Auburn spring water company met early demise

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Some would consider it a blessing. Others would call it an unfortunate set of circumstances.

Whichever, it put a cork in Auburn’s chances of becoming a big player in today’s worldwide multi-billion-dollar bottled water boom.

The stories of Poland Spring’s glory days are well-known. It was a period in the mid- to late 1880s when celebrities flocked to the fashionable resort at the site of the famous springhouse.

One of the area’s lesser known might-have-beens is the Auburn Mineral Spring Company and an ill-fated hotel in West Auburn that aimed for similar fame and fortune.

Dana B. Holmes, an early resident of East Auburn, was a principal force in the project on Lake Auburn’s west shore not far from where he was born around 1840.

Holmes left his father’s farm at the age of 14 and for more than 20 years he participated in Auburn’s earliest shoemaking days. It was a time when there were no factories. Just about every farm had a small shop where families assembled shoe parts they took in from the companies.

They could make between $7 and $15 a week, according to L.C. Bateman, who was Grange editor of the Lewiston Evening Journal. In the early 1920s Bateman wrote about Holmes, the early shoemaking and the West Auburn hotel and spring.

Holmes was first employed by the Auburn Mineral Spring Company in the early 1880s. The company was formed to tap into a spring that had been found to have pure water and an “inexhaustible” flow. Its history dated to 1876 when typhoid fever blamed on impure water hit many families in West Auburn. The spring was acclaimed for its curative powers.

Holmes said he measured the spring’s flow at 28 gallons a minute (nearly 5 million gallons a year). That’s a respectable rate compared to Poland Spring’s extraction of almost 500 million gallons in 2005 from its six sites in Maine.

Agents for Auburn Mineral Spring Company sold stock all over New England, New York and Philadelphia. A small hotel was built at the site, and the company paid $5,000 to a Bath firm to build a large side-wheel steam-powered boat known as “The Lady of the Lake.” It was used to ferry passengers across Lake Auburn from the old horse railroad in East Auburn to the West Auburn hotel.

The operation flourished for a while, but business slipped to the point where lawyers were called in to settle affairs. Holmes bought up tax deeds on the property and reorganized the business.

In an interview with Bateman, Holmes said, “It was decided to build a new hotel and use the old one for an ell and a cook room, with bedrooms for the help. This new hotel was a fine structure and was hardly finished in 1893 when it took fire and was burned to the ground.”

He speculated that rubbish in the basement was ignited by spontaneous combustion “or a spark of fire fell from the keeper’s pipe. At any rate, it went up in smoke and that ended the dream of a great resort.”

After the hotel burned, Holmes and a hired man continued to work at the springhouse, making ginger ale.

“The bottling house was a good-sized structure and we could put up 14 barrels of water at a time,” Holmes said. “With more capital and fewer owners to dictate, it might be running today and doing a big business.”

So it goes. There’s no grand hotel on the shores of Lake Auburn today, but neither is there controversy that follows current water extraction projects throughout Maine.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and an Auburn native. You can e-mail him at dasargent@maine.com.

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