AUGUSTA — Christine Dupuis was a junior at Cony High School in 1951 when her father, Aime Bechard, died and she had to go to work at the Edwards mill to help support her family.

She’d leave Cony early in the afternoon and head over the river to the mill, where she worked in shipping until 9:30 or so at night, doing homework in between shipments.

Dupuis didn’t make a lot of money and times were tight at the Bechard family’s Bond Street home, in the shadow of the mill complex. But she made enough at the mill, which employed thousands of workers, many of them Franco Americans, so her younger sisters could stay in school without joining her in the mill, though they both worked there after they graduated.

“Because of her, we were able to finish high school,” said sisters Lorraine Danforth, 77, now of Chelsea.

Recently the three sisters, now in their 70s, reminisced about their childhood on Bond Street in their close-knit neighborhood and, later, working in the mill. It was a hardscrabble existence by today’s standards. They didn’t have a car and their home was heated with an inadequate oil heater and they had no refrigerator for a long time, going down the street to a neighbor’s for ice cubes when they wanted to have a cold Kool-Aid.

They spoke as Jan Michaud asked them questions about their past, and her husband, Victor, recorded video of the interview.

The stories the three sisters shared of growing up in their three-bedroom duplex apartment at 21 Bond St. are but one sample of the stories the Michauds, of Augusta, are working to preserve one DVD video at a time.

The fact the entire Bechard family worked at the mill piqued the Michaud’s interest. The three sisters are the only members still alive.

“When we found out all the family had worked there, mom, dad, and all five children, we knew we had to hear what they had to say,” Jan Michaud said. “We wanted to provide a picture of what life was like for them. Life was hard, but there were very good moments. We’re doing this for posterity. So we don’t lose the history of manufacturing in the city.”

Dupuis, 78, said a job at the mill was about the only way someone like her could help provide for her family. She considered dropping out of school, but Cony’s principal worked with her to first help her find a job at the mill, and to adjust her schedule so she could stay in school while working.

The family spoke French at home. At St. Augustine school, up the hill from their home, they were taught in French half the day and English the other.

The sisters said they knew all their neighbors — residents there kept their homes neat and tidy, and everyone would help each other out. And the family’s lack of a car wasn’t much of a hindrance, because downtown had most of what they needed.

Their mom, Alida, was in a wheelchair for a time, but still managed to keep their modest home clean, and she entertained frequently.

“After our father died, mom didn’t want us out on the streets, so she said bring your friends to our house,” Dupuis said.

The girls and their friends would play records and dance the jitterbug.

Other social activities included bowling or playing softball on teams of mill workers, going to functions at Le Club Calumet, and when their dad was alive, card games after church.

Youngest sister Edna Doyon, 75, said the family’s only toilet was in the dirt-floor cellar. And they had no tub or shower. They took sponge baths, their mother heating up water on the kitchen stove.

Jan Michaud and other members of the nonprofit group Friends for a Heritage Center at Mill Park are working to preserve and document the stories of the city’s manufacturing workers, many from the mill but also others include the former Kirschner plant and the former paper mill known, in various periods, as Hudson Paper, Statler Tissue and American Tissue.

“These people, by and large, worked hard, and took pride in their work,” said Michaud, president of the Friends group. “And they earned a decent living in the city, by their estimation.”

So far the Friends’ group has recorded 61 DVDs of local workers’ stories. They plan to make them available to anyone with an interest in them.

Museum in the works

Ultimately, Michaud hopes the DVDs and life stories they contain will be incorporated into the group’s proposed Heritage Center at Mill Park, which would be created in the last remaining Edwards mill complex building.

The two-story brick building is owned by the city. City officials haven’t committed to allowing the building to be turned into a museum by the private group, but have expressed interest in the idea.

The rest of the once-sprawling mill complex was destroyed by a spectacular fire in 1989. The site is now a riverfront park.

Turning the last remaining mill building into a museum-like heritage center as a tribute to the city’s manufacturing workers is going to take money. Neither the Friends group nor the city has that money now.

Michaud said they hope to attract a major grant to fund much of the work on the 1,800-square-foot vacant Water Street building.

And the group has an ongoing fundraising effort for the project, which so far has brought in about $10,000.

While it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to transform the entire building into a museum, Michaud is hopeful cleaning up just the first floor and getting water and sewer lines in could be done for much less than that.

At its peak the Edwards Mill workforce numbered 1,300 — many of them Franco Americans and other immigrants who came to America, and Augusta, to work. They made cotton cloth products for a thriving company — and lives for themselves and their families.

The Bechard sisters’ mom was born in Quebec, one of 21 children. Their father was born in Van Buren. Their family lived on Bond Street for 19 years.

The sisters, while at first hesitant to talk about themselves, said they think the project documenting the stories of the city’s workers is great.

Michaud said it’s important to preserve the stories, and the lack of grant money so far to create the museum has not changed their goal of doing so.

“Being Franco American was not easy, there was prejudice in some sections of the city, and sometimes in the workforce, but the mills welcomed the workers,” Michaud said. “There were also Italians, Greeks, Polish… working at the cotton mill.

“So (the proposed Heritage Center) is not going to be just a Franco American center, it’s about the entire city, all the people who worked in manufacturing.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

kedwards@centralmaine.com

To donate to the Friends of a Heritage Center at Mill Park project or sharer stories or old photos related to Augusta’s manufacturing industry past, contact Victor Michaud at 623-8875.