A story by Gary Libby from 1936 to 2020
History of the Forest Gardens Bar
Copyright 2020 Gary W. Libby
The recent retirement of Richard Piacentini, who had owned the Forest Gardens longer than any other person, caused me to make this attempt to write a history of this neighborhood bar. Portland has changed a lot over the almost 84-year history of what may very well be Portland’s oldest bar. Neighborhood bars with a sense of community which, like the fictional "Cheers," "where everybody knows your name," have almost disappeared from Portland. I thought that it was important to capture some of the bar's history before it disappeared.
In doing the research for this brief history it soon became apparent that much, probably most, of the bar's early history has already been lost. The reader will see that the history of the bar's early years is pretty sketchy, mostly just names and dates. As we get closer to the present the amount of information available allowed for more detail.
The Forest Gardens was the first restaurant/bar to open in its neighborhood. Over its nearly 84-year history the Gardens has successfully survived competition from a succession of bars and restaurants that opened and closed in its neighborhood. It is now the only bar/restaurant in the neighborhood.
The Early Years
The building in which the Forest Gardens is located was built in 1922. The street numbers assigned to the building were 371, 371A, and 373 Forest Avenue. The 1924 tax assessment described the building as having two one-bedroom apartments and four apartments consisting of three rooms and a bathroom. The apartments were numbered 371A Forest Avenue and were called the Boulevard Apartments. The building was originally owned by Frank W. Sparrow.
In 1925 Mr. Sparrow sold the building, the storefronts of which had been vacant until the date of that sale, to Morris and Samuel J. Sacknoff. In 1925 the 373 Forest Avenue side was occupied by Sulkowich Hardware and the 371 Forest Avenue side was a storehouse, presumably for the hardware store. 371 Forest Avenue became vacant in 1926. Between 1927 and 1930 it was occupied by Forest City Auto Top. It was vacant again in 1931 and 1932. A. A. Spring Co., Inc. occupied 371 Forest Avenue in 1933 and 1934. It was vacant again in 1935.
Maine enacted the first statewide prohibition law in 1851. The United States passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ushering in national prohibition in 1920. The Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, was proclaimed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as having been ratified on December 5, 1933.
In 1936 Lucy Aliberti, who lived at 93 Middle Street in Portland, opened the Forest Garden Restaurant at 371 Forest Avenue as a full service restaurant. It made sense for Ms. Aliberti to open a restaurant at that location along a thriving section of Forest Avenue where potential customers were abundant. According to the 1936 Portland City Directory, within four blocks in either direction along Forest Avenue from her restaurant, there were: six service (gas) stations; four new car dealers; two used car dealers; one tractor dealer; four automobile supply/accessory shops; one automobile parts shop; the Palmer Spring Co.; a glass shop; three grocery stores, including an A&P and a First National store; a fruit shop; a wholesale plumbing supply dealer; a Postal Service substation; a drug store; and three substantial industrial businesses including the Portland Burial Case Co., Oakhurst Dairy, and the huge National Biscuit Company bakery located in what is now the University of Southern Maine (USM) Glickman Family Library. There were also dozens and dozens of apartments within that area along Forest Avenue and its side streets. There were no other restaurants in the area. Ms. Aliberti owned the restaurant until 1939.
Mrs. Mary G. Mann became the owner in 1940. Mrs. Mann lived nearby at 9 Pitt Street. She owned it until 1945 when Carl J. Blom, who also lived nearby at 83 Washburn Avenue, purchased it. He ran a restaurant called the Carl J. Blom Restaurant at that location until 1947 when he went to work at Bob’s Airport Café on outer Congress Street, Portland., which was later the long-time location of Espo's Restaurant and is now occupied by Maria’s Restaurant in 2020.
Portland Junior College had a campus on the Portland peninsula prior to World War II. The college closed down during the war. It reopened in 1947 and bought the former Deering Estate to use as its new campus. The Deering Estate was bounded by Durham Street on the east, Falmouth Street on the north, and Bedford Street on the west and south. Students from PJC began to patronize what became the Forest Gardens Lunch.
The next owner was William T. Parker who opened the Forest Garden Lunch in 1948. He ran the place until 1950 when he sold it to Frederick J. Talbot who lived at 51 Deerfield Road, Portland. Talbot sold in 1952 to Fred Toppi who lived at 28 Pennell Avenue, Portland. The first advertised phone number for the business appeared in 1952: SP(ruce) 39170. Toppi, a proud Marine Corps veteran of WWII and an uncle of Tony DiMillo, who became one of Portland’s most successful restaurant owners, owned it until 1957 when he sold to a partnership of Rudolph "Rudy" A. Ferrente and Thomas "Tucker" Walsh. Rudy was a boyhood friend of Toppi’s. They grew up together on Newbury Street in the heavily Italian American neighborhood around what became the Munjoy South housing development. Ferrante had worked at the restaurant as a bartender. At that time Mr. Ferrante lived at 18 Sheridan Street, Portland, and Mr. Walsh, who grew up on Munjoy Hill, lived at 1662 Forest Avenue, Portland. Mr. Walsh had been a longshoreman. Fred Toppi later opened a bar in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood.
1957 to 1965
Ferrante and Walsh borrowed $15,000, $7,500 each, from Giuseppe Pio, the owner of Pio Beverages, in order to buy the bar. The Gardens remained a restaurant as well as a bar under the Ferrante/Walsh partnership. This was a place that catered to couples and had a dinner special consisting of a one-pound sirloin steak with a baked potato and a small side salad with house made Italian dressing that sold for 99 cents. They ground their own meat for the hamburgers they sold and offered a hamburger with French fries for a quarter. At that time a six-ounce short beer cost a nickel and a mug of beer cost 15 cents.
