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"We are growing to be somewhat cosmopolitan…" Waterville in 1911

Text by Emily Cook

Images from Waterville Public Library

In 1911, Waterville, having more than doubled in size over the last four decades, was booming with business. Newly a city, Waterville was transformed from a small town isolated in central Maine to a city with connections to the rest of Maine, the United States, and the world.

The combined efforts of businesses small and large, the city government, and the people of Waterville led to this transformation. By 1911, their efforts had paid off and Waterville was booming with business and its residents were blissfully unaware that in a few years the factories would begin losing out to cheaper competition and be hit by the Great Depression. At that moment, everything seemed great in the "somewhat cosmopolitan" city of Waterville.

Waterville was the major railroad hub for central and northern Maine due both to its location and hard work by its lawmakers to ensure that designation. Each year hundreds of thousands of tons of freight were shipped into and out of Waterville. This was in addition to all the passengers traveling to, from, and beyond the city on the Maine Central Railroad. Local manufacturers relied on the railroad to ship their goods to other parts of the country. Retail stores in the city depended on the railroad to obtain goods to sell in their stores. As money came in to Waterville families through jobs at these manufacturers, they were able to spend it on goods at retail businesses run by their neighbors.

Big business in Waterville began next to the river. The power of the Kennebec River had been a source of difficulty and benefit to the Waterville community as long as people lived along its banks. Some of Waterville's earliest leading men formed the Ticonic Water Power and Manufacturing Company to further manufacturing in their town.

The company eventually passed these water rights onto the Lockwood Company in 1875 and Waterville was full steam ahead on its path to manufacturing greatness and increased connectivity to the outside world.

Bridge construction, Waterville, ca. 1911
Bridge construction, Waterville, ca. 1911Item Contributed by
Waterville Public Library

The Big Two: Manufacturing and Transportation

As proclaimed in the March 1911 Board of Trade Journal, "manufacturing was the basis of Waterville’s business community." The largest of these businesses was the Lockwood Cotton Mill. These mills employed nearly 1,200 people. The employees of the mill took home a healthy $400,000 in wages.

In 1911, Lockwood produced 17,000,000 yards of cloth of varying widths from 7,000,000 pounds of cotton. The high-quality fabrics produced there were shipped all across the country.

By 1911, the youngest employees at the mills were fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds because of the child labor laws enacted in 1909. Before that, many children started work at age twelve, or younger, to help provide income for their families. Many times a few people from one family would work in the mill together. This was especially true of the families of French-Canadian descent who were often new residents of Waterville and poor, having typically been farmers in Quebec.

Workers were in the mill from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, spinning, weaving, and maintaining the machinery. The work was dirty and the clothes worn during working hours would be covered in cotton dust from the weaving process and grease from the machines themselves well before the end of the day. Most employees would change their clothes immediately at the end of the workday.

Many employees at the Lockwood mills enjoyed their time there as they spent the entire day with friends and family. The atmosphere was generally good. This was true in part to the fact that while many of the managers at the mills were of English descent and the lower-level employees were mainly French, they were not discouraged from speaking French while at the mill. Work was hard, however, and in the era of pre-organized labor, workers were pushed hard all week, sometimes doing dangerous work, and did not necessarily receive the best medical care for injuries nor paid time off if they were too injured to return to work right away.

Although it was located across the river in Winslow, the Hollingsworth and Whitney Pulp and Paper Mills employed a large number of Waterville residents and contributed greatly to the economies on both sides of the Kennebec.

Hollingsworth & Whitney Company mill, Winslow, ca. 1900
Hollingsworth & Whitney Company mill, Winslow, ca. 1900Item Contributed by
Waterville Public Library

Business was doing so well at Hollingsworth & Whitney that the owners of the mill had the resources to provide recreation and relaxation areas at the mill itself for their workers, which helped ensure the enthusiasm of their employees towards their jobs. The Taconnet club house included such entertainments as two bowling alleys, two billiard tables, two pool tables, a full gymnasium, a smoking room with card tables, baths, and a library with 3,000 volumes and a full array of magazines and newspapers. Employees also paid into a fund to bring entertainment acts to the entertainment hall. Fully relaxed and enriched, the almost 800 employees shipped out 235 tons of paper per day directly from the mill.

The C. F. Hathaway Company was another major employer in Waterville. The "many hundred hands" working there produced shirts well known for their "high quality and splendid fit." In 1911 and up to the First World War, Hathaway shirts came only in white for dress shirts or "black and colorless" for laborers.

These shirts were so well-known, without the help of any real advertising campaign, that the company was contracted to make khaki shirts for the United States Army multiple times, including during World War I.

Similar to the Lockwood mills, many of the employees at the Hathaway Company were of French-Canadian descent. Unlike the cotton mill, however, the shirt factory did not hire very young people to work. This may have been due to Hathaway’s religious fanaticism, the nature of the work, or some combination of the two reasons. He taught children of French Protestant families Sunday School lessons and this contributes to the idea that he would refrain from hiring young people for their own benefit. His restraint may have also had a logical business component as the work making shirts required focus and detailed work that require skills children do not generally have.

