Pursue a once thriving profession in the towns of Lewiston and Auburn
According to Museum LA, the towns of Lewiston and Auburn were once prosperous with shoe factories, employing 8,000 workers in the 1920s.
LEWISTON, Maine – In a town that has seen decades of change, there are familiar sights and sounds in the factories of Lewiston. You can barely hear Rusty Vallée above the 60-year-old machine spinning right next to him at Maine Thread Company.
Vallée is the president of Maine Thread, but he was in this business most of his life, delivering yarn with his grandfather to the Auburn factories that made shoes.
“We sell [thread] here since 1965 and has been manufacturing it since 1985, ”explains Vallee. During those years, Vallee’s grandfather, father, and now daughter, and their small group of employees produced hand-sewn shoe yarn, with the same machine, at the same mill in Lewiston.
“In the ’60s, there were hundreds of shoe companies in Lewiston-Auburn, New England and across the country,” says Vallee. “Things were booming so we were selling our sewing thread by hand, delivering it right next door. In the late 70s they started moving – I’m sure – because the workforce artwork is so cheap. “
As the factories around Maine Thread began to calm down and jobs went overseas, Maine Thread hung on, sometimes by just a thread. “There was a time when the footwear industry represented 90% of our activity,” explains Vallée. “Now it’s about 60%.”
When asked why he and his family chose to stay in Lewiston as their clients moved away, Vallée’s response was simple: “Just stubborn, I guess.” Vallée laughs as he says this, but then gets a little more serious: “My grandfather directed it here, my father directed it here, I directed it here, and luckily my daughter has just joined us there. a year and a half ago, so it’s the fourth generation. If it’s worth it, why not stay here if we can? ”
“I don’t want to be the one to sink the ship here. I will do whatever I can to make sure that our people stay employed and that I carry on this legacy that my grandfather started a long time ago,” said declared Vallée. Maine Thread employs six people full time and one part time. While much of what they make in Lewiston ends up in other countries, some supplies other manufacturers in the city, who may also have been too stubborn to leave.
“My father was an immigrant from Quebec and his parents brought down the family in the 1950s,” explains Mike Rancourt of Rancourt & Co. Rancourt’s father was one of the thousands to have found a job in a shoe factory. in the Twin Cities. He eventually set up his own shoe store.
“I remember my dad taking me to the factory and I just thought there was a uniqueness about watching people work, especially hand sewing because it’s pretty quiet it doesn’t. there aren’t a lot of machines involved, and they have this rhythm with hand sewing that to me was fascinating, “says Rancourt, now part-owner of his father’s manufacturing business.” It has always stuck with me. “
While the tactics are the same, the building that houses Rancourt & Co. Shoe Crafters is not. “There is going to be a twist in history. [My father] had sold its factory to Quoddy, who was based in Massachusetts. He stayed with them for 10 years. they were bought out by a publicly traded company and as they got bigger they really became a mass product for the whole country. He wasn’t interested, so in 1982 he asked me if I wanted to join him in a company making small productions, unique things, so that’s how it started. “
When asked if he or his father had ever considered moving manufacturing out of L / A, his response, like Vallée’s, was simple: “Never… I’m such a community person. firmly to the values of our community and the people in our community. We have a workforce that dates back to the 80s and 90s. People grew up with me and they are still here in our factory with us, and they represent a such an important part of what we do. “
It’s a workforce that includes a mix of first generation immigrants, as well as second and third generations, like Rich Pelchat. “My dad was here so I started with him, we started at LL Bean in ’81 and stayed there for 12 years. He used to work for Mike’s dad, like in 1976, then he worked at Quoddy for Mike’s father. ” Pelchat’s father retired at 82.
“The man behind me,” Pelchat continues, “His son works here. This man here, his father was a manual sewer, his brother was a manual sewer, so a lot of us… it’s a family affair.”
There is only one machine at Rancourt & Co. that does what human hands cannot, but even that requires an employee to make sure it is working properly. Most of the other factory work is hands-on, creating custom-made shoes. Since 2008, Rancourt & Co. has even created the sneakers worn by American athletes during the Olympic opening ceremonies.
Hand-sewn shoes are a niche market Quoddy is also involved in, right across from Maine Thread Company.
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“I currently have a pair of shoes that my grandma made for my dad when he was a baby, so it’s so deeply rooted in my family and I’m so proud of the heritage I have and the Lewiston’s legacy, ”said Kevin Shorey, co-owner of Quoddy Inc.
While Shorey’s grandparents started making shoes during the heyday of manufacturing, he and his wife Kirsten are kind of newcomers. They bought Quoddy 25 years ago and eventually moved their production to one of Lewiston’s old mills, filling it again with the sounds and smells of shoe making.
“Lewiston was the shoe-making capital of the world,” says Kevin Shorey. “We’ve got Rusty across here in Maine Thread, we’ve got other shoemakers here, so if we’re running out of glue, it’s a tight-knit community among the shoemakers.” His wife, Kirsten, intervenes: “You can call someone up and say, ‘Do you have this? I’ll trade later. ‘ It’s that kind of camaraderie. “
The camaraderie that has enabled these family businesses to advance into a niche market – custom, handmade shoes – and keep families employed and traditions alive inside mills that have calmed down a bit over the years. decades.