Most dumps profiled on this page have been vacant for five, ten years tops. This month’s dump sets a new record — it’s been closed for over half a century. And it looks it.
Located on Route 302 in Westbrook, diagonally across from Hawkes Plaza and the giant TV repairman, stands (barely) the old Millbrook Dance Hall. Its roof has collapsed and its weathered wood-plank walls are not far behind. A metal sign still bearing a few neon letters is the only indication that this structure was once a business, rather than a barn.
The property is owned by Hayden Phelps, an elderly man who lives nearby. We reached his wife by phone, but Phelps was either unwilling or unable to be interviewed for this story.
Much of what we know about the dance hall is from the recollections of legendary Maine bluegrass musician and producer Al Hawkes and his wife, Barbara, who also live nearby. The Hawkes ran the TV repair business in the plaza for 35 years before Al retired and sold the property.
Al remembers playing music at the dance hall in the mid-1940s, when he was about 14 years old. “It wasn’t legal for me to be there,” he said, so owner Tommy Phelps half hid him behind the piano in a corner of the hall.
There were dances at the Millbrook every Saturday night, year round. Waltzes, foxtrots and jitterbugs were the popular steps, and young men and women would line up on opposite sides of the room to contradance. The dance hall had “the most beautiful wooden floor you ever saw,” Barbara recalled. Phelps would let Barbara and her sisters in for free, because if girls were there then the boys would pay to get in — an early example of the concept later known as Ladies Night.
The Millbrook wasn’t a rowdy place. It was safe enough for Barbara’s father to allow her and her sisters to go there alone. Besides, her future husband’s father, a schoolteacher who stood 6’2”, worked the door. “He took the tickets,” Al said. “And if anybody was getting out of hand, my father could take on just about anybody who wanted to give him trouble.”
There was no alcohol allowed inside, but the locals would drink beer in their cars or fill Coke bottles with rum. During World War II, taxis would arrive from Portland bringing sailors looking for a good time.
The hall closed in the mid-1950s, Al said, and Tommy Phelps died not long afterward, apparently passing the property along to his uncle, Hayden. Al thinks the hall was built in the mid-to-late 1930s, so it had a good, 20-year run.
There was some interest in the property a few years back, talk of developing some retail space, said Al. The recession seems to have nixed that.
So the old dance hall sags under the weight of time and weather, not yet gone and not yet forgotten, though most of its patrons are now waltzing in the clouds.
— Chris Busby