A laborer works on a machine at the Pepperell Mill in 1953 in Biddeford. COURTESY PHOTO/Biddeford Historical Society

A laborer works on a machine at the Pepperell Mill in 1953 in Biddeford. COURTESY PHOTO/Biddeford Historical Society

BIDDEFORD — Those who study history know that it teaches us what has been achieved in the past and about the determination of those who made it happen.

This Friday evening, members of the Biddeford Historical Society will host their monthly Fireside Chat for November, which will focus on a topic of relevance to generations of area residents when it examines the mill experience.

The presentation is called “Biddeford Rising: The Mills and the Men and Women Who Made Them.”

According to Denis Letellier, president of the Biddeford Historical Soiciety, industry and innovation have been part of Biddeford’s history for hundreds of years.

“Our first sawmill and iron forge were built in 1653. However, it wasn’t until 1811, when Thomas Cutts and Josiah Calef entered into a partnership to form Saco Iron Work Factory on Indian Island, that true manufacturing was born,” Letellier said.

And that manufacturing boom had no end in sight. In 1825, Saco Manufacturing built the largest textile mill in the country. It burned in 1829. Saco Manufacturing and Factory Island was then acquired by Boston investors who saw great potential in this venture. They called it York Manufacturing and it produced all sorts of textiles.

“In 1837, big changes were afloat,” Letellier said. “York Manufacturing created a separate company — the Saco Water Power Company — to not only produce textile machinery, but also to control water power rights for the York Mills.”

He said that Saco Water Power built the Laconia Mills on the Biddeford side of the river in 1844, and then started Pepperell Manufacturing Company in 1850.

For the next 200 years, these mills produced high quality textiles that were shipped across the world.

“Pepperell schooners brought textiles to China where the merchants — seeing the Sphinx-like dragon insignia — welcomed them with open arms,” Letellier said. “The textiles were used for tent cloth during the Civil War. Most of us had the Biddeford Mill blankets on our beds when we were growing up.”

He pointed out that behind all the facts and historical figures of the mill era were real people.

“Biddeford forefathers and foremothers spent 20, 30 and 50 years of their lives here,” Letellier said. “They started out in entry-level positions and moved themselves up the ranks where they could use their skills and innovate. One mill worker said working there, ‘they thought they could do anything.’ They were blanket designers. They were engineers. They were inventors.”

These industrious forebearers of Biddeford and Saco took great pride in what they did because it wasn’t just a job, it was a passion.

“Working in the mills you were part of something bigger that extended well beyond Biddeford. You could stretch your mind and create things,” Letellier said. “But working in the mills was hard. One mill veteran who worked in the mills in the 1950s said how cotton fibers were in the air and there were no filtration systems. It was hard to breathe at times. Machinery could be dangerous. Mill workers were maimed or lost their lives due to simple mistakes.”

The Fireside Chat is free and starts at 7 p.m. Friday in the historic Biddeford Meetinghouse at the corner of Pool Road and Meetinghouse Road.  

Letellier said that the presentation will feature videos of mill veterans, a presentation about the history of the mills by mill veteran David Bishop and an open discussion of first-accounts of what it was like to work in the mills.

For more information about the Fireside Chat ongoing series or the Biddeford Historical Society, call Letellier at 468-9305.

— Executive Editor Ed Pierce can be reached at 282-1535 ext. 326 or by email at [email protected] 

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