Box-top bonanza: Portland land bank may get park land for $6,400

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PORTLAND — It won’t be the biggest land deal in city history.

But for just less than $6,400, Portland could get nine lots near the Falmouth town line that were once obtained with cereal box tabs.

On Aug. 9, the city Land Bank Commission unanimously recommended city councilors approve the purchase and assign the lots in what is known as Oat Nuts Park to the city’s land bank.

“My family has been paying taxes on this for about 100 years. It is quite an oddity that someone would own something in the middle of a park,” owner Stephen Robbins said last week.

Robbins, a resident of East Winthrop, is ready to part with about a third of an acre that was a family legacy and now a part of open space used by Portland Trails. Four of the lots sit in the middle of Oat Nuts Park; another five are at the northwestern edge.

The land was not always part of a park. At the turn of the last century, it was part of a marketing plan by the Boston-based Liberty Pure Food Co. to sell Oatnuts and another cereal.

It began with a week of ads in local newspapers in February 1902. At a time when advertised nostrums promised cures for all ailments, and Grape Nuts cereal was called a “scientific” breakfast food, Liberty Pure Food was so certain customers would like its products it offered them 20-by-50-foot parcels for five cereal box tabs, plus $2 to cover the land transfer.

The lots were in a planned community only “25 minutes from City Hall” that sat 200 feet above sea level. A streetcar line was a 10-minute walk away, and the company assured customers a closer line was coming.

Ads offered 1,000 lots on a first-come, first-served basis. Customers had only to bring the box tops and money to an office at 53 Exchange St., and the company paid the first year’s property taxes.

A plan filed with the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds on Feb. 18, 1902, plotted 772 lots, networked by Ash, Birch, Cypress and Magnolia streets.

But the lots were too small to build on, and the 16-foot wide streets were too narrow. With unbuildable land and unusable streets, Oat Nuts Park generated only unpaid tax bills and liens.

Somewhere along the way, the Liberty Pure Food Co. disappeared, too.

Over the years, the city regained much of the land, either through donations or seizure for unpaid taxes. City tax records place the parcels at the addresses of 0 Talbot and 0 Juniper streets, and show eight private owners still exist besides the Robbins family.

In 2005, the bulk of the land was zoned for resource protection, preventing development.

For the sale, Robbins provided deeds dating to 1930, when his grandfather, John Hamilton, bought the land for $1 from heirs of Hamilton’s late brother, Martin Hamilton.

In turn, John Hamilton left the land to his daughter, Elizabeth Robbins, when he died in 1958.

Stephen Robbins said his mother lived in the city and South Portland, and he knew there was some land she owned before she left it to him.

Before the land got to Martin Hamilton, it passed through several hands. The four lots in the center of Oat Nuts Park were originally claimed on Feb. 20, 1902, by city resident Reuben Noyes, who must have stocked his pantry with a lot of cereal.

In 1922, he sold those, and others he bought after they had been seized by the city for unpaid taxes to Gertrude Thompson in 1922. The entirety of the holdings was then sold to Martin Hamilton in 1928.

City Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said Aug. 10 he is working with Assessor Chris Huff to get a clearer picture of ownership of the land, and for the moment is happy the city can add to its holdings.

“This is a chance to consolidate and preserve the land,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The lots were cheap in Oatnuts Park in North Deering, and too small for development despite what this 1902 newspaper ad promised.The streetcars never came, and lots given away by Liberty Whole Food Co. were too small for houses. Now Portland councilors will decide whether the city should buy some of the last private land inside Oat Nuts Park off Summit Street.

A planned street is now a wooded path inside Oat Nuts Park off Summit Street, where the city is looking to buy some of the few remaining private lots.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.