The oldest house in Biddeford is a historical gem in the rough. John Tarr’s House was probably built in 1730 and is located at 29 Ferry Lane, at the point where the lane ends at the Saco River. The land was part of Richard Vines’ 1630 land grant, and in 1686, it was deeded to a member of Tarr’s family. John became owner of the land in 1728…a year after the Drummer’s Treaty signaled an end to the French-Indian fighting that had depopulated this area for years (Tarr).
The building is one of the oldest structures in Maine and is hopefully scheduled to undergo restoration. By peeking through the opening to the crawl space, we were able to see the hand-hewn beams and stone-wall foundation.
And by looking under the loosely tacked door covering, we could see the first floor interior and framing.
Our visit to the Tarr house was a great way to get a sense of Saco and Biddeford’s founding days and to compare this hand-hewn existence with the industrial powerhouse the area was to become in the next century.
The town of Saco (incorporated in 1653) is located on the north bank of the Saco River about five miles upstream from Biddeford Pool. As with most of coastal Maine, fishing, lumbering, and shipbuilding were its early industries. Many residents fled during a 1675 Indian attack and the town was destroyed in another attack in 1688. By 1719 things had somewhat stabilized and Biddeford, on the south bank of the river, was officially recognized as a separate town (Museum in the Streets sign).
The two towns’ growth and history are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate them. To further complicate the story there is a third name to throw into this mix. Back in 1716, Sir William Pepperell’s father bought 5,000 acres of land. Sir William was the general who won the seemingly impossible battle against the French in Louisbourg, Canada, in 1746, and in 1752, he “donated four acres of land near the falls to the town for use as a village common, a burying ground, and a site for a new meetinghouse.” In thanks, the settlers named the new village Pepperrellborough, but most people found this name too cumbersome and in 1805 this area was renamed Saco (Hardiman).
For about three hundred years, until 1943, enormous log drives fed the Biddeford lumber mills. Although no longer milling logs, Deering Lumber (est. 1866) still stands on Spring Island in the middle of Saco River. Amid the nails, bolts, lumber and other building supplies they currently sell, an enormous old forty-foot “bateau” hangs from the ceiling. The bateau, a sturdy style boat favored by trappers, an antique logging sled and other antique trade tools are displayed around the store as reminders of the hearty and daring lumberjacks who chopped their way through the forest and helped settle Maine.
In the 19th century, the Saco River, with its steady flow of water and powerful waterfalls, helped turn the area into a thriving industrial center. Biddeford boasted of “seven cotton mills and a total of 165,000 spindles” feeding the ever-demanding looms that ultimately produced millions of yards of fabric each year. The largest two mills were Pepperell and Laconia. There were also “three boot and shoe factories, three foundries for brass, iron and stoves respectively, loom picker and harness manufactories, several lumber and grain mills, granite quarries, brickyards, and other lesser manufacturers” (Varney).
In 1834, Biddeford and Saco formed a “mutual society for the extingushment of fires.” This early bucket brigade was not very effective in saving property from the ravages of fire. New equipment followed as firefighting technology evolved. In 1869, Biddeford acquired an Amoskeag Steam Pumper that was made in Manchester, NH, and named in honor of the Richard Vines (Tremblay).
This photo is of one of the two nameplates from that steamer. Vines, who established a settlement at Biddeford Pool over the winter of 1616-1617, is also honored on the “Heroes” statue next to City Hall.
As the mills grew and prospered, so did the surrounding community. Maine architect John Calvin Stevens designed Biddeford’s three-story City Hall Complex that was built in 1895. Stores and a post office filled the street level, and city offices were located on the floor above. The building also housed a public library…but the Opera House with its “acoustically perfect theater” was the highlighted feature. Performers from around the world traveled to this stage (Varney). The theater’s offerings changed with the times. Vaudeville acts filled the stage for some time and it also served as a movie theater. It has been fully refurbished and is still drawing crowds with its plays and lively musical productions. While it is rumored that there may be a resident ghost named “Eva,” we have yet to meet her.
