This 7.5 foot tall bronze statue of a textile mill worker and her child called “Can you see me,” by Jane DeDecker, was unveiled Friday morning in the courtyard of The Lofts at Saco Falls in Biddeford by The Szanton Company, which converted the mill and another to apartments. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — Arms full of bobbins with a child visible in her long skirts are depicted in a new bronze sculpture that represents every woman who spent her life working in the Biddeford mills to feed her family. Often, her littles ones who accompanied her to work years before childcare became available, had jobs in the mills too, when they were deemed old enough by 1890s standards. They performed jobs that required little fingers.

Biddeford’s mills, which thrived in the late 1800s and well into the new century searched well beyond Biddeford in a quest for workers, retired Pepperell Mill worker David Bishop said. Many of those who were recruited were female, he said.

“The women created the workforce here,” Bishop said. The first female employees came from surrounding communities, then French workers, both male and female, from Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada entered the work force. Later, workers came from countries around the world — 29 in all, according to findings by the Biddeford Mills Museum.

So, it seemed fitting that the women who worked in the mills were honored Friday, with the unveiling of a statue in the courtyard of The Lofts at Saco Falls. Titled “Can you see me,” the 7.5-foot bronze, by artist Colorado Jane DeDecker, it was commissioned by The Szanton Company, which developed the Lofts property in 2016 and completed an earlier mill conversion called the Mill at Saco Falls in 2010.

“It is such a privilege to work in these mills,” said Nathan Szanton of the conversion of the former mills and mill equipment manufacturing buildings to apartments. “They are so beautiful, and they’re built so solid and strong, and make wonderful housing,”

He pointed out that in the 1890s, workers toiled 13.5-hour days, six days a week.


“These people built Biddeford,” and built Biddeford’s world-wide reputation as a place where fine textiles were made, said Szanton.

The workers are gone now — textile production disappeared over time — some mills closed many decades ago while some held on longer, the last closing in 2009.

Szanton said his business partner Bobby Monks worked at Pepperell Mill as a young man and knew Biddeford’s mills well. With their investment, several mill buildings were converted to housing, some priced as market and others at less-than market rates.

Nathan Szanton and Rachelle Bourgault, both of The Szanton Company, unveiled a bronze statue depicting a mill worker and her child, outside The Lofts at Saco Falls on Friday. Biddeford officials, including Mayor Alan Casavant, attended the unveiling. Tammy Wells Photo

“We were thinking of how to acknowledge the role of the workers,” said Szanton; and the came up with idea of commissioning a bronze statue. At the time the mills were converted, there was no money available to make a lasting nod to past workers — but there was later, Szanton said. DeDecker was chosen to create the 7.5-foot statue that was unveiled on Friday morning. The statue is intended to evoke the challenges women who worked in the city’s mills faced daily.

DeDecker, an award-winning artist with works in 38 states, was onsite when the bronze was installed on a knoll in the courtyard; she was unable to attend the unveiling.

“I know how beautiful and at home she looks,” said DeDecker in a message read at the unveiling. “The industrial age had its hardships, but it was an age of prosperity for the country. The women were proud to work in the mills and contribute to the welfare of their family … and just like the weft and the warp of the fabrics the Biddeford textile mills produced, there were ups and downs for the families that made up the workforce in the mills … the buildings at Saco Falls, strong and beautiful, stand as a testament to their legacy.”


Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant right, makes a point to Nathan Szanton during his remarks at the unveiling of “Can you see me,” a bronze statue of a millworker and her child installed in the courtyard of The Lofts at Saco Falls by The Szanton Company, which converted the former mill into apartments. Tammy Wells Photo

Artist Roland Salazar Rose, who lives in one of the mill apartments, attended the unveiling and pronounced the piece “very solid work.”

Lori Chadbourne, who also lives in a mill apartment, said her great-grandparents were mill workers — as was she briefly, in the 1990s. Originally from Biddeford, Chadbourne said she had moved to Connecticut, but work was scarce there one winter, so she closed up her house and with a couple of siblings moved back to Biddeford. She took a third shift job boxing blankets in one of the mills. “I loved the blankets,” she recalled, but said standing throughout her shift, boxing them, was wearing and monotonous.

Mayor Alan Casavant had the same reaction when he worked in the mills one summer — and was determined never to do so again. He became a high school teacher, served in the Maine Legislature, and is serving his sixth, two-year term as Biddeford’s mayor.

He pointed out that his mill work environment that summer was hot, noisy, and monotonous.

Casavant did not return for a second summer but noted over the years, others did not have that choice.

“My memere and pepere had to work there, to support their families,” he said.


Casavant recalled touring the old mills with Szanton prior to their conversion.

“He said it looked like a war zone; I said it’s worse than that,” he recalled.

Casavant called the mill and downtown district the heart and soul of the city.

The presence of art in a courtyard of an apartment building that once was home to industry “brings people together,” he said.

These days, most of the people who worked in the mills are gone.

All that’s left are the memories which the Biddeford Mills Museum keeps alive through items on display that show the workings of the mills, as well documents and other mementos can be found among the stacks at McArthur Library or housed with the Biddeford Cultural and Heritage Center.

In addition, now, in a courtyard outside some of Biddeford’s former mill buildings, there is a statue of a woman, with a toddler at her feet, and her arms full of bobbins, to assure that the work of thousands of the many mill workers will be remembered.

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