Maine's Rich Textile History March 21, 2016 12:27 1 Comment
Maine is a state with a rich and interesting textile history. In its heyday, Maine was the primary powerhouse behind textile industrialization in the United States. Due to the rising popularity of textile production overseas, Maine’s textile industry has sadly lost much of its glory. At Bates, we hope to honor our history, and foster growth of Maine textiles in our contemporary world.
At the start of the 1820’s, cotton textile mills made their way from Massachusetts to Maine. The largest site for cotton manufacturing was Lewiston, home to the original Bates Mill, which was located on the Androscoggin River. Lewiston was one of the first factory towns created on the Waltham-Lowell system - a labor and production model used frequently in the early years of America’s textile industry. Under this popular model, all aspects of mass production could be completed in a single plant, allowing for complete control. Mill complexes were frequently established on rivers and waterfalls, which served as a main source of power. Lewiston Falls provided Bates Mill the majority of its energy, along with combined power of spinning and weaving.
Although Lewiston was the largest, it was not the only. The cities of Biddeford, Saco, Augusta, Waterville, and Brunswick were also main players in Maine’s textile industry.
Preceding the Civil War, Maine textile mills primarily relied on farm girls from the surrounding area for labor. In the years following, immigrants flocked to the mills, providing them with a steady stream of hands. A high percentage of these later workers were French Canadians, who migrated down from Quebec and New Brunswick specifically to work in the mills. This idea was so common that by the mid 20th century, 30% of Maine’s population was made up of Franco-Americans. The town of Lewiston still holds a large Franco-American population. Many of the current Bates workers are of Franco-American heritage, having ancestors who started their American lives as mill workers.
Maine’s textile industry remained vibrant for over 100 years-- as late as 1948, Maine mills employed 28,000 people. As time worn on, things began to look bleak for the industry. Textile production moved overseas, sadly forcing many American manufacturers to close their doors, unable to survive the economic pressures. The original Bates Mill was no exception, shutting down in 2001. Thanks to the passionate efforts of Maine Heritage Weavers founder Alfred J. Lebel, the Bates name was able to survive. The current crew in Monmouth, Maine (about 20 minutes north of Lewiston) are proud to carry on the textile tradition in Maine, and to aid in the resurgence of American made products.
Want to learn more about Bates? Read the story of the Bates Manufacturing Company here.