LEWISTON, Maine — In a city that has seen decades of change, there are some familiar sights and sounds in Lewiston's mills. You can barely hear Rusty Vallee over the 60-year-old machine that's spinning thread right next to him at Maine Thread Company.
Vallee is the President of Maine Thread, but he's been in this business for almost his entire life, delivering thread with his grandfather to mills in Auburn that were manufacturing shoes.
"We've been selling [thread] from here since 1965 and actually manufacturing it since 1985," says Vallee. In those years, Vallee's grandfather, father, and now daughter, and their small group of employees have been producing thread for hand-sewn shoes, with the same machinery, in the same mill in Lewiston.
"Back in the 60s there were hundreds of shoe companies in Lewiston-Auburn, New England, and around the country," Vallee says. "Things were booming so we were selling our hand sewing thread, delivering it right next door. In the late 70s, they started moving - I'm sure - because labor is so cheap."
As the mills all around Maine Thread started quieting down and jobs went overseas, Maine Thread hung on, sometimes by just a thread. "There was a time where the shoe industry was 90% of our business," Vallee says. "Now it's about 60%."
When asked why he and his family chose to stay in Lewiston as their clients moved away, Vallee's response was simple, "Just stubborn I guess." Vallee chuckles as he says that, but then gets a little more serious, "My grandfather ran it here, my dad ran it here, I ran it here, and fortunately my daughter just joined a year and a half ago, so that's fourth generation. If it's worth it, why not stay here if we can do it?"
"I don't want to be the one that sinks the ship here. I'm gonna do everything I can to make sure that our employees stay employed and that I continue this legacy that my grandfather started way back," Vallee says. Maine Thread employs six people full-time, and one part-time. While a lot of what they manufacture in Lewiston does end up in other countries, some of it supplies other manufacturers in town, who were also maybe too stubborn to leave.
"My father was an immigrant from Quebec and his parents brought the family down in the 50s," says Mike Rancourt of Rancourt & Co. Rancourt's father was one of thousands to pick up a job in a shoe factory in the twin cities. He eventually started his own shoe shop.
"I remember my father used to bring me in the factory and I just thought there was a uniqueness of watching people work, especially hand sewing because it's pretty quiet, there's not a lot of machinery involved, and they have this rhythm with hand sewing that to me was fascinating," Rancourt says, now co-owner of his father's manufacturing company. "That always stayed with me."
While the tactics are the same, the building that houses Rancourt & Co. Shoe Crafters is not. "There's gonna be a little twist to the story. [My father] had sold his factory to Quoddy, which was based out of Massachusetts. He stuck with them for 10 years. they were bought out by a publicly traded firm and as they got bigger they became really a mass-produced product for all of the country. He had no interest in that, so in '82 he asked me if I wanted to join him in a company making smaller production, unique things, so that's how it started."
When asked whether he or his father had ever considered moving the manufacturing out of L/A, his answer, like Vallee's, was simple: "Never... I'm such a community person. I really strongly believe in the values of our community and the people of our community. We have a workforce that dates back to the 80s and 90s. People have grown up with me and they're still here at our factory with us, and they represent such an important part of what we do."
It's a workforce that includes a mix of first-generation immigrants, along with second and third generations, like Rich Pelchat. "My father was here and so I started with him we started at L.L. Bean in '81 and we stayed there for 12 years. He worked for Mike's father before, like in 1976 he was working at Quoddy for Mike's father then." Pelchat's father retired at 82-years-old.
"The gentleman behind me," Pelchat continues, "His son works here. This gentleman over here, his father was a hand sewer, his brother was a hand sewer, so a lot of us.. it's a family thing."
There is just one machine at Rancourt & Co. that does what human hands cannot, but even that requires an employee manning it, to make sure it runs properly. Most of the other jobs in the factory are hands-on, creating custom shoes. Since 2008, Rancourt & Co. has even been creating the sneakers U.S.A. athletes wear to Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
Hand-sewn shoes are a niche market that, just across the way from Maine Thread Company, Quoddy is involved in as well.
"I currently have a pair of shoes that my grandmother made for my dad when he was a baby, so it's so ingrained in my family and I'm so proud of the heritage that I have, and the heritage that Lewiston has," says 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 newcomers, of sorts. They purchased Quoddy 25 years ago, and eventually moved their production into one of the old mills in Lewiston, once again filling it with the sounds and smells of shoemaking.
"Lewiston was the shoemaking capital of the world," says Kevin Shorey. "We have Rusty across the way here at Maine Thread, we have other shoemakers here so if we run out of glue, it's a very tight-knit community among the shoemakers." His wife, Kirsten chimes in, "You can call somebody up and say, 'Do you have this? I'll trade later.' It's that type of camaraderie."
Camaraderie that has kept these family businesses pushing forward in a niche market - custom, handmade shoes - and keeping families employed, and traditions alive inside of mills that have gotten a little quieter over the decades.