January 21, 2013

In Biddeford, cribbage links generations of mill families

A fundraising project triggers memories for families with ties to Biddeford's iconic textile mills.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Patrick Wilson, a student at the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology, shows a cribbage board that was drilled by a computerized machine.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The boards reflect the history of the mill with an engraved brass plate.

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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.

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Additional Photos

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Student Jeremy Lambert vacuums sawdust from a drilled board before removing it from the computerized drill machine.

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Freshly painted nails, used as counting pegs for the game, dry on a cribbage board.

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Marc Cadorette, an instructor at the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology, works with students in the machine tool technology class to use a computer program that automates the drilling machine.

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Don Guillerault, a Biddeford Mills Museum board member who worked in the textile mills for 42 years


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