Dedication in the Face of Fire

As fire swept across Mount Desert Island in October of 1947 six women in Northeast Harbor determinedly kept their post at the telephone office. The lights went out; their friends and family fled, but the operators remained, sounding the evacuation alarm and then calling every telephone in town to calmly urge the citizens of Northeast Harbor to leave their village in the face of the menacing forest fires. A fishing boat was moored outside the telephone office in case the operators needed to flee for their lives, but even after successfully overseeing the evacuation, the operators remained, never leaving their posts for four days. The only women left in Northeast Harbor, they provided a crucial communications link between fire fighters, police and relief workers.  

  Here is a photo of two of the women, Helen Gillette (left) and Philena Davis (right):

Helen and Philema

 The photo had been taken twenty-seven years before when Helen and Philena were young, single “telephone girls.” Helen’s maiden name was Smallidge. She married Charles Gillette in 1926, and the couple never had children. Philena, named for her paternal grandmother, was a Manchester before marrying Walter Davis in 1930. I don’t think they had any children either. Walter was twelve years older than Philena, and I believe he had a child from a prior marriage. Walter had died just a few months before the Great Fire. Since both Helen and Philena were childless, this might partially explain why they were working as operators in an era when married women more often stayed at home.

Thankfully the fire never reached the village of Northeast Harbor, yet the operators’ dedication to keeping their posts throughout the disaster was true heroism.

More to come about the telephone girls of 1920 in later blog entries!





About Luann Yetter

Luann Yetter is the author of Bar Habor in the Roaring Twenties, Portland's Past and Remembering Franklin County, all published by the History Press. She is a writing instructor at the University of Maine at Farmington. She has had a life-long interest in social history beginning with a steady diet of Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a little girl in the Midwest. She now lives in an 18th century house in a small town in Maine and loves to "time travel" when she writes.
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