Pittsfield Historical Society's
Milestones and Memories
P I T T S F I E L D 1 7 9 4 - 1 9 9 4
(Portions of this summarized history are borrowed from the 1969 Sesquicentennial Souvenir Book and also from Sanger Cook's Pittsfield On the Sebasticook. This history was updated by Brenda Seekins with the help of former Town Manager Dwight Dogherty who reviewed it for errors or omissions. )
It was 1794, when Moses Martin, Pittsfield's first white settler, tramped through the woods from Norridgewock to the Sebasticook River. He was traveling in virgin land of Plymouth Gore, the easternmost frontier of the charter grant made by [English King] James I to the Plymouth Company in 1606. As the first white settler, Martin came to be respected by his Indian neighbors, members of the Abnaki nation, most likely the Norridgewocks.
It is unlikely that Martin could ever imagine that he would be the founder of a settlement that would endure to its 175th anniversary in 1994.
Many will ask if Martin was here, at the joining of the east and west branches of the Sebasticook River in 1794, why are we only celebrating 175 years?
It was 25 years after his arrival, in 1819, that the tiny settlement of Warsaw was first incorporated as a town, and still five years after that before the name Pittsfield was adopted. The name was selected in honor of William Pitts, Esquire, of Belgrade, who was a large landowner in town. The earliest settlers were mostly farmers who paid their taxes in corn and wheat.
In its early years, the small village had little resemblance to the thriving community it would become. Downtown Pittsfield as we know it consisted of little more than an inn, a gristmill, sawmill, blacksmith shops, a carriage shop and two to three stores. The inn was the first Lancey House opened by Colonel William Lancey about 1820 at the north end of Main Street. Indeed, the neighboring communities of Palmyra and Detroit were said to have greater promise. In fact, in those early years, there was not one, but two Pittsfields, an East and a West Pittsfield, but the coming of the railroad was to change that.
The Penobscot and Kennebec Railroad Company was incorporated April 7, 1845 with plans to construct a line from Gardiner to north of Waterville towards Bangor. The railroad was to be constructed before Dec. 31, 1860 or lose its charter. By 1845, the line was complete from Waterville to Pittsfield with the exception of a bridge over the Kennebec. In early July,
1855, the train was running between Waterville and Pittsfield, but that was the end of the line. Stages ran regularly between Pittsfield and Bangor. It was July 30, 1855, when the first scheduled run between Waterville and Bangor passed through Pittsfield. The railroad brought a new round of prosperity and established the village center forever, in what was once East Pittsfield.
In 1860, the population of Pittsfield was 1,495.
A little more that five years after the railroad opened, trains departed Pittsfield with fresh recruits to defend the Union and ultimately reunite the United States in the "War Between the States."
In the years following the Civil War, a variety of men rose to prominence as businessmen and left a mark on the community. Going Hathorn is among the most notable. He was a manufacturer and constructed the first woolen mill in 1869 at the site of today's Edwards Company/G.S. Building Systems. The mill was subsequently sold to Robert Dobson and ultimately became the Pioneer Mill of American Woolens in 1914. American Woolen also purchased the Waverly Mill and a Newport Woolen Mill at the same time. The company closed in 1934, but the Pioneer Mill continued to operate until after World War II.
Hathorn constructed a large estate where Hathorn Park sits today. His home sat on the site of today's Parkview Apartments. His stables were lost to other locations in town and eventually removed to make way for progress and renewal.
In 1867, downtown Pittsfield had some similarity to today -- the east side of Main Street had few buildings. These included the first Lancey House at the north end of the street, a few homes and apparently one store. Within 20 years, significant construction filled the east side with businesses including the large Lancey House Hotel that stood as a Pittsfield landmark until 1965. In fact, the Pittsfield Advertiser reported a total of 71 buildings in 1867 Pittsfield, compared to 260 by 1887.
