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

VIII. Changing course and new beginnings (1955-Present)

Throughout Maine during these years most of the large manufactures either moved to the South or where floated along temporarily by business interests in the state. The companies worked hard to innovate and improve themselves, but the post-war economies and business environment were setting them on a path of which there was not return. The expansion and conglomeration of all of the major manufactures in Biddeford and Saco: the Saco-Lowell Shops, York (Bates) Manufacturing, and Pepperell (WestPoint) Manufacturing, would follow a similar pattern.

Exchange Block, 2010.

Expansion, innovation and improvements followed by a period of profitability, then the decision by Boards and owners out-of-state to sell off the Biddeford and Saco "divisions" or move them down South to the textile production centers of Georgia and Alabama, where the help was cheaper and the raw materials were grown next door. By 1960 both York Manufacturing and Saco-Lowell Shops were closed.

There were some large employers left in the wake, but not big enough to fill the void left by the closures of York and Saco-Lowell. A separate division of the Saco-Lowell Shops known as the Edwards Plant, which produced automotive parts and weapons, was acquired by Maremont Corporation and continues to build weapons under the name General Dynamics. Pepperell's saving grace was the invention and production of the Vellux blanket by Francis Spencer, and a very small portion of the mills continued operation making a variety of blankets. The division finally closed in entirety in 2009, a final end to over 150 years of production.

McArthur Library, 2010. Photograph by Devin Ouellette, Biddeford High School.

The demise of these large scale manufacturers meant that for quite some time things appeared bleak for the Biddeford area. "Brain-drain", or the emigration of young, educated professionals to better paying areas in New England and elsewhere was another blow to the local & state economies as early as the 1940's, and certainly through the 1980's and 1990's. Wages in Biddeford and throughout Maine were lower, people who would have made a good living in manufacturing were underemployed and working poor, and those who were able to get an education had to leave the area to get ahead.

Small, innovative businesses popped up and created opportunities although mostly away from the downtown area. Main Street lost its luster as restaurants, department stores and professional offices were replaced by second-hand shops, convenience stores or empty, dilapidated buildings. A controversial trash incinerator in the heart of downtown, divisive politics, and an effort by the residents of the beach neighborhoods to separate themselves from the rest of the city further fueled this sense of anger, animosity, and negativity that hung in the air throughout the 1980's and into the 1990's.

Civil War Monument, 2010. Photograph by Jamiee Beatson, Biddeford High School.

Biddeford, however, has other plans for itself. Residents and stakeholders from out of town have worked hard over the last 15 years or so to create a sense of hope and renewal in this plucky city. More development has taken place in the industrial and shopping parks on the western end of town, and investments in new schools have been made. The former mill buildings are slowly being refinished and repurposed into modern residences and boutique manufacturing and business space. A growing community of artists and entrepreneurs are breathing new life into the downtown, and hope to transform it back into the lively neighborhood it once was. The entirety of Main Street has been named to the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the Mill district.

The tradition of Biddeford as a place of possibility for those seeking a better life for themselves and their families has been renewed, manifested today by the partnership of old-timers, newcomers, downtown and beach residents, for the benefit of all. A handmade arch over the walkway to the former Laconia Mill Building #3, which--now home to shops, cafes, and residences-- reads, "Resurgam", Latin for "I rise again". It is an apt expression of the past and the future for this river-side community.

North Dam Mill, 2010. Photograph by Kylie Clukey, Biddeford High School.