American Roots

American Roots Runs Deep

When the pandemic brought life to a standstill the spring of 2020, millions of American small businesses found themselves facing collapse. This is the story of one of them — and of a tight-knit staff navigating calamity, risk, and renewal.

By Rachel Slade
Photos by Michael D. Wilson
From our November 2020 issue

With his Yosemite Sam eyebrows and thick beard and ’stache — red, flecked with gray — Ben Waxman has a whiff of 19th-century industrialist about him. He could be a modern incarnation of the conspicuously bewhiskered Woodbury Dana, the Civil War vet who founded a mill in Westbrook in 1866. Dana made cotton warp — thin, strong yarn used to thread looms for weaving fabric. During the heyday of New England manufacturing, his mill put out more than four million pounds of the stuff each year. Waxman makes hoodies, T-shirts, and fleece vests in Dana’s former factory. Or anyway, he was making these things.

American Roots
Many sewers on the American Roots staff were trained at the nonprofit Common Threads

American Roots, which Waxman cofounded in 2014 with his wife, Whitney Reynolds Waxman, occupies much of the fourth floor of the Dana Warp Mill, overlooking the Presumpscot River. With its 20-foot ceilings, the space was built to house huge spinners, carders, and bales of raw cotton. The mill ceased operation some six decades ago, but you can still find metal shavings from the machinery ground into the floorboards. 

Last winter, under bright fluorescent lights, a couple dozen women and men spent their days stitching clothing at sewing machines the size of desktops. American Roots seemed headed towards its first profitable year, although Ben and Whitney were still putting in long days and weeks. In March, Ben gave himself permission to take a break and travel to Albuquerque for a friend’s memorial service. On the evening of March 12, just as U.S. COVID-19 outbreaks were beginning to dominate the news, Whitney called. “Don’t panic,” she said, “but I have a 104-degree fever.” She was lying on the floor as the couple’s two children — a 3-year-old and a 4-month-old — played nearby. 

Did Whitney have COVID? If she did, Ben thought, it could be a nightmare scenario. She’d been working at the factory all week with a sore throat, powering through illness, as she’d always done. If she had the coronavirus, she may well have spread it. And an outbreak at the factory would threaten the lives of more than just the workers, most of whom were recent arrivals to Maine from Africa, the Middle East, or elsewhere in Asia. “You had 27 people working in close contact for four or five straight days, and on top of that, you had about 150 family members,” Ben says. Many American Roots employees hadn’t yet perfected their English, and their understanding of the American health-care system was fuzzier still. What would happen to them?

The next morning, waiting for a connection at Chicago’s Midway Airport, Ben watched on a TV in the lounge as pandemic chaos began unfolding across the country. The World Health Organization had just labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. Large gatherings — festivals, conventions, trade shows — were being canceled left and right, and customized apparel for such events was American Roots’s bread and butter. It only took some back-of-the-napkin math for Ben to know that without those big orders, the company would fail. He and Whitney had started American Roots with a business loan, a few investment partners, their life savings, and tons of sweat equity. This was supposed to be their year. But his pandemic projections suggested otherwise. He had the realization right there in the airport, Ben says: “We were on the brink of collapse.”

American Roots cofounders, 42-year-old Whitney and 41-year-old Ben Waxman. “We are living proof that you can make things in America,” Ben says.
American Roots cofounders, 42-year-old Whitney and 41-year-old Ben Waxman. “We are living proof that you can make things in America,” Ben says.

The Waxmans built American Roots to prove that union-made, American-made, and American-sourced clothing manufacturing is possible in the 21st century. The mission was prompted, in part, by Ben’s decade as a union man. The Portland native dropped out of the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1999, then worked on a couple of political campaigns before hitting the road with the AFL-CIO in 2004. Advocating for organized labor in the U.S. has never been easy, but during his tenure, support for unions hit rock bottom. Major companies were moving manufacturing abroad. Between 2001 and 2012, some 60,000 American factories closed. Politicians didn’t seem to care. Neither did voters.

Ben saw firsthand what happens to people and cities when industry pulls out. He lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for just shy of a year, where, he says, “I learned what bad trade deals, greed, and shortsighted economic and business strategies had done to communities.” Over the years, some 20,000 workers at the town’s steel mill had lost everything — pensions, homes, benefits — “because it was cheaper to make steel in China. That’s it.” Ben moved on to North Dakota, where he watched union workers at sugar-beet processors get locked out as their employer demanded concessions. In Evansville, Indiana, he saw workers lose again as Whirlpool moved plant operations abroad. When Delphi Automotive closed auto-parts plants in Dayton, Ohio, he watched as thousands of men and women became jobless.

“It was always the faces of people in those towns that stayed with me,” Ben says. “Always. And they still do, to this day. It wasn’t their fault. It was a business decision.”

In 2013, Ben returned to Portland to rethink his life. He still believed capitalism could be a force for good, if companies were created to benefit communities instead of shareholders. He dreamed of building a business where every employee was unionized and received a living wage, paid vacation time, unlimited sick leave, and access to health insurance. He’d ensure that executives never earned more than a few times the median worker pay — unlike at many big American companies, where an executive might make thousands of times the median pay of workers. (At American Roots, Ben says, “I’m the CEO, but I will never make half a million when a worker only makes $30,000 — it’ll never, ever, ever happen.”)

