You never know what you’ll find. You never know where it will lead, or what effect it will have.

That’s why Rachel DesGroseilliers says, “History becomes the future.”

Executive director of Museum L-A, Rachel talked recently about gathering all kinds of artifacts for the textile industry and shoemaking displays at the museum housed at the Bates Mill.

Mostly, she voiced her concerns about time running out. Would pieces of history be destroyed before someone recognized the value and stepped up to save them? Would the stories of older people be told and preserved before they are gone?

About 10 years ago, Elliott Epstein, founder and president of Museum L-A, acted on his vision to create a museum of work and community in the Twin Cities.

He and some volunteers spent a lot of time moving big pieces of textile machinery that seemed destined for a scrap heap.

A small but promising museum is now taking shape with a staff led by Rachel and her boundless energy.

Building a new museum is much more than a desk job for her. She gets into every part of the massive old Lewiston mill.

“I literally went into some of the dump trucks,” she said.

She and two former millworkers who were 76 and 79 years old pulled out job descriptions, procedure manuals, patterns and swatches of material that showed a woven pattern.

“Up on the fourth floor there was a cabinet that was all boarded up, so I took a crowbar and opened it up and oh, my God. It’s the pigeon-hole cabinet (now displayed in the museum) that has all the old patterns.”

She described her amazement when she got her first look at the mill’s old vault. It’s a large space – maybe 10 feet by 20 feet – filled floor to ceiling with old documents.

She and Susan Beane, Museum L-A’s archivist, have spent the past few months going through that material.

Information is already coming to light that fills a lot of holes from the 1890s to about 1930.

When Rachel thinks about things that may already be gone forever, she says she pictures box after box of Bates bedspreads that were sold off for “practically nothing.”

Once in a while, one of them turns up.

Not long ago she was given a rare original Queen Elizabeth bedspread in the Wedgewood design.

She was told how that design decades ago had gone through the approval process required for all commercial goods that get the British monarchy’s seal of approval. Every detail of the design had to be considered. Finally, a courier arrived at the Bates Mill with the approved pattern inside a locked briefcase that was handcuffed to the courier’s wrist.

But Rachel knows that history is not only about things. That’s why she values the oral history display at Museum L-A. One of those stories is told by a woman who remembers her youth as a worker in the mill. She worked a day shift and then came home so her sister could go off to work the second shift. Then comes the kind of detail that only the people who lived it can pass on.

The young girl would go home and take off her shoes. Her sister would put them on and head back to the mill in the only pair of shoes the girls had.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and an Auburn native. You can e-mail him at [email protected]

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