PORT WASHINGTON — On the second floor of the Port Washington Town Hall, there’s a small stage. It was used for decades to entertain not only the residents, but the many travelers that wandered through during the days of the canal.
On either side of the stage, scribbles mark every fragment of the walls. At first glance, it looks like messy doodles in the corners of a textbook. There are names, snatches of text that flirt with context and the years they were written. Cathy Sullivan, a veteran member of the historical society, points out one of the writings— a list of high school graduates with "13" written beside it.
"That’s not 2013," Sullivan said. "That’s 1913."
It was written in chalk.
Sullivan has taken the time to dissect much of the writing that covers the walls. Over the years, people who have performed on the stage— many of which lived in Port Washington, others who came through— made their mark, contributing to a larger mural of recognition. Memories filled the room as high and low as it went.
"This town was big business for traveling shows," Sullivan said.
The words on the wall echoed her own— another one read, "This is a show town. If you have a real show, Oh Boy. March 1916." Traveling acts would get off the canal and perform a show for a night or two, then move on to the next stop.
"Next Stand, Cedarville Ohio. 1895"
When the building was first constructed in 1879, the first floor was the jail, mayor’s office and fire station. The second floor was for entertainment. Dances were held and plays were put on. It was a bustling place that saw people come and go and spend some time at the town hall— either in the jail or the auditorium— in between. It’s not often you see the history of a place write there on the wall, in the handwriting of those that lived it.
"If you stay here and really read, you’d see it all," Sullivan said.
Standing beside her, Joe Jacobs eyes the walls for himself.
"I can’t believe someone wrote that 100 years ago," Jacobs said, looking at one script. "Is that real?"
She assured him it was, just like all of the other etchings. Jacobs, a metalworker at Bates Metal Products, has only lived in town for about a year and had never seen the walls.
"This one is from 1894," he said. "That’s mind boggling."
Business dwindled after the canals went by the wayside. The fire station moved, and the importance of the building lessened over time. At one point, all the writing was covered up by wallpaper, but Sullivan said it was rediscovered when they took that down.
The historical society as a whole maintains the building, trying to restore what they can and preserve the rest. The building now serves largely as a museum with showcases old and new. Recently, a woman swept a chunk of the chalk writing from 1913 away while sweeping the wall— Sullivan was able to stop her before she got it all.
As the town approaches its 150th anniversary, those old scratches on the wall offer a hectic glimpse of where the town has been.