Commercial television began to become popular and appear in peoples' homes in the early 1950s. Nobody seems to know when the Forest Gardens got its first television but it was likely during the time when Fred Toppi owned the bar. By the time that Rudy and Tucker bought the bar it was common for them to tune in to every televised Red Sox game on a small black and white television placed above the bar. Tucker would set up the bar whenever Ted Williams hit a home run much to Rudy’s annoyance. They also showed any Celtics games that were available. Since Maine’s "blue laws" prohibited Sunday sales of alcohol, whether in bars or in stores, the bar didn't show any National Football League games. The bar was packed in June, 1959, for the televised heavyweight title bout between the world champion, Floyd Patterson, and the challenger, the European champion, Ingelmar Johansson. Johansson won by a TKO.
Bob "Showboat" Mank was a regular at the Gardens in the late 1950s. He was described as a dapper dresser who was proud to have a spiffy car usually an Oldsmobile or a Cadillac. One day he was bragging about a new car he had bought when another customer challenged him to a drag race down Forest Avenue. While Bob and his challenger were finishing their beers, a group of other regulars snuck out of the bar, jacked Bob’s car up just enough to slide some pieces of wood under the axles to bring the car's wheels just off the pavement. The challenger drove alongside Bob’s car and Rudy Ferrante got between the cars and dropped a handkerchief for the race to begin. While the other car sped down Forest Avenue, Bob Mank sat is his car with its tires spinning and the crowd laughing at Bob’s red and angry face.
Eddie Griffin, who then worked for the Grand Trunk Railroad, was a good friend of Tucker. Eddie was a regular at the Gardens before he opened his own bar, the Dug Out, on Ocean Street in South Portland in 1966. In 1969 Eddie moved his bar to 60 Ocean Street and changed the name to the Griffin Club which became Maine’s ultimate sports bar. Many of Boston’s sports stars would come to the Griffin Club including Ted Williams, Jim Rice, and Luis Tiant of the Red Sox. Dave Cowens and many other Celtics would be at the bar when they played for Eddie’s team in a summer basketball league. Eddie sponsored many local sports teams. Eddie ran the bar until his death in 1993. The bar closed May 31, 2017 and was demolished in April 2018.
Three men who became members of the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame were regulars at the Gardens during the Ferrante/Walsh era: Jack Redmond, inducted in 1994; Richard "Sonny" Conley, inducted in 1995; and Freeman Dulac, inducted in 2003. Two Maine Baseball Hall of Fame inductees who were regulars at the Gardens for four decades beginning when Jim Speirs bought the bar were Brian Swasey, inducted in 1988, and Patrick Feury inducted in 2010.
Rudy Ferrante took up golf while he was a partner in the Gardens. Occasionally, when business was slow, Rudy and/or Tucker would take the afternoon off. One slow day when Rudy’s son, Michael, who was then five or six years old, was in the bar, Rudy told Tucker that he wanted to play golf and asked Tucker to look after Michael while he did so. Well, business then got busy and Tucker put Michael in a booth to stay while he waited on customers. Unbeknownst to Tucker, Michael apparently got bored and walked out of the bar. When Tucker realized that Michael was gone, he panicked and got everyone in the bar looking for Michael to no avail. When Rudy came back, Tucker had to tell him that Michael was lost. About that time, Mrs. Ferrante called, ripping mad, to tell Rudy that Michael was at home. Michael had walked alone from the bar to 18 Sheridan Street about two miles away.
Mr. Ferrante sold his half of the business to Mr. Walsh in 1960. Mr. Ferrante went on to a long career as a restauranteur in the greater Portland area. His first venture after selling his interest in the Gardens was to become a partner in Espan's Quick Lunch on Veranda Street. He then opened Rudy’s Lunch at the corner of Middle and Free Streets, then the Harbor Lunch on Commercial Street, and, finally, Rudy’s Lunch in a converted railroad caboose on Main Street in South Portland.
Tucker Walsh's daughter, Katherine "Katie" Walsh Guzman, said her father was known as the toughest guy in Portland. For a while after he bought out his partner, Tucker's wife, Marjory "Midge" Walsh, did some of the cooking and her son by her previous marriage, Jimmy Ireland, tended the bar. Then Tucker hired Walter H. "Honey" Gaskill, an African American man, as his primary cook. Walter's grill featured a never-ending pile of sautéed onions with mustard ready to grace a burger. Katie Walsh said that Walter, who lived on Lafayette Street on Munjoy Hill, would often come to her home on outer Forest Avenue and give her a ride to school at St. Joseph's Academy on Stevens Avenue near St. Joseph's Church. Walter drove a big silver Cadillac. She said her school friends thought that she had a chauffeur. Sometimes, if Katie didn’t feel like going to school, Walter would take her with him to the Gardens where she would hang out, play, and do little tasks like refilling the salt and pepper shakers.
At this time the favorite draft beers were Narragansett and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Narragansett Ale on draft was also popular. A large, eight-ounce, draft cost fifteen cents while a six ounce "dimey" was also available. A popular ten cent bottled beer was produced by Baltimore’s National Bohemian, called "a Little Bo Colt." It was named after the Baltimore Colts and was popular even though most of the Garden's customers were New York Giants fans then.
The favorite past times were card games usually hearts or a dime a point seven card rummy played in the back booths. Nobody won or lost much in those games.
