Maurice “Moe” Paquette, makes a point during a conversation at the Biddeford Mills Museum on a recent day. The museum has new space at North Dam Mill and is open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. each Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — Chances are, if your family has roots in Biddeford or the surrounding area, you have some connection with one or more of the textile mills that defined the city for decades.

In a way, they still do, as the mill buildings are undergoing a resurgence, providing space for small businesses and creative ventures and for living.

These days, and for the last decade, some who worked in the mills, those who have a personal or family connection to them, or those who are simply captivated by the history and the industry that they represent, have been working to make sure the legacy continues — that the implements and tools and the photos and the words of those who toiled aren’t lost.

This ‘fixer’s’  tool box, owned by Joachim Litalian, is one of the many artifacts on display at the Biddeford Mills Museum, located in the North Dam Mill. Tammy Wells Photo

Recently, the Biddeford Mills Museum moved to a new rented space in the North Dam Mill, where they are able to showcase a portion of their collection and host events and lectures. The museum can be reached by entering the main entrance of North Dam, taking the stairs to the basement and following the signs. The Biddeford Mills Museum is open noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Tours of the mill buildings commence in May and continue through the fall.

Inside, one of the displays is of colorful flags representing the people from 28 nations who made their living in the mills — and a narrative shows that at the Pepperell/Laconia mills, it was the tradition to welcome each new employee with their national flag on display on their first day of work. There were flags from Canada and from Greece, from Turkey and Albania, and from Ireland, Vietnam and Scotland and more.

In the museum there are examples of the cotton made into drill, a type of cloth used for items like tents or covered wagons, a history of the process that made the famed Vellux blanket, a tool box used by one of the fixers and bound ledgers dating back to the early days, showing payroll taxes, dividend receipts and the like. The history of the mills themselves can be traced by writings hung on the walls.

An artifact used in the manufacture of the Vellux blanket is on display at the Biddeford Mills Museum, now open noon to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at North Dam Mill. Tammy Wells Photo

For some, like Maurice “Moe” Paquette, the short-term job he envisioned when he first went to work in the mills turned into a 43-year career. Now, he is deeply involved with the Biddeford Mills Museum, giving tours, and undertaking other volunteer tasks.

Born in Biddeford, his family moved to Old Orchard Beach when Paquette was 10 years old. Following a three-year hitch in the U.S. Army, Paquette returned home, and started working in the mills in December 1967, in order to save enough money to move to Connecticut, where he had hoped to work for Pratt & Whitney.

But he never left.

“It was a great place to work,” said Paquette, who was a supervisor with the Vellux blanket operation.

In 2009, the mill closed.

These days, he is enjoying his volunteer gig at the museum.

Volunteer Dorothy Mathes of the Biddeford Mills Museum stands beside a display of ledgers that date back to 1839. The ledgers are on display at the museum’s new home, at the North Dam Mill. Tammy Wells Photo

“I like meeting people and giving tours. They people are so enthused,” he said. Paquette pointed out that some have never seen the waterfalls, or the lagoons under the mill structures — even though they may have worked for years in the building directly above the lagoons.

When the idea of a museum first arose, mill alumni gathered and brainstormed how they might proceed — and how to fund raise to make it a reality. One method was to use what was available — and so they obtained old flooring materials from one of the mill buildings and the students at the Biddeford Center of Technology turned the pieces into cribbage boards, which were then sold to the public.

Many who visit the the museum are relatives of those who worked in the mills, said Dorothy Mathes, another volunteer.

Mathes, originally of Yarmouth, toured the mills in 2015 and moved to Biddeford soon after, quickly becoming involved in the Biddeford Mills Museum.

The museum, she noted, continues to have an exhibit at the Pepperell Campus, but the new space in North Dam opened in July.

There are a number of unique items on display at the museum, Mathes said, such as the ledgers dating back to 1839. In 1986, a couple of WestPoint Pepperell employees, Don Guillerault and Harold Boudreau, were asked to empty a safe located in one of the Laconia Mill offices. They found ledgers, 94 of them, and at the time they could not find a home for the bound volumes.

Time passed and in 2015, Donald Boudreau called the museum to ask if there was any interest in some boxes of ledgers they had found in the family home. Museum volunteers were delighted and each of the pages has been digitally scanned, making for easier viewing.

Among the museum’s treasures are more than three dozen oral histories — conversations with people who worked at the mills or were married to people who did; conversations that sometimes discussed the work they did, and others said Mathes, that touched on more personal stories — like their day-to-day lives, or games they played as children.

Those interviews are available for viewing at the museum during regular open hours.

The mills have touched many lives, including the life of Alan Casavant, recently elected to a fifth term as Biddeford’s mayor.

“I love the idea of a physical mill museum, as having a space with pictures and artifacts helps people to connect,” said Casavant. “We have a generation that knows nothing of mill working, and that experience needs to be preserved.”

Both of his grandfathers worked in the mills, as did one of his grandmothers, Casavant said. They were all from Quebec, Canada, and came to Biddeford because there was work. In later years, he said his father worked there for a time too, in data processing.

Casavant remembers working in one of the mills for part of one summer. He was assigned to the card room and worked third shift.

“I remember it being hot, humid, repetitive, and noisy,” Casavant recalled in an email. “It was hard work too, and I remember talking to people who had been there 25, 30 years or whatever, and thinking how could they do that day in and day out. Obviously, the answer was that they had to, in order to support a family.”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: