Pittsfield's history is filled with success stories. Again and again Pittsfield people have adapted to changing conditions, making opportunities out of apparent adversity, and going on to bigger and better things.
Most of what is written in this history section is taken from Sanger Mills Cook's book Pittsfield on the Sebasticook, (Furbush-Roberts Printing Company, Inc. 1966). This book is an excellent source to which one could well refer for a much richer description of Pittsfield's past. It is available at the Pittsfield Public Library. The following is a quote from the book's preface:
"I may have had some such idea when I first got into the project, but it wasn't long before I had the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that Pittsfield was no ordinary town. It soon began to take on individuality. As it grew from a somewhat commonplace infancy, through a groping childhood, into a healthy young adult, it developed personality. It possessed a 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."
The first permanent settler, Moses Martin, established a home in Pittsfield in 1795 just a mile down river from the present Edwards Plant. He brought with him, from the older settlement at Norridgewock, his wife, Anna Parker, two boys, and two girls. He was a skilled woodsman, hunter, trapper, and fisher and was well liked by the Indians "for he was superior to them where they excelled most."
Other settlers began to arrive in 1800, mostly from other parts of Maine such as Norridgewock, Fairfield, Vassalboro, etc. A small mill was built where the Edwards plant is now located. At that time, Pittsfield was called Plymouth Gore. It became Sebasticook Plantation in 1816, and it was incorporated as the town of Warsaw in 1819. The first town meeting was at the home of John Webb on the Snake Root Road. Maine was almost ready to separate from Massachusetts and become the State of Maine.
The town was responsible for roads and bridges and five school districts. In 1824, the name of the town was changed to Pittsfield, in honor of William Pitts, Esquire, of Belgrade, who was a large landowner in the town. The early settlers were farmers who paid their taxes in corn and wheat.
It took time for the town center to develop. Colonel William Lancey opened an inn at the Lancey House site in the 1820's, but before the railroad came in 1855, population was scattered. A gristmill, sawmill, three or four blacksmith shops, a carriage shop, and two or three stores made up most of the industry. The railroad was the Penobscot and Kennebec, with tracks from Bangor to Waterville and connections to the south. In 1862, this merged with the Androscoggin and Kennebec to become the Maine Central. The population of Pittsfield in 1860 was 1,495. The railroad was a significant factor in the growth of the town, but water power was much more important as it gave industry a reason to be in Pittsfield.
The first woolen mill was started in 1869 by Going Hathorn; again at the Edwards site. Maine Central Institute was established in 1866. The school was said to be of greater significance to the growth of Pittsfield than the woolen mill because it offered opportunity for education. The famous "Lancey House" was built a little after the Institute, and significant downtown development took place.
Downtown Pittsfield was wiped out by a fire in 1881 and rebuilt immediately thereafter. A railroad was built from Pittsfield to Hartland in 1886. It was supposed to go on to Moosehead Lake, but never made it. (This branch was abandoned in 1983. )
The Waverly Mill was built in 1891-1892. In 1891, 52 private dwellings were built by the mill owners for rental to mill workers. From 1880 to 1900, Pittsfield's population increased from 1,909 to 2,891.
The Pittsfield Water Works, a private company, established water service in 1895 with 62 miles of pipe and 62 hydrants. In 1900, electric power came in the form of the Pittsfield Electric Light and Power Company, which soon became part of the Central Maine Power Company. Saw milling was an important industry. The power and light company cut and sawed two million feet annually. There were other woodworking plants, and in 1900, a canning factory was built.
Between 1900 and 1920, a series of setbacks seem to have occurred. The population declined from 2,891 in 1900 to 2,146 in 1920. Sanger Cook calls 1900 to 1930 a period of complacency. By 1930 the population was back up to 3,075.
In 1906 the Lancey House burned, leaving Pittsfield without a hotel for nearly five years. In 1909 the Bryant Woodworking Plant was closed due to bankruptcy, eliminating jobs in the plant and a market for lumber from nearby woodlots. In these days, before the general use of automobiles for transportation to work, it was difficult for workers to find other employment without moving. The first automobile sales establishment opened in Pittsfield in 1922, which signaled the beginning of the automobile era.
In 1914 the Pioneer, Waverly, and Newport Woolen Mills were sold to the American Woolen Company. Local ownership was transferred to ownership by a large corporation controlled by "out of state" management. The American Woolen Mill closed in 1934 after several years of hard times. Pittsfield had three woolen mills: the Waverly, the Sebasticook, and the Pioneer. The Pioneer, which was the largest, stayed in operation until after World War II but the woolen industry was moving out of New England and Pittsfield lost its major manufacturing industry. These mills employed in excess of 160 weavers.
