CAMDEN — A newly produced self-guided tour of Camden’s Historic Mills is one of the many projects the Historic Resources Committee helped facilitate in 2019. The tour is presented in a brochure that includes a historic timeline featuring 19 mills and an easy-to-follow map that guides users to discover six different mill sites and three dams.
What was the every-day life of a mill worker like? The tour brochure provides answers and is highlighted by intriguing anecdotes of mill history. Did you know that each mill site had several lives under different management and manufactured a variety of products with anywhere from 4 to 800 employees in their businesses?
The 20-minute Mill Walk increases awareness of and appreciation for Camden’s rich history, which is one of the fundamental objectives of the Camden Historic Resources Committee. Taking the tour as it winds through downtown Camden makes the past come alive by inviting participants to connect viscerally to the experience.
Here are a few excerpts from the brochure:
Look, listen and feel the thunderous water that powered over eleven mill sites and two foundries in Camden.
This water still flows through town like a pulse; a heartbeat to be heard.
“Having grown up in a mill town, I felt the draw of the lives and stories within the mills,” said Historic Resources Committee volunteer Jennifer Healy, in a news release. “The mills still stand strong and resilient. Put your hand on a beam in the Rockport Blueprint shop on Mechanic Street, formerly the Knox Woolen Mill, and tell me you don’t feel the history and security and solidness of this town.”
Healy brought the brochure idea to the committee in early 2019. Having attended a few Historic Resources Committee meetings as a volunteer in the past, she soon “realized how receptive the members were to volunteers and new ideas.”
She saw the project through to completion, “utilizing numerous resources of the Camden Library’s Walsh History Center including books, maps, and the keen skills of the Center’s director” to vet research, incorporate revisions, and proofread copy.
Healy presented each step of the brochure’s production for approval at the committee’s monthly meetings. Throughout the process, she observes, “members were enthusiastic and supportive of the project. Two hardy and diligent committee members who also belong to the Garden Club, brought their spring clean-up efforts to the banks of the Megunticook River below Knowlton Street in anticipation of the Camden Mill Walk!”
To find out whether summer visitors expressed sufficient curiosity about Camden’s mills and their history to warrant a mill walk brochure, Healy joined a Friday afternoon historic walking tour of downtown Camden in July. The number of questions asked during the tour about the historical significance of the mills confirmed her belief that an interest existed and spurred her on to create the brochure.
“In addition to enjoying scenic views, art, schooner sails, and local fare,” says Healy, “the mill walk offers visitors the opportunity to take a self-guided tour that teaches them something of historical significance and broadens their horizons.”
Distributed through a number of venues including the Camden Public Library, the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Camden Town Office, as well as local hotels and inns, shops and restaurants, the Camden Mill Walk has generated great enthusiasm among visitors and locals alike.
“Camden residents are grateful to learn about the history of their home and neighborhood,” said the news release. “One Knox Mill condominium resident commented that she always wanted to know more about where she lives and was delighted to find out about the mill walk and the prominent place the Knox Mill held in Camden’s history.”
Notes Healy, “A mill walk creates a sense of pride in residents and recognizes the ongoing use of the sturdy mill structures as residences and businesses.”
The pocket-size Camden Mill Walk brochure, with its clear, highly readable map, is especially manageable to navigate. These features offer an enjoyable, interactive way to explore Camden and contribute to the brochure’s appeal, according to the release.
Like a vast number of New Englanders, many of today’s local residents have deep connections to the town’s mill history and trace their families’ roots in Maine to ancestors who settled in Camden to build mills and/or work in them. Amy Rollins, who works for the Chamber of Commerce and who conducts historic walking tours of Camden, finds the brochure especially meaningful.
“Three of my grandparents worked as spinners and weavers in downtown Camden mills, and my father served as Controller for the Knox Mill for 20 years,” said Rollins.
Rollins is hardly alone in her personal connection with mill growth and transformation, sharing that tie with a multitude of local residents. Descendants of families who worked in Camden mills, some for generations, along with classmates, neighbors, and friends of these long-time residents, make up a significant part of Camden’s current population.
Coincidentally, its creation corresponds to current town concerns related to the Megunticook River and the ecological issues surrounding its three dams. Without addressing the concerns directly, the brochure helps frame the conversation within a historical perspective, providing context to questions, such as why dams were built and their critical role in town development.
The mill history of Camden is as significant as the shipbuilding industry to the identity of the town. Taking advantage of water power from the three-mile-long Megunticook River for the propulsion of machinery while having direct access to ocean transport, forward thinking farmers and industrialists created saw and grist mills, wool and gunpowder manufacture, anchor works, and a tannery, all of which thrived and contributed to the
successful social and economic fabric of the Camden community.
“The value of a mill walk,” said Healy, “is that it facilitates passing down knowledge, which fosters a love of history. It alerts students of all ages to become aware of the historical treasures right in their own backyard. Peaking interest and promoting inquiry will encourage additional research.”