Editor’s note: Biddeford Mills Museum recorded interviews with more than 50 former Biddeford Mills employees in 2012 and 2013. Below is excerpt from one of those videos in an occasional series of stories of people who have worked in the Biddeford and Saco mills. The full set of videos will be available for viewing at the museum when it reopens. Find the museum online at biddefordmillsmuseum.org or check out its Facebook page — Biddeford Mills Museum.

Leo and Pauline Laverriere both worked at the mills, first at Pepperell and later at Biddeford Textile.

Pauline was born in Connecticut to Oscar and Florence Labrie. Her family moved to Biddeford where both parents took jobs at Pepperell.

Leo was born in Rhode Island. His father was from Canada. His mother‘s maiden name was Bennett. She was born in 1900, one of 13 children, and raised in Biddeford.

In 1911, at the age of 11, Pauline’s mother went to work in the spinning room at the mill. She lived at home and worked 54 hours each week until 1932, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a law that restricted the work week to 40 hours. She was married in 1923, and had eight children.

Leo’s uncle worked in the mills for 65 years. He lived to age 100 and his sister lived to 105.

Pauline and her sister, following their family’s example, both worked at Pepperell. Pauline started in 1947, at age 16. She was a “battery girl,” loading bobbins onto the looms and later became a weaver. She transferred to Biddeford Textile where she became a “room hand.” In that job, she fixed broken threads on the looms caused by a loose shuttle or simply by tension or thread stress. Two girls would work as a team. Her partner was Henrietta Sturgeon.

In 1950 when she married Leo, her wages were $35.75 a week.

Pauline moved from Pepperell weaving to Biddeford Textile as a “loom girl,” which she described as “fixing out blankets.” When production called for a change from a twin size to a full size, Leo explained, it was necessary to increase the number of threads on the loom. Leo was her supervisor at that time.

Leo started at the mill as a cleaner in the blanket room in 1948, he was about 15 years old. Cleaning was done with an air hose, making the blanket room less dusty than the cotton rooms. After a year or so he became a weaver. He learned his skills on the floor, trained by other weavers.

He later became a loom fixer, which required some classes, often taught on Saturdays. He worked with another fixer for six months before handling his own shift.

His wages during these years were between $50 and $77 a week.

Leo was part of the team that tested jacquard looms in the blanket division. He and other fixers set up the 30 new looms and ran the tests. His supervisor at the time was Ray Labbe. The tests were successful and the new looms were kept to become part of the regular production lines. He was quick to remember that there were 90 looms in 18-1, 90 in 18-3 and 30 looms in 17-1 — the numbers represented the building number and the floor number within the mill complex.

Leo and Pauline met at the mill and married in 1950. Leo served two years in Germany with the U.S. Army, from 1952 to 1954. While he was aboard ship on his way to Europe, Pauline delivered their first child. Leo met his 17-month-old son when he returned after his military service.

In time, the family would include five more children, all girls. Pauline took a leave as each new child was born, but always returned to her mill job.

The Sunbeam Corporation purchased a portion of Pepperell in 1971. Sunbeam named the new division Biddeford Textile Co. There were two plants, both making blankets for Sunbeam Electric Blankets. Leo was a supervisor for 22 years, overseeing seven different floors and 74 employees. He remembers only two complaints were ever filed during those years. He says he loved being a loom fixer, but the
supervisor position offered better pay and increased benefits, including a 401(k) retirement fund and guaranteed full wages until retirement in case of disability.

They both retired in 1994, at about age 61. After retirement, they took several trips south on bus tours.

Asked about his early years, Leo remembered sitting on the curb, eating a piece of candy and waiting to see a car go by. He thinks he would see one about every 10 minutes. He also remembers ice-skating at Westbrook Skating Rink and the Silver Skating Rink just across the street. Both rinks played music for the skaters and were very popular for the Franco-American community from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Recalling Biddeford mills during the mid-twentieth century, when there were 3,000 people employed at Pepperell, 1,500 at Bates, and 6,000 at Saco Lowell, Leo and Pauline agreed that they lived “at the best time.” Pauline said their parents taught them that you had to work, and they were happy to have the jobs and raise their family in Biddeford.

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