Preserving the past

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AUBURN – Museum L-A unveiled a preliminary plan Thursday to create a history center at the Bates Mill in cooperation with other history-related groups in the Twin Cities.

The goal of the proposed center would be to continue gathering stories and artifacts from the cities’ rich industrial history and display them permanently with other group collections, such as the Great Falls Railroad Museum, the Lewiston-Auburn Sports Hall of Fame and the Androscoggin Historical Society.

“We are losing the past faster than people think,” Rachel DesGrosseilliers, Museum L-A executive director, told a chamber breakfast meeting at Lost Valley. She noted that the people who built and worked the mills are dying off and, with them, the oral histories, photos and artifacts that bond one generation to the next.

“The time is now,” she said. “We are losing a historical generation from a major era in our community and our country.”

DesGrosseilliers said L-A has the best history collection of the Industrial Revolution in New England, but lacks the resources, staffing and money to aggressively get the artifacts collected, cataloged, cleaned and ready for display, as well as financing a permanent home.

The other nonprofits share the same financial limitations and think that by joining forces, they not only can survive but thrive. Under the plan, all of the nonprofits would share the cost of rent, utilities, insurance and staff members.

The groups also could band together to share fundraising, programming and marketing costs.

“A big vision? Yes,” DesGrosseilliers said. “Impossible? Uh-uh.”

Volunteers are needed to help the museum gather artifacts, photographs and living histories. Other volunteers are needed to work on the project planning and fundraising. Donations are always needed.

There are people researching the history of Lewiston’s seven mills while others are interviewing elderly residents and helping people get historical treasures to the museum from attics and basements in both cities.

DesGrosseilliers, who helped launch the popular annual balloon festival in L-A, unveiled the multi-year plan for some 200 chamber members. She will make presentations at any other gathering, she said, to build awareness and support for the project.

In all, six L-A historical groups have signed on as serious candidates to join the consortium.

The center could also feature a French-theme cafe, a hands-on children’s area and exhibits ranging from railroads to textile equipment to shoes.

The center “has been part of my core vision for this museum from the beginning,” Elliott Epstein, founder of Museum L-A, said Thursday. Epstein, who has lamented the lack of interest in L-A history by the general public, said the center “will be good for the community and the collective well-being” of residents.

Epstein said he’s heard of other community groups around the country banding together, but “the phenomenon is still somewhat isolated because organizations tend to guard their turf.

“We have a wealth of historical resources in our communities … and we thought the way to reach our goal was for our small groups to come together,” Epstein said.

At the end of her presentation, DesGrosseilliers told chamber President Chip Morrison that she would not ask the chamber for money during the breakfast.

“See me at the door afterward,” she told Morrison as the audience chuckled.

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