While Tucker owned the bar he kept a pickle jar on the corner of the bar closest to the front door into which customers would drop their spare change. Every week after her family attended Mass, Katie said that they would take that week's deposits into the pickle jar to the Holy Innocents Home on Mellon Street. Frequently, during the summer, that money was used to buy ice cream for the orphans.
Tucker was a huge sports fan. He was an assistant to Vuskin Amergian, the head coach of the Portland Sea Hawks, a semi-professional football team that began as a member of the New England Semi-Pro Football League in 1960 and graduated to the more competitive Atlantic Coast League in 1962. The team was wildly popular in Portland between 1960 and 1964 drawing crowds of 10,000 plus to what is now called Fitzpatrick Stadium. They drew their biggest and most passionate crowds for games against the Providence, Rhode Island, Steamrollers. Some of the Sea Hawks, like Coach Amergian and running back and University of Nebraska star, Willie Greenlaw, drank at the Gardens. On the Sunday afternoon when the Sea Hawks beat the Steamrollers for the league championship, Tucker opened up the bar’s back door to let in players and bar regulars to drink in violation of the blue laws. The party grew until friendly police officers ushered everyone out of the bar. No charges were filed.
Tucker sponsored a fast pitch softball team. Fast pitch was the type of softball of choice during the 1950s since many WWII veterans had played it, rather than slow pitch, while they were in the service. He also co-sponsored a Little League team called the Pallotta Oilers, with Pallotta Oil Company, that played on the Oakley Field just behind the bar.
Tucker also sponsored a basketball team in what, according to Tom Foley, a player, said was "loosely referred to as a 'semi-pro' league." Foley said he didn’t know where the notion of "semi-pro" came from since no one received any remuneration other than the occasional freebie beer over the bar. Foley described the team's uniforms as having old woolen jerseys, white with green trim mimicking the Celtics, which itched and penalized the players further if they were not washed after every game. The team was composed of mostly Deering High graduates including: Foley, "Cool" Coolidge, Dave Murdock, "Sam" Houston, Doug Stone, and Joel Densmore. Other, non-Deering players were: Ray Farrell and Billy Sears. Players from UMP included Ed Williams, who had played his high school basketball at Edward Little in Auburn, and Brian LeGarde, who had played his high school basketball at Morse High in Bath. The coach, Don Sturtevant, drove his beat-up station wagon on road trips. Games against their arch rival, Bubba’s Café, were the season highlights. The Bubba’s team was mostly made up of Portland and South Portland High alumni. All the players knew each other and the games revived old rivalries.
Tucker continued the traditional Thanksgiving Day beer breakfast prior to Portland and Deering High football game, a holiday classic that began in 1911. The beer breakfast, which seems to have begun in the early 1950s and has continued to date, started at six in the morning and lasted until the bar closed at game time. Alumni of both schools, and sometimes the coaches of both teams, would meet there and go, en masse, to Fitzpatrick Stadium for the game. The Gardens was always a place for old friends to reconnect, particularly at Thanksgiving. Frank Fixaris, who did sports on WGAN TV and later did a morning sports talk show on WJAB radio, was a regular at the Gardens in the early 1960s.
Tucker Walsh closed the bar and the 371 Forest Avenue site was vacant in 1965. No one seems to know why he just closed the Gardens rather than selling the business. Tucker then learned bricklaying and did that for a short while before he went to work for the Postal Service from which he retired.
1966 to 1981
The bar reopened in 1966 as "The Gardens" owned by Ernest A. Salamone, of 19 Fessenden Street, Portland. Ernestine A. "Tina" Bass first appeared in the Portland City Directory as an employee at the Gardens in 1967. She developed a week day series of lunch specials and did a big lunch business with postal workers, employees of Palmer Spring Co. and Oakhurst Dairy, and students from to the University of Maine in Portland. Tina also developed a signature sandwich, the "Tina Special," which essentially was an Italian sandwich on a hamburger bun. Ernest Salamone owned it until 1968 when he transferred it to Vincenzo Salamone, a postal worker, also of 19 Fessenden Street.
During this time, Bob Small said he would go to the bar from UMP to "study," play charades, and drink ten cent beers and eat burgers. There was a phone booth at the back of the bar. Bob reports that he used that booth to make a call to a female student at what was then Westbrook Junior College, now the Portland campus of the University of New England, to ask her to go to a movie at the Civic Theater with him. Bob confirms that that date turned into a marriage that has now lasted for fifty-two years. Bob's last visit to the Gardens was in 1969 when he stopped in for a few beers before heading to Vietnam.
Beginning about the time that the bar reopened in 1966, the Gardens began a transition into being a college bar. It was the closest bar to the UMP campus, just a block away, which made it a convenient spot to spend time between classes. The other college hangouts at that time were Coyne's Restaurant located a mile or so away in Woodfords Corner and Al’s Café located in Portland’s West End near the entrance to the Million Dollar Bridge. Coyne's was more upscale than the Gardens and had the advantage of a full-service kitchen and a much wider menu selection. It also had a full bar with a wide selection of wines and liquors. It was the place to go with a date. The lure of Al's Café was its owner, Al Fasulo, a gregarious and friendly guy. The UMP students who patronized Al’s were mostly older, what are now often referred to as non-traditional students, and Vietnam veterans, who were more interested in drinking beer than in what was on the food menu. When Al sold the bar it became Popeye’s and was known for the addition of the fuselage of a small airplane sticking out of its roof. Some of the more adventurous UMP students could be found the White Eagle, now Ruski’s, or at the Beacon Lunch, diagonally across Danforth Street from the White Eagle, which is now a laundromat.
