Welcome to Biddeford
In the 17th century, European explorers visited the Saco River and what is now known as Maine. Samuel de Champlain was one of these men, arriving in 1604 and drawing a detailed map of the coast and river.
In 1616, English physician Richard Vines became the first European settler in this area. He spent the winter in “Winter Harbor”, which, today, is known as Biddeford Pool. Vines sailed back to England, but in 1630, he returned and established a permanent settlement. In 1718, the town was officially named Biddeford. The name is thought to have been connected to early settlers who had arrived in the area from Bideford, England.
Native Americans had long lived along the coastal areas near the river, and while initial relationships were friendly, hostilities occurred, especially during King Philip’s War and the French and Indian War. By 1759, and the Fall of Quebec, hostilities ceased.
The modern founder of Biddeford was Samuel Batchelder, who arrived in 1831. Recognizing the power of the Saco River and the implications for the textile industry, he incorporated companies that made tools and produced cloth. Biddeford grew swiftly in population, and it became a leader in textile manufacturing in the 19th century. At their peak, the mills of Biddeford employed 12,000 workers. The mills continued to produce quality products until 2009, when the last mill, West Point Pepperell, which had originally been incorporated in 1850, shuttered its doors.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the mills were a magnet for immigrants who sought employment. Irish, Albanian, Greek, Italian, Jewish, and French-Canadian workers tended the machinery or made the bricks or carved the tunnels that allowed the mills to prosper. Many descendants of these workers reside in the city, and French is still spoken in many homes.
Today, the population of Biddeford is 22,000, with a median age of 35. With beautiful beaches and parks, the city is also home to the University of New England, the College of Osteopathic Medicine, City Theater, McArthur Library, Southern Maine Health Care, and many distinguished restaurants and shops. The mill district that once housed thousands of workers is a campus of remarkable apartments, art galleries, restaurants, breweries, offices, distilleries, and manufacturing spaces. As one of the state’s fastest growing commercial centers, the city continues to grow and thrive, as more and more people recognize its quality of life and geographical and cultural assets.
In 1845, Israel Shevenell, age 19, left his home in Compton, Quebec and walked, nearly 200 miles, to Biddeford, Maine. He found employment in the brickyards and he witnessed the remarkable transformation of the city, as it morphed into a textile powerhouse.
Israel is recognized as the first permanent French-Canadian settler. He opened the floodgates for thousands of Francos who moved from Quebec to Biddeford. They brought with them their language, their culture, and their faith, all of which clashed with the long-time, English-speaking residents. As their presence increased, the Francos sought political power. In 1910, Albert Marceille was elected as the city’s and Maine’s first French mayor. The political power of the Francos solidified, and by 1931, they represented almost 75% of the voters in the city. Fifteen of the last 18 Biddeford mayors have been Franco.
Biddeford’s most famous Franco Mayor was Louis “Papa” Lausier, who served from 1940 to 1956. He was considered, by many, to be a “boss” mayor, as he controlled all aspects of City Hall. He was determined to assist Franco-American enterprises and institutions. He served for 16 years.
As Francos grew in political strength, their mission and purpose was guided by the editors of the local French paper, La Justice. The failure of the Francos to assimilate created a wedge within the community. Alfred Bonneau, and his editorial successor, Joseph Bolduc, regularly denounced the racism and prejudice which were directed towards the Franco population. For example, when the Ku Klux Klan gained prominence in the state of Maine, during the 1920’s, Bolduc actively and vociferously denounced the Klan and their attacks on Catholics and Francos.
World War II diffused most, if not all, of the ethnic tensions in the community, but Francos continued to dominate the political and social landscape. The French language was commonly spoken in many homes into the 1970’s, and St. Jean de Baptiste de Bienfaisance remained a strong social club for Franco males. However, the closing of St. Louis High School, the French parochial school in the city, accelerated the loss of the French culture. St. Jean’s, for example, still remains today, but its active membership is about 20.
“The city was once a bustling mill town, home to the largest cotton mill in the country. Today, many of the massive mill buildings still loom along the Saco River.”— Diane Bair and Pamela Wright, Boston Globe
Sadly, because of assimilation, many of today’s youth are not aware of their French-Canadian backgrounds. While they call their grandparents “Memere” and “Pepere”, and they dine on pork pies as part of the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, they do not connect those words or pastries with the Franco culture.
Religiously, St. Andre’s Church, a Franco church, has closed, leaving only St. Joseph’s Church, as the last French place of worship. The Sunday 8 am Mass is still held in French. St. Joseph’s, which was dedicated in 1883, is an architecturally magnificent church, and, for many years, was the tallest building in Maine. It possesses beautiful stained glass windows and statues.
Educationally, St. James School is the only remaining parochial school. For many years, various religious orders taught in the schools at St. Joseph’s, St. Andre’s and St. Mary’s (Irish), but the Sisters and the Brothers are no longer involved in the local education.
