I must begin with a thank you to fiber artist, historian and friend, Sue Black. Sue has led numerous walks along the very trail I followed today and I’ve often been in her presence–usually with notebook in hand so I could jot information down and gain a better understanding of this place.
Though she wasn’t with me today, I could hear Sue as I mosied along examining the old mill sites of the Stevens Brook Trail in Bridgton. And many of the words that follow are probably hers. I also gleaned info from the Bridgton Historical Society several years ago, when Sue couldn’t lead the walk and asked me to fill in. So I guess, really, what follows is like the confluence of the Stevens and Willet Brooks–two streams that meet to form one.
Bridgton was once a thriving mill town and Stevens Brook its source of power. Of course, to do this properly, I should begin at Highland Lake, the source of the brook, but I’m not a proper-sort-of gal and you’ll have to bear with me. I didn’t begin at Pondicherry Park either–for the boardwalk was under water.
Instead, I slipped onto the trail at Depot Street, beside the Bridgton Community Center. By this point, Willet Brook has joined forces with Stevens, thus increasing the power of the water. I was backtracking, and again didn’t get far because of water flowing over the trail, but along the way I made a discovery. Those beautiful trees that lean over the brook–silver maples (Acer saccharinum). It never occurred to me that they grew here, but made perfect sense.
The backside of the deeply-lobed leaves are silvery gray in old age and silvery white during their prime.
I should have taken a photo of the old Memorial School because that was the sight of the train depot (Depot Street) for the Bridgton and Saco River Railroad that was built in 1883–a narrow gauge operating from Hiram, but didn’t think of it at the time. Instead, I followed the stone steps down, walked beside the brook as it ran below the deep bank by Stevens Brook Elementary School and came up behind a few old buildings, back on Depot.
And then I stood on the bridge overlooking Food City. I should note that this is power site #4. Yup, I’ve skipped the first three for now. Stick with me. We’ll get there. In 1822, this area of town wasn’t part of the main village–that was confined to Main Hill. A water-powered carding mill equipped to prepare wool for spinning, thus replacing the tedious hand work of disentangling, cleaning and intermixing the fibers was in operation in this area at the time. By 1825, James Flint and Aaron Littlefield built a sawmill, which they operated for 15 years. In 1840, this was the site of the Walker Saw Mill and Grist Mill. And then things changed. The Pondicherry Mill was built in 1865 to manufacture woolen goods. It was one of the most extensive manufacturing plants in Maine at that time and employed 50 operators. Standing where I was on the bridge, I could see the stones related to the mill and dam. The dam disintegrated in the 1960s.
In 1898, the neighboring town of Harrison wanted to be joined to the railroad and the RR owners obliged. From this spur, a trestle was built that carried coal in dump carts to the Pondicherry Mill. The structure has deteriorated immensely, but still stands as a monument to this moment in history. So wait, think about this coal situation. The mill had grown to employ 225 people and water power from the brook was no longer dependable. An immense coal-burning chimney about 100 feet in height had been added to the mill. Sixty looms produced 18,000 yards of cloth weekly. Though the building stood until the mid-sixties, the industry moved south long before that. The stones by the brook and trestle are all that are left to tell the story. A now-deceased resident, Reg Fadden, used to tell the story of knowing what color they were dying the wool on any particular day–he’d see the color in the water as he walked to school.
Above power site #5, the land was flat and indicative of a former mill pond.
A stone dam and some other foundation work is all that’s now left. The first mill to be located here was a sawmill built in 1868. By 1871, a shovel factory was built on the west side, which was the side I stood upon. By 1899, the Bridgton Lumber Company had located to this power site, with two mills operating–one for boxes and house furnishings; the other for lumber. This apparently was a successful site because in 1911 it became the Burnham and Newcomb Sawmill, which was purchased by Harry Bisbee in 1920. He used a turbine since the water power wasn’t dependable. Though it gushed over the rocks today, in the summertime, this is the perfect place to sit on the flat rocks and dangle ones feet. I can’t remember if Sue told me this or I read it, but apparently there was a treacherous footwalk that crossed the brook in this area and even at age 90, Mr Bisbee would walk across. The sawmill eventually burned, with only the office remaining. This time using a diesel engine, Mr. Bisbee started a smaller sawmill. In 1953, the dam washed out with a flood and local lore has it that Mr. Bisbee walked out one day, leaving it all behind. He died a couple of years later, gifting the mill to the public library.