Ben’s mother, Dory Waxman, suggested she and her son start a blanket-making business together. She’d founded a shawl company, Old Port Wool and Textile, two decades earlier and was heading toward retirement, but she didn’t mind helping her oldest son get something off the ground. Ben was unenthusiastic. (“A blanket company with my mom? That sounded as thrilling as watching paint dry.”) He began plowing driveways.

His eureka moment came when he read the label inside a fleece vest he was wearing: “Fabric made in USA. Assembled in El Salvador.” He thought, really? Americans couldn’t make their own clothing? He reached out to contacts from his AFL-CIO stint and asked, if he could manufacture a quality union-made sweatshirt, would they be willing to spend a few more dollars on it? Almost all of them said yes.

American Roots started out with 14,000 square feet in Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill in 2018. This summer, it expanded to 20,000 square feet.
American Roots started out with 14,000 square feet in Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill in 2018. This summer, it expanded to 20,000 square feet.

Whitney, a former competitive skier from Rochester, New York, was tending bar in Portland and looking for something new. She signed on to the venture with Ben, who was then her boyfriend. Dory was running (and still runs) a nonprofit commercial-sewing school, enrolling mostly recent immigrants. She agreed to send her top graduates Ben and Whitney’s way.

The Waxmans started in Portland, then moved in 2018 to Westbrook’s giant brick mill, where several generations of Mainers once earned a living and where they hoped to help rebuild a Maine community of makers. Orders came in. Stitchers went to work.

But then, COVID.

From the Chicago airport, Ben called an all-company meeting: sewers, marketers, floor leaders, and executives crowded around the speakerphone in a conference room — in hindsight, Ben admits, not a great idea. Fortunately, Whitney would test negative for COVID the next day. 

They immediately shut down the factory and sent everyone home, with pay. “I said, ‘Go home and take care of your families,’” Ben says. That weekend, Ben and Whitney had a serious talk. In the cities, the number of diagnosed cases was skyrocketing. Newspapers reported health-care workers in New York already experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment. With much of America’s protective gear being manufactured abroad, the U.S. was clearly headed for a crisis.

Looking back at that moment, they stress how frightened everyone was. No one knew the extent of the threat that COVID posed. There was ambiguity about how the virus spread, and it was difficult to gauge how lethal it was, why some people died while others were asymptomatic. Mixed messages from politicians and health organizations heightened the fear. Planning ahead — even a few days ahead — felt futile.

But American Roots knew how to make things. Whitney told Ben that the country needed them. They could retool, retrain, and manufacture protective gear.

On Monday morning, the Waxmans gathered their workers one more time. Ninety percent of them had come to the U.S. from abroad, most fairly recently. Ben told 18 of them he would have to lay them off, at least temporarily. Then he raised the prospect of reopening. He and Whitney would do everything they could to create a safe environment, he said, but there would still be risks. He asked the room, “If we convert the factory to produce PPE, will you come back to work?”

Every single hand went up. Khalid Al Kinani, a worker who had fled Baghdad years before, announced to the group, “This is our duty as new Americans.”

During the week that followed, Ben and Whitney considered making surgical gowns, surgical booties, masks, and more. “We were open to anything,” Whitney says. Then Ben heard from his friend James Morin, COO of Gorham-based Flowfold, a small manufacturer of sporty wallets, bags, and backpacks. MaineHealth had just instituted new safety protocols that increased demand for protective equipment. Morin had worked with them to develop a face shield, and the design was approved, but he lacked the staff to fulfill the 10,000-unit order. Could American Roots do it? The Waxmans were determined to try.

Purchasers of American Roots cloth face masks include the State of Maine, which in April announced a contract to buy 27,500 of them, enough to provide two to every state employee.
Purchasers of American Roots cloth face masks include the State of Maine, which in April announced a contract to buy 27,500 of them, enough to provide two to every state employee.

Following state guidelines, they had the factory deep cleaned and retooled, and they fitted out a huge adjacent room to create “Factory 2,” which would allow for more space between sewing tables. Workers from Portland’s International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 114 volunteered their time to hang 7,000 square feet of heavy plastic sheeting from the ceilings, to isolate workstations.

“I will never forget pulling into the loading dock that morning,” Ben says. “There were seven people sitting there, waiting to get started. The country was completely locked down and all seven had been laid off. I fought back tears, and so did Whitney.”

A small group of American Roots employees spent a few days doing time trials to determine how many people would be needed to fulfill the face-shield order. Almost as soon as they’d sent out their first batch, other orders came flooding in: fire departments, nursing homes, hospitals. Then, a 50,000-unit contract from the New Jersey State Police. By mid-April, American Roots had hired back those it had laid off and added a dozen new positions besides.

As face-shield production was getting off the ground, Whitney collaborated with the company’s production team and a physicist named Jason Hancock, from the University of Connecticut’s Institute of Materials Science, to design a washable cloth mask. In early April, after the build-out was finished and cutters and stitchers were trained, American Roots put the masks into production.

