The millworkers matter most

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This past Wednesday I arrived at Museum L-A for Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers’s “Grateful for Rachel” retirement party. She is a Maine treasure who created a model of historic and cultural preservation that can, and should, be duplicated in communities statewide.

I enter Museum L-A’s yellow greeting room. Three walls are floor-to-ceiling shoes with hand-printed history cards next to each shoe. One wall is covered in enlarged photos depicting the rise of shoe manufacturing in Lewiston and Auburn.

Rachel is speaking with two people. She and I first met in 2017.

We make eye contact. “Hi, Rachel,” I said. “Hi, Scott,” she replies. I let her get back to her conversation. I return to studying shoes. A moment later I overhear the man ask Rachel, “Are you really going to retire?”

I turn to look at Rachel. She is just opening her mouth to respond. She looks at me and closes her mouth.

“I’m just waiting to hear if you’re going to give him an honest answer,” I tell Rachel, both of us laughing.

Fifteen years ago, Rachel volunteered to help Museum L-A Founder Eliot Epstein interview candidates for the Executive Director position. After interviewing the final applicant, Rachel told Mr. Epstein she could do a better job than any of those candidates.

Epstein offered Rachel the job. She agreed to take it for six months. That was 15 years ago.

Once on the job, Rachel had an epiphany. She told well-wishers Wednesday night of the moment she realized the material preservation of mill artifacts isn’t most important. “What is most important,” she said, “are the people,” the millworkers, their families, their skill sets, their stories. These people created a culture that was Lewiston/Auburn. When the mills closed, the cities’ identity, its culture, was lost.

Cities full of people who made the cities, and who were now forgotten. The shuttered mills, the mills knocked down to make way for fast food restaurants and other “new” entities, simply reinforced the forgotten message to a generation of hard workers. Time had passed, or was rapidly passing them by.

Rachel announced she was going to create an oral and video history of millworkers. She went around to craft fairs and other public events, operating to a great extent on her intuition. “Are you a millworker?” she asked certain people. Many of the people Rachel approached were skeptical. When she explained she wanted to interview them, to get their stories on record, they were more skeptical.

“You want to interview me? Why? I was only a millworker,” was a typical response. When Rachel said she wanted to interview them precisely because they were a millworker, people were even more skeptical.

Rachel Desgrosselliers kept at it, eventually capturing the stories, the Maine work history, of several hundred millworkers. Their stories are captured for posterity as audio and video recordings, as photographic portraits.

After Rachel had gathered hundreds of stories, she held a gathering at Museum L-A for the millworkers she interviewed, their families, and others. The Museum was decorated with millworkers’ portraits, video screens displaying the interviews. Rachel tells of a millworker who, at first, gave Rachel the standard reply, “Why do you want to interview me? I was a millworker.” At the celebratory event, Rachel happened upon that same man, all dressed up, standing with his young grandson, looking on the wall at the man’s portrait.

“Grandpa?” asked the grandson, “Why are all these people here looking at your picture?”

Standing straight up, chest out, the man looked at his grandson and answered with pride, “Because I was a millworker.”

By the way, Rachel’s answer to the man who asked if she was really going to retire? She said, “I’m not going to sit home and do nothing. I have a few projects in mind.”

Whatever Rachel Desgrosselliers does next, I know Maine will be better for it.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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