This interview is part of NADO’s “Youth with a Voice” case studies series, which highlights small towns and rural communities that are effectively engaging young people in planning and community development projects.
Victoria Eon is a freshman at McGill University, studying Life Sciences and Physiology. She is a graduate of Biddeford High School, where she was instrumental in organizing tours of the mills for students and residents as well as participating in other cultural and historical activities throughout the community.
Click here to learn more about youth participation in Biddeford’s community development initiatives.
Can you explain your role in organizing tours of Biddeford’s mills and explain what motivated you to become involved in these projects?
How did this come to be? In May 2011, I delved into my family roots, connecting emotionally with ma patrie by performing in a one-act play for the Franco-American festival La Fête du Printemps (in Biddeford) and the Franco-American Society of the University of Maine at Orono’s annual meeting. At the performance at UMO, I met and planned with [Biddeford High School teacher] Carolyn [Gosselin] to take my passions further by pursuing historical research of the Biddeford Mills. In 1960, my grandparents emigrated from Canada in pursuit of a better life, a better future for their children and grandchildren. They sought work at the Biddeford Mills as laborers.
In the same month, the steering committee for the Biddeford Mills Museum (a preservation project started by the Pepperell Mill complex’s owner and visionary, Doug Sanford) decided that education and tours of the mill buildings held a key place in future development plans for the community.
And so accepting Carolyn’s invitation, over the summer, youth and adult volunteers worked on projects associated with mill history. The idea of the tours took shape. As a test-run, I decided that I would create a short simple tour for the museum’s Summer Showcase, held on August 26th.
During the summer, as the youth volunteers ventured into the mills to collect artifacts, take photos, and explore the past, the concept of “haunted tours” took shape. In fact, the August showcase made it clear that people definitely wanted to enter the deeper recesses of the mill.
Within the first two weeks of my senior year, I had established an independent study in historical storytelling with Carolyn. My best friend Ben Cote, another senior and President of the National Honor Society, soon joined me. The project naturally became the major fundraising event for National Honor Society and BHS drama program, with whom we collaborated. From there, the “ghost tours” grew from the short tour I had developed over the summer.
After much deliberation, the museum became directly affiliated with the BHS drama program, as well as the BHS National Honor Society in building this event. What was originally conceptualized as a Main Street tour, including a few locations in the mill, became an event entirely within Doug’s domain – the Pepperell Mill Company buildings. As advocates for the Museum, Carolyn and I ensured that the stories were strictly based in historical events, for historical accuracy is paramount for preserving the museum’s integrity. After compiling original research and narrowing down the stories, I presented the tour topics to the NHS and the drama program.
Essentially, I researched and outlined the stories then let the storytellers jump on the topic that interested them the most. I had compiled set designs and thematic affects from a general writer/director standpoint. From there, my only advice was “Keep it historically accurate, but please, make it your own.” And by judging the outcome of the event, they certainly did.
Our crew, however, was not limited to NHS and BHS drama performers. Students who had been inspired by Doug’s mill tours (for Carolyn’s senior English classes) were eager to jump on board – being a “creeper” dressed in black, banging around, assisting with guiding tours, or adding special effects. We had ghostly mill workers lingering in the old spaces, mill girls giggling and singing throughout, and shadowy obscured victims of ghastly epidemics. Original stories included: the Native American curse on the Saco River and related canal suicides, the heartbreak and demise of a mill girl Catherine Cotton (which I performed), the cautionary tale of Mary Bean (a Canadian immigrant from the Lowell Mills, murdered in Saco), the cotton storage fire of October 13, 1915, and the Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out Biddeford’s blossoming Albanian Muslim community.
Looking at our group in the lobby afterwards, the diversity among the event’s participants was astonishing. Our crew was truly a cross-section of the BHS population, infatuated with the mystery of the mill and incredulous to the actuality of the stories presented. In a meeting prior to, I heard many “Really? That happened in the mill! When?!” And I’d explain, “Yes, Mary Bean…” or “Yes, there was a…”
Forty high school students lead 274 patrons into the mills, filling the empty rooms with 21st-century buzz. Everyone walking out of North Dam Mill after attending a tour could not wipe the smiles off of their faces, raving about the buildings, the stories, and the overall experience. Everyone involved was moved beyond words. The overall reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and the dynamic has yet to stop.
