Biddeford Becomes a City
The town meeting form of government was becoming more and more inadequate for Biddeford. The community was growing so rapidly that new questions were constantly arising for which the selectmen had no power of decision. Special town meetings were called for at an unprecedented rate. And the die-hard conservatives (those who resented the change from village status) managed to block improvement after improvement with a cautious vote “to indefinitely postpone.” The town meeting system was too anonymous. A system of definite authority and definite responsibility was plainly needed. Biddeford had grown too large to be governed by mass meetings.
A petition for Biddeford’s incorporation as a city was presented to the Maine legislature in January and passed and approved by the first of February. On February 10th a Biddeford town meeting accepted the charter by the overwhelming vote of 697 in favor and 80 against. The first election under the charter was held on March 12, 1855. There were seven voting places, and 1,211 votes were cast. Daniel E. Somes received 708, William P. Haines 498, and there were 5 scattered votes. Daniel E. Somes thus became the first Mayor of Biddeford. He had been born in New Hampshire, had come to Biddeford in 1846 (drawn by the new industrial and business activity), had built stores, offices and factories, and developed Somesville. He was 39 years old when elected. He served two terms; was elected to Congress in 1858; and settled in Washington, dying in that city in 1888. He never returned to Biddeford.
Mayor Somes, and the members of the new City Council elected with him, met on Monday, March 18, 1855, and formally organized Biddeford’s first city government. They met in the Somes Block, a large frame building built in 1854 by Daniel E. Somes on the southeast corner of what is now Washington and Main streets. (In 1872 the Somes Block was moved to its present location on Washington Street (#12-14) and replaced by the brick building now occupied on the ground floor by the Pepperell Trust Company.)
One of the first results of the change of government was the purchase in March 1855 of the Dominicus Cutts farm (the present Poor Farm on Main Street) as a home for aged and indigent people. For two hundred years the town had followed the old custom of auctioning off its poor to the lowest bidder. This custom, common throughout early New England, resulted in grave wrongs when unscrupulous and cruel men, trying to make a profit on the poor for whose care they had bid, worked these poor people beyond their strength or starved them on food and stinted them on clothes. For a number of years the better citizens of Biddeford had tried to have the town change the auction system to more modern practice, but the purchase of the needed building and land was postponed time after time by the stubborn reactionary faction. It took the complete change of government, from town to city, to bring about this needed reform.
It was about this time that the section lying between the present Granite and Hill streets became known as “Nebraska.” This name arose as a result of the struggle over the organization of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories. When the United States Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854, and for the first time threatened the introduction of slavery north of the famous Mason and Dixon line, the resentment of the anti-slavery men was so great as to split the existing political parties and resulted in the formation of the Republican Party and the bringing of Abraham Lincoln into national prominence through his debates with Stephen Douglas who defended the Kansas-Nebraska law. In Maine, the Democratic Party divided into “anti-Nebraska men” and “Nebraska men”, the latter being those who supported Congress in this pro-slavery law. In the section between Granite and Hill there lived several of these “Nebraska men”, and they were so apparently outspoken in their views as to cause the section to be nicknamed Nebraska. The nickname was first publicly used in an advertisement in a Biddeford newspaper of July 1854, in which James Andrews, the stone cutter, advertised that he wished to sell his house on the corner of Hill and Acorn streets, because he intended “emigrating to ‘Nebraska’.” By 1866 the name had become so recognized that the Biddeford directory published that year gives the location of the home of James Andrews and his brother simply as Nebraska – just as other residents were described as living in Oak Ridge and the Pool.
Among the famous Americans who visited Biddeford in 1855 were Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, and the former slave Frederick Douglas who lectured in the Methodist Church on Alfred Street to an appreciative and sympathetic Biddeford audience. There is evidence to indicate that at this time, six years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Biddeford was a station on the great “underground railroad” by which escaping Southern slaves were helped to Canada and safety.
Another sign that Biddeford people were in touch with what was going on in the rest of the world, was the departure (in March of 1855) of a party of 31 emigrants on the long covered wagon trek to Kansas as part of the successful attempt made by the people of New England to keep slaveholders from making Kansas their own. The local newspaper in recording the departure remarked that there were “26 men, 2 women and 3 children” in the emigrant party and that they were “all persons of character.” Biddeford people also gave further aid to Kansas by sending money, raised by a number of public entertainments.
It was at this time that Kossuth Street was laid out and named, affording another instance of Biddeford’s awareness of world affairs. Kossuth Street was named in honor of Louis Kossuth, the great Hungarian patriot, who had visited America a few years before and been everywhere greeted by enthusiastic and admiring crowds. It was a time of great moral and patriotic feeling, and Biddeford showed itself a part of the world current.
Excerpts from “A History and Stories of Biddeford”
By Dane Yorke
Courtesy of McArthur Library