The rapidly expanding mills and their supporting industries needed laborers: “beginning in the 1870 and through the 1900s, about 15,000 French-Canadians settled in Biddeford to fill the work in the mills on the Saco River.” In spite of the harsh working conditions in the mills and the social distain they faced in the community, these determined immigrants formed their own “little Canada” and survived (L‘Heureux).
Biddeford’s “little Canada” may have been socially set apart from the other residents, but it was resolute and robust. The residents built their own church, which was not just central to their spiritual lives, but also helped to maintain the community in many other ways. Father Arthur Decary and his brother, Father Zenon Decary, were Canadian priests who worked passionately in the 1930s to develop schools and medical and social programs for this underserved population (L‘Heureux).
These newcomers didn’t want to lose their native tongue so French-Canadian was the language in their stores, schools and newspapers. They also formed social organizations, including boxing clubs, hockey teams and others, but The Painchaud’s Band, organized in 1870, was one of the most notable. The band was considered the finest band in New England, and they also competed and won fame in many contests in Canada over the years.
Biddeford’s French-Canadian population was one of the largest in the state and that heritage is still evident today. The Franco American Genealogy Center provides help researching family roots; popular folk music and current-day stories and events are aired in French over the radio; and the La Kermese Franco-American Festival are all efforts that have helped to keep the history and traditions of this French-Canadian community alive over the years.
The first of the textile mills closed in 1957 and by 2009 they were all shuttered…leaving behind not just a French-Canadian legacy but also an enormous complex of massive brick buildings lining the banks of the Saco River (Biddeford).
Some of these old spaces have found new life and other projects are underway such as the Biddeford Mill Museum. The museum’s development is being led by a group of people who want to preserve the heritage and history of the mills and their surrounding community…but the town is still recovering from the loss of the mills and the jobs they created.
After years of sitting in the weeds on the ground, the old Biddeford Mill Clock Tower has been moved to a nearby lot where it can be refurbished and restored. Eventually, this historic wooden structure will be raised back to its rightful home at the top of the lofty brick tower in front of Pepperrell Mill.
There is also development planning underway to turn former mill properties into retail spaces, apartments, condo units and a hotel…there is plenty of space waiting for other visionaries.
One of Biddeford’s most successful new enterprises is the Palace Diner. Built in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1927 by the Pollard Company, the Palace Diner has lived in Biddeford Maine for its entire life. In 2014 Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley reopened the shuttered diner and are making culinary history in this wonderfully restored space. The two met years ago while working in the fields at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. From there they went off to develop their culinary skills before returning to Biddeford. Ever since opening day, they have been filling the 15-stool diner to capacity with their breakfast and lunch menu. Their idea of counter food is a far cry from what the previous five owners had been serving, especially during the days when the mills were running three shifts 24-hours a day. Today, a shady patio area expands the seating capacity in the summer, and the Palace Diner is one of the healthiest and most robust businesses that have grown up in the shadow of the Biddeford mills (Bowell).
Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley were among the six finalists for the James Beard Foundation’s award for the Northeast Best Chef in 2020. Regretfully, the competition and awards have been delayed for two years due to the COVID-19 restrictions. We look forward to them again being included in this illustrious roster in 2022.
While Biddeford was filling with industry, immigrants and businesses, on the other side of the river the residents of Saco were building large homes and living a more sedate lifestyle. This was where the mill owners, management and business leaders lived and the difference is quickly evidenced by the many grand 19th-century residences.
The Saco Museum, founded 1866 as the York Institute, was created to promote the “study of Natural History; [and] to encourage Science and Art.” The response was so strong that it moved twice to larger quarters before a large donation in 1926 allowed for the purchase of land and the hiring of architect John Calvin Stevens to design its Colonial Revival building. The museum’s collections include paintings, furnishings, and natural history specimens, and in the lower level are rooms with Federal period furniture and decorative arts and a Colonial kitchen. We like to check their schedule of special exhibits because we have always found them to be comprehensive, informative and well displayed.
Next door to the museum is the Dyer Library, which originally was housed in the Saco City Hall in 1882. This was the first “public” library…prior to that time the community had been served by membership libraries. The library was so popular that in its first month “more than 2,300 volumes were checked out by 800 cardholders.” Today, the much expanded library resides in the Deering Mansion, the former home of the owners of Deering Lumber. The house was refitted to serve as a library and has been greatly expanded over the years, with the former carriage house now housing the children’s room.
