by Jennifer Hazard
During the mid-1800s, massive brick textile mills served as places of employment for thousands of residents in Maine’s communities. At the Bates Mill in Lewiston, for example, tents and uniforms were made for the Union Army. Employees at the Knox Woolen Mill, in Camden, created felt ribbons for paper production (the first to do so in the United States). However, as the 20th century approached, and prices for supplies increased, more textiles were produced overseas. In time, the once thriving textile mills of Maine were left vacant.
Over the last decade, the mills have experienced a welcome resurgence. Restaurants, art studios, and creative businesses have made these historic spaces their home. For tourists, the mills provide a unique opportunity to learn about Maine’s industrial heritage and to experience its growing creative economy firsthand.
Doug Sanford, a real estate developer who owns the Pepperell Mill Campus in Biddeford, saw potential in the city’s historic buildings back in 2004. While the renovation process was challenging, Sanford is excited by the results. “When I first arrived here, people said I was crazy. Now I’m called a visionary,” he says, with a broad grin. “It only took 30 years, but there is great momentum happening here.”
In addition to housing a new wave of businesses, Biddeford and Lewiston have also opened museums dedicated to teaching the public about the history of these mills. Susan Beane, an archivist at the Museum L-A, says visitors come to the Bates Mill for an authentic experience. “There’s something to being inside of this place,” she says. “There’s nothing quite like the exposed beams and brick, and the scent of an old building.”
Want to see these impressive buildings for yourself? The following are suggestions for favorite mill destinations, where you’ll find shopping, restaurants, antiquing, and more vacation-friendly activities.
North Dam Mill, Biddeford
Step inside the North Dam Mill and you’ll immediately notice its small neighborhood feel. The lobby is bustling with a mix of artists, business owners, and residents, grabbing a quick cup of Joe from the coffee bar at Perk—a small, carry out café that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner (there’s informal seating just across the hall for dining).
The North Dam Mill is designed for exploring. Many of the artists’ studios in the mill welcome visitors to stop by. Nora Tryon, a visual artist, who is best known for her freestanding, 3D artwork, keeps her door open whenever possible. “I love it when guests visit the studio,” she says, busily painting a new work. Photographer Tina Guay, who recently moved into her studio/gallery after graduating from The New Hampshire Institute of Art, is also worth discovering. Check out her whimsical, black and white prints of Sunflower People. Studios at The North Dam Mill are also open for the Biddeford Art Walk, which happens on the last Friday of every month from 5-8 pm.
For cooks, food lovers, and collectors of rare/antique cookbooks, Rabelais is a must visit (just be sure to call ahead). Owners Samantha Hoyt Lindgren and Don Lindgren are wonderful hosts. On the day I visited, I was treated to a look at their antique book collection, with cookbooks from the U.S. and Great Britain. I had my eye on a beautifully bound ice cream and cakes cookbook. Rabelais is also home to one of the largest collections of rare cocktail books in the country.
After a morning of exploring, you might want to simply relax. Book an appointment with massage therapist, Shay Ayres, owner of Eye Sun Holistic Massage. Before settling in for your massage, you’ll want to peruse Ayres’ small gift shop, offering her own tea blends and handmade goods from area artisans.
Dana Warp Mill, Westbrook
If you’re traveling with little ones, and the weather isn’t cooperating, a stop at the Dana Warp Mill is a must. The Peek-a-Boo Children’s Center is an outstanding indoor play space for infants and children up to age 5. The expansive space has a wooden climbing structure, train table, mini bounce house, and more fun play activities for kids.
Owner Marina Waisman chose the historic building for her business, not only for its high ceilings and open floor plan, but also for its unique environment. “I wanted to provide a play facility with open-ended toys and play areas where children can engage in free play, while acquiring skills that the fast growing, high tech environment may not otherwise offer.
In addition to offering a fun place to play, Peek-a-Boo regularly hosts special events for families. Many enjoy the arts and crafts programs, which are free with admission. There’s also plenty of seating for parents. You can easily keep an eye on your kiddos, while taking in views of the Presumpscot river below.
For those enjoying an extended visit with family, the drouin dance Center offers classes for children and adults. Drop-in classes are also available. The mill is also home to Acorn Productions—a great place to experience local theater.
Fort Andross, Brunswick
This stately building near the Androscoggin river was originally built as a fort in 1688. In later years, the building became the Cabot mill, and was home to a variety of companies making textiles, shoes, and art supplies. Visit the renovated mill today, and you’ll discover it’s still a lively place of business. In a prime space overlooking the water, you’ll find Frontier. This restaurant/art gallery/theater is a feast for the eyes, complete with twinkling lights, a cozy lounge area, and a bar serving Maine brews and creative cocktails. The lunch and dinner menu features local fare, such as grass fed beef from Caldwell Farms in turner and cheeses from new Gloucester-based Pineland Farms (share the inspired market plates for a fun sampling of food and flavors). Frontier also presents small, independent films and live music throughout the week. It’s one of the only area theaters where you can sip a glass of wine while enjoying a movie.