St. Francis College, now known as the University of New England, was founded by Fathers Arthur and Zenon Decary. Both priests came to Biddeford, from St. Laurent, Quebec, in order to tend to the health and education of the Franco families who were living in the area. Father Arthur became the pastor of St. Andre’s Parish and he and his brother were involved in many projects, including the construction of St. Louis High School, the founding of Notre Dame Hospital, St. Andre’s Home, and the Stella Maris School. The Decary family was of moderate wealth, and the priests used some of those funds to assist in the construction of the projects. The French government honored Arthur for his considerable work with the French-speaking people of Maine. He was awarded the Legion of Merit.
Father Zenon Decary was well known for performing miracles, and there are members of the Biddeford Catholic community who are today, hoping that he will be canonized as a saint. A book, entitled “The Good Father Zenon”, is a record of those miracles. Both brothers are buried on the UNE campus.
Today, the La Kermesse Franco-Americaine Festival is the most visible Franco presence. Based upon the celebratory vision of Joseph Plamondon, the festival began in 1982, and has centered on ethnicity, family, and community. Originally focusing on the Franco culture, today’s festival centers on the ethnic pride that remains evident in Biddeford’s diverse population. The festival is held, each summer, in June, on St. Louis Field. It features music, dancing, family fun, and other entertainment. Of course, there is a wide assortment of food. A parade and fireworks are part of the opening ceremonies!
Biddeford is the sister city of St-Georges de Beauce. For many years, students from Biddeford High School and the Polyvalente de St-Georges engaged in an exchange. Students from Biddeford would visit their Quebec counterpart for five days in March, and students from St-Georges would visit this city in May. It was a small immersion, with students living in the homes of their “twin”. Currently, the mayors of both cities are communicating in hopes of rekindling the exchange and creating more economic and cultural collaborations.
Many distinguished Biddeford Francos are members of the Maine Legislature’s Franco Hall of Fame. They include, George “Pete” Lamontagne, Dennis Dutremble, Father Ronald Labarre, Judge Michael P. Cantara, and Dr. Norman Beaupre. Deceased members include Raymond Gaudette, Richard Dutremble, Camille Bolduc, Joseph Plamondon, and Marcel Viger. Other notables, past and present include: Brian Dumoulin, Defenseman for the Pittsburg Penguins; Ovid Demaris, author; Pierre Painchaud, bandleader; Father Zenon Decary, Priest and Benefactor; Lucien “Babe” Dutremble, Mayor, Legislator, County Commissioner.
The Franco-American Genealogical Society of York County is a well-known repository of information and genealogical history. It is housed in the McArthur Library, on Main Street, and many families have traced their familial roots by utilizing the skilled volunteers who are knowledgeable about the resources.
The city is currently attempting to initiate interest and discussion on a cultural center and museum to house the many artifacts that are currently stored in various places throughout the community. A cultural center was originally discussed as part of the founding of La Kermesse, but has never gained the financial traction needed. It is hoped that the renewed interest in Franco roots will be a catalyst for moving this idea forward.
Biddeford’s Franco Attractions and Sites
Discover the city’s Franco Heritage sites, along with additional attractions, including geocaching at historical sites, restaurants, accommodations, entertainment, and points of interest, by exploring the city map below.
Biddeford Mills Museum
The mission of Biddeford Mills Museum is to preserve the rich heritage of the mills in honor of all who worked here; and to strengthen the community’s knowledge of mill history to reinforce a broader sense of community. We accomplish our mission through offering educational programs, tours and events.
2 Main St Biddeford, ME 04005
Franco-American Genealogical Society of York County
The Franco-American Genealogical Society of York County was formed in 1982 as a non-profit society devoted to the preservation of our rich Franco-American heritage. The society serves genealogists of French ancestry beginning in France, and continuing through migration to Canada, Acadia and New England.
270 Main St Biddeford, ME 04005
St. Francis College
St. Francis College, now University of New England, was originally founded as a Franciscan institution to educate young Franco-American men in the traditions of their heritage, culture, and the priesthood. Today, St. Francis College is known as the University of New England, a four-year liberal arts college for everyone to attend.
11 Hills Beach Road
Biddeford, ME 04005
Shevenell Park was named in honor of Israel Shevenell, perhaps the first French Canadian in the city, who walked to Biddeford from Quebec’s Eastern Townships in 1845.
149 Main St, Biddeford, ME 04005
Places Serving Poutine
Poutine is a French-Canadian classic that is served across Canada. It’s a hearty dish of French fries, fresh cheese curds, and brown gravy.
23 Lincoln St Biddeford, ME 04005
Champions Sports Bar
15 Thornton Ave, Biddeford, ME 04005 http://www.championssportsbar.com
299 Main St Suite 104, Biddeford, ME 04005
CowBell Burger Bar
140 Main St, Biddeford, ME 04005
The Hamburger Stand, Inc.
138 Elm Street/Rte 1 Biddeford, ME 04005
Pier French Fries
12 Old Orchard St, Old Orchard Beach, ME 04064
27 W Grand Ave, Old Orchard Beach, ME 04064 https://www.facebook.com/theshackoob
Franco Historical Sites
Sites of Interest