A short drive away is the 1,200-acre Saco Heath Preserve, which provides a refreshing counterpoint to all the bricks and buildings. A heavily wooded trail leads to a boardwalk that allows visitors to walk through the peat bog and its communities of plant life. It is a wonderful opportunity to glimpse another Maine landscape before heading on to one of the state’s most popular beach communities.
After the quiet solitude of the heath, get ready for the honky-tonk vibe of Old Orchard Beach just fifteen minutes away. This beautiful seven-mile stretch of white sand beach has been drawing tourists since even before its first public house opened in 1829. Thomas Rogers, the earliest European settler, planted an apple orchard here in 1657, but abandoned his holdings after Indians attacked and destroyed his farm. The orchard survived for about 150 years and sailors used it as a landmark…hence the name Old Orchard.
In addition to sun-worshipping tourists, religious groups began holding summer revivals here. The Free Will Baptist Temple was built in 1881 and the tradition of camp revival continues to this day.
The Salvation Army holds an annual summer convention at its facility nearby, and in a large outdoor pavilion they offer a summer season of family-friendly entertainment. The houses in the area surrounding the pavilion are especially interesting because they have been built on lots that were former tent sites during the old camp meetings. These small, irregular pieces of real estate have been combined to create enough land to build houses on. It is fun to explore this warren of narrow streets and enjoy the unusual variety of homes and cottages that sprang up in this real estate patchwork.
While the revivalists were singing and praying, the pier and its arcades and rides appealed to a different set of visitors. The center of Old Orchard Beach is known for its rides, arcades, refreshment stands and shops. Palace Playland opened in 1902 and its waterfront four acres are home to a seventy-plus foot Ferris wheel, roller coasters and carnival rides for all ages.
The Pier, with its food and souvenir stands, extends out into the ocean. Much of the original pier (1907) was destroyed in a fire in the summer of 1969 along with two blocks of buildings…but the storefronts and hotel were quickly rebuilt and the new pier was opened in 1980.
The broad, white beach is a draw for both locals and visitors from around the world, with a large portion of them coming down from Quebec and other parts of Canada to enjoy Maine’s “French Riviera.” An unexpected visitor arrived here on July 24, 1927, when Charles Lindberg landed the Spirit of St. Louis here on the beach because Portland’s airport was too fogged in for him to make his scheduled landing.
The beach was also the home to early auto racing, but today this vast waterfront is reserved for swimmers and sunbathers. It is fun to watch people arriving at the beach in the morning to find their plot of sand for the day. Many come early, carrying canvas bags and lawn chairs. The even better provisioned families arrive pulling a wagon or two and have tents, coolers of food and drinks, beach equipment and other supplies for a day of fun in the sun.
Further away from the pier, the atmosphere is less honky-tonk and there is more open space in the sand. Voices are muffled the sound of the waves and the cries of the gulls. It is a joy to watch seabirds, on their little stick legs, dart in and out at the foam edge of the surf and it is a beautiful place to walk in the firm, cool sand beach. This is a lovely way to start or end a day’s visit in Maine.
“Biddeford” Maine An Encyclopedia maineanencyclopedia.com
Bodwell, Joshua. “The Palace Diner.” DownEast Magazine. Downeast.com.
Hardiman, Thomas, former curator, Saco Museum.”An Introduction to Saco History. City of Saco website, sacomaine.org.
L‘Heureux , Juliana. “Biddeford and Franco-American History.” Bangor Daily News. Francoamerican.bangordailynews.com. June 8, 2018.
“Tarr, John, House.” Maine An Encyclopedia “Biddeford.” Maineanencyclopedia.com.
Tremblay, Mike, Museum Curator. “City of Biddeford Fire Department Museum.” Biddefordmaine.org.
Varney, Geo. J. “History of Biddeford, Maine.” A Gazetteer of the State of Maine. Boston: B.B. Russell, 57 Cornhill, 1886. History.rays-place.com