Although the Gardens transitioned into being a college bar, it never lost its long-standing customer base of workers at nearby businesses who continued to come, mostly at lunch time and for a beer before going home after they got off work. The college kids were mostly an evening crowd.
Sarah's Diner opened in 1975 at 396 Forest Avenue, diagonally across Forest Avenue on the corner of Falmouth Street. Sarah's was an all-night restaurant. It became Tiffany's Diner in 1979. When last call came at the Gardens those customers who weren’t ready to go home would cross the street for breakfast or coffee at Tiffany's. It closed in 1985 and the building it was in and the Belmeade Apartments building next door were demolished and replaced by a Key Bank branch office.
In 1970, when Vincent Salamone decided to sell the bar, he placed a classified ad in the Portland Press Herald where it was noticed by Carol Power. She mentioned the ad to her husband Tom Power and his friend, Domenic Ferrera, as an interesting opportunity. They quickly investigated, negotiated, and bought the bar. In 1970 the University of Maine in Portland merged with the Gorham State College to form the University of Maine Portland-Gorham (UMPG) but usually referred to by its students as "POGO U." Tom Power, was a theater professor at UMPG. He and Domenic changed the bar’s name to "The Bard" in honor of William Shakespeare.
Power and Ferrera bought the bar during the politically tumultuous Vietnam War era. They decided to build on the bar's student customer base by emphasizing the "hippie" life style and its proximity to the UMPG Portland campus. A draft beer was thirty-five cents and the only wine available was Cold Duck. The day time menu leader remained Tina Bass’s series of weekly lunch specials. The Tina Special and the rectangular pizzas were the most popular evening menu items.
Power and Ferrera put a small stage in the right rear corner of the back room and began to offer live music on Friday and Saturday nights. The Bard became the home of local folk music. Its "go to" band was Devonsquare which was composed mostly of former and current UMP/UMPG students. Devonsquare continued in existence and morphed in its musician composition s for many years. Devonsquare announced its decision to stop performing in 2018. Another favorite band was The Jug Band composed of Deering High School graduates. Several years after the Bard closed, The Jug Band transitioned into The Wicked Good Band and continues to play today. Dozens of other bands and performers played at The Bard. On weekend evenings the crowd was standing room only with lines out the door.
Power and Ferrera were not active managers of the bar. They retained Tina Bass as their day manager and liaison with the people who worked in the area during the day. Brian LeGarde, a UMP student, was the night manager. Most of the servers and bartenders who worked there during The Bard years were students or former students at UMP/UMPG including: Steve Romanoff, a member of Devonsquare; Patrick O’Regan; Steve Devine; Barbara Kelly; and Martin Magnusson, who went on to become the warden of the Maine State Prison and the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections.
Although television and radio sports reporter Frank Fixaris had been a Gardens regular in the early 1960s, by the early 1970s, the Bard became a gathering spot for local media, mostly radio personalities, including long time WGAN radio sports reporter and newsman, Dick Johnson, and disc jockeys Cousin Bob Willette and Bob Caron, who was known as "Johnny D." Many of Cousin Bob's friends were hockey players with the original Maine Mariners who came in to the Bard after games. Frank Fixaris also sometimes dropped by then. Dickie Johnson remained a regular at the Gardens until his death in 2006.
Another customer, who became quite the media personality, was Tony Shalhoub, who graduated from UMPG in 1975 and went on to earn a master's degree in acting from the Yale School of Drama. Tony has been a frequent television actor who played cab driver, Antonio Scarpacci, on the sitcom "Wings." He is best known for his title role as Monk on the dramatic television series "Monk." He has won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a television series musical or comedy, two Screen Actors Guild awards, and four prime time Emmy awards. For his work on Broadway, Tony has been nominated for four Tony awards, winning one.
The Iron Horsemen motorcycle club briefly patronized the Bard in the early 1970s. That came to an abrupt halt after a fight in 1972 between Robert Whitson, who was then a state representative running for re-election, and Jake Sawyer, who was a member of the Hell’s Angels who hung out with the Iron Horsemen. Whitson, who held the Maine state high school record for the shot put, was a big man. He defeated Sawyer in that fight and the Iron Horsemen stopped coming to the Bard. Whitson became an osteopathic physician.
The Rustic opened in 1973 diagonally across the street from the Gardens at 334 Forest Avenue at the back of a building owned by Oakhurst Dairy that had originally been a small supermarket but which had been converted into a mini-mall with Pier One Imports as its anchor tenant. That new bar was a little closer to the UMPG campus. The Rustic was larger than the Gardens. It had a full kitchen, wine and liquor were available, and it frequently offered entertainment. Gradually the Rustic replaced the Gardens as the college bar for students at UMPG. The Rustic was sold and the name changed to Bleachers by the new owner in 1991. It had a more sports-oriented atmosphere than the Rustic. Even after Bleachers moved to Preble Street in 2006 the students at what had been renamed as the University of Southern Maine never really came back to the Gardens.
The Old Port, which had been a collection of abandoned buildings and warehouses, began to emerge in the early 1970s, largely due to he efforts of Henry Willette and Frank Akers who bought many buildings and rented them to local artists and small shops at cheap rents and with the requirement that those tenants do all of the necessary improvements themselves. Soon, a flourishing artist neighborhood bloomed and, in 1973, the Old Port Tavern opened as the first of many bars and restaurants that would eventually come to dominate the area. The Old Port is now Portland's bar, restaurant, and entertainment center.