Charles Fadden and his son, Reg, bought the mill at auction and operated a box mill, using a turbine for power. The office was still standing until about ten years ago, when it collapsed.
By the mill, the Harrison Narrow Gauge crossed over a trestle; today only the stone stanchions remain. A sixth power site was never developed.
It was here that I recognized another tree I don’t always encounter–a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). The bark appears almost braided.
And below it, an old flat pod that contains bean-like seeds.
I followed a new trail (possibly private, but it wasn’t posted) and was delighted to get a better view of what I believe was power site #7.
If I’m correct in my thinking, this is Lower Johnson Falls, and was the possible 1859 site of the Milliken Bedstead Factory.
A foundation is still visible on the eastern side of the brook.
Below power site #7, I came to the coffin shop. Hey, somebody had to build them. Lewis Smith built the two-story building with a basement in the late 1860s. It was a sash and blind factory, but he also built furniture, and yes, coffins. More local lore: he was the town’s first undertaker. While the building has had several owners since then who have tried to restore it, it still needs some (way more than some) tender loving care so it doesn’t go the way of all the other mills.
All that remains of a water-powered turbine still reaches over the brook. Originally, all the water wheels along the brook were overshot wheels. While an overshot wheel had horizontal axils, a turbine wheel had vertical axils, thus making it smaller, more efficient and more dependable given the rise and fall of the water.
And on the front lawn of the coffin shop, the real deal–a Perry Turbine Water Wheel. In 1877, Richard Bailey and Samuel Miller operated an iron factory and machine shop built by William Perry and George Taylor across the road from the Smith factory. When they sold their business to Forest Mills owed by William Fessenden Perry, it was renamed the Bridgton Machine Company with George and Frank Burnham taking over as managers. In 1887, the Perry turbine was invented and it received nation-wide popularity for use in mills along small streams.
Power site #8 is one of my favorites. This is where Perry and Taylor erected a mill in 1862 to manufacture woolen goods. The dam was built to provide a fifteen-foot fall with a mill pond above.
Today the sluiceway is dry, but I can imagine the water pouring through here.
With the advent of Kansas Road in 1865, the woolen mill expanded to 200 feet by 45 feet and stood two stories tall. With more looms than any mill in the area, outerwear was produced here and shipped to Boston. During the Civil War, attention turned to creating war materials.
Across the street, I ventured down the wrong trail at first and found myself on the upper side of the dam built at power site #9. The 13′ dam built by Boothby and Chadwick in 1864 was near Kennards Stocking Mill. It was originally intended that Kansas Road would cross the dam, but the turn would have been too sharp and too steep.
Today, a vernal pool sits below the former dam. I checked it and several others along the way. No signs of life. I’ve yet to hear spring peepers.
Anyway, Taylor and Perry purchased this site in 1865 and built a three-story carding mill with an overhead walkway that crossed Kansas Road and connected their two mills: Forest Mill #1 and Forest Mill #2. By 1879, Mr. Taylor had died and Mr. Perry re-organized as the Forest Mills Company, which employed 130 workers and produced cashmere. As Sue has told me, this was not from cashmere goats but rather a lightweight fabric consisting of wool fiber that had either a plain or twill weave.
A railroad spur and trestle were built in 1900 to unload coal and other supplies for the Forest Mills Company. The American Wool Company purchased the mill, which was large for Bridgton, but small compared to those south of Maine. Eventually, business moved south. In 1925, a shoe shop moved in, but it wasn’t successful either. The building was torn down in 1962.
