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A new Lewiston exhibit remembers the manufacturers that once anchored many Maine towns

L-A Museum people.jpg
Irwin Gratz
Maine Public
Rachel Ferrante, the executive director of Museum L-A , and board member Kevin Callahan stand by a collection of textile design rolls.

Mills turning out textiles, shoes and bricks were once the industrial heart of many Maine cities and towns.

Now, that history is being remembered in a new exhibit by Museum L-A in Lewiston, called "The Industrial Heart."

Included in the show is a recording of Michael Rancourt discussing the memories of his father's shoe factory.

"I remember walking into this factory as a young person probably 13 or 14 years old, and seeing, what I thought to be, a sea of hand sewers," he says in one recording for the exhibit.

It's one of several oral history excerpts you can hear to help paint the picture of what once was: the making of textiles, bricks and shoes that drove the economies of many Maine communities

"It was an amazing thing to watch, to see all these hands and arms move in unison," he says in the recording.

That image is largely in the past. So are the sounds in many former mill buildings. Museum L-A's gallery is in the former Bates textile mill. The space now is relatively quiet.

It wasn't always like that, according to Executive Director Rachel Ferrante.

"The machinery in the mill was so loud that workers would have to stand, literally face-to-face, nose-to-nose with each other, and scream at each other in order to hear them," she says.

L-A museum exhibit.jpg
Irwin Gratz
Maine Public
The exhibit includes a machine that converted textile designs into hole-punched cards that would be used by textile-making machines to guide the manufacture of blankets or other textiles with the same design.

The mills were filled with some of the latest technology of the day. Ferrante describes a piece of that tech, which you can see. It was used to take patterns for a textile and turn it into a series of punch cards, so machines could mass produce cloth with intricate designs:

"It really was an early computing system. You can see, really, a beautiful floral motif going from paper to basically an early form of zeros and ones," she says.

And you can watch the process on a video that's also part of the exhibit. Museum board member Kevin Callahan helped put together the exhibit. But he says some of what Museum L-A has, has been put back to work at Bates manufacturing in Monmouth.

"We gave them equipment that they needed, and they helped us," he says. "They gave tours and, it's a good relationship. But they are going full blast; in fact, none of the industries that were in Lewiston have stopped."

Also on display: the wooden guides or "lasts," used by stitchers in making shoes, and samples of brick, something Maine made a lot of, and used a lot of.

L-A Museum exterior.jpg
Irwin Gratz
Maine Public
The outside of Museum L-A's gallery in Lewiston.

But Ferrante, the executive director, wants The Industrial Heart to be more than a journey into the past:

"The final section of the show is about connecting that history to today and tomorrow. And, how we've done that is through three artists who've created original works directly in response to our collection," she says.

There are two interactive displays. At one, people will be invited to make designs out of shoe lasts in varying colors. In another, visitors will be invited to contribute to a mandala, a community weaving project.

And while some of Maine's traditional manufacturing survives, most of the old mills are either gone or put to new uses. It's that spirit of enterprise, creativity and innovation she hopes this exhibit will nurture.

"One of the things that's so exciting about this region is to see what it's going to make itself as next," she says. "I hope that looking to the past can help, and with some help from artists who are helping us look to the current moment, that that will help spur some new ideas about the future."

The museum is trying to raise $17 million to renovate a larger, old mill building where it will be able to show off more, and larger pieces of its collection. The cities of Lewiston and Auburn have agreed to contribute $3.5 million. Another $1 million has, so far, been raised privately.

The current exhibit, The Industrial Heart, is on display at Museum L-A's gallery off Chestnut Street in Lewiston.

The gallery is currently open Wednesdays and Fridays, and by appointment.