Education: Maine manufacturers – Lewiston Sun Journal

Maine’s industrial plants are called mills. Rightly: they have depended on the rivers’ fall for mill-power and hydroelectricity, the water for steam power, processing, and waste disposal.

Maine’s mill towns are on the rivers that made Lewiston, Rumford, and Millinocket, and greatly enlarged early settlements at Westbrook, Biddeford, Brunswick…
Sadly, the rivers reflect Maine’s industry: dammed, diverted, polluted.

Lumber and grain were the first mill products. Gristmills declined as grain became unprofitable; sawmills grew gigantic. Pulp and paper joined lumber as industrial products of the forest. Competition, takeovers, were essential aspects of Maine industries.

Cloth and shoes were the other core manufacturers. Textile mills needed water power and transport for raw materials and products: rivers and railroads defined them. Within industrial New England, Maine played catch-up. Plant and planning followed others’ leads.

Unfortunately, cheaper labor was one of Maine’s attractions, drawn from the farms, and then from Ireland, Quebec, and elsewhere. Workers faced long, monotonous, noisy, dust-choked, hot or cold, often dangerous days, or equally depressing unemployment. Many workers were women or children; the former’s very low wages might be their first chance at possessing their own money!

The great mill towns are archetypical. Industrial work and life were similar across New England. Museums in Lewiston-Auburn and Biddeford are good; the very big picture is best grasped at Lowell’s National Historic Park. Walking or driving through any mill town is instructive. Perhaps the best human account of working and living is Hareven and Langenbach’s Amoskeag.

Manufacturing was not confined to famously industrial cities. Once equipped with rail services, a place like Norway-Paris could employ two thousand people in the shoe and specialized wood product industries.

And small-scale and even home-based manufacturing played a big though diminishing part in Maine’s 19th Century productivity. (The appropriate chapters in Judd, Churchill, and Eastman’s Maine, are illuminating.)

Globalization of transport and markets, lower factor costs (especially labor) elsewhere, obsolescent machinery, etc. propelled the decline of Maine manufacturing. Mills have lain idle for decades.

The decayed mill town, a regrettably common aspect of today’s Maine, is vividly depicted in Russo’s fiction (Empire Falls), and Arsenault’s popular and widely read account, Mill Town.

On the other hand, the new service economy has repurposed many industrial premises; they now house restaurants and medical practices, offices, and condominiums… A post-industrial society?

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