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Cultural diversity in Berlin

April 30, 2014
BERLIN Today marks the anniversary of John Goebel who died on April 30, 1916; two years shy of a century ago. He was one of thousands who migrated to Berlin during the late 1800's and 1900's.

Some street signs and structures show the cultural diversity in Berlin that emerged during the city's early development. German, Scandinavian, Irish, Russian, Italian, and of course French immigrants started settling here after the English a little over 150 years ago. Most of them came to work at sawmills, and later, the paper mills that thrived back then.

Berlin Mills Company, (formerly H. Winslow Sawmill and later Brown Company), along with a number of other mills and businesses that once prospered, required an amount of skilled workers who had specialized trades. A few Germans who had skills working with machinery and iron came to Berlin (Formerly Berlin Falls) to work in the mills and to settle. The Germans lived in a section of town on the east side called German Town, and about 8 families lived on German Street. John Goebel was one of the residents who lived there. He owned his own business on the west side on Mechanic Street selling grain, flour, hay, grass feed, and other products. German Street was eventually renamed to Goebel Street after the settler. There is very little German heritage in Berlin, but Goebel Street reminds us that there was some. George Harkins and John Mahern moved to Berlin in 1900 and founded the Berlin Foundry & Machine Company located on Goebel Street, and the business is still in operation today.

Anyone who visits Berlin assuredly recognizes the French-Canadian culture. The 2010 census shows that more than half of the current residents here have French ancestry. The first French settlers came around 1860 to work at H. Winslow Sawmill (located where the Heritage Park is). Recorded history shows that after the war of 1812, many French Canadians left Quebec because it was mostly farmland, and a high number of the land was used by the English. Located close to the border, they first came by horse and carriages, then by train. The number of French settlers in Berlin rose swiftly throughout the 1900's. They embraced the area, and they were embraced by the community. They were known for being hard workers and a lot of them worked as "rivermen" on the log drives that transported the logs via the Androscoggin River, which were used to make paper at the mill.

A Berlin native is surely familiar with the streets off of upper Main Street that make up the Norwegian Village. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland Streets are named after the Scandinavian countries of immigrants who settled here and worked at the mills. The street names are assigned to each group. Norwegian settlers made up largest of those groups, and Norwegian Street was later renamed Norway Street. A group of these settlers also established the Nansen Ski Club in 1872. It is the oldest extant ski club in the United States.

Most of the immigrants lived within their own ethnic group, and each nationality was subdivided into separate sections throughout the city. Part of the reason was because of language barriers and cultural differences. The Irish lived in the Irish Acres near the vicinity of the former St. Kieran's Church, which is now a community arts center. The Irish attended St. Anne's Catholic Church before they built St. Kieran's Church. St. Anne's Church was run by the French who had decided to change the language used for services from English to French after the Irish started attending, though the language of the Mass in both was Latin. The Irish, who only spoke English, then built St. Kieran's in 1895. They were known as hard workers.

Most of earliest Russian settlers lived on Mechanic, Exchange, Union, and Green Streets here in Berlin. The built and established the Russian Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church which offers services today.

Italians settled in the vicinity of Cascade Flats near the Berlin/Gorham line and in some parts of east side, for instance, around the vicinity of Cheshire Street. They were known for their masonry skills and helped build the former Burgess Mill and Cascade Mill. Many Italian families still reside here today and provide food services.

When these immigrants first came here between 1850 and 1860, there were 433 settlers. At the turn of the 20th Century, there was about 9000 residents in 1900 and 11,000 in 1910. In 1930, the population was highest at about 20,000. Today, there are about 10,000, over half of which are of French descent as previously mentioned.

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