Portraits & Voices: Workers of Seven Mills
August 11, 2007 – May 10, 2008
In 2004, Museum L-A held the first of two Millworker Reunions. From these gatherings, 45 individuals were selected to participate in an oral history project which formed the basis of this exhibit. Through intimate photographs by documentary photographer Mark Silber, along with excerpts of oral histories conducted by Andrea L'Hommedieu, Portraits and Voices offers insights into the culture of work, family, and life outside the mills. Museum L-A's Workers' Oral History Project was created to put the "heart" in the study of the mills by focusing on the life stories of millworkers.
This is a story that needed to be shared before it was too late. Already many of the millworkers are gone and the remaining represent an era of American history that we will never again see in this intensity. It is the story of men and women from New England, Canada, Ireland, Eastern and Southern Europe who came to Lewiston-Auburn to build a life for themselves and their families. It is about how, for over 150 years, they made fabrics and other products known the world over for their beauty and quality.
This exhibit explores who this generation was and is: hardworking, persevering, honest, humble, courageous, kind, caring, loyal, fun loving, proud, headstrong, talented, creative and with such common sense. Bosses looked to them to find solutions to problems. Nothing was too hard for them. They did it together in solidarity, without complaint and without expectation of help or thanks. They saved and scrimped to shelter, feed and clothe their families. Their words and faces are the hieroglyphics of the past and present. Their shared stories lead us to discover what we have done well, what we haven't done so well and how we might become better. It was their labor, skill and craftsmanship which created the area's robust economy, culture, vibrant community and the powerful sense of place that we all enjoy today. They worked extremely long hours under unbelievably difficult conditions, enduring hardships we can only imagine: illiteracy, little education, being very poor, none of which stopped them from building community, raising good families and giving us a past that is vital to the very character of our community.
Portraits and Voices not only looks at the past, but also documents the current state of the local mill buildings, with photographs by recent Bates College graduate Nels Nelson depicting empty spaces and vibrant businesses taking hold in revitalized areas. Nelson also created the photo montage which hangs in the entryway to the exhibit and depicts each of the seven local mills represented by the 45 millworkers: Androscoggin, Bates, Continental, Cowan, Hill, Libbey, and Pepperell.
Visitors have the opportunity to hear and read the millworkers' stories, reminisce through a scrapbook of photographs from the Museum's collection, and be awed by the magnificent painting by local artist Ray Michaud that was specially commissioned for this exhibit.
Like every story, this one has its heroes. The heroes are the workers. They don't think of themselves as heroes, but we as a community do. We hope we are somehow validating their lives. With this exhibit, we say: "Thank You for the gift of your history which is our legacy.
We honor and stand in sheer admiration of "Our Mill Workers."