The massive exodus of the legendary New England textile industry for cheaper homes in the South hurt numerous communities in Maine, but none was hit harder than Lewiston.
Starting in the 1950s, the fleeing companies abandoned mill after mill, including the mammoth Bates Manufacturing Co. – once Maine’s largest employer – that lies next to the city’s downtown.
After watching the uncontrolled downward spiral of the entire community, city leaders decided to take a chance on Lewiston’s future by acquiring Bates Mill in 1992 when its owners failed to pay their taxes.
“A lot of people thought it was crazy,” Rachel Desgrosseilliers, curator of the Museum of Labor and Industry located within Bates Mill, said recently. “It looked crazy to them because it was so huge.”
Desgrosseilliers’ father, Cyrille Baillargeon, worked at Bates for 25 years, and her mother, Emma, worked there a decade.
One of her first memories is running to the street corner to meet her dad, sweaty and dirty, his black lunch pail under his arm, as he got off work.
“People were pretty devastated when the mills started closing,” she said. “The Bates Mill basically was the place to work in those days – that and the shoe shops. For those people, it was all they knew.”
By the early 1990s, Lewiston’s glory days were far in the past, and the once bustling downtown was largely abandoned.
“There was a sense that we’re really in a tough spot and we’re having a long string of bad luck,” Douglas Hodgkin, Lewiston Historic Preservation member and former Bates College professor, said recently.
Without other jobs to replace the thousands of departing mill jobs – 7,600 alone for Bates Mill – “people were discouraged,” he said.
The city’s move was risky, and it was not without its obstacles, but after 14 years, city leaders are singing the praises of the beautifully renovated Bates Mill Complex and the public-private partnership formed with Bates Mill LLC, a group of local developers led by Tom Platz of Platz Associates.
Through its partnership, $41 million from federal, state and local sources was collected for the enormous project, including $15 million in private investments.
“Our city is transforming right before our eyes,” Allan Turgeon, Bates Mill property manager, said recently. “We took a run-down industrial area, renovated it and changed the entire community.”
The plan was simple: Take one part of the 10-acre industrial site, clean it, fix it up structurally, add new windows, wiring, heating and ventilation, and then wire it for today’s modern technology, all the while stressing the protection of the mill’s history.
“Preserving the history is a vital part of this historic development – a crucial part,” Turgeon said. “Today, we have over 1,500 people working here and should see over $600,000 from taxes. In 1992, it was zero.”
The Bates Mill rebirth also has spurred renovation projects in the city’s other abandoned textile and shoe factories, Desgrosseilliers said. In her eyes, the renovation projects are tributes to the former millworkers and their contribution to the industrial revolution.
“It’s like we’re giving meaning to what they did,” she said.
Bates Mill, Lewiston
Mill type: textile, Bates Manufacturing Co.
Size: 10 acres, 1.2 million square feet in 11 structures clustered in downtown Lewiston
Constructed: 1850 and 1924
Redevelopment: public-private; site acquired by city in 1992, joint development agreement signed, 1996
Owner-developers invested: $41 million
Full build-out: expected to run nearly $80 million