LEWISTON — Museum L-A is preserving Maine history with original millworkers’ artwork, and it all started with a dive into a dump truck.

Museum Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers said that in 2005 she spotted two big dump trucks on the loading dock. One had a bright red piece of fabric sticking out.

“It caught my curiosity so I climbed in to see what it was,” she said.

What was inside were 10 big linen carts with artwork done by Bates Manufacturing millworkers in the design department. Some 200 to 300 unique pieces.

The museum has started an e-commerce store with the help of an entrepreneurial task force. It is selling items such as prints, pillows, mugs and tote bags with the mill workers’ original designs on them.

“We’re trying to utilize what we found and what we’ve been saving and use it to raise money,” Desgrosseilliers said.

The red poppy design that she orginally spotted in that dump truck is now one of the store’s best sellers.

Plates such as this were made with designs from original artwork done by Bates Manufacturing millworkers. Sun Journal/Daryn Slover

The designs are all original, hand-drawn and hand-colored by millworkers. Desgrosseilliers estimated the drawings are from the 1940s to 1960s, based on their style.

She said the designs are not called artwork, they are “work art.”

“When (astronauts) first went on the moon, (mill workers) made a bedspread,” she said.

“They created and doodled stuff like that. If it was accepted they would make a bedspread. There’s one with a man on the moon, one of Sputnik, and a tablecloth with a symbol of the American flag.”

The museum’s gift shop has samples and mockups of how different pieces look, and they can be ordered through the online store at museumla.org/MLA-Store.

“We’re going to expand as we get to know a little more what we’re doing,” Desgrosseilliers said.

They are looking for an entrepreneurial volunteer to help them develop new lines of products.

The store only has a few designs, because they wanted to pick a few to try and get it started.

She said the museum wants to find local companies to make some of the products for them.

“That’s one of our future steps,” she said.

They have also been licensing some of the designs to companies who want to use the art.

“I’d like to see it spread everywhere, used for all kinds of stuff,” Desgrosseilliers said of the designs.

They have a collection of black-and-white photographs, and they want to take some of those and “with the help of some creative minds come up with new ways of using them.”

They are also looking into doing wallpaper with some of the designs and possibly wrapping paper, too.

“Really, there’s no limit to what we can do with it, we just have to be smart and turn it into a business that will help bring money in to keep the museum going. Because that’s our goal,” Desgrosseilliers said.

“We need help with donations and sponsors, but we want to have to not be dependent on that as much as we are now. The goal is to be sustainable.”

The museum is in the process of digitizing and cataloging all of the individual designs, a project that started in 2009 when it received a historic-preservation grant.

Desgrosseilliers said the museum is applying for another grant to help finish that project, which would help make more designs available to use for merchandise.

“There are a lot of decisions to make,” she said. “What are we going to do with all this stuff we worked so hard to save?”