The work was hard and there was little room for advancement. If the management found than an employee was skilled in one part of shirt making, he or she was unlikely to leave that task. New hires were not paid for the one to five weeks it took to train them. Once fully hired, women had to buy their own needles for work and were made to buy any shirts on which they made mistakes. On top of this, the management strongly discouraged any use of French in the factory, forcing their employees to communicate in English.

The second-largest employer in the City of Waterville was the Maine Central Railroad. More than two thousand men worked for the company in a variety of positions. The car repair shops, which relocated to Waterville in the previous century, provided a large number of these jobs and greatly contributed to the growth of the northern neighborhoods of the City.

That the car shops were located in Waterville was no accident. Recognizing the good that would come from having a railroad hub situated in Waterville, local leaders and politicians lobbied for that honor. Portland was almost selected as the preferred site for the car shops, but a delegation of Waterville's residents went to the MCRR president to convince him to choose Waterville. Their offer was for a deal of holding the company's municipal taxes at $1,000 from April of 1887 and for the following twenty years in order to make Waterville the most suitable and profitable location for the car shops.

The city's manufacturers relied on the railroad to ship their goods throughout the country and many stores obtained their wares from shipments along the tracks. In 1901, the Waterville station received almost 90,000 tons of freight, shipped out more than 50,000 tons, and sold more than $80,000 worth or passenger tickets.

The City’s manufacturers relied on the railroad to ship their goods throughout the country and many stores obtained their wares from shipments along the tracks. In 1901, the Waterville station received almost 90,000 tons of freight, shipped out more than 50,000 tons, and sold more than $80,000 worth or passenger tickets.

Keyes Fibre Company was one of Waterville's "unique manufactories" that relied on the railroad to be successful. It was the first producer of pressed paper plates and other similar products.

The quick production processes devised by Martin Keyes, the inventor of the pressed paper plate, allowed workers to turn out the product "by the hundred thousand at a lick." In more concrete terms, the plant produced 1,000,000 plates per day. This number, in 1911, was barely meeting the demand of the "pie-eating public." This steady demand kept the machines running day and night for years and the product rolling out to the world along the rail lines.

Another unique Waterville business began after Alvin Lombard invented his "Lombard Hauler," a continual-track log hauler. This was the original continual-track vehicle and the basis for all military tanks, snowmobiles, and bulldozers in use today. Production of the haulers began in 1900 and maintained a steady pace as more lumber companies realized the efficiency and usefulness of replacing their horse teams with the mechanized hauler.

The twenty-two men working for Mr. Lombard were all highly skilled in their trade. The haulers were manufactured at such a high quality that they were well respected throughout the northern United States and Canada. Due to this popularity, the factory expanded in 1910 to accommodate the growing demand for their product.

The Entertainment Sector

Brochure for the Elmwood Hotel, Waterville, ca. 1900
Brochure for the Elmwood Hotel, Waterville, ca. 1900Item Contributed by
Waterville Public Library

Situated close to the Maine Central Railroad station was Waterville's finest hotel, the Elmwood. This hotel provided housing for travelers visiting the city and its surrounding areas. Even travelers from more urban areas were impressed with the dining room and described it as the best in the state.

The proprietors of the Elmwood understood that a wide variety of individuals visited Waterville for many reasons. Some came to see shows at Waterville's Opera House, spend time on the area’s lakes and rivers, and explore the expanses of wilderness around them and so marketed itself as a well-kept establishment with fine dining convenient to all of these attractions.

Another reason people came to Waterville was the major event of the summer, the Central Maine Fair. The Fair attracted exhibitors from all across New England displaying a wide variety of curiosities, foods, and other attractions.

Central Maine Fair, Waterville, ca. 1905
Central Maine Fair, Waterville, ca. 1905Item Contributed by
Waterville Public Library

Horse racing was one of the major pulls for local residents. They went to cheer on Nelson, Waterville's most famous horse, and his progeny. Although local officials liked to market the Central Maine Fair as having "nothing of a low or degrading nature" and by saying "the most fastidious may attend without fear of being shocked," this was not always true. In 1908, 25,000 fair-goers witnessed a dirigible disaster that resulted in the death of its pilot.

One way local residents went to the Central Maine Fair was on the trolley system that connected the towns of Oakland and Fairfield to Waterville. The increased traffic to the fair necessitated an extra set of tracks to between Oakland and Waterville while the fair was in town.

Tracks ran from Oakland into the Waterville, from the South End of Waterville through Main Street, and along into downtown Fairfield. The trolleys were originally pulled by horses but ran on electricity for years before being overtaken by personal vehicles. In 1911, the cars ran every fifteen minutes between Fairfield and Waterville and every thirty minutes between Oakland and Waterville.

Many people came to the Central Maine Fair from well outside the immediately surrounding area. With individual day totals of 25,000 to 30,000 people, some of these attendees undoubtedly came to the City on one the Maine Central Railroad trains. With connections to all corners of the state, the trip was relatively easy from almost anywhere.

Others probably came on the trolley lines that connected Waterville to Augusta and Lewiston and other cities on the trolley’s other branches.

Thriving Retail Districts

In addition to its passenger services and its role in supporting local manufacturing, the Maine Central Railroad also brought outside goods to the Waterville area.

Waterville Main Street during the centennial celebration, 1902
Waterville Main Street during the centennial celebration, 1902Item Contributed by
Waterville Public Library

The Grand Union Tea Company store at 117 Main Street boasted that, "Whatever your favorite tea, whatever you wish to pay, we can satisfy you." These teas, along with the tea sets sold in the store, came to town along the railroad.

Some imports to Waterville came from within the country. The Waterville Beef Company, “an innovation on the old method of supplying our meat markets,” received shipments of beef from Chicago six times a month.

Arriving in refrigerator cars, the beef was immediately transferred to the refrigerator of the company, located in a building very close to the railroad station. The company then took advantage of Waterville’s convenient location for redistribution and sent much of the beef to various locations throughout the state.

The heart of the retail community, at least in the eyes of the Waterville Board of Trade, was on Main Street. There you could find everything from smoke shops, dress shops, photography studios, bicycle shops, and department stores to tearooms.

In the March 1911 Board of Trade Journal publication on Waterville, there were almost fifty advertisements from Main Street and downtown businesses while almost none from outside that area appeared.

Not everyone, however, chose to do all their shopping on Main Street.

Map of
Map of "The Plains," Waterville, 1911Item Contributed by
Waterville Public Library

Many families of French-Canadian heritage had settled in the southern end of the City along the banks of the Kennebec when they arrived in Waterville in the late 19th Century. Partially due to early language barriers, they formed a tight-knit community in this area, known locally as "The Plains." In addition, because of this language barrier, many people preferred to do their shopping in the Plains and frequented the many shops found along Water Street rather than going up to Main Street and trying to conduct their errands in English.

Many French-Canadians from the Beauce region of Quebec moved to Waterville because they heard word through relatives that there was much opportunity for employment in Waterville. Some of the first wave of people ended up in Waterville after working in logging camps to the north or because they had been enlisted in the Civil War by recruiters, sometimes without realizing what they'd signed up to do. People generally moved from farms in Quebec as entire families and traveled to Waterville in search of a life that provided an opportunity to not remain poor for generations. This common background helped create the cohesive nature of the Plains neighborhood.

Business was so good that within just a few years of becoming a substantial neighborhood, Water Street housed "fine business blocks, and nearly all kinds of business represented." Main Street businessmen later tried to attract new customers by hiring salespeople who spoke French so that customers would be more comfortable in their establishments.

As businesses expanded in Waterville, word spread that they needed employees. From 1870 to 1911, Waterville's population rose from 4,852 people to 11,844. This led to a changed housing landscape in Waterville.

Maine Central Railroad Waterville station, ca. 1900
Maine Central Railroad Waterville station, ca. 1900Item Contributed by
Waterville Public Library

The neighborhood around the rail yard and extending westward towards Ticonic Street grew quickly in the late 1800s. As the Board of Trade Journal pointed out in March 1911, "a careful analysis of this report [the 1910 census] would indicate that a greater part of this gain [in population] was due to the increased railway operations in this vicinity, justifying the claim that real business success is due more to a friendly attitude between corporation, manufacturer, and merchant than an antagonistic one, and demonstrating beyond all shadow of a doubt that the very agreeable conditions existing today is one of substantial profit to the community and of the utmost commercial importance."

The population growth around the Ticonic Street area, known as the North End, allowed for the growth of neighborhood shops there as well. As said in the 1902 Centennial History of Waterville, "there are several stores located here and many good homes."

Waterville Main Street, ca. 1900
Waterville Main Street, ca. 1900Item Contributed by
Waterville Public Library

Removed slightly from the Main Street area, residents of the North End who worked for the Maine Central Railroad were able to live, work, and shop all in the same neighborhood. Before the influx of railroad workers, Watervillians of mainly Irish ancestry had populated the neighborhood and that may have led to the same cohesiveness found in the Plains and also contributed to the growth of neighborhood stores.

The population growth within the City of Waterville leading up to 1911 and the fact that many of the people living in town could only produce so much of their own food meant that Waterville served as an eager market for local produce.

Area farmers and city dwellers alike appreciated the "mutual advantages" they could provide each other. As of 1902, there were sixty-five people selling milk in Waterville. Grain and milled flour were also important food items produced outside of Waterville but sold downtown.

The Merrill, Runnels & Mayo Company ground flour on Front Street and produced two carload of flour a day to be sold both in Waterville and shipped elsewhere.

The connections Waterville's businesses had to the far-away world, the local farming areas, and their neighbors fed off of each other and helped all of Waterville's industries to thrive.

The quotations and much of the information contained in this exhibit were drawn from the March 1911 Board of Trade Journal published under the auspices of the Portland Board of Trade.