It was a quiet summer day 21 years ago when the fire alarm sounded at the Worumbo Mill in Lisbon Falls. A workman’s torch had sparked a small fire, but that’s all it took to set off a conflagration that is still listed among the biggest fires in Maine’s history.

When a major fire hits a small town, the effects are devastating.

Fortunately, there was no loss of life or serious injury when the historic mill was lost. Its heyday of manufacturing prized woolen goods was past, but many residents of the town had worked there, and its loss was a terrible blow that is still deeply felt.

Lisbon Falls sustained another devastating fire in 1901 when the business district was leveled, but the nearby Worumbo Mill, which had been built on the banks of the Androscoggin River in 1864, survived that tragedy, and the Main Street stores and offices were soon rebuilt.

The 1987 fire raged for more than two hours on that Thursday afternoon, and this time the heroic efforts of about 300 firefighters and many volunteers saved the local businesses from smoldering embers that fell everywhere.

Not long after that fire, Ambra Watkins wrote a small book called “The Birth, Being and Burning of Worumbo Mill.” She was assisted by Bob Greeley on photography and Karen Theriault on design. Watkins talked with many people who worked at the mill.

It was Otto Stewich, overseer of spinning and carding for 37 years, who told her that the Worumbo “was just like one big happy family, by gosh.”

Every workday, several hundred townspeople answered the shrill 7 a.m. whistle and walked to their jobs. Many of them stopped at the well-known Kennebec Corner Store owned by Frank Anicetti Sr.

“They all had a deep sense of pride in their work, despite position,” he told Watkins.

They had good reason to be proud. They produced fine fabrics from mohair, camel hair, chinchilla and fine wool from Austria and New Zealand. One exceptional product was made from the valuable hair of the vicuna, a South American animal that closely resembles a llama.

In her book, Watkins said vicuna fiber was strictly regulated and only a little more than a ton was shipped to this country each year. Most of that went to the Worumbo Mill.

Vicuna cloth sold for $60 a yard and a full coat of the material sold for $1,200. It was the kind of fashion prized by stars like Cary Grant and Wallace Beery, Watkins wrote.

Vicuna was also an excellent material for uniforms, including the deep indigo blue jackets of the New York City Police Department. The young ladies who worked with the indigo dye would come home sporting blue hues on hot summer days.

The Worumbo Mill also used vicuna to produce “blizzard cloth” from which outerwear was made for Admiral Byrd’s explorations of the Antarctic.

When the mill burned on that July day in 1987, stories like this flashed through the minds of dozens of former workers who stood and watched. The mill went into decline in the 1960s and only a small number of workers kept the woolen products going after that. Two white concrete buildings were added to the huge red-brick structure in 1920, and they were saved from destruction.

The ruins of the main mill were cleaned up and all that remained were memories for as many as three generations of local families. Those workers and their children still hear about the pride of the Worumbo Mill workers.

And they relive the stories of the acclaimed Worumbo Indians, a semi-pro baseball team that gained national stature. Worumbo’s owners recruited top players to come to work at the mill and play on the team. They included Joe Kinney and Tony Begos, a talented shortstop, who had played on an all-star team with Babe Ruth against Lou Gehrig. Begos also played in games against Jim Thorpe and Babe Didrickson.

Fires may destroy the massive mills and other workplaces, but those places remain alive in the memories of the people whose lives were shaped by their years inside those walls.

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

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