Tuesday, May 21, 2013
BIDDEFORD - For more than 150 years, textiles produced in Biddeford were shipped around the world, but the work being done within the massive brick mills was seen only by employees.
Now, people who wondered what it was like inside can tour the Pepperell Mills with former workers who share their experiences and pay tribute to the rich manufacturing tradition that helped shape the city.
The tours, offered through the end of September, benefit the Biddeford Mills Museum currently being organized in Building 36 of the Pepperell Mill Campus, where Vellux blankets were invented and made. The museum is not yet open, but volunteers are collecting artifacts, photos and stories to create exhibits intended to preserve the historical and cultural mill heritage. Mill veterans also are recording oral histories of their experiences.
"The mills are so significant in terms of their contribution to Biddeford's history and the present. They're an incredible visual fixture and symbolic of how Biddeford became Biddeford," said Jeff Cabral, vice president of the museum board and director of McArthur Library. "(The mills) are inseparable from the rich history Biddeford has."
Construction of the mills began in the 1840s and the prospect of work drew thousands of immigrants to the city. In the 160 years that followed, generations of local families worked in the mills and the downtown businesses that served workers. Textile manufacturing in the mills ended in 2009 when WestPoint Home, previously Pepperell Manufacturing, closed its operation.
Left behind were the last piece of Vellux blanket made, machinery and clocks, and stories from mill workers no one wanted to see lost. Doug Sanford, a real estate developer who already owned the North Dam Mill, purchased the former Pepperell mills.
"When we bought the complex in 2010, there was a lot of exhibit-quality stuff here, everything from machinery to old photographs to building plans," said Scott Joslin, manager of the Pepperell Mill Campus. "We didn't want to just put it in storage."
Joslin jumped at the chance to start the museum, but, realizing it took a tremendous amount of work, enlisted volunteers to help. Organizers hope to open the nonprofit museum within the next year.
In the meantime, guests can get a taste of mill history during tours that bring them through the cavernous halls that once housed huge pieces of machinery. Tour guides describe everything from how the mills were built to their own experiences working there.
Nearly 200 people took tours in August, including people from as far away as Idaho, said Dana Peck, president of the museum board.
The tours also attract former mill workers.
"There are people to this day who worked here who have never been in many sections of this mill," Peck said.
The tours will continue once the museum opens, and will be an integral part of the experience.
"The unique part of the museum will be a comprehensive tour," Joslin said. "The museum is not in a place, it is the place."
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: