Marie Hale walks out of the Lisbon Falls Community Library on Friday morning on Main Street in Lisbon Falls. “I’ve lived here for the past 38 years and while it has its ups and downs, like every other place, it’s a good place to live,” she says. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LISBON — “As a whole, the people of the town of Lisbon have the market cornered on enjoying life,” Debra Colleen Daggett, vice president of the Lisbon Historical Society, wrote in her 2006 book “Images of America: Lisbon.”

“While there are not many folks who have a greater history of hard work than Lisbon folks, when it comes to recreation, residents of the Lisbon community take the gold,” she wrote.

Daggett’s quote certainly rings true. All over New England, Lisbon’s name has become synonymous with fun. In particular, the excitement, good cheer and vivid orange outfits generated by the town’s Moxie Festival. The sea of orange-wearing, Moxie-drinking, Lisbon-loving visitors who stream into town each year to take part in the iconic community celebration only proves the validity of her insight.

Lisbon’s revelry, however, is not limited to celebrations of beloved — and infamously divisive — New England beverages.

Next Saturday, June 22, townspeople plan to host a birthday bash for their town. Celebrating the 225th year since its founding, it will spotlight Lisbon’s history: a story as unique, riveting and unforgettable as the annual Moxie-themed extravaganza.

Identified in this archival photo as Mrs. Galgovitch, the woman running the power loom was one of thousands who worked in Lisbon’s Worumbo Mill starting in the 1860s. Lisbon Historical Society

LISBON’S EARLY BEGINNINGS

Advertisement

Unsurprisingly, Lisbon’s origins well predate the Moxie-based celebration and its signature shade of bright orange. Surprisingly, however, its first white settlers came to the area in 1628 — making the history of European settlement in the area almost 400 years old, according to Lisbon’s official website.

By contrast, Lewiston’s first European settlers came in 1770, more than 140 years later.

The town was incorporated in 1799 as Thompsonborough, said Dorothy Smith, Lisbon Historical Society’s secretary and curator. Its name was inspired by one of the community’s most prominent and oldest families: the Thompsons.

In 1801, Thompsonborough’s residents were pining for change. Perhaps, they were frustrated by the tongue-twisting length of their new home’s name; maybe they were fed up with Gen. Samuel Thompson’s “unpatriotic views” and his family’s undue grasp on community politics, according to a Library of Congress webpage on Lisbon.

Whatever the reason, townspeople were desperate to throw off the Thompsonborough name. By 1802, the town was officially renamed Lisbon and soon became the home of three villages: Lisbon Falls, Lisbon Village and Lisbon Center, Smith said.

Although the town was named after Lisbon, Portugal, no one knows why its early townsfolk chose to name their town after Portugal’s capital city.

Advertisement

Almost from its inception, the town’s economy was rooted in mills and manufacturing, taking advantage of the rivers, including the Androscoggin and Sabattus. Since logging was one of the town’s earliest and most profitable industries, saw mills emerged — speeding up the laborious process of transforming unprocessed wood into planks, a vital step in growing Maine’s shipbuilding industry.

The Worumbo Mill in Lisbon before it burned in 1987. Lisbon Historical Society

Before long, town leaders decided to harness the power of Lisbon’s rivers further by diving headfirst into manufacturing. In 1864, the Worumbo Mill, the town’s economic heart for generations, opened its doors on the Androscoggin River. Edward Plummer, William Small and Oliver Moses all helped found the textile mill, which specialized in making woolen cloth. 

Perfect for Maine’s frigid winters, the mill’s Moscow Beaver fabric — a woolen cloth that resembled beaver fur and was used to make heavy winter coats — was one of the mill’s best-selling products. By 1867, Worumbo produced 10,000 yards of Moscow Beaver fabric a month, wrote the then-Brunswick Record newspaper

Later, the mill became famous for an expensive and rare fabric made from vicuna wool. This precious wool is made using the hair of vicunas — animals that live high up in the Andes Mountains and are similar to llamas and alpacas. Softer than cashmere, the fabric cost $70 a yard. Due to the demand for vicuna wool, the animal almost became extinct in the mid-20th century. 

“At one time, vicuna hair was spun into cloth only for royalty, and in the 1940s no more than 2,000 pounds of it came into the United States,” according to a 1988 Sun Journal article on the mill’s history. 

In addition to its status as a luxury good, the fabric was also prized for its resistance to extreme cold and was worn by polar explorers such as Richard Byrd and Hubert Wilkins.