During the 1930's the federal government began to invest in Pittsfield. The Civil Works Administration, which came in with the "New Deal," provided $25,000 to construct an airport on the site of the old Pittsfield race track. This period coincided with the emergence of a number of construction contract firms in Pittsfield headed by second generation sons of Italian immigrants who had settled in western Pittsfield.
The construction industry was destined to grow and become a very significant part of Pittsfield's economy, exporting expertise to other parts of the state and later the nation. The latter part of the 1930's was a period of recovery for Pittsfield. Several new businesses emerged.
In 1935 J.W. Manson gave a large piece of land to the town to be used as a public park. This has been developed as Manson Park, named after his mother, Mary Ann Lancey Manson. George Parks donated money to Maine Central Institute to construct a gymnasium. It was in the late 1930's that Pittsfield converted to the town manager form of government; hiring A.L. Thorndike as first town manager.
The population in 1940 was 3,329. The Kiwanis Club was organized in 1940. This club was influential in generating local support for improvements to the airport paid for mostly by the federal government. Runways were extended to 4,000 feet in 1941 making Pittsfield one of the finest small airports in the state. The U. S. Navy used the airport for training from 1943 through the end of the war.
The old vacant Waverly Mill was bought by Joe Cianchette and four other men in 1941, fixed up, and sold to Pinches Medwed for shoe manufacturing. It took time, but by 1948, 300 people were employed there. In 1950 this was sold to the Northeast Shoe Company. Perley Wright set up Pittsfield Woolen Yarns in 1945, which has operated since that time.
In 1946 J. R. Cianchette built Peltoma Acres, a housing development, to provide housing for workers, especially management that was brought in by the Medwed Shoe Company. Built in one year, 48 new homes were put on the market in May 1947. Pittsfield's first zoning ordinance was adopted at a town meeting in 1949. The 1950 population of Pittsfield was 3,898.
The woolen industry was moving from New England to the South. It was announced in 1953 that the American Woolen Company would close the Pioneer Mill. With impetus from the Kiwanis Club, a development corporation was formed and $53,570 was subscribed by 477 persons by January 1954. An agreement was secured with American Woolen that while they would not operate a woolen mill in Pittsfield. They would sell their interests in the mill to the Pittsfield Improvement Association and loan funds to construct a 48,000 square foot manufacturing building--cost estimated at $300,000. The Edwards Company of Norwalk, Connecticut became interested in the use of such a building as a result of contacts made by Bartlett Cram of the Maine Development Commission. They were ready to expand and were enticed by the idea they could help design a building financed by others. In December 1956 the first doorbells came off the line. This story shows the aggressive spirit exhibited by Pittsfield's business leaders and the response that can result from such an effort.
In 1952 a new elementary school was built at Manson Park. In 1958 a new grammar school was built and named in honor of Earl N. Vickery, a prominent school board member. In July, 1953 a swimming pool was built in Manson Park by the Kiwanis Club and given to the town.
The 1960 population of Pittsfield was 4,010. The Sebasticook Valley Hospital was built on Grove Hill in 1962-1963 with support from Newport and with the idea of being a regional facility. The Athenaeum Club, "a group of young women who desire to do something worthwhile for their home town," is given credit for initiating the project.
The construction of the interstate highway between Fairfield and Newport was a significant event. This opened in 1964. Prior to this time, Pittsfield was not on the main highway between Bangor and the southwestern part of the State. Historically, the main route was U.S. 202 between Bangor and Augusta, although State Route 2 to Newport and Route 100 to Augusta was used by many. The hospital had been located on Route 100 and growth was occurring on South Main Street (Route 100), notably "The Embers" restaurant and the bowling alley.
I-95, with a single exit, made Somerset Avenue the principal access route to Pittsfield for most longer distance trips and the growth pattern shifted. Since 1965, a motel, restaurant, gas station, shopping center, and auto dealership have developed here. The interstate highway makes Pittsfield easier to reach, replacing the railroad in transportation significance. I-95 has proven essential to continued industrial growth.
