Before my time, a fire ravaged the original City Building. In need of replacement, the City of Biddeford contracted with renowned architect, John Calvin Stevens. It was Stevens who introduced me to Biddeford in 1895, after that devastating fire, after electric street lights were installed. My home, City Hall. The building on which I rest is the heart of Biddeford – the center for city business, the source of information for new residents, and with a theater in its wings, a hub for culture.
When my shadow first cast down on Main Street, the City’s population had surpassed 12,000, more than half of whom were foreign born. I watched people from Canada, Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Portugal, Denmark, Saxony, Holland, France, Italy, and even Malta, mingle in the streets below. Trolley cars and horse-drawn carriages cut through the bustling crowds. Masts of ships navigating the Saco River could be spied just beyond the buildings. Industry was booming. Everyone looked to me to keep track of their day. My hands kept steady time, but back then, it felt like a slower pace of life.
By the time America became engaged in World War I, many of Biddeford’s finest young men enlisted to fight for their country. I prayed along with their families for their safe return. I stood watch when Lincoln Street filled with people as a 300-pound American flag was draped alongside Pepperell Mill #3 on April 14, 1917. There was a sense of pride and patriotism in the streets that day. A feeling that carried the community through World War II when even more men left for service in Europe and the South Pacific.
Between the World Wars, Biddeford’s industry continued to thrive. More immigrants, this time from eastern European countries such as Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Greece, Italy, and Turkey, arrived. Some would say Biddeford was the textbook definition of an ethnic melting pot. However, I watched as these immigrants worked side by side in the mills, shopped together downtown, and then retreated to their respective neighborhoods at the end of the day. Each immigrant community created little pods throughout the city, grasping hold of their native roots. It would take a full generation of American-born immigrant children before cultural lines began to blur.
Biddeford continued to bustle straight into the 1950s. The shipping industry slowly faded; automobiles dominated the paved streets below me. Down the river, our coastline attracted visitors for summer vacations. Children no longer were taught their native languages, so it was only English conversations I heard wafting in the wind. These changes seemed slow at the time but looking back it seems within a tick of my minute hand, the whole city transformed.
Change, however, was not always good. A shift in corporate management sent Pepperell Manufacturing Company’s founder Samuel Batchelder’s model of quality over quantity down the river. Instead, the focus was on increasing the supply and decreasing the cost. The industrial work was outsourced, first to southern states closer to the cotton crops, then overseas where labor was cheap. The flow of people in and out of the mills slowly dissipated. Shoppers left Main Street for the budget friendly variety offered at the Maine Mall. Downtown became lonely.
By the time of my centennial, I lost count of mayors who sat in the office below me. I lost track of the children who left for college and never returned. It became harder to keep up the steady pace of time passing, and what did it matter? People around me wore watches or checked nearby digital clocks that displayed the precise hour and minute. The few businesses who survived downtown – places like Reilly’s Bakery, George’s Italians, and Alex Pizza – had enough of a fan following to survive the fast and convenient food boom.
It was sometime during my eighties, I think, when the city provided electricity to keep my hands ticking on time. Unfortunately, the equipment only lasted until 2014 and my hands have been frozen in time since. It was the same year Maine Preservation added me to its annual list of most endangered historic properties. City officials must have seen that coming. Back in 2007 and 2012, then again in 2015, they asked residents to help restore my other failing parts, but they voted no. My copper dome has faded, wood paneling has rotted, windows broken. All of that is very expensive and I can understand residents not wanting that to weigh on their tax burden.
Despite my disrepair, I wager I was the most excited to see people milling about again. Everyone thought Doug Sanford was crazy for buying up the empty mill buildings, but I’ve reveled to see his vision take shape in the Pepperell Mill Campus. It warms my cogs to see the sidewalks fill with people during art walks and lining up at restaurants for delicious food. I dream of being fully restored so I can continue watching the revitalization of this beautiful mill city. I want to be around to see how the hotel and housing turns out across the street and what other interesting elements fill Main Street. I may have no idea what time it is anymore, but I know this – it is Biddeford’s time to shine.
This original piece was created for Heart of Biddeford as part of its Vote Your Main Street campaign hosted by Partners in Preservation. Biddeford is one of twenty communities vying for a $150,000 grant to aid in restoration of a historic, iconic property. For Biddeford, that property is City Hall’s Clock Tower.