To make their face shields and masks, they needed aluminum, elastic, cotton, and plastic — materials suddenly in short supply across the nation. Ben pulled every string he had to secure the supplies, but it wasn’t easy. Frustrated by the lack of coordination at the federal level, the Waxmans submitted an op-ed to the Washington Post. The piece ran in mid-April and was widely shared on social media. It described their pivot from manufacturing garments to PPE, and it both rallied small businesses to rise to pandemic-era challenges and made clear that those businesses could benefit from national leadership more focused on getting PPE produced and delivered where it’s needed. 

From the moment the op-ed hit, Ben says, “the phone rang nonstop, all day, seven days a week, from 6:30 in the morning to 11 at night.” American Roots filled orders from unions, public works departments, Reporters Without Borders, schools, and more. By July, more than 100 people were working in the factory. And the protocols — distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-sanitizing — seemed to be working. 

Then, on July 7, a senior staffer called the Waxmans while they were away from the mill to tell them an employee had been in close contact with someone who’d tested positive for COVID. The employee had stayed home. The Waxmans thought maybe they’d dodged a bullet.

The next day, contact tracers identified two more employees who, outside the factory, had come in proximity to the same positive individual. The Waxmans kept the factory running while the employees awaited test results. Two stressful days later, Whitney got a text: the first employee had tested positive.

“My heart just stopped,” Whitney remembers. “‘This is the real deal,’ we told ourselves.”

Native Iraqi Anaan Jabbir (left) came to Maine 10 years ago. She was American Roots’s first hire and is now a floor manager and union head. “It was a hard decision to stay working,” she said. “Making face shields and masks for doctors, nurses, and frontline workers, that keeps us motivated.” Makenga Tshibwabwa (right) came to Maine in 2018, after leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was also there in March when employees committed to making PPE. “It was a scary time,” says the mother of four children under 16, “but I wanted to help. It was my responsibility.”

They met with the entire staff and announced they had a positive case and were shutting down for a deep clean and reassessment. There was fear, Whitney says, but it was contained. By Sunday, two more employees tested positive.

Maine CDC officials recommended American Roots implement staff-wide testing, which it did, on July 14. The next evening, the Waxmans learned they had eight additional cases, all mild. Contact tracing identified several more employees who might have had contact with those infected, and American Roots kept them home with pay. Eighty-six people returned to work; 21 stayed in quarantine. 

“Here we were doing everything we could to keep staff safe,” Whitney says, “and we realized that, as much as you do, the threat is still there. We’d put up plastic sheeting, we had Xs on floors marking out 6 feet, we were doing daily temperature checks, we’d implemented touchless time clocks and a full-time janitorial staff. It’s like you’re running toward a fire. No one is immune.”

In the American Roots employee locker room.

Eventually, everyone diagnosed with COVID-19 recovered and returned to work. Since July, the Waxmans have done company-wide testing four more times, with no additional cases as of mid-September. “Every time we get that 100 percent negative result,” Whitney says, “it’s another hurdle we’ve jumped over. It confirms that we’re here for a reason.”

A visitor to the factory in September would have seen that reason still very much in evidence: rows of employees on the floor, bent over machines, stitching small blue masks. In a sense, it’s a bittersweet scene. In spite of months of nationwide shutdowns, demand for protection has only grown, with kids back in school and workers returning to job sites. The masks are saving lives while allowing the country to function, sort of.

On his phone, Ben has a photo of Whitney, taken in March. She’s holding their 3-year-old son, Arlo, on the factory floor, just before the plastic went up. She looks exhausted.

“We hadn’t slept in days,” he recalls. “That was the beginning of us barely seeing our sons for several weeks. If we failed, more people would get sick. We could get sick, our team could get sick, our kids could get sick. This photo sums up those early days of rawness.”

Along one wall of the factory, with windows overlooking the Presumpscot, piles and piles of precut hoodies await stitching. They’ve sat untouched since March. A few weeks back, a silkscreen artist came in to customize a few of them with a mermaid motif for a special order. To anyone exhausted with mask wearing and elbow bumping and fear, the army-green sweatshirts are a reminder that there was a time before COVID and that there will be a time after. Those brand-new, American-made, union-made, hand-screened hoodies seem like a promise that, someday, American Roots will get back to doing what it was built to do. 

American Roots staffers photographed for opener grid include: Gina Alibrio, Ragad Abo Aljazz, Valora Baker, Jared Biaya, Ludovic Ndengabeka Bobe, Hasen Buseyr, Adam Cleaves, Holland Corson, Anaam Jabbir, Patience Kanyiki, Khalid Al Kinani, Judi Knowles, Moza Luzinga, Joao Malanda, Amy McGowen, Bertille Missamou, Floric Missamou, Bela Mayo Nguere, Mario Romo, Rony Saly, Bueto de Silva, Evan Sullivan, Hanya Al Taher, Amina Teimori, Charlotte Thompson, Makenga Tshibwabwa, and Bora Uzima. Portrait grid displays differently depending on device and screen size.

Down East Magazine, March 2024 cover

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