BIDDEFORD — On Saturday mornings, the Pepperell Mill Center bustles with activity: Farmers’ fill tables with vegetables for a weekly market, children play at an indoor playground and people drop by to visit a brewery, distillery and creamery.

A century ago, this floor of the mill held 1,500 looms in a sweltering room where workers wove cotton into sheets that were shipped around the world. The room was kept at 115 degrees with 75 percent humidity so the thread wouldn’t break.

As time marches forward in the former Pepperell Manufacturing mill, a small group of volunteers has spent years preparing to open a museum to highlight the history of a city once defined by its textile manufacturing. The first Biddeford Mills Museum exhibit is set to open this year in Building 13 of the sprawling mill complex, which is being redeveloped for small businesses, light manufacturing and residential uses.

“Biddeford is here because of the mills,” said Pete Lamontagne, a museum board member and “mill vet” who worked at Pepperell for 38 years.

The Biddeford Mills Museum formed as a nonprofit five years ago and last year announced it was teaming up with the Maine Historical Society to develop an exhibit in Building 13. A donation of $30,000 from Bangor Savings Bank, presented to the museum Friday, coupled with an anonymous $35,000 donation have allowed the museum to push up its timeline and complete its first exhibit by September. The first phase of the exhibit will be installed in June.

The total cost of the first exhibit and educational programs to accompany it is around $90,000, said Jeff Cabral, president of the Biddeford Mills Museum board.

The exhibit will be in a space in the Pepperell Mill Center that functions daily as a lobby, on Saturdays as a farmers market and occasionally as a function space for special events. It will include movable panels and a timeline that highlight the history of the mills, technology, immigration and other topics to show how the mills played an integral role in the history of the city, state and Industrial Revolution.

The opening of the exhibit has been long anticipated by a small group of former mill workers – the “mill vets” – that has spent the past five years collecting and saving pieces of the mill’s history, including tools that belonged to people who worked there. The mill vets also lead public tours during summer months, regaling visitors with impressive statistics about the million-square-foot mill complex, its history in the city and anecdotes about the generations of people who worked in the once-thriving mill. In the spring and fall, they lead tours for local schoolchildren, many of whom have grandparents who once worked there.

Lamontange said the mill vets feel strongly about preserving the legacy of the mills.

“We can finally see the light now that a museum is going to happen,” he said.

Scott Joslin, general manager of the Pepperell Mill Campus and a museum board member, said when developer Doug Sanford and his company took ownership of the mill after it closed in 2009, they inherited artifacts, including machines, tools and pieces of fabric. It seemed natural to work on a way to showcase these items while preserving the mill’s history, Joslin said. Someday, they hope to have a kiosk near the entrance to the Pepperell Mill Center where mill vets can greet visitors and share information about the mill’s history.

“They history here is so rich and very significant,” Joslin said.

The museum was recently given the 2017 Originality Award at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

“The Biddeford Mills Museum celebrates an important piece of our heritage and makes it accessible to visitors,” said Steve Lyons, acting director of the Maine Office of Tourism. “Working with past employees of the mills, they have created an immersive tour for visitors that builds pride and provides a unique Maine experience.”

The mill vets will resume their tours in June, with proceeds going to the museum.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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