The twin cities on the Androscoggin River are in the midst of a fascinating transition. We stopped by to take a closer look.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Alan Lavallee
Louis Philippe is onstage at the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston’s mill district, tickling the ivories of a Steinway grand piano and nearing the end of his first song. “I love Paris,” he croons. “Why, oh why, do I love Paris? Because my love is near. . . . ”
As the applause fades, the slender, bespectacled singer turns toward his audience, a mostly gray-haired crowd filling two-thirds of this elegant concert hall in the erstwhile St. Mary’s Church. “Most of you already know that that song was written by Cole Porter,” Philippe says, “but I bet you didn’t know that it’s not the original version. The original version was written by a Canadian who migrated to the Androscoggin River Valley to work in the mills in the 1920s. Here’s how it goes.”
Philippe’s fingers begin dancing on the keys. “I love Rumford in the springtime,” he sings. “I love Augusta in the fall . . . I love Fort Kent in the winter, when it drizzles . . . I love Biddeford in the summer, when it sizzles. . . .” Philippe leans into the piano and amps up his voice. “But I love Lewiston every moment” — the house erupts into thunderous applause — “every moment of the year! I love Lewiston, why, oh why, do I love Lewiston? Because my love is near. . . . ”
Midway into my second day of playing tourist in Lewiston and Auburn, I’ve happened upon La Rencontre (The Get Together), a monthly luncheon in the heart of Little Canada, a neighborhood settled by French Canadian mill workers in the late 1800s. At seven dollars, the meal (today it’s a traditional boiled dinner of ham, potatoes, carrots, turnips, and cabbage) is a steal, but that’s not the main attraction, nor for that matter is the after-dinner performance, even though Philippe, a Portland musician with L-A roots, is clearly a favorite.
Rather, the opportunity to converse in French, the first language of many of the attendees, is the big draw. “Parlez-vous français?” my tablemates asked me when I arrived. “Un peu,” I replied, quickly adding, “Actually, not well at all.” For that, I was good-naturedly fined one dollar, which I plunked in the kitty at the center of the table, my contribution to the day’s raffle (judging from the cup’s full contents, francophones freely pay up, too).
I’ve wanted to poke around Lewiston (38,000) and Auburn (23,690), these close-knit mill city sisters on opposite banks of the Androscoggin River, ever since I chatted with a Bates College senior a year or so ago. She’d grown up in a tony Boston suburb, the sort of place that people call a good place to raise children, which they do, and then they move away. “No one is really invested in the town,” she lamented. So where did this young woman “really, really want to live and work” after graduation? L-A. “Lewiston has so much history,” the student enthused. “To say you’re from Lewiston really means something.”
Now I am letting her words and experiences guide me as I explore downtown L-A. To be sure, La Rencontre, part Lawrence Welk Show, part French immersion class, is unlikely to make it into your Fodor’s travel guide, but then the twin cities are an unconventional destination to begin with. More than ten years into a spunky comeback, L-A is still recovering from the painful collapse of the textile, shoe, and brick mills that once employed more than 14,000 people. Gentrified it’s not, but if you’re willing to do more than scratch the surface, you’ll find much to appreciate, not least being an unrivaled sense of community identity and belonging. More than half of L-A’s residents are of Franco-American descent, and they are immensely proud of their mill-town roots. Now they and their new neighbors, the three thousand Somalis who have resettled here over the past decade, are working hard to build a better future.
Unconventional, too, is a winter visit to a metropolis whose biggest public events — the Great Falls Balloon Festival, the Bates Dance Festival, and the Dempsey Challenge — take place in summer and fall. In fact, winter brings far more occasions around which a daytrip can be fashioned, beginning with the opening of Lost Valley, a small, picturesque ski area in the Auburn woods where three-time Olympian Julie Parisien learned to ski. On the Bates College campus, meanwhile, there are dozens of art exhibits, concerts, film screenings, and theatrical and dance productions. The Franco-American Heritage Center, L/A Arts, and the Public Theatre, a thriving professional theater, are more active this time of year as well.