One of the significant additions of that double decade was the construction of Maine Central Institute. The school was actually incorporated in 1866, but construction did not begin until 1867. Apparently at the urging of Going Hathorn, the Institute building, now
Founders Hall, was constructed in its entirety rather than in sections as originally planned. The total cost was $40,000 for the building, equipment and landscaping. The contractor was paid $29,000 for his portion of the work upon its completion in 1869.
In the 1880's, Main Street was evidence of a thriving community. While businesses continued to fill Main Street, east and west, side streets were developing with businesses as well. It is also in the last half of the 19th century that Pittsfield manufacturing began, in addition to the growing woolen industry, the town boasted a harness shop, a manufacturer of ladies underwear, and a brick yard. A public water system was established in 1895 with six and a half miles of pipe and 62 hydrants. Electricity followed in 1900 with the Pittsfield Light and Power Company. A sewer system was established and the town hall, Union Hall on Park Street, constructed.
It was also in the last decade of the 1800's that Col. Walter Morrill, Pittsfield's Civil War hero, moved from Dexter to Pittsfield and opened a livery stable. His move is credited with the rejuvenation of Union Trotting Park, the site of today's airport, and the establishment of Pittsfield as a horse racing center. In the same time period, the Waverly Mill opened in
1892. The Sebasticook and Moosehead Railroad opened and offered passenger and freight service to Hartland, Great Moose Pond and Castle Harmony. In
1893. the Tuesday Club began regular meetings as a social and civic women's club.
From 1880 to 1900, Pittsfield's population grew from 1,909 to 2,891.
With the coming of a new century, progress apparently slowed according to historians. It was not so much a lack of growth, but the loss of leadership that had led the previous development. The Pittsfield Public Libary, a Carnegie Library design, was dedicated in 1904. Other developments included the extension of sidewalks and sewers, the establishment of Burnham dam and the Sebasticook Power Company, the founding on the new St. Agnes Parish and the renovation of Pittsfield National Bank. Two fires brought destruction to Main Street. One fire severely damaged the Lancey House, leaving the town without a hotel for nearly five years. Another destroyed several businesses on the west side of Main Street.
Between 1900 and 1920 population dropped to 2,146. By 1930, growth had returned with a population of 3,075.
"One of the most influential developments of the period", after the turn of the century, according to Sanger Cook, was not the physical changes of the town, but the demand for labor and the people it ultimately brought to town. The influx of Italian Immigrants was a significant addition to the community, one that is cited as bringing new spirit and enthusiasm. One history cites the efforts of a young Dominic M. Susi who brought many of his countrymen to Pittsfield. The construction of the Burnham dam created a need for barracks that came to be known as "Little Italy."
World War I was the next significant event in Pittsfield's history. With the return of the war veterans, social clubs, entertainment and athletics were developed. The Bijou Theater began to show the popular films of the time. MCI began to establish itself as a leader in athletics, in particular its baseball team which apparently beat all four Maine colleges in one season.
By the centennial year of 1919, Pittsfield had established itself as an important hub of commerce in central Maine.
In 1922, the era of automobile travel came to Pittsfield with the opening of a Ford dealership by Earle Friend.
The first community hosptal was established in 1924, but it would be 1963 before a permanent health care facility would stand.
In 1928, the former boys dormitory, a wooden structure, burned at MCI, in its place Alumni Hall was erected. One year later, 1929, Pittsfield lost several businesses with the beginning of the depression. Even the Pittsfield National Bank was forced to close, only to reopen six months later never to close again.
The construction of the municipal airport was completed in this time period with government work project funds.
In 1935, Manson Park was donated to the town by J.W. Manson in memory of his mother, Mary Ann Lancey Manson. The donation was followed in later years with funds from Mr. Manson's will that also included plans for the development of the park. The will has often been the subject of controversy each time any group has proposed changes and additions in the park. A year later George M. Parks bequeathed funds for a new gymnasium at MCI. The Parks Gym served all indoor athletics at MCI until the construction of the Wright Gym in 1989.
