In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Biddeford History & Heritage Project

Sharing the history of a proud city rising where the water falls

VII. Flow and ebb: the effects of industrial peak & global upheaval (1900-1955)

At the turn of the century Biddeford was a place of opportunity, of excitement, of possibility. It was the largest city in York County, and one of the largest cities in Maine. In the streets people spoke mostly English and French, but you could also hear German, Dutch, Albanian, Greek, Yiddish, Spanish, Chinese, Turkish, Danish, Polish, Russian and Italian. There was also poverty, violence, ethnic strife and rancorous politics.

Biddeford had rapidly gained the services and utilities that made it a true urban area: city water (1885), electric lights (1886), the horse-drawn and then electric street railway (1888, 1892). Additionally there was a huge and thriving arts scene in the area, in no small part due to the many talented French-Canadians who had moved here. One of the most famous musicians of this time was Pierre Painchaud, who immigrated in 1857 at age 5. At age 18 he founded La Fanfare Painchaud (Painchaud's Band), which would become one of the most famous bands of its time, and played all over New England to large audiences.

Talent without an audience quickly evaporates, but luckily the people of Biddeford were ravenous for the entertainments available to them at the City Opera House and other halls and venues downtown. Concerts, minstrel and vaudeville shows, oratories, chorales and dramatics were all available on a regular basis by nationally known stars as well as local professional and amateur organizations. This dearth of high quality entertainment, in both English and French, would continue right through to the 1940's.

Besides modern conveniences and entertainments, the city was offering other kinds of services as well. Biddeford's first hospital, Trull Hospital, was opened in June of 1900. At the time it was built with medical profession was divided into two camps--homeopathy and allopathy. The Trull was the first homeopathic hospital opened in Maine, and was named for Dr. J. Frank Trull, its founder. The Webber Hospital was opened as an alternative to the Trull. It first opened in the Freeman House on Pool Street in 1906. A large, modern brick building was constructed on Elm Street and opened in 1911. It is named for Moses W. Webber who had been overseer of the Pepperell cloth room and paymaster of the Laconia division. When he died in 1899 he bequeathed $40,000 toward a free hospital for the people of Biddeford.

By 1910 Biddeford was the 4th largest city in Maine. Biddeford's ethnic make-up was diverse and urbane, and the city's residents included business owners, doctors, lawyers, judges, druggists, opticians, superintendents, artisans and crafters of all backgrounds. They lived and worked throughout Biddeford, from the coast to the hills. Many of them built graceful, stately homes throughout town--some even with winter homes "in town" and then summer cottages out at the Pool or towards Kennebunkport.

Women were entrepreneurial in their own right, and started social, educational, and charitable organizations to improve themselves and their community as well. More children were being educated in public or parochial schools, moving on to public, parochial or private high schools--boys and girls. Many went off to college. The philanthropic spirit in Biddeford was to thank for most of the longest-lived social institutions of the City, including the Webber Hospital (Southern Maine Medical Center) and the McArthur Public Library. The Franco community, while shunning assimilation for "la survivance" of the French culture, championed the expansion of educational opportunities, especially for girls, which included creating college-level courses available to young ladies. These courses were taught by the well-educated nuns from Quebec in the city, and an arrangement with Laval University allowed for conferral of an actual degree if the coursework was met.

During the first decades of the 20th century output was high in terms of people and products, and the busts of 1930's would not hit this area in the same way as many parts of the state and the country. In the urban areas of Maine, ethnic tensions and nativist hatreds rose through the 1920's, and in 1924 the Ku Klux Klan claimed 50,000 members in Maine. One of the most famous legends of Biddeford is when the Klan paraded through Saco and tried to come to Biddeford--the story goes that the Irish blocked the Bradbury Bridge and the French blocked the Main Street Bridge; both groups were well-armed and ready to chase the scoundrels back to Saco at any cost. The Klan turned tail at the sight of the angry Catholic crowds, and it was probably the beginning of the two sides finally overcoming their scant differences.

In Biddeford, like the rest of urban Maine, the relief of growing ethnic and cultural tensions finally came about at the onset of World War II and the sudden effluence of work and good wages. All the plants managed to scrape by during the Depression, and when war broke out in 1941 they were all very busy with production of war goods. All the manufacturers were in need of help, and recruited heavily for women workers, both Anglo and Franco.

The introduction of daycare centers so that able-bodied mothers could work even part time to produce for the war effort was groundbreaking. After the end of the war, though, the men returned home to their jobs in the mills and back to regular production. The looming crises of economic collapse, aftermath of war markets and changing business practice would have their impacts in due time.