Also in Fort Andross, antique enthusiasts will be pleased to discover Cabot mill Antiques. The expansive, 16,000 square-foot antiques center offers jewelry, collectibles, and furniture from multiple dealers. Lovely dishware, antique quilts, and estate jewelry abound. Plan to spend time here, shopping each unique display as the floor creaks under your feet.
If you happen to be in maine during the winter months, revisit the mill on Saturdays for the Brunswick Winter market. The lively market offers crafts, fresh vegetables, artisan breads, and more from 50 local vendors. This is the perfect place to find a unique gift to bring home for friends or family. You’ll also find a few tables scattered about, making it easy to sit with a coffee in hand, taking in the sights and sounds of the market.
Bates Mill, Lewiston
The Bates mill complex has received quite a bit of attention in the past few years, thanks in part to Baxter Brewing—the fastest growing beer company in the northeast. Baxter is known for its green practices, especially the company’s decision to offer their beer in aluminum cans (aluminum takes less energy to produce than glass, among other advantages). Visitors to the area are invited to tour the facility and taste Baxter’s growing list of beers, which includes I.P.A., Pale Ale, and seasonal brews.
Those in search of relaxed dining—and more Baxter on tap—should visit Da Vinci’s Eatery. The popular, family restaurant serves pizza and classic pasta dishes. If it’s nice outside, opt to sit on the outdoor patio for a great view of the building’s beautifully renovated façade. If you are in search of fresh seafood, creatively prepared, plan on dining at Fish Bones American Grill. The space, which was once a storage area for the Bates Manufacturing Co., has a cool, cosmopolitan vibe. There’s also a bar and lounge area for a cocktail and small plate appetizers. Their commitment to using local is evident on the menu. Depending on the season, you’ll find potatoes from Auburn’s Bell Farms, fresh greens from Olivia’s Garden in New Gloucester, and salmon from the Gulf of Maine.
June through October on Sundays from 10 am – 1 pm, the Lewiston Farmers’ Market sets up shop outside Bates Mill #5. The colorful marketplace is a feast for the eyes, as well as the tummy. Much like the winter market in Brunswick, this is the place to find homemade goods and beautiful crafts from talented Maine artists and food purveyors.
Those particularly interested in history will enjoy a trip to the Museum L-A at the Bates Mill. The Lewiston/Auburn area was home to shoe makers and textile mills until the end of the 20th century. In addition to its industry exhibit, the museum regularly showcases music through the ages. This year’s exhibit, “From the Roaring 20’s to the Swing Era,” explores the music of the period locally and nationally. The exhibit is on display through the end of 2013.
Knox Mill Center, Camden
The Knox Mill is tucked away from Camden’s bustling Main Street, but well worth visiting. Located near the Megunticook River, the historic mill is home to 40 Paper, an Italian Bistro & Bar whose name honors the mill’s origins in paper production. Chef and owner, Josh Hixson, thoughtfully restored the space to create a restaurant that is equal parts cool and cozy. Visit for vintage cocktails, antipasti, and mouthwatering handmade pasta that is cooked to order.
Shopping is also available at the mill. Pet lovers enjoy the award-winning Loyal Biscuit Co., a pet supply store that offers all-natural foods and treats, among other finds for your cat or dog. The shop also boasts a self-serve dog wash—perfect if you’re traveling with an adventurous pooch.
Creative types, or parents in search of a rainy day activity, will appreciate the Rockport Blueprint. The well-stocked art supply store carries everything from artists’ canvases to oil paints, and a variety of crafts for the kids. It’s a guaranteed fun stop when inspiration strikes.
Maine’s historic mills are continually evolving, so be sure to come back and explore again. You never know what you might discover.
North Dam Mill, Biddeford
Nora Tyron Visual Artist
Tina Guay Photography
Eye Sun Holistic Massage
Dana Warp Mill, Westbrook
Peek-a-Boo Children’s Center
Drouin Dance Center
Fort Andross Mill, Brunswick
Cabot Mill Antiques
Brunswick Winter Market (November-April)
Sat, 9 am – 12:30 pm
Bates Mill Complex, Lewiston
Baxter Brewing Company
Fish Bones American Grill
Lewiston Farmers’ Market (Jun-Oct)
Sun 10 am – 1 pm
Knox Mill Center, Camden
The Loyal Biscuit Co.