Oakland (ME) Area Historical Society

About Oakland

  • Settled about 1780

  • Originally part of Winslow

  • Became part of Waterville when that city separated from Winslow, 1802, known variously as West Waterville, Pullen's Mills

  • Former town of Dearborn divided between Belgrade and Waterville, with the remainder being incorporated into Smithfield by 1843

  • Incorporated as West Waterville, 1873

  • Name changed to Oakland, 1883

  • Population today about 5,500

  • Industrial center until the 1960's

  • More axes and scythes manufactured here from 1850 to 1960 than any other place in the world

  • Gateway to the famous Belgrade Lakes Region of Central Maine

The casual traveler today driving through the town of Oakland, Maine, could hardly guess what our town would have been like a hundred years ago.  Many towns have kept their original purposes, either as farming communities, manufacturing centers, or commercial areas, but Oakland has shed several skins in its over 200 years of settled life.

Beginning as a small farming community as a part of the large town of Winslow, Lincoln County, Massachusetts in the late 1700’s, our town remained mostly farmland and woods for half a century.  There were the usual small mills – gristmills, sawmills, and the like – but the town primarily produced food for its residents, with sometimes a small surplus for local markets.

However, the mid 1800’s brought change.  About 1842, the first real “factory” was built in this area, which was by then part of the town of Waterville.  Waterville had separated from Winslow in 1802.  The factory in question was the first to produce “edge tools” – cutting tools for the farmer and lumberman, such as axes, scythes, sickles, and assorted other sharp instruments.  Several other edge tool factories soon followed.  Portions of the town’s main watercourse, Messalonskee (sometimes called Emerson’s) Stream, were dammed, thus producing abundant water power for many more small factories.  It was said that Messalonskee Stream, though significantly smaller than the nearby Kennebec River, produced nearly as much water power because of several waterfalls – in particular, the “Cascade”, a 100-foot waterfall, just outside the downtown area.

With the arrival of the railroad in 1849, the village’s products could now be sent east toward Bangor and south toward Portland and Boston.  Industry boomed.  Axe factories were joined by woolen mills, and by the 1870’s, there were nearly as many people working in the industries as there were on the farms.  Oakland had just shed its first skin.

The western part of Waterville became the industrial center of the town.  It was said that the village by the Kennebec (today Waterville) was the quiet, residential part, while the West village (today Oakland) was the industrial part of town.  Eventually, differences in interests between the two villages caused them to separate in 1873, the west village becoming West Waterville.  The name was changed again to Oakland in 1883, and the new town started out on its own with little visible connection to its parent town.

By about 1900, and well into the period just after World War II, Oakland produced more axes, scythes, and other edge tools than any town on earth.  The constant sound of the trip hammers pounding hot metal into axe heads, the hundreds of workers grinding edges, painting handles, stoking coal or charcoal furnaces, and boxing and labeling the final product, made Oakland a bustling industrial community.  Water power also made production of electricity possible, and a small company was formed in Oakland.  By 1902, that company became Central Maine Power Company, today the largest electric utility in Maine.

In the meantime, the recreational assets of the town were just being realized.  More people had leisure time and the money to enjoy it.  The creation of the Somerset Railroad about 1870, and later the extension of the electric street railway by CMP from Waterville into Oakland, made it easy for people “from away” to come to Oakland and either enjoy the lakes in the area, or use Oakland as a jumping-off point for the resort area of Moosehead Lake, where the Somerset Railway eventually ran.

But with the end of World War II, the demand for the high quality tools Oakland workers produced fell, and competition from cheaper foreign tools spelled the end for all of Oakland’s axe factories.  One by one, they shut their doors, the trip hammers went silent, and the mill whistle no longer called workers.  The woolen mills also disappeared, the final straw being the closing of the Cascade Woolen Mill in the 1990’s.  It was time for Oakland to shed another skin, its industrial skin, in favor of a new recreational and commercial one.

Today, Oakland is a quiet suburban town for most of the year.  Its downtown, though undergoing renovation and restoration, doesn’t draw the shoppers it once did.  Its factories, now numbered on one hand, hire only tens of workers instead of hundreds.  Its farms, now also able to be counted on one hand, supply only a tiny fraction of the food they once produced.  Yet through all these changes over the past 200 years, Oakland today is a community which is rebuilding itself, and again transforming itself for the 21st Century, and what this new century will bring.

 

WEST WATERVILLE VILLAGE IN 1879

Click HERE or on the image to enlarge

To explore the town Oakland as it is today, check out Oakland's Home Page.

If you have any French-Canadian ancestors especially in the general Waterville area check out The French Connection

Send questions or comments to webmaster and OAHS vice president Michael J Denis

 
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