There is no stronger example of early industrialism than the development of the textile mills in New England. It started here due to the presence of the Saco River and the power that it provided to the mills. The early builders of the mills constructed hand dug canals and subterranean aqueducts to spin submerged water wheels. The river was the source of power that brought the mills to Biddeford.[nggallery id=2]
The progression of the 150 year history of the Biddeford/Saco mills is one of the classic stories of industrial evolution. Construction of the first buildings in the complex was completed in the 1840’s by the Pepperell Manufacturing Company. Expansion in the mill district quickly ensued, and it took just 50 years to grow to over 50 buildings. In these peak years of the early 1900’s, the mill owners were in charge of some 5 million square feet of interior space, and over 10,000 employees.
However, with the advent of electricity, the mills were forced to convert all production machinery and methods from water power to electricity. The advent of electrical power caused two major problems:
- All methods of production and machinery had to be converted to the higher efficiency of electricity.
- More importantly, with electricity, the southern cotton producers (cotton for textile production grew in the southern United States), no longer needed to send their wares north to the water-powered mills. Textile plants began being built and run in the south, at much lower operating costs.
With the loss of the water power advantage, many New England textile mills were forced to close as business moved south. In an attempt to avoid the same fate, the Vellux blanket was invented in the Pepperell Mills in 1966. The Vellux blanket was a non-textile material manufactured in a process kept secret in the Biddeford mills, whose production allowed for the continued operation of the manufacturing industry in Biddeford.
However, over the years, ownership in the mill district splintered. By 2008, WestPoint Home, was the last surviving descendant of the Pepperell Manufacturing Company and many of the surrounding buildings in the mill district lay dormant. In 2009, WestPoint ceased operations for good and the once great textile industry of Biddeford was finished.