Old Webster mill’s swan song: Sabattus selectmen award bid to knock it down

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SABATTUS — A month ago, another section of the first floor fell into the basement at the former Webster Rubber Co., splintering boards and kicking up dust in a basement filled with decades of it, the latest thing to go in the abandoned mill.

Around the basement, hulking machines with thick belts and wheels stand idle and dozens of crumpled boxes filled with rubber heels and soles still sit on pallets waiting for a customer that never came.

Outside of semi-regular trespassers — there was a small barrel fire last year and plywood windows are routinely knocked in — the mill has only had intermittent signs of life since the factory closed in 1991. It’s come back to the town twice for back taxes.

After debating since 2011 what ought to be done and could be done, residents approved funds to knock it down in May 2017.

Tuesday night, selectmen picked Almighty Waste to do it.

The town’s only property on the National Register of Historic Places will start coming down in the next 90 days.

“It’s a public safety issue, which supersedes historical (preservation),” Town Manager Tony Ward said Monday during a tour of the basement. “Every time we board up a window, they kick it in. The biggest concern is kids come in here.”

They could hurt themselves on the scattered broken glass or by falling through the many gaping holes in stairwells and floors.

Road foreman Gary LaBonte remembers being in the mill once when he was young, when the rubber company was running.

When it was built in 1869 at 10 Greene St., it was the Webster Woolen Mill. (Webster was the town’s original name.) The main building, which Ward said has a footprint of 54,139 square feet, was known as Mill 1½.

In 1922, it became the Webster Rubber Co. By the early 1990s, its heels and soles weren’t needed anymore.

“The shoe industry was getting shoes from China, overseas, cheaper labor and stuff like that,” LaBonte said.

In 1995, the town sold the mill to Pat and Wally Lathom for $1. The couple, after years spent rehabbing one of the outbuildings, opened the Showme Museum with hundreds of marionettes in 2002.

In 2006, they sold it to the nonprofit Downeast Dream Center, which later lost the building to a tax lien.

Ward said that same year, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection cleaned and filled two 10,000-gallon former fuel tanks on the property, telling the town that the tanks can’t be removed and land around them can’t be disturbed.

Almighty Waste’s $447,000 winning bid to tear the complex down includes leaving clean fill, like ground bricks, on site. That and the tanks will limit future uses to surface-level projects, Ward said, for instance, something built on a slab, a park or parking lot.

The town has set aside $123,100 for demolition. The rest will be bonded over three years. Ward expects the property to be loamed and seeded either this fall or next spring.

As recently as two years ago, all three floors in Mill 1½ were accessible, LaBonte said.

It’s gone downhill quickly the past few years.

“Much as we have some board members who feel very adamant they’d like to rehab the building, you can’t rehab it, much as you’d want to save some of the bricks for history, it’s just not feasible,” Ward said.

That discussion on what happens next could happen fairly soon, he said. Voters won’t weigh in unless an idea needs public funds.

“It’s been, unfortunately, in the center of town, a dilapidated building that has not provided any chance for economic growth in that area,” Ward said. “It’s the broken window syndrome, a bad building that is the eyesore sitting there. Hopefully, whatever we do in the future, it can help invigorate the redevelopment of downtown.”

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