Once you have selected a main event, what else to include on your urban safari? I start with the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the gothic edifice whose 168-foot twin granite spires are visible from almost every downtown corner. “This is the pride of Lewiston,” Robert Pelletier tells me as he switches on the lights in the upper church, which is modeled after the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres in France. “My grandmother and grandfather built this cathedral with their nickels, dimes, and pennies.” With no munificent benefactor to help them realize their dream of a bigger church, Pelletier explains, mill workers raised the eight hundred thousand dollars themselves, putting hundreds of Maine men to work during the depths of the Depression.
Pelletier knows the basilica, the largest church in Maine and the second largest in New England, inside and out. As a child, he served as an altar boy and sang in the choir. A maintenance worker for the past three years, he ventures into areas few parishioners see, like the narrow crawl space above the barrel-vaulted ceiling.
Despite his familiarity with the cathedral, Pelletier remains in awe, and it’s easy to see why. It is magnificent in its vastness and its details. A Casavant organ with 4,695 pipes, crowned by a great rose window, dominates the back of the church. The three hundred-foot center aisle bisects row upon row of oak pews (enough to seat 1,800 people) on its way to a double-sided altar of Italian marble. “When I was a kid, you used to have to have a ticket to get into midnight Mass,” Pelletier recalls.
My admiration for the sheer feistiness of Lewiston and Auburn’s ongoing revitalization deepens at Museum L-A, which opened six years ago with looms, spinning frames, and other artifacts rescued from the vacant mills. Located in the massive brick Bates Mill Complex, Museum L-A illuminates the twin cities’ economic and social legacy in a very personal way — through the individual stories of the people who once labored here. The recently opened “Shoemaking Skills of Generations,” featuring shoe workers’ portraits by documentary photographer Mark Silber and oral histories recorded by historian Andrea L’Hommedieu, is the third installment in the “Portraits & Voices” exhibit series. A map dotted with colored markers reveals the magnitude of the shoe industry: At one time, Auburn was the largest producer of shoes in the U.S., with twelve factories employing eight thousand people making seventy thousand pairs of shoes a day. Scores of tanneries, box companies, heel makers, pattern makers, and builders of shoe-making machinery were spread throughout both cities. Excerpts from the first two “Portraits & Voices” exhibits, focusing on textile and brick workers, are installed in a second-floor gallery, reached by a walk through cavernous loom rooms awaiting redevelopment. “We have so many people come in here who point to a loom or some other piece of equipment and say, ‘That’s my machine,’ ” archivist Susan Beane tells me. “It’s hard to find someone in town who is not connected to the shoe and textile industry in some way.”
Museum L-A lends perspective when I stroll to nearby Lisbon Street, Lewiston’s commercial and civic center. The presence of a big Country Kitchen bread factory in the heart of downtown now seems appropriate in light of the city’s manufacturing roots. The aroma of fresh-baked bread follows me as I walk north and imagine how this street hummed when several thousand people worked just a block or two away. When manufacturing moved south and overseas, it was as if a plug had been pulled. The shoppers and workers disappeared. The splendid old storefronts shuttered. After two decades of hard times, during which parts of Lisbon Street gained an unsavory reputation, the street is in fascinating transition. Dozens of small Somali variety stores, selling everything from lentils and halal meat to head scarves and flowery skirts to animal skin drums, have brought once-vacant buildings back to life. The upper end of Lisbon, which was never abandoned by the law offices seeking proximity to the district courthouse, hosts another aspect of the new L-A: Fuel, its new more casual sister Marché, and Mother India are part of a nascent foodie culture.
For local flavor, however, it’s hard to beat Simones’ Hot Dog Stand, just off Lisbon on Chestnut Street. When I stop in for coffee, owner Jim Simones (pronounced Simone-iss) strikes up a conversation. He takes me to the front window and points out where his grandfather, James, a Greek immigrant, began selling hot dogs for five cents apiece (six for a quarter) in 1908. “The place had only four seats and they’d pass the hot dogs through a window,” Simones says. Simones’ moved into its current digs, a full-fledged diner with a bright yellow counter and several tables, in 1966. Woe to the candidate who does not make a campaign stop at Simones’. Senator Olympia Snowe, a Lewiston native, is well represented among the photographs of politicians adorning the walls.