Advertisement

Lisbon’s town seal depicts “Chief Worumbo” wearing the war bonnet of a Native American chief on the Great Plains. Town of Lisbon

The most inexplicable aspect of the mill’s history, however, was its name. The mill’s namesake was Worumbo — a quasi-mythical Indigenous leader who has become a part of the community’s lore and is depicted on the town seal.

Although Worumbo’s life has been inaccurately dated to the 19th century, a 2021 Sun Journal article explains that the only historical trace of Worumbo is an Indigenous leader named Warumbee. In the 17th century, Warumbee was one of the leaders who signed over the right to land around the Androscoggin River on the condition that the settlers build nothing that would “deprive us the said Sagamores Successors or People from improving our Ancient Planting Grounds,” according to the 2021 article.

No one knows why Worumbo Mill’s owners named the mill after Worumbo, according to the article.

The mill’s knack for generating bizarre stories, however, lived on into the 20th century.

In a 1987 Sun Journal article, former Maine Attorney General James E. Tierney said the Worumbo Mill was an intricate part of fraternities’ hazing rituals at Bowdoin College.

“They would make their new members walk from the college to Lisbon Falls, count the windows in the Worumbo Mill and then walk back to the college as part of their initiation,” the newspaper reported.

Advertisement

Worumbo Mill even played an unwelcome role in former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. Former New Hampshire Gov. Sherman Adams, then Eisenhower’s chief of staff, was kicked out of the White House in disgrace after accepting a Worumbo Mill vicuna coat from a well-connected Washington lobbyist. He was charged with “alleged influence peddling,” according to the Sun Journal article.

In addition to the role the mill played in fraternity shenanigans and White House scandals, the mill’s workers had a positive impact on history. During World War II, the mill produced the fabric for Navy uniforms and its workers won the prestigious “E” (Excellence in Production) Award from the U.S. military for the superb quality of the mill’s fabric and its workers’ wartime contributions.

As The Portland Daily Press correctly predicted in 1866, the Worumbo Mill gave Lisbon “a future of great promise.”

The former St. Cyril and St. Methodius Church at High and Main streets in Lisbon, seen last week, is now home to Maine Art Glass studio at 51 Main St. in the village of Lisbon Falls. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LISBON: A MELTING POT OF CULTURES 

Not only were Lisbon’s mills a financial success, they also attracted new immigrants. Chasing economic opportunity, French Canadians, Germans, Irish, English and even Slovak settlers decided to make Lisbon their new home.

Describing herself as “99% French,” Smith explained how many French Canadian families relocated to Androscoggin County to work in the region’s booming mill towns — including her grandparents.

Advertisement

While Smith’s grandfather worked in a mill in Lewiston, many French Canadians found employment in Lisbon’s numerous mills. So many French Canadians had made Lisbon their new home that, by 1886, the town welcomed its first Roman Catholic church: St. Anne’s. The church primarily served the town’s French and Irish communities.

Lisbon is also home to Maine’s only significant Slovak community, according to a National Register of Historic Places nomination form filled out on behalf of the former St. Cyril and St. Methodius Church in Lisbon. 

Although originally from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, most Slovak immigrants who wound up in Lisbon moved there from other states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, in search of jobs.

According to a 1987 Sun Journal article, the Slovaks came to America to “escape the poverty and nearly feudal society of their homeland.”

Michael Bohunicky, a descendant of Lisbon’s early Slovak immigrants, recalled in the same article that “whenever we ate chicken soup, my father would say, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are. In Slovakia, you’re lucky to get just a piece of meat.’”

While Lisbon’s Slovaks were able to fill their stomachs by securing work at the Worumbo Mill and elsewhere, the Slovakian newcomers were met with distrust by older generations of European immigrants — leaving them with a feeling of isolation and marginality in their new home. In search of community, they joined national Slovak fraternal organizations such as the Catholic Slovak Union of America. By 1897, Lisbon’s Slovaks created their own fraternal organization: the Slovak Catholic Association, which still exists today.

Advertisement

In 1926, the Slovak community opened its own Catholic church: St. Cyril and St. Methodius Church. Built by Lewiston architect Addison G. Pulsifer, it is the only church in Maine tied to Slovak immigrants.

Like many Slovakian churches in the United States, the church is named after Cyril and Methodius, the Byzantine missionaries who brought Christianity to the Slovaks and other Slavic people of Europe over 1,150 years ago.

Lisbon’s St. Cyril and St. Methodius Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, a list of American buildings that are considered historically significant by the federal government.

