In 5 of the 9 Maine mill spaces I’ve mounted my 9 solo biennials, some workers who’ve passed on, were still walking and making within their mills’ walls.
These were the ghosts I witnessed. But, I have a sense that all Maine mills are haunted mills. How can they not be?
So many people, over so much time–making, making, making, making, making, making, making, making, making–the mills such a major part of their lives.
These mills are big spaces, with lots of places to be.
In the 5 mill spaces I did experience those that had passed on, some of these ghosts seemed to be passing through, checking in on their past place of labor.
Others seemed to go about their regular work day, doing what they did and going where they went every shift.
And some seemed interested, making their presence more obvious, perhaps curious about what I was doing in their mill.
My experiences at Bates Mill in Lewiston and Sanford Mill, while installing my 1st and 5th solo biennials in 2000 and 2008, were mild compared to things that went bump while mounting my 7th and 8th solo biennials at the former Carleton Woolen Mill in Winthrop and the Robinson Mill in Parsonsfield.
Both of these earlier brushes with the beyond, in Lewiston and Sanford, happened after midnight, when Bill and I were working around the clock to finish installing each biennial. And, these brushes were just that, brushes, past workers brushing past me as I adjusted a jar or mounted a sign.
I was working in their work path.
My experiences once I returned to Bates Mill for my 9th and final solo biennial (MEMORY, 2016) were also less intense. And, I think they involved different workers past than those I had experienced in the mill complex 16 years before.
Maybe these 2016 past workers in the Bates Mill were different because I was mounting my exhibit in a different part of the mill? These 2016 ghosts were also different from the others because they were the curious kind, unique from those who brushed past continuing to do what they did.
Lastly, these 2016 Bates Mill ghosts were different, as they only interacted with me during the start of my installation process.
I had had brushes with the 2000 Bates Mill ghosts throughout the entire duration of putting up my work, although I suspect if I had stayed through midnight each night my 1st solo biennial was open for participation, these brushes would have continued through my exhibit. The brush-by past workers weren’t going to stop working just because I did.
During the first 6 weeks of my 5-month, 9th-solo-biennial stay in Lewiston, Maine, I had only 3, brief encounters.
Each approach occurred as I was sweeping or scrubbing the floor. And that’s what these were, approaches.
At 3 separate times, I saw a person walking toward me out of the corner of my eye. The 1st time, he or she was about 100 feet away. The 2nd time, he or she was about 50 feet away. The 3rd time, he or she was about 20…
Each time, I couldn’t hear footsteps (I was usually listening to rock music). And, each time the man or woman disappeared as I turned my head to see who was coming. Even when the entity was too close (but really, each time it was too close), I couldn’t tell if the ghost was male or female, just that it was definitely walking toward me.
I’m assuming it was the same person, getting closer, closer, and closer.
Whomever it was, maybe once the ghost saw how hard I was working to clean his or her floor, then sensed what I would be adding to the floor was benign and temporary—I was left alone for the remainder of my stay.
About 4 weeks into my own millwork, I was sweeping in the farther stairwell, when I smelled a musky cologne. I smelled the scent again on the stairs a few evenings later, this time noticing the time: 5pm.
Sure enough, everyday I happened to be in the stairwell at 5pm, I could smell the same cologne, when just minutes before I didn’t smell anything but the mill.
One of several past-but-still-living, Robinson Mill workers who came to my biennial, mentioned the time clock was at this stairwell’s bottom. The workers lined up outside the mill before punching in. And, at the end of their shift, lined up from the top floor, down the stairwell, to the time clock, waiting for their turn to punch out.
About the 5th time I would smell the cologne, I was on a lower level of the stairwell, and heard a man talking on the landing farthest above me on the 3rd floor.
I could only hear his side of the conversation–although I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
I started up the stairs. And as I rounded the final corner where the man would have come into view, his talking stopped, mid-sentence. He wasn’t where he should be. Then I smelled the cologne. This ghost must have been talking with a workmate in the end-of-shift line, but only his voice was “coming through.”
