Saving history: Volunteers remove artifacts from old mill building

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LEWISTON — They were gears, old and heavy and layered with dirt, and they sat on a shelf at the old Camden Yarns Mill for years, possibly decades. To the naked eye, junk. Most people would have let them get pulverized in the mill building’s upcoming renovation. 

But to Rachel Desgrosseilliers, executive director of Museum L-A, the grimy gears were a piece of Lewiston-Auburn’s history.

On Friday, volunteers from a local labor union helped her save that little bit of history — and an entire mill building’s worth more.

“They’ve been a Godsend,” Desgrosseilliers said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this on our own. Those gears? We wouldn’t be able to even lift them.”

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The volunteers, all members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local Union 327, spent Friday and planned to spend Saturday clearing out the two-floor, 50,000-square-foot building at 1 Beech St. Their job: salvage anything and everything Museum L-A might want for future exhibits.

Sometimes that meant using a forklift and some force. Other times it meant using a lighter touch.

The gears needed the lighter touch. Piled on shelves attached to the wall, there was no way to remove them without touching them. But Desgrosseilliers didn’t want the gears — and their grime — disturbed. The gears were artifacts, she said. If they were ever going to become part of an exhibit, they needed to remain in their original condition. 

So volunteers cut the shelves from the wall and carefully loaded them on pallets, never touching the gears themselves. It was dirty work and hard — and just one of a hundred things they pulled from the building Friday — but the volunteers said all the effort was worth it. 

“We’re just honored to be part of this,” said union business manager David McKeone, whose grandfather once worked in the mill.

Museum L-A bought the old building last June and plans to move there. The museum currently resides in 15,000 square feet of donated space in the Bates Mill. Located beside the Androscoggin River and adjacent to Simard/Payne Memorial Park, the Camden Yarns Mill will provide the museum with a location that’s not only historically significant but also all its own.

“You can control your own destiny,” Desgrosseilliers said. “It’s home.”

But before it can become home, the building must be cleaned up, repaired and renovated. Parts of the mill have been dormant for decades. Other parts remained in use, but only for storage.

With help from a $600,000 federal grant, Desgrosseilliers will be able to deal with the initial renovation and restoration of the building, including preliminary site work and conceptual building design. She expects the building will be ready in 2014.

But she didn’t want to start any work until the mill was cleared of all potential artifacts. When the labor union learned the museum needed help, its members volunteered. 

Seven people spent Friday working to clear the building. They pulled containers full of yarn, a pallet of scrap material and a large scale. They found equipment, tools and antique lockers, including one that still had shoes in it. The volunteers expected to fill a 40-foot container — and then some.

The forklift, pallets and other supplies they used were donated by area businesses.

Laborer Jim Hewey was one of Friday’s volunteers. He grew up in Auburn and his father had worked in the mill.

“It’s kind of sad. There used to be a lot of life in these mills,” he said.

 Desgrosseilliers believes the museum will bring back that life.

“When I first saw this place it was dirty and junky,” she said. “But I could already see and hear the children and the families coming in.”

ltice@sunjournal.com

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal
Rachel Desgrosseilliers, the executive director of Museum LA, looks at artifacts from the Camden Yarns Mill in Lewiston on Friday. Equipment used at the former cotton mill is being moved and preserved before building renovations begin. Peter Eklund, center, of Harpswell and Dennis Ashey of Lewiston are volunteers from the Laborer’s International Union Local 327 who helped move the artifacts. Claude Dubois, background, of Lewiston is a former shoe maker who volunteers to help Desgrosseilliers with the museum.  
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