A Century of Childhood

From a World War I milk station to a contemporary preschool, Catherine Morrill Day Nursery continues to reflect the needs of the community.

Sally Hinckley remembers walking to Catherine Morrill Day Nursery before sunrise. Her mother, who was divorced, needed to get to Hayes’ Drugstore to bake muffins before the breakfast counter opened.

“Some women had to work and Catherine Morrill was where you took your kids,” says Hinckley, who is 82 and lives in South Portland. “I went there until I was 5.”

Some of Hinckley’s memories—like standing in line for a spoonful of cod liver oil or napping on the fire escape in the summer—stand out because they’re vastly different from those of children today. Other recollections, such as children sitting down to lunch family-style or brushing their teeth at diminutive sinks, are likely shared with the 6,000 children who have attended Catherine Morrill Day Nursery since its founding 100 years ago this month.

A couple of unidentified students at the day nursery’s hand washing station in 1975. Photo courtesy of Catherine Morrill Day Nursery

“We’ve always been reflective of the needs of the community,” says Executive Director Lori Moses, outlining an evolution from “custodial care” in the early days to becoming the state’s first licensed childcare facility in 1967 and being one of the first facilities in the state to be accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs in the 1990s. The program prioritizes low-income and at-risk children and currently includes five children who live at McAuley Residence, Maine’s only substance abuse recovery community where mothers stay with their children.

The Catherine Morrill Day Nursery story begins during World War I, when women filled jobs vacated by men who left to serve in the armed forces. With women working, there was a need for infant formula. Katherine Quinn, Portland’s first trained public health nurse, led a mostly volunteer team at a “milk station” at Portland City Hall in preparing formula for 195 babies in 1917—and twice as many in 1918.

Then, in 1919—the same year women got the right to vote in Maine—20 civic-minded ladies established the Portland Baby Hygiene and Child Welfare Association. They set up a day nursery in the Waynflete School Building where a rotating team of volunteers cared for children of working women. One of the earliest volunteers was 19-year-old Catherine “Kay” Morrill of the Burnham and Morrill—B&M Baked Beans—family.

Morrill loved working at the nursery but her time there was short. She died a year after her start from an infection.  “Penicillin had not been discovered yet,” said niece Catherine “Kay” Morrill Wood, a former member of the nursery’s board of directors who volunteered at the center throughout the 1950s.

Catherine Morrill, left, with her brother Charles in an undated photo. At 19, she began volunteering at the nursery when it was a day nursery run by the Portland Baby Hygiene and Child Welfare Association. The nursery was named for Morrill after her death the next year. Photo courtesy of Catherine Morrill Day Nursery

In 1922, the nursery moved to its current location on Danforth Street, across from Victoria Mansion. The building is part 1830s-era ship captain’s home, part 1970s Model Cities construction. In the summer, children line up at the playground fence to catch a glimpse of the Maine Duck Tours boat full of quacking tourists. On Thursdays, everyone gets day-old bread from Standard Baking Company, toddlers asking for a baguette or focaccia by name.

Kathleen Conley Amrein’s memories from her Catherine Morrill days sound like something from Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline children’s books, with the little charges being marched down the street in two straight lines. Amrein was born in 1947 and was in the program from infancy to age 5, which enabled her mother to work as an operating room nurse at Maine Medical Center and her father to work shifts as a fireman. “We still hear all this controversy about working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers,” Amrein says. “But I don’t think every woman is the type who wants to stay with children all day long, and that’s okay. I came to that conclusion through my own experience growing up.”

Julie Redding, a child therapist from Calais, agrees. She has fond memories of preschool at Catherine Morrill in the late 1980s, including listening to Beach Boys hits while tidying up. Her mother raised her alone, much of her childhood. “She worked two jobs and went back to school, graduated from the University of Southern Maine and became a teacher. My mother had the opportunities that she did because she knew I was safe and cared for and learning, growing and thriving. The kid and the parent are a unit.”

Today, 73% of Maine children—whether they have one parent, two parents or more thanks to blended families—have all parents in the workforce. Child care centers have two clients: the parents who need to work and the children who need to be nurtured.

“My heart’s desire was always to be a stay-at-home mom, but we need to be a two wage earner family,” says Ruth Price, mother to 5-year-old Ulysses and 3-year-old Ari, who attend Catherine Morrill. “My mind is at ease that my kids are being cared for—and not only their physical needs but their emotional needs, their sensory needs, their intellectual needs. The teachers use play to teach topics like outer space and the planets, giving the kids a general sense of the size and scope of the world.”

Nearly all the 80 or so children enrolled are full time; some are there upwards of 60 hours a week. The waiting list is another indicator of the demand: Because the program has fewer spots for infants and toddlers than for preschoolers, expectant mothers get on the waiting list and often don’t get a spot for their child for three years. Part of that popularity comes from its reputation for stability. On the plus side: In an industry known for high turnover, Catherine Morrill teachers tend to stick around.

Ring around the rosie, 1970s style at Catherine Morrill Day Nursery. Photo courtesy of Catherine Morrill Day Nursery

“We’re not just teaching letters and colors, we’re teaching independence, problem-solving and conflict resolution and engaging curiosity,” Moses says. “The teachers are addressing the whole child in terms of all ages of development: social, emotional, physical, language and number literacy, social studies, science, all of it.”

“The mission and the philosophy of the school attracts teachers and staff who really care about children and want them to succeed,” says Program Director Karen Peters, who has been at the day nursery for 15 years. “Children and families come first.”

Some families stick around for a while, too. Roberta Smith, a legal secretary at Unum, has sent six kids through the program. Her youngest, Theodore, will be off to kindergarten in the fall.

“Everyone there has a common goal—to encourage, love on and grow these families, not just the kids but the families,” Smith says. “Catherine Morrill is kind of like ‘Sesame Street’ in Maine.”

*An earlier version of this story, as well as the print edition of Maine Women Magazine’s June 2019, misidentified the relationship between Catherine “Kay” Morrill Wood and Catherine “Kay” Morrill, the volunteer for whom the center was named. Catherine “Kay” Morrill Wood is Morrill’s niece.


Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer who muddled through the days of working full time and raising a preschooler as a single mom.

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