The People You Know: Benjamin Bates – ‘Trust Ben, he can make it happen’

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LEWISTON — He never lived here, but once a month Benjamin Bates came up from Boston and walked the streets, a man from away with money.

He was a respected multi-millionaire. A young widower. Entrepreneurial. Extremely pious. Surprised to find a college named after him.

“Few men have accomplished more in the allotted three score years and ten,” College President George Colby Chase wrote in a Bates College Bulletin remembrance after his 1878 death.

Today he’s known in name — inescapable, really — but not so much in person.

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“It helps to have one’s decedents in the area to help beat your drum,” said David Colby Young, president of the Androscoggin Historical Society.

Alan Elze leads tours at Museum L-A in Bates Mill No. 1.

“He’s not the big name that Francis Cabot Lowell was,” said Elze. “They basically bled Lowell dry (writing about him).”

For Bates, it takes hunting.

He was born July 12, 1808, in Mansfield, Mass., the third of eight kids. As an adult, Bates worked several jobs, eventually becoming third partner in a successful Boston dry goods business. In 1847 when one partner died, they closed shop.

“Benjamin Bates has time on his hand and money in his pocket,” Elze said.

That year, he found Lewiston. The rest is really local history.

When he died, a newspaper write-up described Bates as “director or treasurer of nearly all of our manufacturing corporations and a large owner in all,” including the Lewiston Water Power Co., and the Hill, Androscoggin, Continental and Bates mills, according to the book “Bates College and its background” by Alfred Williams Anthony.

“He had extremely great credit — everyone in New England knew who he was,” Elze said. The attitude, he said, seemed to be: “If we’re going to trust anybody, trust Ben — he can make it happen.”

An early donor to the Maine State Seminary, its name changed to Bates College in 1864 in his honor at the doing of then-college President Oren Cheney and the Maine Legislature.

Bates gave substantially to the school in his life. (Although, according to Anthony’s book, a last $100,000 gift fell apart after he died.) Part of his legacy on campus: The college has 45 members of the Benjamin Bates Society, individuals and families, living and deceased, who’ve given $1 million or more over a lifetime.

His legacy in town: A sprawling complex redeveloped for bankers, restaurants and business, and one large mill, No. 5, that may or may not come down.

Elze said Bates was survived by a second wife and four children, who he’s been able to find out little about. Bates is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. In his 28th annual address, found in the Muskie Archives’ “Bates College Annual Report of President 1891-1903,” Cheney wrote of his school’s famous benefactor:

“The late Hon. Benjamin E. Bates of Boston was the founder of Lewiston … He loved the city to the day of his death.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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