BIDDEFORD – It started as a simple fundraiser for the Biddeford Mills Museum — cribbage boards made from the floorboards of the city’s oldest textile mills.
But it has quickly transformed into a community project that is bringing together two generations and triggering memories for families whose histories are inextricably tied to the city’s iconic textile mills.
“It’s time for Biddeford people to be proud of who they are and of their history. This is just one piece of that,” said Dana Peck, the museum board president.
The museum teamed up late last year with local vocational students to begin producing the cribbage boards, which now sell out as fast as they are made. Intended initially as a limited time sale to benefit the museum, the cribbage boards proved so popular they will be featured in the gift shop when the museum opens this spring.
Peck said the cribbage boards bring back powerful memories of workers who spent years of their lives in the textile mills built along the banks of the Saco River.
“This really gave them a connection back to when they worked here,” he said.
Mill veterans — who came up with the idea of salvaging the floors — have become part of the project, too. They have given the students a tour of the mills, telling them stories about the history of the buildings and the ghosts they believe still linger there.
To date, the museum has sold more than 150 boards at $25 each, with a list of at least 30 more people waiting for a cribbage board.
The floorboards used for the cribbage boards come from Building 16, built in 1845 and the oldest building in the sprawling mill complex. It sits in the middle of the Pepperell Mill Campus, surrounded by buildings in better condition that are now being used for a mix of housing, commercial and manufacturing uses. Mill owner Doug Sanford is tearing down the building, but offered the boards to the mill veterans working to establish the museum. The maple was cut well over 100 years ago in Michigan.
After mill veterans suggested transforming the wood into cribbage boards, they needed to find a cost-effective way to produce them, said Don Guillerault, a museum board member who worked in the textile mills for 42 years. The group contacted the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology at Biddeford High School, where machine tool technology instructor Marc Cadorette jumped at the chance to involve students in a project that gives back to the community while getting first-hand production experience. The museum pays the class $2 per board, which goes back into the program’s budget.
The floorboards — some darker than others, some with imperfections — show the wear of thousands of mill workers who paced and shuffled across them over the past century. The mill vets sort through piles of boards to find ones without cracks, then cut and plane the wood. They use horseshoe nails for pegs. A small plaque on each board identifies it as from “16 Mill, Oldest Building, Laconia Mill/Pepperell. Built 1845.”
Though most of the seven students in Cadorette’s class have never played cribbage, they embraced the challenge of producing the mementos of their hometown history.
“It’s pretty neat to include a history lesson in machine tool technology,” Cadorette said.
The students use 21st-century technology to transform the 19th-century floorboards.
Back in their workshop, students wrote code for the computer numerical control (CNC) machine that drills holes in the board. Last week, students clamped boards into the machine, closed its glass doors and watched as the machine drilled 250 precise holes. Five minutes later, a student used a shop vacuum to suck sawdust off the board, filed rough edges and used a gauge pin to make sure each hole was properly drilled. Students sign the back of many of their boards, their way of becoming part of history, they said.
While the CNC machine worked behind him, 18-year-old Brian Kearsley ran his fingers over an uncut board.
“Every once in a while you’d look at the wood and remember just how old it is,” he said.
After the boards are cut, they are brought back to the Pepperell campus, where mill vets set up a workshop in their headquarters. Surrounded by displays of historic photos and cavernous empty mill rooms, they created an assembly line to paint the horseshoe nails, attach plaques and wrap each board with paper and twine.
James Lantagne of Biddeford worked in the mills for 19 years. Now he’s one of the mill vets producing the boards, giving tours of the mills and documenting history for future generations.
“Everybody (in Biddeford) has relatives who worked here. This whole place is the foundation of Biddeford,” he said.
Lantagne said working with the floorboards is exciting, though he sometimes finds himself pausing to think about the history behind them.
“Who knows how many people walked on them,” he said.
Making a connection with a younger generation was a rewarding aspect of the project, Guillerault said. The mill vets hope to inspire the teens to embrace the city’s history.
“We’re the old guys. Most of us are in our sixties,” Guillerault said .”We want to step out of the way and let the younger generation step in.”
While the students and mill veterans said they enjoyed working together on the project, others are thankful for the memories conjured by holding a piece of the city’s history.
Joyce Poulin, an administrative assistant at the center of technology, knew a cribbage board would be the perfect gift for her father, despite the fact that he doesn’t play the game. Richard Guay spent his entire working life behind the brick walls of Pepperell, making his way up through the ranks to management.
When Poulin first heard about the project, she knew the boards would be a hit.
“(The mills) have affected so many people in this area and they’re proud to have worked there,” she said. “I knew people would buy into it because of that pride.”
Despite the long waiting lists, Poulin was able to buy a cribbage board as a gift for her father. Watching him unwrap the board was incredible, she said.
“You could see the emotion,” she said. “You could just see him thinking about Building 16 and the memories.”
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: