BIDDEFORD, Maine - One of the oldest communities in southern Maine, this once thriving textile center long resisted gentrification. But, like other formerly gritty blue-collar coastal towns such as Rockland and Belfast, Biddeford is now home to a growing number of artists and craftspeople whose presence has spun off a spate of art galleries and interesting stores and restaurants.
"It was like at first glance," says Tammy Ackerman, recalling the reaction she and boyfriend Russell Persson had as they drove down Main Street on their first visit. The Reno couple were on a road trip around the country and headed for Acadia National Park when they detoured off Route 1 to shop in Biddeford.
They were surprised by the lineup of handsome commercial buildings, Ackerman says, and impressed by the multistoried red brick mill buildings along the Saco River. Dating to the mid-19th century and more than a mile long, they make up one of the largest such mill complexes in New England. Largely empty or underused today, the mills employed more than 12,000 people, most of them French-Canadians, in the early 20th century.
She and Persson are architecture buffs, Ackerman says, and they immediately saw Biddeford's potential. "There were empty storefronts on Main Street but it still seemed like a place that was about to take off yet was affordable," she says. "That was appealing." Another attraction was the many creative people living and working in the city, usually in inexpensive loft and studio space in former mills or other older buildings.
A few months after that first visit Ackerman, a graphic designer, and Persson, a database programmer, settled in Biddeford. They bought the old textile workers union hall and have converted it into an art gallery, Franklin Street Art Space, which opened last month. "It's a contemporary art gallery," says Ackerman, "but also a place for performance art and art lessons."
Just around the corner on Alfred Street is WiggleWeigle's Books and In-A-Bind Art Gallery, which opened in April in another restored building, the 137-year-old former Odd Fellows lodge. Operated by Steve and Anastasia Weigle, the shop specializes in discounted overstock books. It also has a small cafe.
Another combination art gallery and cafe in a remodeled building is Union Cafe in the North Dam Mill complex. Other tenants include dance and martial arts studios, several woodworkers and furniture makers, and a niche enterprise called Vervacious that imports truffles from Europe for sale to restaurants.
A developer has announced plans to convert the three-building riverside complex into an integrated community that includes residential units, retail and office space, artists lofts and workshops, and restaurants.
Art Space, In-A-Bind, and Union Cafe are stops on the Art Walk held from 5 to 9 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month. The walk is sponsored by Heart of Biddeford, a downtown revitalization program. "We usually visit 10 or 12 galleries and in one of them there's often a band," says Rachel Weyand, executive director.
"There's more than a million square feet of space in Biddeford mills and literally hundreds of artists working in them," Weyand says. The art community is so large and active that last fall Art Mart, an art supplies shop, moved from Kennebunk to Main Street. "It was a good move for us," says manager Jared Redding. "We have twice as much space and there are a lot of artists here, and the Art Walks always attract good crowds." Business has been so good that the store recently began staying open seven days a week.
"Biddeford's becoming a magnet for people looking for ethnic dining," says Weyand. For people who prefer no-nonsense American food there is the Palace Diner on Franklin Street.
Maine's oldest diner, the bright red Palace was built in Lowell in 1926 and is one of three classic lunch carts left in the state. "We don't have the same menu as in 1926 but it's pretty close," says Kyle Quinn, the owner. "Diners have always been about large portions and short prices." (At the Palace, a plate of eggs and a heap of homemade hash is $5.50.)
In the city's French Quarter a lot of the clientele are vacationers from Quebec who flock to nearby Old Orchard Beach by the thousands every summer. There is also a strong local Francophone presence. Mass is still said in French at two local churches, and La Kermesse, a Franco-American festival held annually in Biddeford the last week in June, is the largest of its kind in New England.
One of Heart of Biddeford's downtown projects is The Museum in the Streets, a history and culture walking tour with signage in English and French at 30 stops such as City Theater, the French-Canadian churches, and the building where a daily French language newspaper, La Justice, was once published.
The banners that hang from lampposts along Main Street proudly proclaim: "Downtown Biddeford - Established 1630." That's when the first permanent settlement was founded at the falls of the Saco River, the power source that attracted the mills.
Below the falls, the Saco, which flows for 80 miles and is a popular canoeing and tubing river, empties into the Atlantic at Biddeford Pool. "The pool," an old summer community with some grand shingled "cottages," two miles of sandy beach, a snug yacht harbor, and a lobster pound, has always had more in common with nearby Kennebunk and Kennebunkport than the rest of Biddeford. Occasionally there is talk of secession.
Like Kennebunkport, Biddeford Pool also has a presidential connection. During the Taft presidency (1909-13), the summer White House was in Biddeford Pool. A lot of Taft's old friends from his hometown of Cincinnati also had summer homes here - and some of their descendants still do.
"The same families have come back to The Pool every summer for generation after generation," says Eve-Susan McPheeters, owner of The Red Geranium gift shop. "Members of the Taft family still come." However, high property taxes and the growing demand for coastal real estate are bringing change and new summer families. Says McPheeters, "We've finally been discovered."
William A. Davis, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.