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Weaving a World: Lewiston's Millworkers, 1920-2008


June 8, 2008 through June 2009

For more than 150 years, Lewiston has been a city of weavers. The textile mills, powered by the Androscoggin River, employed thousands of workers in making bedspreads, sheets, and woolens. With the shoe factories of Auburn, the mills gave rise to Maine's largest industrial center.

Defying harsh conditions, millworkers and their families created a rich social world, woven of many ethnic cultures. The majority of mill families, however, hailed from French Canada, and their values, customs and language predominated in the millworker's world.

Between the 1850s and 1960s, the Lewiston mills flourished in good times and survived in lean times. Then, facing global competition and underinvestment, they began to close, one by one. Today a single shop, sustains the traditions of industrial weaving. Yet many elders remember the migration stories of their parents, the hard times before World War II, and the better times that followed.

Weaving a World: Lewiston's Millworkers, 1920-2008 tells their story. It touches on war and strikes, technology and business. But mainly it recounts the lives of the people who worked in the mills, their families, and the community they made. The exhibit traces the millworker's world from the hard times of the Great Depression through prosperity and upward mobility after World War II to the mill closures of recent decades.

It is a story of survivance, as Franco-American weavers would have said: resilience and tenacity in the face of momentous change.

Weaving a World tells its story in text and photographs. An introductory panel and timeline are followed by six major panels:

Mills, Falls, and Migrants – Water, money, and people make a milltown: the growth of Lewiston, the workings of the textile mills, and the coming of immigrant workers from Canada and elsewhere.

Hard Times and Hard Work – The formative experience of the Great Depression: economic struggles and physical burdens at work, humanizing hard times through the family economy, the New Deal, and the labor movement, and the legacy of the work ethic and craft ethic.

La Survivance: Inside an Ethnic World – The family and community life of immigrant workers in hard times: family ties, immigrant neighborhoods like Little Canada, and the complex weave of ethnic institutions, loyalties, and conflicts.

Franco-American – With hard times giving way to wartime and postwar prosperity, the "Americanization" of the millworkers' world: military service and the war effort, business growth and upward mobility in the textile mills, and the emergence of a new hyphenate American identity.

Bedspreads and Better Times – Family life, community life, and work life in the postwar boom: stable work, better pay, new homes and middle-class consumerism, labor relations and sociability inside the mills.

Closures and Openings – New crisis, new resilience: the decline of the mills and the millworkers' world in the late 20th-century, economic and community renewal in Lewiston, and the effort to "look back and move forward" through community history.

Weaving a World is designed to be experienced in other venues. After starting its journey at Museum L-A it will travel to destinations all over New England and Canada. For more information on hosting this exhibit, contact us at 207-333-3881 or info@museumla.org.