Many people feared I-95 would be bad for Pittsfield because local residents would be encouraged to go to Waterville or Bangor to shop. To some extent this may have been true, but Pittsfield responded in typical fashion with implementation of a downtown revitalization plan. This started in 1976 with a Community Development Block Grant which cleared some of the dilapidated buildings near the east end of Somerset Avenue. An Economic Development Administration Public Works grant of $360,000 in 1977 helped construct the municipal building where its location supports rather than detracts from the downtown. The municipal offices had been located here until 1974 when part was torn down and part was renovated into a fire station. An Urban Development Action Grant of $650,000 cleared the dilapidated commercial buildings on the east side of Main Street which were replaced with the new headquarters of the now nationally recognized Cianbro Corporation.
At this same time, the new shopping center was being built on Somerset Avenue. Upon completion, several businesses relocated to the center including the Craig Homecenter, State Liquor Store and Radio Shack. New stores included the IGA, Ben Franklin, and LaVerdiere's Drug Store. Bud's Shop N' Save relocated to the old IGA space in the 1980's. The shopping center has enjoyed reasonable success.
In March of 1966 the towns of Pittsfield, Burnham, and Detroit combined their school systems to form School Administrative District 53. Beginning in 1969 SAD 53 high school students did not attend MCI, but instead attended Warsaw School in Split sessions as an effort to cut costs. One class graduated from Warsaw High School before SAD 53 resumed its contract with MCI. However, the community continues to place a significant value on its youth and quality education remains one of Pittsfield's major attractions.
Though not a physical asset of the School District, MCI remains an integral part of the community due in part to a large percentage of Pittsfield residents having attended the school. In recent years, MCI has begun to attract many foreign students to its campus, further enhancing the cultural diversity of the community. During the late 1980's, a new gymnasium was added to the campus along with an outdoor sports facility comprised of a football field and running track.
In 1986 Pittsfield established an industrial park with 70 acres of land between Somerset Avenue and South Main Street. This has good access to I-95 and the Maine Central Railroad. An Economic Development Administration grant provided water, sewer, access roads, and lighting for the initial section of the park. The industrial park concept was possible only after the sewage treatment plant was built. This was accomplished in 1978 with a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state paying 90% of the cost. The town added a "speculation" building in 1981 that was available for immediate occupancy using a loan from the State Development Office. That building was purchased by Maine-X-Ray, which was later merged into the E. M. Parker Co. In October of 1988 an additional 24 acres was added to the park and in 1993 a second building was constructed and is currently available for immediate occupancy.
The mid 1980's also witnessed the beginning of the decline of the shopping center, and the local owners sold the property in September of 1987 to Morse & Co., Inc. of Bath, Maine. By the early 1990's only two major stores remained in business. Recent efforts by the local community to revive the center have been only partially successful, with the Rite Aid Store as the most recent loss and a new video store as the most recent gain.
1992 saw the Sebasticook Valley Hospital undertake a multi-million dollar renovation and expansion in order to improve outpatient therapy and provide better service to the community. New wings were added for the Financial and Records Departments and for the Food Services Department. The Emergency Department was also expanded to include two trauma rooms and the Surgery Department was up-graded to include both in and out patient treatment. Along with the improvements to all of the services a new look was added to bring the appearance up to date as well.
The early 90's also saw the Edwards Company, now known as Edwards Systems Technology, preparing to expand and consolidate its operation. Through the efforts of the town manager, economic director, planning board and town council, a team was assembled to encourage Edwards do its expansion in Pittsfield. With the threat of losing 500 jobs from the area, the team persuaded the company to expand in two different areas of town. A building in the downtown area was renovated into a state-of-the-art electronics test facility and a new 96,000 square-foot distribution facility and international warehouse was constructed in the industrial park. The success of the "team" resulted in a gain of about 100 jobs and a company that is looking forward to a long stay and the possibility of further expansion in Pittsfield.
Toward the end of his book, published in 1966, Sanger Cook reflects on the history of Pittsfield with the following words:
"It may be of interest to look back for a moment at two periods of history that seem to have much in common: the twenty years from 1880 to 1900 and the two decades from 1940 to 1960. In both these spans, we find young, imaginative, and aggressive residents who were not only successful in their own careers, but were conscious of their civic responsibilities and were dedicated to building a better community.
"At the end of these two eras, however, the parallel ceases. As we have noted, there seemed to be a slacking off after the spurt of the 80's and 90's. What happened after the 40's and 50's certainly cannot be described as something lackadaisical or complacent--quite the opposite! The spirit of those years continued, but under new leadership. That is as it should be. The new generation was not accepting the past as "good enough." It was picking up the tools, adding to them, improving them, and going forward. This is good, and today we should be grateful to these Young men and women for what they have done and are continuing to do for the future of our town."