Power and Ferreira owned the bar until 1976 when they decided that they had too many demands on their time and that The Bard was the demand to eliminate. They sold it to James J. Speirs, Jr. Perhaps part of the reason why they decided to sell the Bard to Jim was the inroads the Rustic and the emerging Old Port had made on their college clientele. Jim changed the name back to the "Forest Gardens," the name under which the bar operated until July of 2018. Jim executed a five-year lease with Matt DiRenzo at a monthly rent of $250. The lease contained a five-year renewal at $300 per month. Jim eliminated the weekend music. He was not a real "hands on" owner/manager. His brothers, Richard Speirs and Brian Speirs, acted as the day to day managers. One of the most popular bartenders was Wayne McGinty, then a Portland firefighter who later became a Portland police officer. When Wayne worked, the bar was usually packed. He'd often play "Her Name is Lola" on the juke box and dance with a bowl of fruit on his head while bartending.
Jim ran into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service which had scheduled an auction of the bar in order to collect his back taxes. Richard "Rick" Piacentini, of 9 Grafton Street, Portland, learned of the upcoming auction and approached Jim with an offer to pay his outstanding tax debt and thus avoid the auction. Jim accepted and Rick bought the bar in June of 1981 and owned it until he retired on July 29, 2018.
The Modern Era
When Rick took over the bar, he continued to employ long time bartender, Tina Bass who essentially taught him how to run the place. Tina stayed at the Forest Gardens until she had to stop working some months before her death on September 21, 1988. While Tina was too sick to work before her death, Rick kept her on his payroll and provided her with health insurance coverage. Rick kept the Tina Special on the Gardens' menu for many years after Tina’s death.
Rick did some renovations to the bar after he took it over. One of the renovations, the addition of a large back bar mirror, had an interesting history. Apparently, Rick had mentioned that he was looking for a big mirror to put behind the bar. Billy Sears, who was then an employee at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, stole a large mirror from the prison and it made its way to the Gardens through the suggestion of Richard Ranaghan. Ed Moulton, who did flooring, rebuilt the bar using oak flooring for the bar top.
For much of its history the Forest Gardens has been known as a sports bar. In the 1950s and early 1960s the players on a successful fast pitch softball team congregated there. In 1956, Pete Portis, who coached the AAA sponsored Little League team that played at Oakley Field, located on Baxter Boulevard behind the Gardens, was at the Gardens before and after every game and even stored the teams' equipment there between games. For decades the Gardens sponsored many men's and women's slow pitch softball teams. The players on one of the women's teams, the Artful Dodgers, sponsored by Gardens regular Art Piteau, always came in after their games.
The Gardens sponsored a team in the Twilight League, a local semi-pro baseball league, beginning in 1983. In 1983 the Twilight League baseball team and the men's softball team played a double header at the Deering Oaks diamond. They played five innings of baseball and then five innings of softball. Steve Buckley, who was then a sports reporter for the Portland Press Herald, pitched three innings for the baseball team. Buckley went on to a long career as a sports reporter with the Boston Herald and as a Boston television sports reporter. As expected, the baseball team won the baseball game and the softball team won the softball game.
The Gardens deferred from its sponsorship in 1984 when Olympia Sports offered a much higher level of sponsorship support. After Olympia Sports declined to sponsor the team for the 1985 season, the Gardens resumed sponsorship until the end of the 1988 season. The Gardens team won the league championship in 1986 and 1987. Jim Bouton, a summer resident of the area, then retired from a career pitching for the New York Yankees and the author "Ball Four," a controversial book that took a realistic look behind the scenes of Major League Baseball, pitched a few games for the Forest Gardens team. 1988 was the last year that the Gardens sponsored a Twilight League team.
Several notable players who went on to induction into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame played for the Forest Gardens baseball team including: Dennis Gratto, John Gleason, Barry Roderick, Ralph Stowell, Steve Merrill, Jeff Ball, Al Bean, Ed Flaherty, Tony DiBiase, and Ken Joyce. John Gleason has an annual gathering each December for guys who played for the Gardens team. Although Rick Piacentini never played on any of the baseball teams he sponsored, he had played for the Yarmouth Townies, a premier team in the Twilight League in the early 1970s.
Also, in the 1980s, the Gardens took over the sponsorship of what had been the Hank's Cookies touch football team. The Gardens also sponsored darts teams that competed in local bar leagues. Kevin Conley recalled that the darts team he played on in the F division in the mid-1990s won the league championship. He said, metaphorically, that the losing team "showed up in a limo and left in a hearse." That team immediately retired after winning that title. Although not considered to be a sport, the Gardens was the home to one of Portland’s top pinball wizards, Steven "Ringo" Dodd, who took on all comers and almost always won. Ringo rarely had to pay for his lunch if he could convince someone in the bar to play him. In 2016, for the first time, the Gardens sponsored a candlepin bowling team.
The Gardens was a sponsor and local hangout for Portland’s men’s rugby team. When that team made a trip to Britain and Ireland it prepared a booklet with information on the team and brief descriptions of each player. There were several players who had not attended a post-secondary educational institution so, where other players named the college or university from which they graduated, those players gave their educational institution as "Forest Gardens University." Howie Chadbourne began playing with the rugby club in 1974 and went to work as an evening bartender for Jim Speirs in 1975. This was Howie's first venture into the bar business. He later opened his own bar, Howie's Pub, in 2003. Howie spent a lot of evenings making the Garden’s rectangular pizzas which sold with a short beer for just over a dollar.
