7:00 pm - (South Berwick Public Library)

The Biddeford Mills Museum will be visiting the South Berwick Public Library to present a program called “The Mill Girls,” which intertwines historical fact with real life experience. The presentation is co-sponsored by the Old Berwick Historical Society.

“The Mill Girls” lecture will be given by former textile mill workers. The lecture will start with a brief historical background covering the industrial revolution, and Frances Cabot Lowell and the Lowell Mills circa 1825. The presentation will discuss the establishment of the Biddeford Mills by Samuel Bachelder from the Lowell Mills, the first mill operatives, the New England farm girls, the boarding houses that were required to housed and protect these young ladies, the reasons the girls left the farms for the Mills, the work conditions, and life in the big city.

Founded in 1845, the first Biddeford mill workers are no longer alive, though some in the following generations still have tales to tell. The mills, and the women who were predominantly responsible for running them, continued to drive the culture and economy of the Biddeford-Saco area through the 20th century. In an effort to capture the spirit of the mills, museum organizers are engaged in an ambitious project to gather oral histories of the old mills, which finally closed in 2009 after years of dwindling and outsourced work. These stories are the basis of the presentation.

South Berwick’s mill girls have a history comparable to Biddeford’s. In 1831 a group of Portsmouth investors created the Portsmouth Manufacturing Company. The water-powered cotton textile complex, stretching from the Route 4 bridge to include much of what is now Counting House Park, operated until 1896. The Portsmouth Manufacturing Company’s four-story brick cotton mill had 7,000 spindles and produced 2 million yards of cotton sheeting. Thirteen hundred bales of southern plantation cotton were brought up river each year for processing at the mills.

Many South Berwick mill workers had grown up on farms on Witchtrot Road, in the Dunnybrook area, and in Tatnic, and Old Fields. Much of the labor force consisted of young women. “The operatives began work at five o’clock in the morning, in the summer; worked two hours, and then went home for breakfast; returned shortly; and worked until noon. They had a half an hour for dinner, and came out at seven o’clock at night…Girls from the outlying farms walked in at that early hour, brought their dinner, and walked back at night,” wrote historian Annie Baer.

According to Baer, “whole families moved into town and boys and girls found employment in the mill.” Former farm-wives from failed farms turned to running boarding houses, some still standing along Main Street were built in the early 1800s, and today remain fine examples of early New England factory duplexes. For more on South Berwick mill workers, click here.

In the early 20th century, the mill complex was razed, except the Counting House, which now serves as the home of the Old Berwick Historical Society. To get an idea of what the textile mill industry was like, the Biddeford Mill Museum gives tours around the vast Biddeford mill complex. The tours last for between a one-and-half to two hours, and features a walk around the mill campus highlighting the various operations that manufactured a textile product. The highlight of the tour for every one is the Mill lagoons or canals which carried the water to power the giant water wheels in the sub-levels of the mills. For more information visit www.biddefordmillsmuseum.org.

For updates on the September 20 program, visit www.southberwicklibrary.org

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