From 1935 to 1940 is a time period recognized by Pittsfield historian Sanger Cook for the growth of its construction companies, mostly with Italian names, the second generation now. L.A. Dysart opened a 5 and 10 cent store on Main Street and shoe manufacturing established a toe hold in the community.
In 1936, Pittsfield did not escape the great flood. The red bridges to the island in the Sebasticook had to be blown out to relieve the danger of an ice jam. The water went over North Main Street flooding out the mill yard and threatening bridges and dams downriver all the way to the Kennebec. The road through the flats south of the village was reported impassable and there was three feet of water over the road leading into Burnham. The water height of that flood was not equalled again until 1987, when downtown Pittsfield was cut off from traffic because of the rising waters, and an entire residential district was flooded.
Also in the 1930's, the town manager form of government was adopted, but not without a rocky start. It seems the first manager, A.L. Thorndike, a graduate of Tufts College, lasted but a year before resigning. A local man, C.R. Ames, was appointed and was ultimately succeeded by Ray Badger, who had previously served as superintendent of the water works, before that position was assumed by the first town manager.
In 1940, the Kiwanis Club was organized and has served as a strong civic group for more than 50 years. It was also in this year that new interest in airport construction brought more government funds in to make improvements to Pittsfield's small airfield and left it with one of the best small airports in the state. As a result, the Navy took over the field in 1943 as a training ground for World War II cadets, many of whom filled dormitory space at MCI.
Pittsfield's close proximity to Bangor and Dow Air Force Base placed it in a danger zone. Volunteers were called upon to man an observation post, first in the tower of the Lancey House and later at the airport for the duration of the war. A total of 54 volunteers served the effort. In 1945, the end of the war was marked with enthusiasm in Pittsfield with an impromptu parade of fire trucks, cars and bicycles amid horns, sirens and whistles. The event culminated with a large bonfire.
By 1940, Pittsfield's population was 3,329.
In 1941, the Waverly Mill had stood vacent for a number of years. A meeting of the Kiwanis Club that year was to provide the basis of a continuing tradition in Pittsfield -- interested and committed businessmen willing to fund and support industrial growth. The mill was repaired and sold to a shoe manufacturer. In 1950, the mill was sold again to Northeast Shoe, the company that ultimately built the new facility now occupied by San Antonio Shoe.
In 1950, population stood at 3,898.
In the early 1950's, Pittsfield businessmen were again called on through the Kiwanis Club to create The Pittsfield Development Associates, an apparent predecessor to today's Pittsfield Development Corporation. This time their goal was to find an occupant for the abandoned Pioneer Mill, closed by American Woolen Company in 1953. A long legal battle apparently followed as the corporation established itself, sought ownership of the mill and found a potential tenant. It was 1956 before construction was underway for a new building to join the old mill and house the Edwards Company.
In 1952, a new elementary school was built at Manson Park, followed by the construction of the Vickery School in 1958. In July 1953, the Kiwanis Club spearheaded another construction project for Pittsfield with the creation of a municipal swimming pool at Manson Park.
In 1960, population had grown again, now totaling 4,010. Soon after, a young women's club, Athenaeum Club, initiated the fundraising for Sebasticook Valley Hospital. The facility opened on Grove Hill in 1963.
Three significant changes came from the 1960's that mark a change in focus and lifestyle for the next decades. In 1964, Interstate 95 opened a section connecting Fairfield with Newport and bypassing Pittsfield's Main Street. This, coupled with the loss of railroad passenger service in the same decade, spelled decline for Main Street businesses and the famed Lancey House. In 1965, the Lancey House suffered its final blow with an October fire that eventually saw it torn down and committed to memory. Waterville Savings Bank opened a branch bank on the site shortly after, and today houses Peoples Heritage Bank.
In 1966, Sanger M. Cook published the history "Pittsfield - On the Sebasticook." In his preface, he noted that Pittsfield is no ordinary town, but one with
"youthful aggressive spirit that was at once idealistic, yet practical. In things spiritual, cultural and industrial, it sought the best, but with characteristic Yankee caution."