I spearheaded three more tours – which touched upon Depression-era labor shortages, the creation of the Vellux blanket, a detailed description of the manufacturing process, federal work orders for tents and uniforms during the Civil War, mill girl life, etc.
My biggest motivation to begin research into the mills was both spiritual and familial. My grandparents uprooted their young family and planted new roots in Biddeford’s textile mills, taking up jobs as laborers, making blankets and fixing complicated machinery. They immigrated in 1960 in the hope that their children could complete high school and aspire to study at university. I’m second generation high school, and second generation university. I was always voraciously curious to learn about the place that engaged a huge chunk of their lives. The Biddeford Mills shaped and breathed life into their livelihood. Not just a dark looming wall of brick facing Main Street, but comprised of so much more than a simple exterior. “A beacon of hope” hardly captures the value the mills served to my grandparents and other families. The employees were proactive and had vision. For that reason, the Biddeford mills remained open until 2009, while other complexes fell into disrepair and neglect.
These buildings of brick are my history, and continue to be pivotal in the present. These great bones stand as a testament to the American work ethic. From 1844 to now, these buildings have seen many changes – electricity, renovations, and recently, new habitation of the space. In this way we can embrace the past, engage the present, and envision the future in these mills. All of this speaks to the resilience of the people these buildings inspire.
In addition, I wrote a French one-act for the Franco-American festival and performed it at our local City Theater and at the mill. The play addressed the disconnect between Franco-American generations, and the truths and misconceptions behind its source. Side by side with the mill tours, the play opened the lines of communication within families. I have also been the youth liaison on the Biddeford Mills Museum’s Board of Directors since its formation in 2012.
How have your views of your hometown changed through your community work?
Everyone in my town has some connection with the mills. The mills and the “red brick wall” are embedded deep within the community’s consciousness. For years, the mills have been viewed as what “once was,” and mill veterans shared a unilateral sense of guilt for “letting the mills close,” even though corporate decisions to strip the company’s operations were out of their control.
When I first introduced the mill tours, brave strangers and family members dared to venture into the mills. And a curious thing happened. My own grandmother, once silent about her 33 years manufacturing sheets and linens at “the Pepperell,” suddenly couldn’t stop talking about her experiences in the mill.
A tidal wave of interested youth resulted in an expansion of our historical knowledge and of understanding each other. Our elders were no longer timid of sharing stories about their blue collar jobs, about the specialized technical skill they employed day in and day out that put Biddeford on the map. We welcomed youth and mill veterans – both emotionally affected by the economic and cultural inconsistencies in our town – to the table and facilitated a conversation. Now, youth and mill veterans alike are excited to go into the mill, to visit, to learn, to create!
Have my views of my hometown changed? Certainly! The youth especially are more closely connected because they have common ground in their ties to the mills. Students from a wide spectrum of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds can have prolonged discussions about the evolution of manufacturing and the cultural bonds between mill workers. Engaging in these conversations has brought me closer to my peers. I’m excited that they are excited, and proud that they can – at long last – feel proud of their humble roots without being asked why. I have a deep respect for the ideas youth put forth.
On a greater scale, my hometown’s views of itself have changed. It is not a dead-end at the end of the Industrial Revolution. It is not a sleepy Maine town to escape from when college-time rolls around. There is promise for development. My neighbors feel grounded, rooted by their shared history. And in turn, they are genuinely invested in fueling the momentum. They are resolutely invested in ongoing outreach projects. But the biggest positive difference: students are rooted in each other more than I’ve ever witnessed before.
What advice do you have for other students in other towns who want to get involved with improving their communities?
Find what impassions you, drives you forward, scares the living daylights out of you, and at the end of the day feels purely right. How do you currently connect to your peers, your family, your neighbors? And think, how can you build upon that connection? How can you form lasting connections? All development is founded in communication, collaboration, and passion. It only starts with one project, and adults who support and believe in your cause – give you the keys to the mill buildings and say “create” as Doug and Carolyn did for me. But you have to want to work. You have to want to enrich your community. And in the end you find yourself enriched.
Do you have plans to return home to Biddeford after college?
Biddeford, and her mills, will always hold a special place in my heart. I always look forward to going home on break and visiting family, friends, and the old brick textile mills teeming with new life. In the big picture, I aspire to attend medical school after receiving my undergraduate degree at McGill. As a result, I could be anywhere in the next ten years, depending on where my training takes me. That said, perhaps the future involves me living in Maine again, or perhaps not. Only time will tell.
The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under an award with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government.