When Portland's women’s rugby club was formed its members also made the Gardens a favorite hangout. That came to an end when some of the rugby players began to get frisky with each other when drinking after games and began pulling off each other’s shirts, flashing, and making out with each other. When that behavior continued, Rick asked the team to find another place to hang out after practices and games.
Ken Flanders, a Deering High and Northeastern University graduate, was an outstanding distance runner during the 1970s and 1980s. By 1973 he was the New England college champion in both the two and six mile distances. He won his favorite race, the Portland Boys' Club's Patriot's Day Five Mile Race, seven times. Ken was inducted into the Maine Running Hall of Fame in 1989. Ken has been a regular at the Gardens for decades. Once, after a race sponsored by Oakhurst Dairy, Ken brought Joan Benoit, the Mainer who won the first women's Olympic marathon, and Bill Rodgers, a four-time winner of both the Boston and New York City marathons, into the Gardens for a beer.
In 1996 a competitor bar, the Big Cheese, opened just two doors away from the Gardens at 365 Forest Avenue. The Big Cheese was much bigger than the Gardens. It had eight pool tables, a much bigger food menu, and offered hard liquor. It was also a much rougher place than the Gardens. Often customers who got shut off at the Big Cheese would stumble over to the Gardens looking for a beer. They didn’t get served. The Big Cheese was unsuccessful and closed in 1997. It was succeeded by the Fermatta Club which lasted until the building was sold to Palmer Spring Company in 2000.
Some men with connections to Major League Baseball were "Garden’s guys." Carl H. "Stump" Merrill had been a catcher for the University of Maine and had a brief career as a minor league player before making the transition to managing minor league teams in the New York Yankees system. Stump became the manager of the Yankees during the 1990 season when the Yankees finished last in the American League and for the full 1991 season. He was replaced before the beginning of the 1992 season by Buck Showalter. Stump stayed in major league baseball and was the Detroit Tiger's Vice President of Player Development in 2014. When he was in Portland, Stump could be seen sitting at the bar in the Gardens.
Portland native David Littlefield was the general Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from July 2001 to September 2007. Dave, when he was in town, he, but even more so his siblings, patronized the Gardens. When asked, Dave would frequently make excellent tickets available to Gardens regulars who wanted to catch a Pirates home game.
Ryan Flaherty played baseball for Deering High School graduating in 2005 when he was named the Gatorade Maine Player of the Year. He was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Cubs and was later made a Rule 5 selection by the Baltimore Orioles in 2012. He stayed with the Orioles as a utility player until 2018 when he became a free agent and signed with the Atlanta Braves. Ryan played baseball at Deering with Rick Piacentini’s son, Ryan. When in Portland, Flaherty frequented the Gardens where his autographed, framed, Orioles jersey hung on the wall. The Braves designated Ryan for assignment and dropped him from the team’s forty-man roster in mid-August 2018. When the major league rosters expanded in September 2018 the Braves brought him back. In 2019 he retired as a player and signed as a coach in the San Diego Padres organization.
Rick continued the Thanksgiving beer breakfast tradition but added a new twist to it. Rather than closing at game time, beginning about 2010, the Gardens would stay open until approximately noon and the patrons who departed for the football game would be replaced by dozens of runners from George Towle's Thanksgiving Day race. The festivities would carry on until Rick had to go home for his own Thanksgiving feast and George was usually the last person Rick ushered out the door.
There was another post-Thanksgiving tradition that went on for several years in the 1970s in which Brian Speirs. Howie Chadbourne, Bob Mullen, and a number of other guys, played tackle football on the Saturday after Thanksgiving at the Deering High School field and then convened at the Forest Gardens after the game.
Beginning in the late 1970s, several University of Southern Maine professors became regulars at the Gardens. Haig Najarian, a well-respected professor of invertebrate biology taught several courses to nursing students and would often meet with them in his usual spot in the first booth. Haig was often joined by Donald Sytsma, a psychology professor; Peter Holmes, a biology professor; and William Gavin, a philosophy professor. They spent many hours drinking beer, playing cribbage, and arguing about the issues of the day.
Although the Gardens had by then lost a lot of its college student customers, the increase in Maine’s legal drinking age back to 21 in 1987 significantly reduced what college student clientele it had except for some University of Maine Law School students who were infrequent customers. The bar became pretty much a place that catered to the local workers and to members, mostly male, of the Baby Boomer generation. On Saturdays many customers would bring their children with them to the bar. Rick loved kids and welcomed them with one of the Tootsie Pops he kept on hand for them.
There was a group of Baby Boomer couples, most of whom were then in their mid-thirties and many of whom were Deering High graduates, who frequented the Gardens, as a group, on the first Saturday of every month beginning in in either 1989 or 1990. Before that, many of them had been regulars since when Jim Speirs owned the bar. When Rick bought the bar, the group described the Garden’s as having become their home. When the group started, most of these couples were married and had begun having children and needed to have some non-child-oriented outlets. One of the groups founders, Mary Feigenbaum, sent post cards to other regulars telling them to get babysitters and to come to the Gardens on the first Saturday of every month. The initial crowd numbered more than a dozen couples. More than thirty years later the group still has about seven regulars, four women and three husbands, and others who stop by now and then. They usually gathered at about eight and stayed until around ten p.m. when they began. Now, more thirty years later, they usually get together beginning about five and maybe staying as late as ten p.m.
Later, a group of professional women, mostly between their mid-40s and mid-50s, began to gather at the Gardens on Friday afternoons after work usually sitting at the round table in the back room. The size of the group varied from week to week usually from five to fifteen women. Among that group were lawyers in private practice, some assistant district attorneys, and the head of the Old Orchard Beach Adult Education Department. The group, eventually became to be known among the Gardens crowd at the "Rayettes," since Ray St. Pierre was normally the bartender when they came. That group lasted until the woman who was the group's lynchpin moved away about 2015.
