When Rob Cimitile contacted me seeking press for a fundraising campaign he’s undertaken to complete a recording and music video by his indie-folk band, Builder of the House, I was skeptical. I could fill this space every week with plugs for talented Maine musicians trying to crowd-fund their projects. But I soon realized Cimitile’s endeavor is special.
Originally from Connecticut, Cimitile moved to Maine a couple years ago and was told by a relative in Florida that he has an ancestor who once lived in Portland. He didn’t have much to go on — just a name, Fred Sharp, and an address, 24 Free Street. Remarkably, that was enough to launch a quest that revealed the tragic story Cimitile’s now determined to tell.
As Cimitile detailed on his band’s blog (builderofthehouse.com), his first stop was the Portland Public Library’s Portland Room, where research librarian Abraham Schechter showed him the city directories kept there. Beginning in the 1820s, the directories’ publishers knocked on every door in the city every year, counting residents and noting their names and occupations.
Cimitile started with the directory of 1890. No Fred Sharp. He then went through the books for each following year until he found a listing for “Sharp, Frederick. w. 24 Free Street” in the 1897 directory. Subsequent listings shed more light on the man Cimitile eventually identified as his great-great grandfather.
Sharp worked for the W.T. Kilborn Company, a carpet manufacturer on Free Street — one of many businesses that used to place advertisements in what Schechter calls the “proto-yellow pages.” Sharp was a clerk for Kilborn until 1917 and was listed as an “interior decorator” from 1918 until 1942, the year he died. The directories also indicated that he had a wife named Bertha.
Sharp lived in Portland from 1897 until 1927, when a directory indicates he moved to Gray. He lived at eight different addresses during those three decades, most of them on Munjoy Hill.
Cimitile then turned to online Census records, where he discovered that Sharp was born in 1868 and emigrated here from England. Bertha was born in 1873 and was from Sweden. The Census of 1900 listed two children born to the couple shortly before the turn of the century. The 1910 Census listed a third child, Kitchener M. Sharp (Cimitile’s great grandfather), but Bertha was no longer listed as a resident of the household.
“Did she die?” Cimitile wondered.
A search for her name in the 1910 Census answered his question. Bertha was in the Maine Insane Hospital, later renamed the Augusta Mental Health Institute (AMHI). Admitted to the notorious asylum in her early 30s, she languished there for over 50 years, until her death in 1960. Cimitile couldn’t determine what her condition was, but he learned through further research that she was eventually joined there by her son Alfred, who suffered from “Schizophrenic Reaction — Paranoid Type” and passed away the year after his mother died.
Death certificates on file at Gray’s town hall indicated that Fred and Alfred Sharp were buried in Pine Grove Cemetery, in Falmouth. It was mid-afternoon when Cimitile drove off to find the headstone and nearly dark when, on the verge of calling it a day, he spotted the granite marker among many hundreds of others — and discovered that Bertha was buried there, too.
Cimitile, 32, is a tutor and substitute teacher by trade. Unbeknownst to him, he’s been following in his great-great grandfather’s footsteps these past few years. The apartment he had in Portland was just a few blocks away from the carpet company on Free Street, and Cimitile’s new home in Cumberland is just down the road from his great-great grandfather’s place in Gray.
The song he wrote about Fred and Bertha is called “A Plot in Falmouth.” It’s one of four tracks slated to appear on what will be Builder of the House’s second release. The video for the song is being made in association with Through the Door Productions, and with the help of a modest grant from the Maine Arts Commission, several scenes have already been shot on the grounds of AMHI and other locations significant to the Sharps’ lives. The cast, dressed in period costumes, is a mix of professional and amateur actors, with Cimitile playing the role of Fred Sharp.
Cimitile had no idea his initial trip to the Portland Room would lead to this project, but he said, “Once I found one thing, and that led to another thing, it just became addictive, this mystery I was able to unravel.” There’s much more Cimitile hopes to learn through additional research, especially about Bertha’s half-century at AMHI, but for now he’s hoping Indiegogo donors can help him bring “A Plot in Falmouth” to life.