Excerpted from a talk by Ernie Wood, Old Berwick Historical Society Lecture, November 17, 2005
In the 1930's and 40's, the place to be on a Friday night was the Palace in South Berwick. In today's terms it was hardly a palace, but it attracted hundreds in a 50-mile radius each weekend for recreation of all sorts. Reports of cars parked on both sides of the street from Rollinsford to Rollinsford were no exaggeration. Despite all this traffic and parking issues, there was only one policeman, Richard Dione's dad.
According to many, South Berwick was “alive” with entertainment on a Friday evening and most of it centered at the Palace. It was owned and operated by Leo “Ben” Vachon, who had many infamous friends combining to make the Palace an institution. Many claimed they never entered, but no one I interviewed denied hearing or knowing about it.
The Palace was located on Salmon Street, now lower Main Street, on the right hand side as you head toward the river, just below Reo's barber shop beyond the brook today. It was a two and a half story building approximately 80 feet long and 30 to 35 feet wide, a sizeable structure for the area, according to the tax maps.
As you entered the Palace from the front, you passed some unusual steps made of concrete with glassy marbles inlaid into the concrete. Many a youngster would comment on that as they scurried by not daring to look in. Mothers did not want their children “hanging around.” According to Cliff Cleary Sr., the inside walls on the first floor were a dark mahogany finish. “It was very dark inside,” he said, adding to the mystique.
The first floor contained three bowling alleys and three or four pool tables, depending on whom I asked. The pool tables were on the left and the alleys situated on the right. The pins were set manually, a chance for kids to make a few cents.
The second floor consisted of “open space” where at different times boxing, basketball, roller skating, and movies took place:. There may have been more activities but this is a family-oriented OBHS-sponsored lecture!
Reo Landry told me that a David LePage managed the bowling operation and he would call Reo to set pins. The building had a wood stove and Reo, about 10 years of age, would tend it at times. Mr. Cleary recalls that the bowling alleys never really took hold even though leagues were attempted.
Sunday afternoon was roller skating time on the second floor at the Palace.
There were silent movies featuring Alice Dube at the piano for the non-talkies.
The Palace had a “back room” on the first floor where Palace owner Ben Vachon, with his friends and invited guests, played poker, threw dice, and engaged in other gaming activities. Owen Stevens tells me that Mark Gagnon's grandfather, Peter, played a little cards there. Poker weekends were common. Some left rich and others broke.
But by far the best-known recreational activity at the Palace was boxing. There are lots of stories, some true, and more embellished. Many legends and “want-to-be” fighters passed through the Palace's boxing ring, while neighborhood kids like Albert “Junior” Roberge dreamed.
Mr. Cleary tells me that the Palace opened for boxing events in the spring of 1932 and he was there for opening day. Let's explore some of the personalities and stories that made for a colorful if not 100% accurate history.
Maynard “Skeeter” Corson was one of those stories, who in 1938 was a 16-year-old kid who loved to box, and in need of some money came to fight all comers in his weight class. Skeeter, now in his 80's and a 65-year resident of South Berwick, recalls some of those who fought at the Palace:
Jackie Ledger (father of Pat McCarthy)
Charlie Welch (father of Veronica Dupuis)
Eddie Le Tourneau
“Tiger Tom Dixon”
Some boxers came from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and even Canada.
Now picture 500 to700 fans packing the second floor of a wooden building. The outer edge, beyond the floor seats surrounding the ring, were bleachers rising up to the rafters of the building. Picture inadequate escape routes and smoke so thick you could not see the fighters in the ring from the last few rows.
Every Thursday morning, Cliff Cleary Sr. would deliver fight cards -- all 1000 to 2000 of them -- to the following towns in the following order: North Berwick, Sanford, Springvale, East Rochester, Rochester, Gonic, Dover, and back to South Berwick.
The very first fight he went to, he sat on a radiator. He later became an “official” judge at the fights as well as “time keeper.”
Cliff also dabbled in managing fighters. Best known was his next door neighbor Dona Parent, a “southpaw” and a damn good fighter according to Cliff.
Reo Landry remembered Cliff as the timekeeper who rang the bell. Reo also recalled, with a smile, selling peanuts at the fights as a kid. They were 10 cents a bag. His commission; one cent per bag. He admitted he found more money under the bleachers than he made in commission.
According to Skeeter Corson, South Berwick had 15 to 20 fighters over time, other similar communities more. Skeeter fought as a lightweight, 118 pounds. He recalls having about 30 fights in his career. “I won a few and lost a few”
Ben Vachon once told Skeeter to take it easy on his opponent at the time, Al Vileneau,. What Skeeter did not know was that Vileneau was to fight at the Boston Garden the next week and did not want to be hurt. As a result of those instructions, Skeeter said, “ I never took such a licking.”
Charlie Welch's fight record was 128 fights, 99 wins, 13 losses and nine draws.
Most fights were three to ten rounds. Five fights on a card per night consisted of three prelims, one semi, and the main attraction. Fighters were from all classes and weights but were never weighed in.
Pay was approximately $3-$15 for a fight depending on the billing. Promoter Ben Vachon would pay the preliminary fighters by dropping quarters into a young fighter's hands. Skeeter says he never smiled during this ritual as that was a sign you were satisfied. The quarters would then stop flowing.
Cost of witnessing this was 35 cents early on and increasing over the years. Ladies were given a discount, but I never got the feeling they were encouraged to attend.
Skeeter recalls that one famous fighter who came to the Palace to referee a boxing match was the former heavy weight champion of the world, Jack Johnson. Johnson recently was the subject of a PBS television documentary. He appeared in South Berwick as guest referee and dignitary. Skeeter recalls that when “Mr. Johnson” came through the door, he filled it-- a perspective of a young, impressionable fighter, I am sure.
Owen Stevens recalls a memorable moment when Charlie Welch was to fight a good Boston fighter. Charlie Bonsaint was the timekeeper for that fight it seems. After a couple of rounds, after ringing the bell, Bonsaint was heard to say, “Keep it up Charlie ---you are doing great---he never laid a glove on you.”
That got a response out of fighter Welch. “You better check the referee then,” he said, “because someone is beating the hell out of me”
Lawrence Kimball remembers a Ken Hill, who was a neighbor of Kimball's dad, fighting at the Palace. Although Kimball never ventured into town to see the fights, he remembers Ken Hill sparring in a neighborhood barn.
“Awful thumps were heard,” recalls Lawrence. “Scared us kids to death.”
Boxing also took place in two other locations in South Berwick, the Park Theatre downtown at the former Newichwannock Hall, and an outdoor ring off Agamenticus Road. This last location was the result of the burning down of the Palace in 1949 on the eve of Junior and Gloria Roberge's wedding. Their lives together have flourished. The burning of the Palace was the end of an era.
The outdoor site where boxing programs resumed in the 1950's was in back of the Bray house on Agamenticus Road. The ring was surrounded by a pit wall, which then had bleachers on all four sides.
Joe Scanlon recalls being the water boy at the earlier Palace events, creating his interest in the sport, then started boxing at the outdoor ring as an amateur. He fought in Berwick Town Hall in the early1950s, and went on to become Golden Gloves Champ in 1956. We all know Joe today as our “downtown traffic officer” with the quick hands waving us on at 4:00PM.
Joe indicated that many of the fighters used aliases when fighting professionally to protect their amateur status. Later Joe promoted fights and had Jack Sharkey as a guest of honor at a fight card in the old Marshwood High School gym.
Joe recalls that other recreational activities also were held in the open field where boxing took place. Single engine by-plane rides were available, and Floyd Bubar parachuted down to the amazement of on-lookers.