Many of the local workers worked at Oakhurst Dairy which is right across Forest Avenue. William Bennett, a retired President of Oakhurst, provided some information on some those Oakhurst employees. Mark Barlow, was both a decades long Oakhurst employee and Gardens regular who was a darts fanatic. Larry Bodwell was both a long- time information technology employee and Gardens regular who often stayed to last call. Larry eventually moved into one of the apartments in the Gardens' building and died there. The Gardens customers held a celebration of Larry’s life at the bar. Rick stocked the big bags of Cheetos specifically for Big Ed Stadolnick, Oakhurst’s sales manager. Ernie Kilbride was among a number of Oakhurst employees who played softball and went to the Gardens after games.
Stanley T. Bennett, II, who had been President of Oakhurst for many years before his death in 2011 when Bill took over the presidency, was a decades-long regular at the Gardens. Rick would always kid Stan about the fact that he never seemed to have cash to pay for his lunches, usually crab cakes or cheeseburgers, and got his lunch companions to pay. Stan would never order burgers on Mondays, probably because he didn’t trust Rick’s refrigerator and/or fryer oil.
Although it never billed itself as an "Irish" bar, St. Patrick's Day was a big event there from at least 1960 on. Barbara Kelly was a bartender at the Bard while she was a student at UMPG. The Bard had a semi-official Guinness drinking contest on St. Patrick's Day in 1972. Barbara took the day off and entered the contest. Even though she was a petite girl, she successfully drank more than a dozen much larger and very experienced male drinkers under the table drinking pints of Guinness that she warmed by putting them on top of the pizza oven. From 1998 to 2018 Bill O’Neil, a longtime local disc jockey, and his friend, Pat Feury, who also had disc jockey experience, spent the afternoon of St. Patrick's Day playing Irish music and oldies to a large crowd who loved to dance to the music. The bar was always packed with barely space for standing room customers with others waiting outside for someone to leave.
Late in 2015 a developer approached Michael Kaplan who owned three buildings at the corner of Preble Street Extension and Forest Avenue, including the building in which the Forest Gardens was located, and the owner of the Palmer Spring Co., who owned the next two adjacent buildings, and obtained an option to buy all of their buildings. The developer’s plan was to raze all of those buildings and to replace them with a big box 24 hour a day CVS Super Pharmacy with drive through service.
After first being reported in the Portland Press Herald’s January 12, 2016 edition, the proposed demolition drew widespread opposition, by smart growth activists, local business advocates, historic preservationists, and longtime residents. David Read, the son and nephew of long time Gardens regulars and a former Gardens guy himself who had moved to Massachusetts, created a Facebook group "Save Forest Gardens" which gained more than 700 members within a week.
Supporters of the Gardens joined opponents of the demolition in asking the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to designate the buildings as historic landmarks. In its preliminary study the Commission determined that two of the buildings had architectural significance as early 20th Century automobile showrooms but determined that none of the other buildings had architectural significance. A crowd, large enough to cause the Commission to move its hearing into the City Council Chambers, came out to argue in favor of historic designation. The crowd filled both the main floor and the balcony of the City Council Chamber.
The Save Forest Gardens group's strategy was to concede the lack of architectural significance and to focus on another part of the historic preservation ordinance that allowed the Commission to designate places of "social and cultural significance." For more than an hour and a half, Forest Gardens’ supporters testified to the significance of the Gardens as part of their and their family's lives. They said that the Gardens had been part of Portland's Portland/Deering High School Thanksgiving football game since the 1950s. They said that the Gardens was a place where people gathered and supported each other in good times and bad. People told the Commission that they had proposed to their spouse, asked the fiancée's father for his daughter's hand in marriage, and held wedding receptions there. That it was a place where people gathered for wakes and after funerals. A man who had delivered newspapers to the bar as a boy described the scene there on the day President Kennedy was assassinated as a group of World War II veterans were not drinking beer but just crying and comforting each other. The crowd broke into applause when the Commissioners unanimously decided that the building had social and cultural significance as a result of the bar's 80 years as a community institution.
The Save Forest Gardens advocates also requested a zoning change for the buildings proposed to be demolished that would eliminate the ability to have a drive through window. Those advocates generated a large crowd at the Zoning Board's hearing on the proposed zoning change. That effort was also successful resulting in that zoning change.
Faced with the zoning change and historic preservation designations, the developers decided not to renew the options to buy those buildings.
Rick's lease for the bar expired in June 2018. He decided to retire rather than to renew his lease. He got an informal lease extension that would carry him until the expiration of his alcohol license on August 15th. Rick ended up closing the Gardens on July 29th. The place was packed every day during that last week of Rick's ownership which was a tribute to the positive impact he made on his customers over his 37 years of ownership. Many of the people who came in during that last week hadn't been in the bar for years, sometimes even a decade or more, but who still had an emotional attachment to the bar and Rick. Several people who had moved away from Maine came back to say goodbye, one from as far away as Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Rick truly cared about his customers. Over the years of his ownership, he attended more than a hundred of his customers' wakes and/or funerals and made many hundreds of visits to hospitals or to the homes of ailing customers. Although the Maine liquor laws prohibited the sale of beer on credit, his regulars could always get a beer and/or a meal on their tab. Never in its history has the Gardens accepted either credit or debit cards, it’s always been just cash only. Regulars who were short on cash could always get a small loan from Rick. He was also known to loan his pickup truck to a regular who needed a truck to move. Rick did all that he could to make sure that none of his customers were overserved and in that he wasn’t motivated by insurance or dram shop liability concerns. He was genuinely concerned for his customers' safety. If Rick had any concerns about the ability of a customer to drive home safely he would take their car keys and give them cab fare if they needed it. Sometimes Rick would drive them home.
