The Revitalization of Waterville
A Mill Town Story
The Two Cent Bridge stretches from the edge of Waterville over the rushing waters of Ticonic Falls and delivers you to the gateway of the old Scott Paper Mill in Winslow. It’s a simple footbridge that leads to and from Waterville, but it is significant. For generations, men and women would walk the bridge on their way to a day’s work at the town’s textile mills. If you trek across the bridge today, following the path of those who came before, some old rail tracks will guide you toward the mill yard. You can still step atop one of those old rails and fight to hold your balance as you walk along, and you wonder how many men and women, on their way to a double shift, stole a moment to be young again, walking those same rails as they carried on with friends and coworkers under blue skies, on summer days of years gone by.
They walked the bridge in winter, too. When the river froze over, men and women would walk its icy path to and from the old mill—a moment’s reprieve from the day’s toil in what was one of the great mill towns of Maine. Generations of men and women plied the trades of manufacturing and watched as the products of their labor were shipped along the churning waters of the Kennebec to touch down in big city ports, such as Boston and New York.
In 2002, the last of the big mills closed its doors. The storied Hathaway shirt company, which once provided shirts for Civil War soldiers, found its profit margins too small to continue production. After 165 years, the doors of the Hathaway mill closed for what seemed to be the last time, and so did a way of life for this waterfront community.
The mills had provided wages to a community, enabled holidays to be celebrated in abundance, and birthdays acknowledged with gifts. They provided a week’s groceries, or a prom dress for a daughter who seemed to grow up too fast.
But the mills had provided something else: a place of community, where regular folks would gather to work, to laugh together, and to stand with each other through life’s challenges. It was commonplace to see a young daughter coming to work next to her mom and her aunt, sewing shirts that would wind up in all corners of the world. The mills gave a sense of identity, a kindred connection between neighbors, and with their close, a community was left fragmented. Now the workers’ footprints linger in memory, ready to imprint what the city becomes.
If you stand on Main Street today and look toward the south end of town, the old Lockwood Mills seems to hang empty over the city—its broken windows outnumbering the businesses within the town limits. Some type of psychedelic music throbs into the streets from a makeshift speaker sitting upon the sidewalk. An attached speaker wire winds its way through a doorway and into a business called Happy Trails. The business looks like it would be more at home on the outskirts of a neighborhood in New York City than on a primary throughway in Waterville, Maine. Happy Trails is a paraphernalia shop, and it has taken over Joe’s Tobacco Shop, maintaining the original licensing but holding little resemblance to the business that once sold tobacco and had existed here since 1922. The Indian chief shop sign still hangs ironically above the doorway, alluding to the changing times.
The physical signs of economic change in Waterville are obvious. It is a city fighting to keep its downtown intact and relevant to those who will pass through. Much of this historic city has lost its ties to the mom- and-pop shops of yesteryear: the shops that make a place feel unique and draw dads into town when they need a couple of nuts and bolts for a weekend project. A sign hanging above the Center, a red brick building that dates back to the town’s origination and was once a primary place of buying and trading, advertises, “Space for lease, $550 monthly, heat and lights included.”
Farther along Main Street, the old World Wide Vacations Building still exists. Its antiquated slogan, “Making Dream Vacations A Reality,” hangs as a promise to a time gone by.
What Is to Come
It has been a dozen years since the last of the mills closed in Waterville, and although much of that time has been accompanied by harsh changes and challenges, the city is emerging from the shadows of dormancy. New life is being planted.
A collage of photos inside Barrels Community Market begins to tell the story. They show the faces of Waterville, young and old, with generations of citizens recounting in their own words what Waterville means to them, and why their city matters. There are photos and quotes from people in their eighties, recalling winter days in the mills and the prosperity earned through a hard day’s work; and from teens, speaking of what they look forward to about their town, and how, as one note proclaims, “the only thing that matters is family and friends, anyway.”
The changes occurring in this city of 16,000 are significant. Colby College, the school that the citizens of Waterville essentially built with donations to ensure that the college would have a place in Waterville, has promised to lend a hand to the development of the city under the guidance of a new school president. During his inaugural address in 2013, David A. Greene spoke of hope, and of his school’s ties to a proud community. “As we look beyond Mayflower Hill, we must begin where we began, off this hill, in the center of Waterville. Colby is of the world, but Waterville is our home and we can never forget that we are a Waterville institution first. We are of this place and we were formed by the generosity of its citizens.”
