VASSALBORO — An old house on Main Street in front of Outlet Stream was torn down on June 29 as town officials and those involved with building a new gazebo nearby looked on.

A few years ago, the downtown area near the old mill was worn down and littered with debris. The large, red brick building that used to house the American Woolen Mill, which employed 500 at its peak, was empty. Old wood, broken glass, tires, metal, bricks and more were scattered around the China Lake Outlet Stream.

Now, the mill has been cleaned up and turned into a centerpiece for the town, hosting Vassalboro Days and haunted Halloween mazes. Beside it, in what was an empty lot, is now a basketball court, a volleyball net and playground equipment. A small brick building that faces Main Street, previously the office for the mill, is home to local artisans and filled with crafts like jewelry, wood carvings, sculptures and stained glass art.

The dam in nearby Outlet Stream was lowered so it could be cleaned out, and now it’s a recreational center for the town. Brightly painted canoes are lined up by the water, available to anyone. Orange and yellow lifejackets hang on a pole between a split tree trunk. Green picnic tables are placed around the stream on both sides of the dam.

This is all the work of Ray Breton, a Vassalboro resident trying to give something back to the community.

THROW BALLS, NOT ROCKS

Breton owns the mill, now called Olde Mill Place, seven lots and nine buildings downtown. He runs Ray Breton Remodeling and Custom Woodwork, a contracting business, so he donates the labor to these projects himself. With the help of Town Manager Mary Sabins and some volunteers, he’s “changed the whole idea of the downtown area,” said Victor Esposito, a teacher at Vassalboro Community School.

It all started when Breton bought the mill at an auction in 2010 for $35,000.

“When you look at an old mill, it can be kinda intimidating,” he said at the Outlet Stream Thursday. “There’s a lot to do.”

Breton, 59, was born in Waterville and moved to Vassalboro when he was 11. He remembers houses in town having bigger yards to play in when he was a kid along with ball fields nearby. Kids could play until dark back then, he said.

Now, downtown is crowded with apartments and houses that don’t have room for large yards. Kids didn’t have anything to do, Breton said. And because they didn’t have a place to throw balls, they threw rocks into the windows of the mill he was trying to renovate.

“I thought, ‘Instead of throwing rocks, they need to throw balls,'” Breton said. So he added the ball courts and playground area next to the mill on what used to be an empty concrete lot.

In the 1930s and ’40s, he said, people used to swim in Outlet Stream. But in recent years, kids were just using the brush-filled area to smoke. So Breton bought five properties around the stream and its dam, cleaned it up and turned it into a recreational center. He took his own kayaks and some donated from townspeople and painted them with stripes so he’d be able to know they were his. He made the paddles for them by hand. On one of the docks by the dam, a small blue slide dumps kids into the water.

While parts of three lakes lie in Vassalboro, there’s no beach open to the public on any of them, Breton said.

“This is the best we have,” he said.

Senior citizens will come in groups to have picnics on the tables overlooking the stream, and kids will swim in the stream on hot days.

“It’s great to see that they’re having fun,” Breton said.

NEVER-ENDING LIST

The Double Dam Duck Derby during Vassalboro Days in September is also held at the Outlet Stream. About 2,000 ducks are put in the water to race over the dam, and the first ones to pass the mill win cash prizes.

The mill also hosts events like a haunted maze, which more than 1,300 people went through in three hours last year, Breton said. It’s also becoming a popular place to have weddings now, he said. Businesses also use some of the space for warehousing.

The office in front of the store was converted into a shop for 27 local craftspeople and artists to sell their products.

“When you get a place for people who are creative, they just come out of the woodwork,” Breton said. “The competition is tough.”

He also holds a Christmas tree lighting at the mill which around 300 people usually attend.

Saturday, he’ll be hosting an annual wine tasting with local wineries in the mill along with the Vassalboro Business Association to raise funds for three $500 scholarships.

“It just goes on and on, the things he’s done,” said Jackie Reny, a family friend who has lived in Vassalboro for 22 years.

Her husband, Peter Reny, a lifelong Vassalboro resident, said Breton has endless energy and is always thinking about the town and helping people.

“He’s quite a pillar in this community,” Peter Reny said on the phone Friday.

Breton also owns the Mill Agent’s House — a Greek-revival house from 1845 that was once owned by the owner of the American Woolen Mill. Breton believes it’s haunted, and more than 1,500 people have come to Vassalboro to see if he’s right. The house was also featured on the A&E Biography show “My Ghost Story.”

Breton used the tours of the house to generate donations to the Vassalboro Food Pantry.

“He’s an outstanding citizen,” Reny said. “I don’t know of anyone who’s said a bad word about Ray Breton.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Breton is credited with helping turn around downtown Vassalboro, and it’s had an effect on the residents.

“I see families involved in things that they never were before,” Jackie Reny said.

The kids also appreciate what Breton’s done for the town, and they don’t want to lose it, she said. So, if they see someone damaging property or causing mischief, they’ll call Breton to let him know.

The next project is a gazebo for the lawn in front of the stream. Esposito, who is also a master specialist at Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, helped Breton apply for a grant from the Oak Grove Foundation, which gave them $4,000. The Vassalboro Fire Department donated $1,000 to the project, Mitchell’s Roofing in Freedom donated $500 and McCormack Building Supply in Winslow is donating $2,000 worth of materials. The total cost of materials for the project is $9,000, so they need less than $2,000 to finish the project. Breton said he’s been receiving small donations from people who appreciate what he’s been doing for the town, too. He met a couple in the park by the stream one day and they asked who owned it, so he started to tell them what he’d done. The man went to the car to get some cash and gave it to him to put toward the gazebo as a thank you for his work, Breton said.

“There’s a treasure here that no one saw,” he said. “If I don’t do it, nobody else is gonna do it.”

The cement will be put in for the gazebo in about a month, Breton said, and the gazebo should follow shortly after. He chose a rectangular one as it wastes less material and space than an octagonal gazebo.

He also recently bought the lot behind the stream, where he is going to build small energy-efficient bungalows to rent out to elderly residents.

“He’s just a local guy who wants to change things for good in the town of Vassalboro,” Esposito said.

Madeline St. Amour – 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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