Getting Populated

Durham’s population grew slowly. Its early people came from, or were the children of, families from Essex County and Cape Cod, or from southern New Hampshire. Maine’s climate turned less hospitable to cash crops such as wheat, and with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, families headed west. Towns like Durham sprouted, but grew very little. For most of the nineteenth century, Maine’s principal export was its people, who took their talents to the plains, forests and thriving towns beyond the Appalachians. By 1900 Durham’s population had grown only to 1230.

Soon after, the “Sanfordites,” followers of Frank Sanford, located their headquarters at Shiloh Temple in Durham, and brought many followers of their Church of the Holy Ghost and Us, an evangelical sect, to the town. Running its own schools and industries, its burgeoning settlement brought many newcomers; population grew to 1625 by 1910.

The cult’s leader was discredited, and though the church remains active to this day, by 1920 Durham shrank to 1144 people, and then to 806 in 1930. The Great Depression brought ruin to many in the 1930s, so that Durham had only 784 residents in 1940. Many were still involved in agriculture; others were independently employed at home-based small businesses–orchards, smithy, lumber sales, music-teaching, etc.

In the general economic boom that followed World War II, Durham grew to 1050 residents. The automobile made it possible to work in the busy cities and yet return home each day. The same rural flavor that had led many to leave for urban opportunities now became the atmosphere people wanted for their homes. The addition of these commuters pressed population upward–to 1280 in 1970, 2074 in 1980, 2475 in 1990, and to an estimated 3200 to 3500 by 1997. For years there was an uneasy relationship between the established population and the newcomers, between native farm and blue-collar workers and immigrants who generally had higher incomes. By now the balance between the indigenous residents and those “from away,” whether from Freeport or Los Angeles, is about even. Both share an appreciation for the beauty of the countryside, for the cautious approach to developers’ proposals, for the slow but steady pace of the town meeting government. Like many rural towns in southern and central Maine, Durham faces the 21st century with the challenges of “urban sprawl” – how to provide public services to a growing population when the town only has limited sources of revenue.

For more information, see Everett Stackpole’s History of Durham (1896), Durham Bicentennial Reports (1976 and 1989), or please contact the Durham Historical Society.