The scene changed briefly when I followed the trail onto the present day power line.
Typically, this boardwalk is under water in March and April. But this year is far from typical.
And then I reached power site #10. This is the most modern of them all, but again, it has a history. It’s possible that this was the site of Jacob Stevens’s first sawmill built in 1768.
Mr. Stevens would have built a boulder and gravel dam, not one of cement certainly. He lived nearby and raised eight children; the four oldest worked beside him. Mr. Stevens was a ranking member of the survey crew that came to what is now called Bridgton in 1766 from Andover, Massachusetts. He returned in 1768 under contract with the Proprietors to develop water power and make it serve the early settlers by creating mills that provided building materials and grain for food. Stevens was the one who identified twelve power sites along the almost two-mile brook with a drop of 156 feet from its source at Highland Lake (known originally as Crotched Pond) to its outlet at Long Lake (Long Pond). It made sense for him to build a site here for both a saw mill and grist mill, as this is near the mouth of the stream and would have provided him with easy access to the main thoroughfare of Long Pond and beyond. The proprietors required that the saw mill operate for fifteen years and the grist mill for twenty.
I don’t know what happened between 1768 and 1896 when the Bridgton Water and Electric Company took over as the first source of electricity and water for the village. The concrete dam was built in 1931 by Central Maine Power after several transfers of ownership. The greatest power could be found between this site and power site #11, where the brook drops 25-30 feet.
A 790-foot penstock was built to regulate the flow of the water.
Evidence remains of its position and actually, it’s easiest to see right now before the summer foliage obscures so much.
Somewhere in this area was power site #11. The Hart Tannery may have been built on an island in the middle of the brook.
The exact location of power site #12 is also elusive, but rumor has it that a shingle factory was located between site #11 and the outlet.
Early on, a wooden structure was used as a power house. That was replaced by a brick building built in 1922 by the Western Maine Power Company. Notice where the penstock entered. And above it, a turbine generator.
All was calm by the time Stevens Brook emptied into Long Lake today.
Though it’s easy to miss, this area still offers a source of dams and industry.
I walked back up Main Street and headed to the first three power sites, which I present in backwards order at the risk of confusing my tired readers. Power site #3 has a storied past: 1813-fulling mill (put weaving on hot water and beat it to close fibers); 1822-saw and grist mill; 1830-saw, grist and plaster mill; 1845-mill burned; 1857-rebuilt two stories; 1877-never rebuilt. Yet this was long known as the Dam Site and a Dam Site Restaurant stood here for years. Across the street was a tannery, which didn’t need water for power, but did need water to fill the 140 vats. Using hemlock bark, 10,000 hides were tanned each year.
I’m only just realizing that I missed power site #2. I looked at it as I walked by, but must have been tired. Anyway, it’s below this split stone dam and served as a grist mill in 1798 and a sash and blind mill in 1835.
Power site #1 was originally a saw mill built by Asa Kimball at the head of Stevens Brook. The lay of the land has changed since roads were constructed and Highland Lake (Crotched Pond) had a different configuration and lower depth. The pond served as Mr. Kimball’s mill pond, where he floated logs from Sweden (Sweden, Maine, that is). The split stone dam was erected in 1849-50 by Rufus Gibbs and others, thus providing power for the first big mill in the village that stood four stories tall, employed 50 workers, ran 20 looms and made blankets for the Civil War. By 1941, is was demolished.
This is the mill pond as we see it today, but if my vision is clear, before Highland Road intercepted it, this was part of Crotched Pond.
And the start of it all, the thing that got me milling about today, Highland Lake and the source of Stevens Brook.
Dear reader, if you are with me still, thank you. It was a long journey and I appreciate that you came along.
P.S. Addendum, June 24, 2018. Thanks for all of your contributions to our greater western Maine community, Sue. May you rest in peace.