steam fittings led Wilson and Usborne into the plumbing business, and they built the building at 42 North Portage in 1892.”

Now, historians must go to “original” sources to verify what they write for public information, so the closest to “original” information available - articles and advertisements in the Westfield Republican newspapers regarding local businesses were the third stop on the history mystery research journey. In the May 4, 1892 Republican we found an article headlined, “Wilson & Usborne’s New Shop.” It states that Wilson and Usborne had replaced their old shop on North Portage street with a “bran new building… built in the most substantial manner…35x40 feet in size and two stories high.” Further on in the article it describes both the lower and upper floors as being divided into two sections. “The roof of the building is something they pride themselves on. It is a flat roof…covered by their celebrated steel roofing for which they are agents.” A June 1, 1892 ad by Wilson & Usborne also leads off with the following statement. “Having just erected a New Machine Shop on the site of our old one…”

But, Connie Thayer (& company) insisted that a fourth stop is essential because the physical building that they have restored and repurposed shows a different story. Arriving in the dreary, chilly rain this morning, before coffee (sigh), and with this being their day off, no pie, (another sigh), I brought the maps, and the news articles. Before reviewing these, we went upstairs to the second floor and examined the exposed beams from what had to have been the support for the gambrel roof, based on the notches and the evidence of that 20’ section being built much earlier. So the most likely explanation is that Wilson and Usborne removed the gambrel roof, extended the building up a second story, and added more space to the Main Street side and to the rear of the building before constructing the highly acclaimed flat roof, the original beams forming a solid core to the final “new” building.

So what was there at 42 North Portage before Wilson and Usborne acquired the property? Study of the 1854 Wall map shows only an empty lot at that location. The 1867 Atlas map shows the empty lot more clearly, with a wagon shop to the north and a building to the south labeled B.S.Sh. On the 1881 Atlas map there is a building with the name R J Kitchen between the wagon shop and B S Sh. The 1886 and 1891 Sanborn maps have a building designated as a blacksmith shop on the lot. This structure appears to be smaller than the building of R J Kitchen, so perhaps the Kitchen “residence” may have burned and the gambrel roofed barnlike structure may have been built to house the blacksmith shop sometime between 1881 and 1886. When the famous Westfield House stage coach block burned in 1884, it was noted that a number of other structures to the north of that, but not including the First Fire Hall, were affected by the blazing firebrands blowing north from the fire. So the Kitchen building may have been destroyed at that time.

A Title Search could show the owners of 42 North Portage after the Usborne and Sons Plumbing business dissolved sometime in the 1930s. A few other businesses have been located for that location during the last 50 years before the current owners of Portage Pie:

            1962-1966? Capco Standard (Auto) Parts which moved to 40 N Portage 1967-76

            1969-1975 - CV Glass

            1976-2009 - Westfield Upholstery (Blodgett)