I was mudding the entrance end of one of MATTER’s long pedestals, my head down and back bent. Out of my eye’s corner, I saw a man enter the space from the top of the farther stairwell, about 150 feet away.
It had to be one of the Parsonsfield selectmen coming to say “hello.” But, as he walked toward me between my work and the columns, I saw he wasn’t someone I knew.
Looking down as he walked, he wore a beige-colored brim hat and coveralls, a spry gentleman in his 50s or 60s.
I continued working, knowing I couldn’t hear him until he was much closer. And, as I looked up to say “hello,” 2 things happened: I realized I hadn’t yet heard his footfalls. And. He had disappeared.
Bill‘s largest offering in Parsonsfield, was building cellar-to-top-floor supports for 8 columns, columns that could fail with not-that-much additional weight.
On weekends, Bill and me commuted to the mill in separate vehicles (me in my car, he in his truck) to manage tools and materials brought to the space, also because I’m an earlier riser.
It was about 9am, and I’d been installing vials on Robinson Mill’s 3rd floor for 2 hours on another long pedestal. I knew Bill would be arriving soon with his truck, and that he’d work on the 2nd floor, almost directly below where I was working.
As I placed another vial, I heard the truck pull up where Bill always parked it, heard the door shut, heard the stairwell door open, heard the footfalls up the stairwell, heard the footfalls across the floor to the column below, heard a rifling through tools, and heard loud, rhythmic hammering, for ~2 minutes.
I thought: Bill must be having trouble hammering in that brace.
A few moments after the hammering stopped, I looked out the stairwell window. Bill’s truck wasn’t there. I thought: Bill left for some coffee? I didn’t hear him leave…
Then, Bill’s truck pulled into his spot. I called down when he came in the door to say, “Hi Bill…I didn’t hear you leave.” And he answered, “I just got here.”
There was no one on the 2nd floor, no one else in the mill, no one we could see.
Bill and I think this particular ghost was appreciative of us repairing the mill.
Before writing about 3 of several experiences I had in 2012 mounting SPACE in Winthrop’s former Carleton Woolen Mill (now the Winthrop Commerce Center), experiences that actually scared me, I’ll mention another mill I considered for SPACE, the Old American Woolen Mill in Vassalboro.
When owner Ray Breton, was giving me my initial tour of the Vassalboro mill, he almost whispered: “You should know, this mill is haunted by several children. They might knock over your installations. They tend to leave my stuff alone, for the most part, if I keep toys around on the floor. The kids move the toys instead. If you do your exhibit here, you might want to bring some extra toys.”
If the owner and manager in Winthrop knew their mill was haunted, they didn’t mention this during our walk throughs.
Other tenants of the former Carleton Woolen Mill had their own entrances. So, I rarely saw anyone, unless they travelled to Winthrop to art assist.
I was about 2 weeks into my installation, sweeping on the 2nd floor, my stomach confirming it was time for lunch. I had finished laying out my daily quota of slate tiles on the 3rd floor, and needed to do lighter duty for a while.
Warning tape I’d wrapped around my field of installation would hopefully keep anyone off the tiles and floor I’d scrubbed.
Settling into the rhythm of my broom, I heard 5 or 6 women enter the stairwell from below, chatting all the way up, past my floor, opening the 3rd floor door, their footfalls sounding over my head, clearly directed toward my tiles.
This was the 1st time anyone working in the mill had come to see what I was doing. I wanted to greet and talk to them, but also stop them before progressing any further. A lot of people working in other mills had ignored my warning tape and stepped where I didn’t want them to step.
I set down my broom and raced toward the stairwell. I could hear the ladies above continue to talk and walk jovially toward the hundreds of tiles I’d placed in perfect rows.
As I reached the door to the 3rd-floor space, the women were at the edge of my installation. Their laughter peaked as if the group found my tiles hilarious. And when I opened the door, the laughter stopped. No one was by my tiles; no one was on the 3rd floor but me.
The 1st time I worked in Winthrop into the dark, I was alone. I wanted to finish hanging drywall for a particular installation. If you participated at SPACE, you’ll remember doors you opened that got shorter and shorter as you entered rooms that got smaller and smaller.
