Prepared by Thomas Hardiman, curator, Saco Museum
The huge red brick mill buildings of Saco Island are a reminder of an industrial past which is interwoven with the history of Saco and Biddeford. The region's first industrial complex, a water powered sawmill and iron forge, was built by John Davis in 1653. By 1683 Benjamin Blackman had established a sawmill where Main Street now crosses over to Saco Island. The milling of lumber was a major industry in the region for nearly three centuries. Seventeen sawmills were in operation by 1800, sawing more than 50,000 board feet of lumber per day.
Saco industry diversified in 1811, when Thomas Cutts and Josiah Calef established the Saco Iron Works, later Saco Manufacturing Co. which made cask hoops, cut nails and brads and other iron products. In 1826 the company erected a huge seven story cotton mill, the largest in the United States. After a disastrous fire in 1830, the business was reorganized as the York Manufacturing Company, and Mill #1 was opened in 1832. The York erected four more mills in the next twenty years and ran eight mills by the turn of the century. The establishment of the Laconia Mills (1844) and Pepperell Mills (1850) in Biddeford made the combined mill district one of the largest cotton milling complexes in the country, employing as many as 9000 people. The success of the cotton mills brought allied industries to Saco: the Saco-Lowell Shops manufactured spinning and weaving machinery, and Garland Manufacturing made loom harnesses and other leather products. After becoming part of Bates Manufacturing in 1945, the York Mills were closed in 1958.
The old mill buildings are now being renovated into offices, residences, and an educational facility. The remaining structures include Mill #1 (1832), Mill #2 (1836), Mill #3 (1838), and Mill #4 (1841). The old mills have been enlarged and extended many times over the years. At the turn of the century the old gable roofs with clerestory windows were replaced with flat roofs, some with decorative brackets at the eaves. Two large twentieth century brick mills and several smaller mill buildings have been razed in the last 10 years.