Oakland, Maine

Gateway to the Belgrade Lakes

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History of Oakland, Maine

Understanding the history of development of Oakland can provide an appreciation of the forces that worked within the natural environment to shape the built environment of the community. A history traces the path of development of a Town to provide a sense of place or character and an assessment of why facilities, structures, and undeveloped lands (agricultural fields, forests, wetlands, steep slopes, open space, etc.) are located where -they are. With an understanding of these factors, it may be easier for the community to make decisions about what to preserve and what to change in the Town.

Oakland exists in its present form because of its natural resources, its geographic location, and because of historical forces which have impacted upon its people and its economy, past and present.

The roughly twenty-six square miles that make up Oakland were first settled by colonists of English decent who came from Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the latter half of the 1700's. At that time the area was known as Taconnet, which is derived from one of the four tribes of Indians who first possessed and occupied the fertile region watered by the Sebasticook, a tributary of the Kennebec. The area was first incorporated as Winslow in 1771. In 1872, the area west of the Kennebec effected a peaceful secession and was incorporated as Waterville. In 1873, the manufacturers in the western section, who had created a separate center of activity and trade and were unhappy about taxation, incorporated as West Waterville. In 1883, residents voted to call their Town Oakland.

Historically, Oakland was known as the ax and scythe capital of New England. When the ax and scythe were replaced in the field by the chainsaw and tractor, these older industries gradually fell victim to a changing technology.

When 1-95 and the automobile replaced passenger rail service, Oakland was no longer a strategic transportation hub. In the first half of this century, as many as eleven passenger trains served the Oakland station daily. The decline of rail service also changed vacation habits. The automobile increasingly carried shoppers to bigger supermarkets and department stores in nearby cities. These and other factors have left Oakland's businesses in a state of flux.

With the decline of the family farm here, as in the rest of the country, Oakland's undeveloped lands (agricultural fields, forests, wetlands, steep slopes, open space, etc.) and its proximity to Waterville and Augusta made it prime for residential development. Some see its transformation to a "bedroom community" as inevitable.


Farming was an important part of life in Oakland throughout much of the Town's history, from the earliest days when settlers farmed to be self-sufficient through the middle of this century when commercial farms were still common. A corn and string bean cannery (where the Town now owns a park on Belgrade Avenue) was a thriving late-summer industry from 1889 to 1953. A creamery on Oak Street served local dairies until midcentury and Rossignol's Dairy on Country Club Road sold its own milk products until about ten years ago.

The pressures of centralized agribusiness, Maine's winters, and its geographic isolation from grain supplies led to the near- extinction of both dairy and poultry farming in Oakland.

More than the farms, however, which were widespread in rural Maine up until the last few decades, industry shaped Oakland's economy and gave it its unique identity.


Messalonskee Stream, which falls about 120 feet and is supplied with water from the entire Belgrade Lakes chain, provided the energy to power Oakland into its industrial phase. Maurice Coughlin remembers the early twentieth century and says, "The Messalonskee Stream was the lifeblood of this Town ... it was lined with factories." Initially, perhaps as early as 1790, water power was used for gristmills and sawmills.

By 1850 there were four dams along the half-mile stretch of the stream below Messalonskee Lake. The industrial revolution had arrived. Industries that flourished and died along the stream include tanneries, furniture and carriage shops, iron foundries, machine shops, boat and casket makers, shingle mills, tool handles, and perhaps most importantly, edge tool manufacturers and woolen mills.

The edge tools, axes, scythes, sickles, etc. were first produced in the 1830's at the last dam near the cascade. The edge tool business blossomed at various sites along the stream during the second half of the 1800's and Oakland became the ax and scythe capital of New England, if not the United States.

In the 1890's the American Ax & Tool Company was making as many as 145,000 scythes a year near the bridge at School Street alongside the Emerson & Stevens Manufacturing Company which made edge tools for almost 100 years up until the 1960's.

The North Wayne Tool Company, previously Dunn Edge Tool Company, was the last active firm in Oakland, closing in 1967. In the words of Michael J. Denis (author of "Some Notes on Industry and Manufacturing on Messalonskee Stream" to which this account is indebted), "The Dunn Edge Tool Company has produced at times 180,000 scythes and 120,000 axes per year; its layout was considered to be among the finest in the world; it was the largest such manufactory in New England, and it produced per year more scythes than any other factory in the world."

Of all the industries along the stream, only Cascade Woolen Mill remains. It has endured since 1882, and has recently found a niche in the complex textiles industry making custom-woven woolens and blends for outerwear, as well as fabrics for furniture upholstery and office partitions. Cascade is Oakland's single biggest employer, with a workforce of about 250 people from all over central Maine. Another mill, The Oakland Woolen Company, was located at the top of the stream from 1902 until it burned in 1933.

Besides the water-powered industry that thrived alongside Messalonskee Stream, Oakland has seen a variety of small manufacturing concerns around Town. From 1913 until the early 1980's, BerstForster- D ixf ield (doing business as Diamond Match) made toothpicks and woodenware in a sprawling mill alongside the railroad tracks north of Pleasant Street. During its peak years, just before World War 11, that mill employed as many as 500 people, and supported a second tier of contractors who provided logs and other services. That facility now houses a metal-recycling firm which employs several dozen people.