In 1969, Pittsfield stopped to reflect on 150 years of history with the celebration of its Sesquicentennial, From June 14 through June 21, each day had a full schedule of activities with two parades providing appropriate bookends to the celebration.
By 1970, population stood at 4,274.
Another new decade, a declining business district and available government funds brought another renewal. Early in the decade, environmental concerns brought about the town's sewer treatment project and eliminated the long-time practice of using the river for sewage disposal.
The community also marked the new decade with a new form of government, a process that streamlined decision-making and enabled Pittsfield to progress and take advantage of numerous opportunities for growth. In 1971, the first town council was elected and functioning. Paul Susi, Jr. already a seasoned selectmen, was elected as first mayor and chairman of the board.
Celebration was again on the minds of townspeople in 1973, when the Central Maine Egg Festival was born. The now-annual celebration was intended to honor the community's long-standing egg industry, but also to create an identity for Pittsfield. Coinciding with the traditional Kiwanis Karnival, the festival has become a mainstay on the agriculture circuit in the state, as well as national and international recognition for Pittsfield, Maine.
In 1976, a Community Development Block Grant removed abandoned and dilapidated buildings on the north side of Park Street. Mill Pond [Park], also known as Stein Park, was created in their place. An Economic Development Administration project in 1977 removed the deteriorated portion of Union Hall and created today's municipal building and fire station. An Urban Development Action Grant, a plan to leverage public funds and improvements with the commitment of private development and improvement tackled the east side of Main Street before the end of the decade. Pittsfield's Sunnyside Up project removed deteriorated and abandoned buildings and saw in their place the construction of Cianbro Corporation's headquarters. About the same time, a shopping center was developing next to the new Craig Hardware on outer Somerset
Avenue. A new grocery store, a department store, a laundromat and flower shop were part of the package. The new structure eventually took Bud's Shop'n'Save and LaVerdieres from their downtown locations. The decade of the 1970's was also the time period when government funds were secured for the development of the Pittsfield Industrial Park, and new businesses joined the ranks of Pittsfield employers.
By 1980, population stood at 4,125, a decline of about 150 geople over the decade. In 1990, the trend reversed slightly and population totalled 4,190.
In 1989, Cianbro Corporation celebrated a 40-year anniversary. It was 1949, when brothers Carl, Ival (Bud), Ken, and Alton (Chuck) incorporated as Cianchette Brothers. It was 1970 before the name "Cianbro" was adopted. Construction work for the Cianchette brothers was a natural progression as they followed in the footsteps of their father, Ralph, an Italian immigrant. Today, the company has grown to national prominence with offices, and projects, up and down the east coast.
The developments of the 1980's and early 1990's remain with us today with few exceptions. Among the most notable is the continuing growth of the Edwards Company, now G.S. Building Systems. The company has expanded its facility on the river repeatedly and in 1994 nogotiated a lease with the town to occupy the former Bud's Shop'n'Save property on Hunnewell Avenue. The town's purchase of the building was made possible by economic development funds from the state and federal governments and tax increment financing on the local level. The unique project saved the loss of 125 jobs, and the expected downsizing of the company at the Pittsfield site. The addition of lab and testing facilities, as well as expansion and addition of a new state-of-the-art product line in the larger plant, is expected to insure jobs for Pittsfield for a long time to come.
Entering the 1990's, Pittsfield is a recognized leader in the central Maine area. The town initiated and continues to operate one of the best voluntary municipal recycling programs in the state. It's success has allowed repeated expansion of the program with state grant funds. Success in economic development and the utilization of state and federal grant money has brought in additional grant awards. Funding has been funneled into the town's own loan programs to enhance future business development and housing rehabilitation programs.
It is an obvious impossible mission to tell this town's varied history in a few short pages. This effort is just that -- a simple attempt to convey to today's Pittsfield residents what has gone before and made what we are today. For some people these are memories and
accomplishments. For others it is simple getting acquainted with the history of their new home. For those who participated - Thank you. For those who are new to this history -- we welcome you and urge you to be a part of it in the coming decades.