The Latest Incarnation
Although his landlord, Michael Kaplan, initially did not want to have a bar continue in that space, he eventually agreed to offer a two-year lease if anyone was interested in continuing to run a bar there. Rick sold the bar to Tyler Holden and Lindsay Holden, a brother and sister combo, who were required by the landlord to change the bar's name. The new name was "371" the bar's street address. The Holdens said that they intended to run the bar much as it always had been run. They reopened the bar on August 5, 2018. They kept Kevin Foley, who had worked for Rick for twenty-six years, as a day time bartender. Kevin, who also worked many years for the Shaw's Supermarket chain, was the longest serving employee in the bar's history. He got the job through his brothers, Philip and Peter Foley, who had begun working there in the late 1980s and continued to work there into the 1990s. Kevin was the father of Marissa Foley who was engaged to Tyler Holden.
The Holden siblings made a few changes to the bar's interior, the most significant of which was to remove the big back bar mirror that Rick Piacentini had installed. They replaced it with a very large television in the center of the bar back. They replaced the fryolator, re-did the men's and women's rest rooms, and improved the lighting around the bar area. Over the 2010-decade Greater Portland had become among the areas of the country with the most craft brewers per capita. The bar had six taps, three of which poured local craft beers, the other three were Miller Lite, Budweiser, and Budweiser light.
Many of the people who had been Gardens regulars continued to patronize the bar. The new owners were a generation or more younger than Rick and the old crowd. The customer base got an infusion of young blood when their friends began to patronize the bar.
In 2019, the Holdens continued the traditional St. Patrick's Day disc jockey session with Bill O’Neil and Pat Feury still with great success.
In June, 2019, Michael Kaplan sold the building that the Gardens was in, along with the adjacent building at 375 Forest Avenue, to 375 Forest, LLC, Ian Smith, manager. Smith had operated Sun Tiki Studios in what had been a tanning salon next door to the Gardens’ building for a year or so. Smith had changed that building’s use to rehearsal space for musicians and as a venue for indie-rock bands. The LLC gave the Holdens a ten-year lease with the option for a five-year renewal. It also agreed to allow the Holdens to restore the name "Forest Gardens" to the bar.
Some former Gardens bartenders went on to open their own bars. Robert "Bruno" Napolitano was probably the most successful of the former Gardens bartenders in the bar/restaurant business. In 1981 he opened a small bar tucked into a corner of Micucci's Grocery at 45 India Street in which he sold only bottled beer and steamed hot dogs. In 1985 he moved to 33 India Street to a larger location where he finally had a full kitchen. He called his new bar Bruno's. This was the first bar in Portland to sell calzones and to have an outside patio for drinking and dining. His steak and cheese sandwiches, pizza, and linguini with clam sauce became instant classics. Four years later he bought out Erik's, an existing and popular bar on Market Street in the heart of the Old Port. He moved his operation there and kept the name "Erik's" in order to keep the Erik's customers. He closed Erik's in 1992. In 1999 the Bruno's name was resurrected when he opened a much larger and spiffier Italian restaurant and bar also named Bruno's at 33 Allen Avenue near Morrill's Corner. The new restaurant had a room for private banquets and also ran a catering service. In 2017 Bruno's started a new business, Bruno's Pasta Company which began selling its house made ravioli at the restaurant and in local stores from Freeport to Cape Elizabeth. The pasta company also began selling jars of the restaurant's popular poppy seed salad dressing.
Joseph "Joey" Sullivan opened Sully's in 1993 in Morrill's Corner and later went into partnership with his brother-in-law, Samuel Minervino. That relationship deteriorated and resulted in Joey selling his share of the business in 1997. After the sale, the bar’s name was changed to "Samuel's."
Howard "Howie" Chadbourne began tending bar at the Forest Gardens in 1975. He then went on to tend bar in a succession of neighborhood bars in Portland and South Portland including: the Griffin Club, the Peanut House, Mulligan's, Dock Fore, and the Dry Dock, before opening his own place, Howie's Pub, in 2003 at 501 Washington Avenue, the location of a succession of neighborhood bars. His pizza was once ranked the sixth best in Portland. He sold to two long-time customers in January of 2017. While he owned the bar, he started a Tuesday evening trivia contest which filled the bar. Howie had his own unconventional way to run those contests and continued to run the trivia contests even after he sold the bar until he stopped doing that in December, 2019. Howie became an Uber driver after he sold the bar.
I want to say thank you to the many people who offered anecdotes and suggestions to me for this history. In particular, I want to thank Tom Ferrante, a son of owner Rudolph "Rudy" A. Ferrante, who contributed so much in information and encouragement and who put me in touch with so many other people including Katherine "Katie" Walsh Guzman, a daughter of his dad's partner, Thomas "Tucker" Walsh. I need to thank Tom Power, another former owner, for his contributions. These three were wonderful primary sources. I also want to thank Patrick Feury for proof reading several drafts and finding so many great stories about the Forest Gardens’ baseball and softball teams and players. Thanks, too, to William Bennett for his information of Oakhurst Dairy employees and to David Read, without whose efforts in the Save the Gardens campaign, this history would have ended two years ago.
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