The Biddeford Mill Clock Tower is not only a testament to the rich industrial history of our community, but a testament to the people who spent their lives within this historic clock tower’s shadow. This clock tower is inextricably linked to generations of Biddeford people who worked within the Pepperell.
Etched within her magnificent clock tower is the name Leon Harriman, the man who had the honor of winding this clock back on Feb. 21 1934. “Working in the Pepperell Mill is — the only job my father had,” said 86-year old Peter Harriman who remembered his father and the fatal day that he lost his life in the mill.
“My father, Leon, worked at the cotton end of the mill industry. He started out as a spinner and then pretty much held every job that the mill could offer him. He was a small man, barely weighing 100 pounds and was less than five feet tall,” Peter said.
Leon Harriman lived his entire life in Biddeford, a life that was connected to generations of Harrimans with the first coming to America in the 1820s. Leonard Harriman was a textile worker, someone who had plied his craft in England and with his skill and experience was likely recruited to work in the mills of Lowell. Sometime after 1840 Leonard came to Biddeford and brought his talents to our community.
Leonard Harriman was here when the great entrepreneur and inventor Samuel Batchelder catalyzed a textile empire that brought Biddeford-manufactured textile to the far reaches of our world. Leonard saw first-hand the immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Albania, Turkey and Canada who were entranced by the promise of the Pepperell and the work it promised them. He was a witness to the building of the Biddeford Mill Clock Tower in 1853 and must have marveled at its 26,000 pound girth, its Pepperell Manufacturing Bell, its beautiful weathervane and its clock that faithfully timed mill life.
Leonard’s son, Alphonzo, was born three years before the Biddeford Mill Clock Tower was erected and his grandson, Leon, carried on the Harriman tradition of working for the Pepperell.
All of the Harrimans’ lives — Leonard, Alphonzo, Leon and Peter — were timed by the ringing of the Biddeford Mill Clock Tower’s bell.
Peter describes the fateful day when his father lost his life working for Pepperell Manufacturing.
“There were seven of us in our family. May 1951 is a day that I will never forget. I was a sophomore at St. Louis High School,” he said. “I came home from school and my mother told me that my father had died. You see my father was an impatient man. The mill had put an elevator in one building with the goal of making it easier to transport boxes across a tunnel into another building. The elevator kept breaking. The mill management kept calling people to unjam it. My father said he would repair it himself. Unfortunately, my father was trapped in the elevator and was killed,” Peter said.
The wife of Leon Harriman was faced with a daunting challenge of supporting seven kids by herself in 1951. The mill management had a $500 life insurance policy but refused to give it to Mrs. Harriman as a cash settlement. Every two weeks she walked down to mill office and ask for the small portion to sustain her family for another two weeks.
“This was a huge hardship for our family. I worked and went to school. My two older brothers and sisters all worked to keep the family going and face the unfathomable reality of living life without my father. It was hard,” Peter said.
In early 2020, the grandson of Leon Harriman, Rob Harriman joined the Friends of the Biddeford Mill Clock Tower Committee. He thought it was a beautiful historic structure worthy of honor and of repairing. As he went into the clock tower room and looked at the etchings of people who were proud to wind the clock, he saw the signature of his grandfather who gave his life to the Pepperell.
“It was one of those moments that you knew that the work we were investing in the clock tower was for more than just this structure. The clock tower represents people and in this case, the life of my grandfather and the years of service he put into the mill,” Rob said. “If I can help keep it with us, save it for people who come after us so they can know the story of Biddeford’s industrial prowess and how at the root of all this prowess are people like my grandfather who made this happen, then all of this is worth it.”
The names etched in the clock don’t stop with the Harrimans. Francis Spencer proudly signed his name in the 1950s, thrilled to have the honor of winding the clock and ringing the bell. It was Francis Spencer’s team that invented the Vellux blanket ushering in another wave of innovation for our community and saving thousands of jobs. And this is but a few of the members of our community who sought to memorialize their connection to this clock tower and the industrial innovation it represented.
Peter reflected on the clock tower and how it was neglected and taken down before its time. “I was born and lived all my life in Biddeford and the clock tower was always there. When I was young, I worked at the Biddeford Saco Daily Journal and faced the clock tower every day. I heard her chime and the bell ring. It is a shame it was taken down. There was a lot of neglect and unfortunately it wasn’t important to people. It would be great to bring it back and honor it. It would be a beautiful day when people can tour the clock tower and see my father’s name so they can know what he did and how he gave his life for the mill and ultimately for our community.”
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