Other neighborhood favorites include Lewiston’s Italian Bakery, which not only makes a mean Italian sandwich but also has a bit of a Franco accent — the take-home red salmon pot pie, tourtière (meat pie), and baked beans are local legend. Also in Lewiston, the Pop Shoppe is a great place to start the day Franco-style — the menu includes crêpes and toast with cretons, a traditional Quebecois spiced pork paté. Or consider Rolly’s Diner in Auburn (“Our specialty?” the menu boasts, “Good cooking and plenty of it!”), which in the tradition of the best diners, serves breakfast all day. Amid the usual egg and pancake plates, the menu offers several varieties of “Mémére Blais’ crêpes” — lemon pucker, blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, and brown sugar. Mémére Blais was owner Ken Blais’ grandmother. Rolly (pronounced Role-y) is his mother and business partner.
I realize I’ve visited L-A at a compelling time in its history. With the Franco heritage still strong, the Somali culture just beginning to make its own imprint, and the continuing redevelopment of the twin cities’ downtowns, L-A is changing rapidly. I look forward to seeing what it does next.
A Day in L-A: Three Ways
History & Heritage Tour
Lunch: Simones’ Hot Dog Stand (99 Chestnut St., Lewiston. 207-782-8431) or Taste of Three One Café (259 Lisbon St., Lewiston. 207-376-4800)
Afternoon: Museum L-A (35 Canal St., Lewiston. 207-333-3881. www.museumla.org). Stroll from Simard Payne Police Memorial Park, Lewiston, to RiverWalk in Auburn. Visit Orphan Annie’s antique shop (96 Court St., Auburn. 207-782-0638.) and the Androscoggin Historical Society (Court Street door, Androscoggin County Courthouse, Auburn. 207-784-0586. www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~meandrhs)
Evening: Midcoast Symphony Orchestra Concert at the Franco-American Heritage Center (46 Cedar St., Lewiston. 207-636-7083. www.francoamericanheritage.org) or a performance by a local artist at one of L/A Arts’ venues (221 Lisbon St., Lewiston. 207-782-7228. www.laarts.org)
Arts & Culture Tour
Morning: Art exhibit at the Bates College Museum of Art (Olin Arts Center, 75 Russell St., Lewiston. 207-786-6158. www.bates.edu/museum.xml). Stroll the Bates campus.
Lunch: She Doesn’t Like Guthrie’s (115 Middle St., Lewiston. 207-376-3344. www.guthriesplace.com) or Gritty’s Brew Pub (68 Main St. Auburn. 207-376-2739. www.grittys.com), where you can view works by local artists in L/A Arts’ Art & Ale exhibit window.
Afternoon: Art exhibit at the Atrium Gallery at University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston Auburn College (51 Westminster St., Lewiston. 207-753-6500. www.usm.maine.edu/lac/art). Historic walking tour of downtown Lewiston (download a brochure at www.ci.lewiston.me.us/files/pdf/tourbrochure.pdf)
Dinner: Fuel (49 Lisbon St., Lewiston. 207-333-3835. www.fuelmaine.com) preceded by a tour of the adjacent L/A Arts Gallery 5.
Winter Sports Tour
Morning: Skiing at Lost Valley (200 Lost Valley Rd., Auburn. 207-784-1561. www.lostvalleyski.com)
Lunch: Marché (40 Lisbon St., Lewiston. 207-333-3836. www.marchemaine.com) or the Italian Bakery (225 Bartlett St., Lewiston. 207-782-8312. www.theitalianbakery.biz).
Afternoon: Snowshoeing at Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary (Highland Spring Rd., Lewiston. www.stantonbirdclub.org/thorncrg.htm)
Dinner: DaVinci’s Eatery (150 Mill St., Lewiston. 207-782-2088. www.davinciseatery.com/ordereze/default.aspx)
Evening: Mainiacs hockey game
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Alan Lavallee