Death Watch in a Mill Town

High oil prices may be the final blow for a legendary paper plant.

Millinocket's Katahdin paper mill is expected to close soon.

Millinocket's Katahdin paper mill is expected to close soon.

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Budgets are tight in Augusta, the state capital, and in Washington. While the congressional delegation will probably get the low-income assistance, it's unlikely it will be able to do much to rescue the mill. Besides, some argue that it's not the government's responsibility to bail out companies that, when prices were low, didn't modernize their machinery and diversify their energy sources. In the meantime, paper production shifted from American timberland to Asia.

Sadly, as goes the mill, so goes Millinocket, a company town built almost entirely by the Great Northern Paper Co. at the turn of the 20th century. Historically, it was hard to separate the two. At one point, for instance, a man named George W. Stearns was at once Great Northern's land agent, head of the town selectmen, the county judge, and the superintendent of schools. The town named the high school after him when it was completed in 1923, which was fitting because the mill donated a quarter of the construction costs.

For the better part of a century, Great Northern owned most of the land in northern Maine, much of which is still unincorporated. That kept out other employers, an unwritten company policy that held down labor costs but is now coming back to haunt the town. Even after decades of downsizing, the Katahdin mill, where employment has fallen from about 4,500 in the mid-1980s to around 200 today, is the second-largest employer, behind the regional hospital. Tourism now provides some jobs because the Appalachian Trail terminates atop Mount Katahdin, just a few miles outside town. In the winter, snowmobiling brings in the tourists, though high gas prices are likely to cut their numbers.

Like the mill, the town is showing its age. Under union rules, those with the least seniority (generally the youngest employees) were the first to lose their jobs. And many didn't hang around, instead taking their families to the coast or the southern part of the state, where the jobs picture was better. In 1990, the average age in town was 37. Now, officials say, it's around 50. The old George W. Stearns High School, meanwhile, long ago was converted into an assisted living facility.

"Future is bleak." Sitting in the cafe on Penobscot Avenue, a retired, second-generation millworker looks dubiously at his salad, poking it with a fork, and gripes. "Millinocket is turning into a retirement community," he says, glancing over at a group of young hikers scarfing down hamburgers before tackling the mountain. Then he whispers, "Don't you quote me sayin' it, though. This is a small town, and we stick together." Across town, the owners of Kim's Market on Medway Road shuttered their doors in July after a decade of serving sandwiches and beer to locals, but they don't want to say much either. In his downtown office, town manager Eugene Conlogue is less reticent. "The future is bleak for a community that only ages," he says.

Property values, for instance, have fallen as the mill's workforce has shrunk. Today, out-of-state residents own some of the town's Victorian-style homes and use them as vacation cabins. They often don't cut the grass or clean the clutter, and they don't send their kids to the local schools. For residents, this will be a particularly hard winter. A typical home along Penobscot Avenue burns about 800 gallons of fuel oil during a heating season. At current prices, that will come to $3,200 this winter, up from $1,700 a year ago. While that alone is a mighty hit to the family pocketbook, factor in high gasoline and food prices, and the impact can be devastating.

For the town, shuttering the mill would be catastrophic. The closure would cost the town some $2.5 million in taxes from the company that the community sorely needs, not to mention the scores of families who may leave town. Congressman Michaud remembers earlier hard times, soon after he first began working at the mill during the energy crisis in 1979. The mills were in danger then, too, because of rising oil prices, but managed to survive. As a result of that energy crisis, the East Millinocket mill put in the biomass boiler. If anything is to be saved from the Great Northern project, it will take the same Yankee ingenuity that a century ago harnessed waterways of the land of many islands to feed the paper mills.


Corrected on : Corrected on 8/6/08: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a type of paper produced by the Katahdin paper mill. It is supercalendered paper.