When Bridgton was a mill town

WHERE FOOD CITY NOW STANDS once stood the Pondicherry Mill, built in 1866. The six-story factory complex manufactured woolen goods, and was Bridgton’s second large textile mill. Sixty looms of the mill turned out 18,000 yards of finished wool cloth per week, and the mill was a significant employer in town for many years. Its last remnant, its 110-foot-tall chimney, was demolished in 1965.

WHERE FOOD CITY NOW STANDS once stood the Pondicherry Mill, built in 1866. The six-story factory complex manufactured woolen goods, and was Bridgton’s second large textile mill. Sixty looms of the mill turned out 18,000 yards of finished wool cloth per week, and the mill was a significant employer in town for many years. Its last remnant, its 110-foot-tall chimney, was demolished in 1965.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

It was standing room only Thursday, as historian Sue Black drew the crowd inside the room at the Lakes Environmental Association, back to a time when Stevens Brook defined the birth of downtown Bridgton.

It all began with a survey by Jacob Stevens, back in 1766. Stevens was charged with exploring the mile-and-a-half length of Stevens Brook from Highland Lake to Long Lake, looking for likely mill sites.

“There were no roads. No nothing. They were bushwhacking,” said Black. From inflow to outflow, the water dropped by 150 feet as it swirled over boulders and twisted around bends.

Stevens identified 12 possible mill sites, and had rights to all of them; but gave up all but one. Where a lovely bridge now spans the brook at Shorey Park, he built Bridgton’s first mill nearly 250 years ago; a grist mill, a small water wheel really, meant only to grind corn.

“Bridgton would not be where it is right now if he had put his mill in a different place,” said Black, who punctuated her talk with photos projected on a big screen.

The first mills were crucial to Bridgton’s birth, even though they were not building anything to sell. They served the survival needs of the town’s first residents: food, clothing, shelter. Carting mills, grist mills, felting mills, sawmills — all were service oriented.

In 1849–1850, the Highland Lake Dam was built to hold back the waters then known as Crotched Pond. Black showed a current photo of today confirming that “all the parts are pretty much still there,” at the controls of the dam, pointing out the square area that she said was once a fish hatchery.

“The logs came all the way from Stearns Pond in Sweden,” she said.

Rufus Gibbs built the first big textile mill in 1857 where Shorey Park is now, and built the mill pond that now is mostly filled with reeds. That woolen mill, which once processed 400 pounds of wool per week, was demolished in 1961, said Black.

The second mill site, or what was known as the second power site, was built on Chuck Renneker’s property, formerly Beth’s Kitchen Café, now Eliza Hugh clothing. “All along the way, there were little mills, and they relied on (the dam owner) because he controlled the water.” At the second site, sash and blind mills were built. No longer was the goal pure survival; “Now, they’re starting to make things.”

Contrary to what some might believe, the vacant dowel mill that now stands on the other side of Stevens Brook never used the brook’s water power. It used steam instead.

Moving along the brook, the third power site spawned sawmills and grist mills on property where the Oberg building now stands, which once was a bank, built in 1917. The mill there burned in 1877 and was never rebuilt.

“Fire was a very big cause” of changes in the mill industry, as one mill built over the ruins of the former. Black said The Bridgton News owner Henry Shorey rebuilt the dam there for aesthetic purposes.

Stevens Brook at the Oberg site crosses Main Street, and on the other side, three 30’x30’ buildings were built to serve as a huge tannery, on the site of what is now the Magic Lantern Theatre. “Oh, the Tannery Pub, my fifth graders say,” Black joked.

The tannery was taken down in the 1930s. Its byproduct, tannic acid, did no good for the health of the brook, obviously, but neither did the woolen trade, where it was joked at one time that “you could tell what color they were dying in the mill by looking in the water.”

Where the post office is now, all the way to the corner of Main and Elm Street, were once buildings for the corn shop. “Sweet corn was a major industry here” from 1860 to 1960, said Black. The corn industry also had other, smaller buildings located closer to the farms, in order to get the corn to market faster, she said. The corn shop didn’t use the brook for power, but its owners did use it for their waste, she said.

The season was short, from August to October, but the industry provided good temporary jobs for many of Bridgton’s unemployed residents. “At one time there were 800 people working there,” until 1899, when the industry moved across Main Street near to where the Community Center now stands. The move allowed the industry to be located closer to the Narrow Gauge Railroad, which came to Bridgton in 1882.

The old Memorial School on Depot Street, is at the railroad terminal where once a huge mill pond held logs.

The second big textile mill to be built in Bridgton, said Black, was the Pondicherry Mill, built in 1865. Initially it was powered by a turbine drawing water from the brook, but in 1898 a tall chimney was built, and the mill became powered by steam. It was demolished in 1965.

“When the Harrison branch of the railroad was built in 1898, that’s when things really picked up,” said Black, and mill sites were established from Pondicherry Square all the way down to Long Lake.

The Pondicherry Mill stood at Pondicherry Square, on the property where the present Food City now stands. The Bridgton Historical Society has on file ledgers listing names of the many, many people who worked there.

Nearly all the water wheels of the early mills were overshot wheels, best adapted for small streams with high falls. They didn’t hold up long over time, said Black, and were replaced a century later by the more dependable turbine water wheel. Black said the Perry Turbine was invented in Bridgton by William Fenderson Perry to serve small brooks like Stevens Brook, and became so popular they were in demand all over the country.

The fifth power site on lower Main Street, at Johnson Falls, powered a box factory that made boxes for the corn industry. It also served a shovel factory and a coffin factory. A spur from the railroad, built in 1898, once crossed the brook between the fifth and eighth power sites to serve mills there.

“Now it’s all overgrown. The foundations are left, but little else.” The train bridge was used only a few decades ago as a snowmobile trail, but became too unstable and had to be torn down.

Here, Stevens Brook drops dramatically, in a series of falls, over 40 feet. “I love to go there in the spring,” said Black. “You can feel the water, running, running…“

One of the only remaining mill buildings is at the corner of Kansas Road and Smith Avenue, and is now owned by Steve Oliver, who has been working to restore it, said Black.

Black followed up her talk on Friday with a walking tour of selected sites along the Stevens Brook Trail, which follows the brook all along its length. The talk and walk were sponsored by LEA and were made possible by a grant from the Caplan Foundation. The program was so popular that LEA is thinking about having Black repeat it some time over the winter.

 

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