By myself, I keep the volume of my radio somewhat low, to hear anyone trying to get my attention from a large distance. I had a single battery-operated lantern to light my work (I needed my other batteries for my drill).
I was cutting and hanging the smaller and smaller drywall sheets in the smaller and smaller rooms. The doors weren’t hung. So, I could look back and see through the larger progression of 5 or 6 door frames, the rooms darker and darker the further they were from my light.
As I reached into my apron for a drywall screw, the sound from my radio fluttered ~3 seconds, then returned to its rock station.
In the next moment, I knew someone had entered this 1st-floor space and was standing in the 1st doorframe far behind me. I suspected it was the janitor, who recently began stopping by daily to say “hello” and ask “you’re doing what now?” We hadn’t talked yet today.
However, when I turned, I couldn’t see him.
The janitor must be walking toward me from the outside my installation. I popped my head out to say “hello.” He wasn’t here either.
Was he hiding behind my installation? I asked: “Mike, is that you?”
No answer. “Mike, please don’t scare me. Please come out by the columns so I can see you.” Nothing. Huh.
I convinced myself no one was there, popped my head back in, and turned my back to those rooms darkening behind me. The screw was still in my left hand, the drill in my right.
I triggered the drill, the sound briefly filling the room and the space.
And as the sound ceased, I heard the last few footfalls behind me. Someone had rushed toward me, from behind, through the 5 or 6 door frames, in the time it took to use my drill.
Registering what was happening, I lowered my drill arm, my left hand automatically reaching into my apron. And. I felt breath on the back of my neck.
Spinning, drawing in my own breath, my drill hand lifting again, I didn’t scream, when I couldn’t see, the person right in front of me. But he was right here.
I just turned forward again, and moved.
I put my drill down. I took off and put down my apron of screws. I turned off my radio. I picked up my mill bag. I packed all my batteries and charger. I took out my keys. I shouldered my bag. I picked up my light. I walked out in long, brisk strides.
I had my light on, the whole way to my car, even down the lit hallways and stairwells of the mill. I left my light on, even as I started my car, and texted Bill at home in Lyman: “Mil is hauntd.”
I left my light on, in my car, and added to its brightness, my car’s overhead light. I left both lights on, the entire 10-minute drive to where I was staying. I didn’t dare turn around, to look in my back seat.
Me and Bill were 24 hours into what would be a 48-hour push to finish installing SPACE. Bill had brought his work to the mill, the whole last week of my 9-week installation, staying with me at my very-discounted Winthrop motel.
But, we wouldn’t sleep at the motel these last 2 nights, wouldn’t even go there to change our clothes, until the doors to my exhibit opened.
It was ~2am and we were both working on the 2nd floor. Bill was hanging dowels for 1 installation while I was ~60 feet away, cleaning paint off the floor far down the dark hall of a 2nd installation.
Electricity in this part of the mill, we turned on some fluorescents so Bill could see going up and down the ladder.
I had my portable light in the black of my hall, on my knees scrubbing, my head pointing toward the lit opening of the structure. I always now needed to see what was coming.
I heard Bill descend the ladder. Then, I heard footfalls along the outside of the hall, as if Bill was walking toward its opening to tell me something.
But. As I looked toward the small rectangle of light, and the footfalls continued, I heard Bill climb the ladder. Who else’s here at 2am? I asked: “Hello?” And, Bill thinking I was talking to him, from the ladder replied: “Yup?”
And. A tall, slender, young man, I’m guessing, in his 20s, with dark hair, walked past, the far opening of the hall, from the left, to the right.
I got up, and was rushing toward the light, when I asked again: “Hello?” And, Bill descending the ladder replied again: “Yup?”
At the hall’s end, I looked to the right toward the windows, and the young man wasn’t there. Did he walk around? No. He hadn’t. And. Bill hadn’t seen him at all.
We decided, now would be a good time to take a little break.
I had wondered, if when I mounted my 9th and final solo biennial in Lewiston’s Bates Mill, if the same spirit workers would brush up against me, or if the ghost would actually say “Hello.” I suppose if it had approached a 4th time, it would have been close enough too.