Rachel Desgrosseilliers, Executive Director
In 2004 I was hired to organize and develop the Museum of Textiles. As I was giving tours, I felt that although it was good to show machinery and equipment, missing from the story was the heart of it all – the people who worked there.
I decided to hold a Millworkers Reunion to try and find some workers that could help tell the story of the mills and what they meant to the community. The response was phenomenal — more than 500 people attended, including 386 millworkers. They stepped off the elevator and sighed "I'm Home;" they touched their machines as if they were made of gold, they proudly showed what they did and why it was important, and they wondered why there was a reunion because they were "just millworkers".
As I was visiting with them, the stories I was hearing were unreal. There was no question that these were special people. And, it is at that moment, that I felt we could not let these stories go untold. Most of the people were in their 80s and 90s already. That is when the Workers Oral History Project was created. That is when the race against time began.
The Museum hired professional Oral Historian Andrea L'Hommedieu to conduct 45 histories which were chosen from the list of 386. We made sure that we had from the floor sweeper to the President represented and all in-between. We then hired Anthropologist and Documentary Photographer, Mark Silber, to do the official portraits for the upcoming exhibit. Portraits and Voices-Millworkers of Seven Mills became the first special exhibit presented by the Museum, complete with a great catalogue with DVD which won "First Place" in the New England Museum Association's publications contest.
During that time, the great partnership between Bates College and the Museum was growing. Several classes asked if they could help with the oral histories and another 138 were completed through the Anthropology, French and History classes.
Shoeworkers' photographs and oral histories are available online at our new Interactive Oral History site. Add your own story to our growing collection.