There is an old map of Massachusetts from the 18th century that, of course, includes the district of Maine, then part of the old colonial Commonwealth. Falmouth with its port of Portland is displayed prominently in big capital letters, as you might expect; but as the eye moves westward, along the Saco River, another town that you might not expect receives the same prominent treatment. Little old BUXTON appears just as big and bold. Why this attention to, what is today, a quiet, bucolic suburb of Maine’s largest city? The answer, quite simply, is mills, and lots of them. Saw mills, grist mills meant money, wealth, prosperity and importance. In settlements throughout the district of Maine, if you could harness the power of a river or stream you had a good chance of making it. Buxton made it early on
You can see this prosperity reflected in small villages like Goodwin Mills, and towns like Limerick and Cornish where some magnificent late 18th and early 19th century homes that have endured the years still stand triumphant. There was a good deal of wealth in these settlements and that wealth came from the dams that held the water that powered the mills.
Kennebunk and Kennebunkport had even more going for them. In addition to mills along their two significant rivers, they had shipbuilding facilities at the Landing and near the mouth of the Kennebunk where they could regulate the tidal waters with, of all things, mill dams and locks. No need to look at old maps or travel far to see the prosperity which this ingenuity spawned. The saw mills and shipbuilding were symbiotic; each supporting the other with activity occurring within miles of one another. The grist and saw mills have long gone, and so their successors, the textile, shoe, twine and leather mills. But the wealth remains; transferred to other endeavors, carried off elsewhere or transformed into a public library or commercial bank, and stately old homes that sell ten-fold their original value. And so, on the Mousam River three dams that powered those mills remain. They are among the oldest mill and dam sites in Maine; all three going back to the late 17th century. They are historical, beautiful and majestic, holding within them the very fabric of Kennebunk’s history, economy, picturesque character and charm; not to mention the power of the river itself. For these reasons alone, they need to be protected, restored, maintained, and, above all, kept for posterity.
However, since 2013 or thereabout, there has been a movement afoot, led principally by the Mousam & Kennebunk Rivers Alliance with the strong backing of Maine Rivers, to destroy these dams in order to “liberate” the Mousam and restore the river to its pristine look, thus creating a wholesome habitat for the fish species who, they claim, are hankering to find old spawning grounds at least up to Old Falls or, perhaps, New Dam which is where the “buck” stops, so to speak, since at these two dam sites there are property values riding on the artificial ponds that these dams create. The Alliance has been spurred on by a rare opportunity. By 2017 the owner of those dams must declare its intent to renew its license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate them, or that license will expire in 2022.
The water power of a river in any given place was once called a “privilege”. You could own this privilege or lease it out to anyone who could utilize it. Old deeds and records show that they were once bought and sold; leased and subleased regularly. Presently, the privileges at these three dam sites is owned by Kennebunk Light and Power District which generates electricity at all three; albeit, a small percentage of the total it takes to electrically power this town of nearly 11,000.
The very origins of KLPD go back to 1893 when the town of Kennebunk purchased the downtown dam and turbines from the financially troubled Davis Shoe Co. for the very purpose of furnishing hydroelectric power for the town’s nascent street lamps. Back then KLPD was town-owned, called the Town of Kennebunk Light Department, and exclusively a hydroelectric generating company. It also maintained and supplied the wires, lights and poles as it does to this day. As the town grew, its electric power needs outpaced KLPD’s ability to generate the supply the town needed even though the company purchased two more dam privileges (Twine Mill and Dane/Perkins) in subsequent years. Consequently, KLPD was forced to purchase electricity generated elsewhere to meet the town’s needs, and the percentage of that generated at these three dams decreased in proportion to the total amount used over the years. Presently, KLPD estimates that the dams generate only 1.5% of the total electricity used; although when the river is full after heavy rains and snow melt-off it can go as high as 5%. It is significant that the entire state of Maine generates 25% of its electric power from hydro, and that generated by KLPD all goes into that whole. In any case, the Trustees of KLPD must decide within two years whether it is worth the considerable expense paperwork and time it takes to renew its license to operate the dams, and this prospect has generated a good deal of animated debate and discussion in and about Kennebunk. With its considerable ammunition of data on fish, eco-systems and the environment the Rivers Alliance would like to take the lead, win the public’s heart and convince the Trustees of KLP that there is one way to go.
If the dams are lost, another piece of Maine’s history would be lost, and the Mousam would still not be returned to its pristine, primeval state as Old Falls and a series of dams in Sanford remain in place. While we cannot and should not save every piece of our past, the historic preservation movement has shown us time after time that it is eminently beneficial and worthy of civilization to preserve that which is significant, beautiful and monumental. These three dams, Kesslen, Twine Mill and Dane/Perkins, are all that and more. Fish ladders for the fish would strike a good balance, but a wholesale demolition of these dams would tarnish a town which had the foresight years ago to establish Maine’s first Historic District. The town has a golden, historic moment to reaffirm that foresight by keeping the dams.