Today, the church is the home of Maine Art Glass Studio, which sells stained glass, offers lessons, creates custom pieces and maintains an on-site museum and gallery. 

A headline from the Aug. 9, 1938 Lewiston Daily Sun announces the Lisbon's team departure for their second semi-professional national tournament.

A headline from the Aug. 9, 1938, Lewiston Daily Sun announces the Lisbon Worumbo Indians baseball team’s departure for their second semiprofessional national tournament.

BASEBALL, MILL FIRES, STEPHEN KING AND MORE  

From Slovaks to French Canadians, Lisbon’s townsfolk found unity through their passion for America’s favorite pastime — baseball. In the early 20th century, the town was home to the state’s best semiprofessional baseball team: the Worumbo Indians. The team got its name from the Worumbo Mill, since its owners created, sponsored and occasionally played on the team.

Advertisement

Throughout the 1930s, the Worumbo Indians racked up numerous Maine and New England semiprofessional baseball championship titles and went to the national tournament multiple times. Some players even got tapped to play on the farm teams of Major League Baseball giants such as the Chicago Cubs.

The team’s track record was so synonymous with success that the Sun Journal wrote in 1938 that “the team that beats the Worumbo Indians is the team that will win the Maine semipro title, so the saying goes.”

Later in the century, the Worumbo Mill — the glue that held Lisbon together for 123 years — burned down in 1987 in one of the largest industrial fires in Maine history.

Over a dozen fire departments joined forces to put the inferno out before it could spread to downtown Lisbon. It was a heroic and epic effort that the Sun Journal praised as “the largest mutual aid effort ever in the town of Lisbon.” 

Reflecting on Lisbon’s own volunteer firefighters’ role in extinguishing the flames, Lisbon Selectman Bob Donovan told the Sun Journal “they did one hell of a job. I’ve always said we have the best volunteer fire department in the state of Maine.”

Due to the firefighters’ heroism and a healthy dose of luck, no one died in the blaze.

Advertisement

By the time of the fire, many of Lisbon’s residents no longer worked at the Worumbo Mill. In 1964, the mill closed following years of mounting financial losses. Although fellow textile manufacturer Camden Yarns Inc. bought the mill in the 1970s, it never returned to its former glory. At the time of the fire, Worumbo Mill’s economic importance was on the decline. 

The emotional impact of the mill’s destruction, however, was considerable. 

A firefighter hoses down a firetruck as firefighters battle the Worumbo mill fire in 1987. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

As they watched the mill go up in flames, some of Worumbo Mill’s last remaining workers and Lisbon’s residents were driven to tears, Town Manager John Bubier told the Sun Journal. According to the article, many of the town’s “families could point to as many as four generations having worked at the mill.”

Residents like Bubier also mourned the loss of a historic building. Not only was the mill part of the National Register of Historic Places, but Bubier lamented that it was the most beautiful mill in Maine — with its prominent spot overlooking the Androscoggin and “stately towers.”

Ken Carll II takes a swig of Moxie to cool off in the hot afternoon Sun at the 2009 Moxie Festival in Lisbon Falls. This year’s festival runs July 12-14. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“It’s lost. We’ll never see that again,” he said.

Although the fire was a time of community mourning, it was also a chance for Lisbon’s residents to show their courage, unity and solidarity. The Sun Journal reported that Nancy Higgins and Ginger Bennett gathered 75 volunteers to make and distribute food to firefighters and solicit donations from businesses.

Advertisement

Most importantly, Lisbon’s legacy didn’t perish in the flames.

Today, Lisbon is celebrated for its joyous and rambunctious Moxie Festival and as a source of endless inspiration for Maine’s most famous son and Lisbon Falls High School alumnus writer Stephen King.

In 2023, Lisbon town leaders announced their plan to revitalize the site of the former Worumbo Mill into “a true gem of Lisbon” by making it into a center for events and community gatherings, according to the town’s website.

Above all, it’s clear that Lisbon has a long and storied history, with more to come. So on June 22, organizers hope all will raise a bright orange can of Moxie and give a toast to Lisbon’s residents for 225 years of history, community and unforgettable stories. 

A cormorant dries its wings Friday morning in the middle of the Androscoggin River between Lisbon, background, and the town of Durham. In the background is what remains of the former Lisbon Falls Fiber Co., known later as the Pejepscot Paper Co. and most recently U.S. Gypsum Mill, located between the river and Route 196. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story