At the end of Maine Street in downtown Brunswick, an historic 4-story brick mill stands proud. It is a former cotton and textile mill and was the anchor of Brunswick business for almost 150 years. After it closed, it was purchased by an investor and repurposed into mixed commercial use. It currently houses a wide variety of tenants, notably a large antiques market and the weekend Brunswick winter farmer’s market.
A Tale of Two Forts
In 1688, the English built a small fort overlooking a 41 foot waterfall on the lower Androscoggin River – a section that the Wabanaki called the Pejopscot. It was named after Governor Edmund Andros, who was then the Governor of the “Dominion of New England.” It was built as a defense against the Wabanakis with whom the English had been fighting. The location was chosen because the Wabanaki used that spot to portage over the river directly above the falls. The fort was destroyed during King William’s War by the French and their Wabanaki allies in 1694.
Then in 1715, a 2nd fort, Fort George was built on the same spot by the English. It was a considerably more robust fort built with thick stone walls and provided living space for the soldiers. Fort George was abandoned in 1737 and dismantled.
The First Mill
In 1809, the Brunswick Cotton Manufacturing Company opened Maine’s first cotton mill on the site of the former fort(s). They processed cotton and spun yarn using the reliable power of the Pejopscot Falls. In 1812, it was purchased by the Maine Cotton & Woolen Factory Company and expanded.
In 1857, the famous and wealthy Cabot family (Boston Brahmin) of Boston created the Cabot Manufacturing Company and purchased the struggling mill at auction. It was under the Cabot’s ownership and through rigid management by local overseer Benjamin Greene, that the mill expanded in importance and size.
“And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.”
– A Boston Toast by John Collins Bossidy, 1910
They Came from Quebec
After the Civil War ended, Brunswick saw a huge influx of French Canadians looking for work and a chance at a better life. Brunswick was one of the many New England towns that had busy mills but needed cheap mill workers. By 1870, over 1,000 French Canadians were living in Brunswick which had a total population of 4,600. The mill had 35,000 spindles operating and 550 employees.
The Cabot mill built many tenements to house the workers all along Mill Street – within walking distance of the mill. This “Little Canada” mirrored neighborhoods all over New England. 75 tenements were built by the mill and ultimately housed thousands of workers.
The story of the Brunswick French population is explored in far more detail over here.
A Bridge to Topsham
Recognizing that the mill workers needed more housing, an enterprising group of men built their own housing across the river in Topsham called “Topsham Heights.” This Topsham Land Company contracted with the John A. Roebling Sons’ Company (builders of the Brooklyn Bridge) in 1891 to build a footbridge across the Androscoggin River so residents of their new development could easily get to work at the Cabot mill. The houses and the bridge were built concurrently and ultimately provided a far more direct and significantly safer route than either of the two existing vehicle bridges. They convinced the mill to allow them to connect the new bridge to the Brunswick side and to cross Cabot owned land.
While it may have originally been built for the mill workers, it is now jointly maintained by the two towns and has provided a safe and scenic route for generations of locals to get to work, shop, and exercise. This bridge is still in operation today and is known as the Androscoggin Swinging Bridge.
The Dark Side of the Mill
It’s no secret that mill workers, especially immigrant French Canadians, were not treated well in the mills. Wages were low, conditions were atrocious and hours were long. The mill also operated a very successful “company store” where the workers were forced to shop because half of their pay was delivered in company scrip. The mill had quite a stranglehold on these poor, uneducated laborers. Their meager pay was mostly returned to the mill through rent, oil and company store sales.
Also, child labor was extremely common in the mills. Children, some as young as seven, worked long days in the Cabot Mill to help their families survive. They were small, could fit into the machinery easily, and could be paid far less than their adult counterparts. Accidents, some gruesome and some fatal, were not uncommon as the machines needed constant maintenance and the operators refused to shut them down to be worked on.
The dreadful child labor situation was brought to light through the photography of Lewis Hine. In the late 1800s, the number of child laborers under 10 doubled as they worked in mills, coal mines, canneries and selling newspapers. These children were robbed of their childhoods and were destined for a lifetime of poverty. Risking getting caught by companies eager to keep the truth behind the mill walls, Hine fibbed his way (often disguised) behind closed doors and took stunning photos of child labor all over the country, including some in Lewiston mills. His gritty photos helped eventually bringing an end to child labor in the country.
But They Make a Penny More in Lewiston!
In 1881, the child workers at the mill supposedly found out that their child labor counterparts in the Bates Mill in Lewiston earned one cent more per hour. So they banded together and went on strike. The strike was successful and their pay was actually raised. Emboldened by what their children pulled off, adult workers at the mill struck the very next day.
Supposedly, the mill responded by sending eviction notices to all workers living in the tenements, closed the company store, and lobbied local merchants not to sell to the strikers.
The mill closed and the strike lasted for 3 days with the workers gaining slight increases in pay.
Shortly after, in the summer of 1886, a horrible diptheria outbreak rampaged through the overcrowded tenements, killing 22 and sickening hundreds. Newspaper coverage of the conditions in Little Canada forced the mill to clean up their tenements.
We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Mill
Meanwhile, the mill continued to generate profits and employ thousands. The success of the mill required more land and in 1890, they somehow got the town to move Maine Street to allow them to expand.
At its peak, the mill owned 30 acres in Brunswick, 75 tenements, and the 4-story mill building was over 450,000 square feet.
The End is Near
The New England mills began a slow decline in the early 1900s. Once steam power started replacing river power, mill owners stopped making improvements to the New England mills. It simply made more sense to move the mills South to be closer to cotton production and to where winter heating was far cheaper. Overseas competition also increased and cloth prices plummeted. The writing was on the wall and mills started closing all over New England. Those that remained open had a short-lived swan song due to increased demand during the two world wars.
In 1941, the Cabot Manufacturing Company sold the mill to the Verney Corporation which continued to make high-end fabrics and also shoes. But the heydey of the New England textile mills was long gone and in 1955, the Verney Mill closed for good. 900 workers were immediately out of work.
In 1960, the Maine State Highway Department purchased a number of the Mill Street tenements by eminent domain, knocked them down, and built Route 1 through the heart of the former “Little Canada.”
Side Story: Dam that Hydro Power, What about the Fish?
Over the years, various dams were constructed behind the mill and near the falls. A hydroelectric plant was installed capable of generating 19,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. Of course, dams are not exactly fish friendly, so in 1982, a fish ladder was constructed to theoretically help river salmon, shad and alewives with their annual spawning. Diligent fish watchers report that only 2 or 3 salmon make it up the ladder per year along with only a few more shad who are often so beaten up and descaled by the ordeal that they die shortly after.
Fort Andross Rises Again
In 1986 the Mill was purchased by Coleman Burke and a company called Waterfront Maine, and the once abandoned and decrepit building has undergone constant renovation. It is now a lively, mixed-use building and is home to over 100 tenants including a huge antiques mall, a self storage company, restaurants, a radio station, nonprofits and many other small businesses.
One of the Mill tenants, Cabot Mill Antiques, put together a nice YouTube slideshow showing the history and includes some fascinating old photos of the various mill rooms in use.
If you’re in the area, you’ll want to check out another former mill. Cross the bridge to Topsham and you’ll certainly notice the rather photogenic former mill. It was the Pejepscot Paper Mill is now the home of the Sea Dog Brewing Company.