More recently, Greene began to address how the college can help the proud city move forward. “Colby College is committed to joining with leaders of Waterville and our local institutions in making strategic investments in the city that will aid in job development, housing, and an inviting commercial corridor. We see extraordinary potential in Waterville’s historic Main Street. We see opportunities for more housing and small businesses on Main Street and additional retail that will draw customers from across mid-Maine. Waterville has a tradition of being a true regional economic center, and we have the advantage of drawing on year-round residents and countless visitors to the college and our art museum, to local medical centers, and to the timeless vacation spots in the Belgrade Lakes and surrounding areas,” Greene stated.
Much of this vision is beginning to unfold for Waterville. Waterville Creates!, an arts coalition, promises to make the downtown area one that is bustling with new opportunities and creative activity. Formed with the help of the Harold Alfond Foundation, the organization’s purpose is to merge the creative institutions of the city and allow them to explore ways to grow while advancing the city’s creative impact. With the Maine Film Center, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville Public Library, Waterville Opera House, and Waterville Main Street serving as central institutions, Waterville Creates! will have an opportunity to influence much of the city’s artistic and cultural direction.
Those mills that have stood silent are beginning to awaken as well. Developer Paul Boghossian, a Colby graduate, has begun to transform the historic mills into multipurpose complexes. The former Hathaway shirt factory is the first of the mills to gain a second wind and stands as a landmark example of mill- town revitalization. Now known as the Hathaway Creative Center, the mill teems with activity. Just inside the lobby, a poster of Baron George Wrangell, the eye-patch- wearing Russian aristocrat, hangs as a remembrance to the mill’s past, and to the legendary advertising campaign that made the shirts famous. Wrangell had perfectly good eyes, but the brass of Madison Avenue decided that an eye-patch-wearing man seemed mysterious or distinguished in some way, and so a marketing strategy was formed. For years after Wrangell’s departure from the campaign, famous actors and actresses would adorn the eye- patch in advertisements, and the strategy further cemented Hathaway’s role in American advertising history.
The upper floors of the mill now house loft-style apartments that are suddenly in high demand. A waiting list for the units is a promising sign of things to come. On the lower levels, businesses have taken root. MaineGeneral Medical Center has recently moved over one hundred of its administrative employees to the mill.
Boghossian sees the mills doing what they have always done: playing a prominent role in the identity of this waterfront city. “Although it is necessary to move on from the original use of the mills, we don’t have to let go of the mills themselves,” he says. “The mills should be celebrated—not just in Waterville, but in any mill town.”
Boghossian himself lives in one of the units of the Hathaway Creative Center and has found a connection to Waterville that makes his vision of the mills a vital part of where the city is going. “Look, I believe in this city.
I’m emotionally attached at this point. It’s where I went to college, and I remember what it was when the financial structure was solid, and it can be that way again. The brand that we have here, and that Maine has as a whole, is unique, and unlike anywhere else in the world. There is a reason that people come here just to see it. That brand is what will lead the mill towns forward. Find a way to repurpose the mills, make them attractions for visitors and tourists, but also make them viable places of business for the towns themselves.”
Perhaps the most instrumental contribution to Waterville’s future took place a few years ago, and is only now beginning to gain its deserved notoriety. The private art collection of Peter and Paula Lunder, comprised of 500 objects and valued at $100 million, was given as a gift to Colby College. Peter Lunder, a Colby graduate of 1956, and his wife, Paula, recognized the profound impact such a collection could have at a liberal arts college, as well as the positive interest it could draw to the city of Waterville. “The dream was always that it would be shown,” said Peter Lunder, during public comments in 2013, “and students and the tourists, the state could enjoy it as much as we did.”
The Lunders’ generosity enabled the college to raise funds to build a $26 million addition to its museum, and on July 13, 2013, the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion opened. With the Lunder gift and the visual elegance of the new museum acting as anchors, the Colby College Museum of Art now stands as the state’s largest, and is set to become a dynamic component in the reemergence of Waterville.
Art has the ability to speak, to relay the stories of generations past, and to allow for the opportunity to connect to what was. While you roam the pristine halls of the new museum, your eye can wander to masterful works that begin to tell Waterville’s story. It is a story of endurance, and of overcoming.
A photograph by Gregory Crewdson, from his series Beneath the Roses, shows a businessman standing in the road next to his car, his briefcase sitting idly by. A torrent of rain is falling upon him, and his head is bowed. Perhaps, for a moment in time, this was Waterville: head bowed, and taking the storm that came against it.
But if you wander a little further along, into the museum’s hallowed halls, a landscape hangs under golden light and tells another segment of the story. It is not the painting itself that speaks to you, but the word that have been positioned below it. “The year has many seasons more than are recognized in the almanac.” They are the words of Henry David Thoreau, and they are a reminder of what Waterville has been, and also of what it has the opportunity to be. They are a reminder that in seasons of change, it is crucial to remember what was, but vital to embrace what is to come.