Biddeford + Saco
Renewal and respect for history in these twin cities
Separated by the Saco River, the twin cities of Biddeford and Saco sprang from one of the oldest European settlements in the country. Four years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, English physician Richard Vines came ashore at what is now the summer community of Biddeford Pool, and in 1653 the area was first incorporated as the town of Saco. By the mid-nineteenth century, mills making shoes and textiles, and others milling lumber and grain, lined the riverbanks, operated by immigrants from Ireland and French-speaking Canada. Both Biddeford and Saco became bustling centers for commerce and the arts as well as industry. The last mill closed in 2009, but these twin cities are thriving today, thanks to the determination of both longtime residents and the newcomers who have opened businesses in their restored mill buildings.
In 2015 native Mainers Darren Case and Kristina Hansen returned to Maine from Brooklyn, New York, to launch Round Turn Distilling in the former Pepperell textile mill, now the Pepperell Center. Their award-winning Bimini Gin is made in a steam-powered steel and copper still built in Etna, Maine, and the couple has become engaged in the growing community.
“Having both grown up just south of Biddeford, in the Kennebunks, we were excited to see the revitalization of the downtown area when we began looking for space to open our business,” says Hansen. “Our next-door neighbors, Banded Brewing Company, have a bustling tap room, and we often cap off the workday with a pint at their bar.” Other fun spots Hansen mentions are the self-described “nano-brewery” Nuts and Bolts Brewing, which offers creative twists on traditional styles, and Sweetcream Dairy, which makes deli-cious and whimsical ice cream and milkshakes; they recently released a limited run of ten flavors made in collaboration with different downtown businesses, including Round Turn.
Food and drink enterprises have played a prominent role in Biddeford–Saco’s rebirth. “Our go-to date-night spot is Elda [named one of Eater’s “18 Best New Restaurants in America” for 2018], and in the off-season, Monday-night trivia at Run of the Mill on Factory Island is a great night out with friends,” says Case. “We have brunch at Palace Diner every Saturday, and we also enjoy sipping afternoon cortados at Time and Tide Coffee or grabbing a chocolate croissant and chai latte at Elements: Books Coffee Beer.” Other favorites include Que Huong, a family-run Vietnamese restaurant; Quiero Café in Pepperell Square for empanadas and tamales; and Part and Parcel for sandwiches and specialty foods.
Many local cultural activities are hosted by the arts nonprofit Engine, which offers studio space, classes for adults and kids, and a variety of programming for the public, including the Biddeford–Saco ArtWalk. Another cultural hub is the Dyer Library/Saco Museum in Saco, where the permanent exhibitions include a room furnished as a mill girl’s boarding house bedroom from 1840.
For exploring on foot, Case and Hansen head for the RiverWalk, which stretches from Mechanics Park to the Saco Mills and crosses the river right in front of the falls. “When we want to get out of downtown for a nature walk, we head to Fortune’s Rocks beach, the Saco Heath Preserve, or the Timber Point Trail, which is part of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge,” says Hansen. Saco’s Ferry Beach State Park is a popular summertime destination, and the village of Biddeford Pool, named for its large tidal basin, boasts winding lanes with shingled cottages and one of the most beautiful beaches in the state. It’s a place where time seems to stand still. On a July afternoon, the scene at F.O. Goldthwaite’s market might feel much like it did in the 1970s, while just a few miles away lies a pair of the most forward-thinking and creative cities in Maine.