My happy childhood unfolded in Saco. My parents grew up in Biddeford so we still had close ties to that area too. Most people from the two neighboring towns tend to have connections in both places. While there is a rivalry, it is more of the sibling variety and the two towns remain entwined in many ways including a shared history with the now empty textile mills that line the Saco River.
The Biddeford Mills Museum offers seasonal tours of the Pepperell Mill complete with colorful stories that take you back in time to glimpse the past. The first room on the tour was a light filled expanse now empty other than a few random items discarded off to the side. It was hard to image the room as it must have been when oil lamps provided light and looms lined every bit of the open floor space leaving little area to maneuver.
But, as our guide began to tell his stories, the room came into focus and the feeling that overwhelmed me was how many lives were lived in their entirety while working in this space.
In a time before electricity and when Maine was just a fledgling state still finding its way after having recently separated from Massachusetts, the mills began to grow on the shores of the Saco River which provided an abundant source of energy to power the developing industry. One of the highlights of the mill tour is a visit to the bowels of building 10 to see the “lagoon” where canals were erected out of brick providing a way to bring water into and then out of the building which generated the energy needed to power the factories.
Our guide told a story about how they would hire young, local boys to come to the lagoon and remove the eels that would attach themselves to the wooden wheels slowing their ability to turn and generated power. The incentive for the boys who removed the eels was ownership of the eels which they could either sell for money or keep to eat. I’m not sure I would want that job even with an offer to saute eels for dinner.
Anyone who grew up in Saco or Biddeford, as I did, generally has a “mill” story. I even touched on the mills in a previous post about Dirigo Brewing. It was the central part of our twin towns for so long and its reach spread throughout the community. Even many generations past it’s prime, the family stories get told and retold. I had grandparents that worked in the mills. Most of us from this area did. It was one of the reasons I was drawn to this tour. The opportunity to reach back in time and connect to the stories I had heard but never experienced.
I am happy that the Biddeford Mills Museum is working to continue to grow and expand their documentation of the past. They are in the process of digitizing the old ledgers which, according to our tour guide, were removed from the Pepperell Mill safe, lost for a while and then stumbled upon again in a local garage. The ledgers are more than numbers and will add to the story of what life was like when the mills were the place you knew you could go and get a job. It might be a challenging job, often unsafe and extremely difficult but it was guaranteed work.
As I learned on the tour, the mills were also responsible for a lot of the immigration that happened in the area. There were immigrants from other countries drawn to Biddeford because of the mills. Many girls came down from Canada on the offer of work and a place to live although some jobs sounded especially unfun including jobs in one particular room where they had to keep the temperature around 110 degrees and at about 80 percent humidity.
The mills slowly faded as more production moved overseas and the Pepperell closed for good in 2009. I know my own grandfather, who had worked repairing the looms for years, had to leave Maine to find work down in Connecticut at one point. But that was later, when the mills were starting to lose their footing in Maine.
While it is always important to remember and honor the past, the days of the textile mills in Maine have faded and it is encouraging to see a resurgence in these once lively buildings as new businesses and industries start to take hold. I have been following the activity and was aware that there had been a lot of growth in recent years, but was stunned to discover that there are already over 100 businesses who now call the Pepperell Mill Campus their home. It’s exciting to see where things go next.
|things to know|
|Place||Biddeford Mills Museum|
|Address||2 Main Street, Suite 17-301G
Biddeford, ME 04005
|Phone||(207) 229-6387 | (207) 284-8520 (Tours)|
|Website||Pepperell Mills Tour|
|Favorite||Connection to the Past|