The importance of lakes in Oakland's economy cannot be overlooked. Maine began to attract vacationers around 1870 and by the turn of the century the Belgrade Lakes area was well known for its hotels and camps.

Summer camps, both those for children and the housekeeping and American Plan camps for adults and families, began to take root here in the 1920's. The seasonal businesses, with various camps on the shores of all four lakes in Town, had their best years prior to the time that personal automobiles supplanted passenger trains as the primary mode of transportation to and from the region. Arriving by rail, urban children and families came from out-of- state to spend entire vacations here, doubling the population and retail commerce every summer.

When the road systems improved and families began traveling by car, the camp industry began to decline. Now, with the combined effects of an increasingly mobile population, a steady run-up in real estate prices, and a more competitive labor market for summer help, commercial camps have become difficult to justify as for- profit businesses. Many have been subdivided and-there is pressure for the condominiumization of others.

The upward spiral of land prices prevents many Oakland residents from owning lakefront property. While Oakland recently put in its first public waterfront recreation area on Belgrade Avenue, residents wonder whether this serves more out-of-town people than Oakland residents.


Perhaps more important in shaping the Town than its industries have been its transportation services. The Maine Central Railroad from Portland to Bangor was completed in 1849. Oakland was the junction between that line and the independent Somerset Railroad which connected Kennebec, Somerset, and Piscataquis counties including resorts on Moosehead Lake.

Passenger transportation by rail lasted until 1957, though it diminished as automobile use gained momentum after World War 11. Prior to the mid-1950's the trains were important in bringing in summer visitors, and earlier still, served as the main supply route for Oakland businesses.

Since businesses depended upon rail service, Oakland's business district grew up around the rail station. Supplies arrived by train and were distributed around Town by teams of horses. With a turntable and car repair shops located in Oakland, the railroad was a significant asset to the Town. Today it is somewhat a cause for concern, both because of the disrepair of the tracks and the potentially hazardous cargoes that roll through Town and along the shores of Messalonskee Lake daily.

Oakland was also served by a trolley line that connected it to Waterville, Fairfield, and to cities farther afield. Besides providing townspeople with a transportation link to the other towns, the trolley also brought a big car-barn called Messalonskee Hall at the end of Church Street (a social and athletic center) and the Cascade Park, a musical and theatrical facility.

Today, Oakland's proximity to 1-95, which arrived in the 1960's, is an important factor in its future evolution.


Oakland's downtown was shaped by the transportation services in earlier decades, by a historically different employment situation in Town than pertains today, and by the -needs and habits of the townspeople.

When the passenger trains flourished, Oakland's Main Street had hotels. When Diamond Match employed some 500 people in addition to Cascade's workforce and that of the various toolmakers, employees from out-of-town used Oakland's banks and grocery stores. When summer people doubled the Town's population, businesses flourished in the summer months. Besides the Main Street district, the original settlement at Upper Mills (now Haymarket Square) earlier in this century had three grocery stores, a car dealer, a blacksmith, a furniture store, and a barber shop.

Today, in the absence of train service, a large summer colony, and a busy manufacturing sector, new forces pertain, and the Town continues to seek its contemporary identity.

When the post office moved to Water Street several years ago, Town officials protested, but to no avail. When the 1980's began, the lack of adequate parking on Main Street was a major municipal concern. As the decade ends, many townspeople wish that the downtown businesses were vital enough to make parking a problem.


About twenty years ago, Oakland, Belgrade, and Sidney formed School Administrative District 47. As Oakland increasingly becomes a residential community, one of the most desirable features for new residents is the school system. Throughout this century the Town's residents have rallied behind the schools and have been proud of the educational system. That support continues, and the schools (academically first and athletically second) are now one of the biggest sources of community pride.


The young people's refrain, "there's nothing to do," perplexes older residents of Oakland. Before television, Oakland people were used to making their own entertainment and its quality is fondly remembered. Adult community baseball teams were a spectator sport and there were locally produced plays and musicals, movie theaters, dances at Messalonskee Hall, and many thriving civic organizations and smaller clubs.

The Town has a fine facility for such activities in Memorial Hall, built in 1870 as a memorial to Civil War veterans. The Grange, Masons, American Legion, and VFW still meet, and there is a strong and active Lion's Club. Churches have played an important role in the Town's development and there are seven active in Oakland today. Use and support of the public library are on the upswing. The Oakland Area Historical Society maintains the Macartney House Museum on Main Street.


Oakland's municipal government changed from a system of Selectmen to a Town Council in 1935. There is still an annual Town Meeting to approve the municipal budget, but most of the Town's spending (for education) is approved at SAD 47's annual district budget meeting. A five-person Town Council oversees a Town Manager and there are nearly three dozen other municipal employees.


While this century has seen the decline of agriculture, industry, and related businesses in Oakland, there has been an increased pressure for residential development. The attractions of the area include the aesthetic virtues of the Belgrade Lakes, the rural New England countryside, a highly regarded school system, and proximity to Waterville, Augusta, and 1-95.

There is concern that the erosion of Oakland's traditional economic base, a growing demand for services, and increased population density will tax the Town's resources and alter its small-town atmosphere and its sense of community.