Old Brick Mills Give Way to New Ventures

Danny and his wife Patty made beautiful leather shoes in the basement of the Pepperell Mill in Lewiston, Maine. They started Maine Moccasin, employed several people for a number of years, machine stitching and then hand-sewing high end shoes. Foreign manufacturers now fill demands for more affordable footwear and this month Maine Moccasin closed up shop.
Danny cut fabric for Maine Warmers. I worried that I might not find someone with the same machinery, level of training, and work ethic to do the job because so many skilled machine workers are now employed in other jobs.
I guess sometimes we accept change easily and other times go into it kicking and screaming depending upon the level of perceived pain.
The huge red brick mills with cutting edge technologies of the time brought big changes in their day to an agricultural economy. New technologies create new opportunities along with change.
The search for materials and services to run Maine Warmers gave me an opportunity to enter the old mills that hover over the city of Lewiston. The wooden stairs, worn down by thousands of feet over a hundred and fifty years, lead to smaller businesses now housed in the mills.
I’ve driven down alleys, between huge buildings in mill complexes, over streets worn to dirt looking for suppliers of thread and screen printers. I’ve walk through the mammoth brick arches, listened to echoes of hundreds of souls who once worked there, and gazed through giant windows. Maybe it was the size of the buildings that gave them a spiritual quality or just the realization that people made these mills work.
The first time I climbed up the loading dock stairs to Katie’s Sales – looking for thread and bobbins – I did not expect to meet a bleach blond lady in high heels and a fancy dress with a cigarette burning in the ashtray next to the computer on her desk. Katie sold close-out goods from the shoe mills and other factories now gone to China. She became my friend instantly in spite of her annoying dog, Ginger, with the high pitched incessant bark. We talked about our kids, politics, and fabrics. I almost always came away from Katie’s wondering how she had managed to sell me extra stuff I didn’t really want or need. I noticed a roll of wool (Katie tried to sell to me several times) still sitting on the floor of Danny’s shoe shop the day we said good-bye.
On the way into Katie’s I passed a world-class guitar manufacturer. I found a fulfillment company that stored beautiful antique cabinets, hand painted in China. I met Katahdin Music Works’ owner, John Stass, who builds high end music storage furniture for famous musicians. A great Italian restaurant — Davinci’s — serves garlic rolls I dream about and is located in one of the newly renovated mills. There is a museum with artifacts and films about the mills. The City of Lewiston and a developer have partnered to create the Bates Mill Complex housing banks and offices.
Danny and Patty will move out of the basement and into the sunshine (no beautiful windows in that cellar). The state will train Danny to do other work. I am already finding talented people and learning about better technologies and systems, but I will remember them fondly — along with the old brick mills.