The Challenge of Rising From the Rubble, Part 3
Magic City, Part 3
Thursday, September 25, 2014 5:31 AM
"I should have put a lien on Cate Street, myself," said Stu Kallgren, president of the local United Steelworkers union, when he learned last week that the East Millinocket paper mill was going on the auction block for unpaid bills. Cate Street, the mill's owners, owed Kallgren back pay, too.
Jane Disselkamp inside the old truck gate at the Millinocket mill. (Photos by C. Parrish)
By early this week, the auction was old news.
On Tuesday, September 23, Cate Street filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing 1,000 creditors.
They owe money to construction companies, local auto repair shops, the Dead River gas company, Huber and Seven Islands timber companies, lawyers in Portland, Cal's Septic Service in Lincoln, and a whole long list of mill workers. They owe over $1.3 million to the towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket in unpaid taxes, alone.
And Chapter 7? That's not reorganization. That's selling the mill for parts.
To Kallgren, who has worked in the local paper mills for 43 years, Cate Street was just another in a long progression of owners and broken promises.
A little over a week ago, we were sitting in the kitchen of Kallgren's immaculate sprawling one-level in West Enfield, located about halfway between Bangor and the East Millinocket mill where he still worked as a member of the 20-person skeleton crew. The other 212 mill workers had been laid off and the mill idled last winter.
West Enfield, located 45 minutes from Millinocket, was no longer in the woods. The Kallgren property was as tidy as a well-tended paper machine: lawns carefully mown, house fastidiously maintained. A river or lake was just beyond, gleaming through the branches. When I opened the door to my car, Kallgren's brown Lab half climbed in so I?could pat him on the head.
With all the dire economic news of mills, Kallgren was more than happy to talk about paper-making. He had been working at the Millinocket mill when the Number 11 Metso/Black Clawson Paper machine was shut down for good in 2008.
"The Number 11 was a tremendous machine," said Kallgren. He sat down his coffee cup and spread his arms wide to indicate its massive size and power. He pointed across to his neighbor's house about a football field away.
"It was great. It went from here to there, that's how long it was," he said. "Have you seen it?"
The Number 11 had been rebuilt in 2001 into a paper-making monster; it was almost 27 feet wide, as long as a football field, and cranked out 571 tons of paper a day that used to make Sears and Cabela's catalogs: shiny lightweight paper that could take the ink colors well, but cost less to produce and less to ship than slicker, thicker magazine paper.
"It makes a sort of a poor man's coated paper," said Kallgren, who had started working at the mills fresh out of high school in 1971, pulling in $2.96 an hour, then worked his way up the line.
At the loading end of the Number 11, a liquid slurry of pulped paper went in, was mashed and dried and pressed and pressed and dried some more, and felted, as it worked its way from one end of the machine to the other with the help of increasingly skilled process engineers and beater engineers who had learned their skills on the job.
If the Number 11 was a powerhouse, the paper industry seemed to be one, too. Wages steadily increased over the next decade and by the mid-'80s, Great Northern paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket were cranking with a starting wage of $12 an hour for unskilled labor. Fifty-cent-an-hour raises were a regular occurrence, according to Kallgren.
Layoffs started in earnest in the mid-1980s, followed by a parade of owners promising the moon.
As the years passed, most of the 2.2 million acres owned by the original Great Northern company were sold off. Great Northern's dams were sold. New owners spun off new companies, or carved off the mills and grafted them to their other holdings in Maine or in Georgia or somewhere other than the Katahdin region. Orders for coated paper went elsewhere. Trees no longer came into the Millinocket mill. Instead, a slurry of pulp was shunted over by pipeline from the East Millinocket mill.
The expensive, outmoded, oil-hungry heaters used in the paper-making process were not upgraded to less expensive and less thirsty options at the Millinocket mill, even while mills elsewhere in the state made the change to stay competitive.
But the Number 11 kept cranking out paper.
The local unions negotiated, took pay cuts and weathered layoffs and new owners, as the number of jobs shrank and company loyalty to Millinocket and East Millinocket leaked away with each successive owner.
When the Number 11 went silent, the beater engineers at Verso Paper in Bucksport were making $28 an hour. For the same job, Kallgren was getting paid $16.
2. Just ten days before Cate Street announced it was filing bankruptcy, the main street of the town of Millinocket, which had an unemployment rate of almost 13 percent in July (which was still considerably lower than the 20 percent unemployment rate in nearby East Millinocket in midsummer) was full of parked cars. Live music spilled out of cafes and bars and people greeted old friends in lit doorways and made new ones over at the Appalachian Trail Cafe and the Blue Ox saloon. Angelo's Pizza was jam-packed, with standing room only as a really good local band amped up the fun.
Millinocket is on the map as an official Trail Town, because it promotes and protects the Appalachian Trail, whose northern terminus is Mt. Katahdin inside Baxter State Park.
People had come into town to celebrate the seventh annual Trails End Festival, a three-day celebration of free music, hikes, paddles, and family activities. And a pub crawl. The festival was the brainchild of Jaime and Paul Renaud, who own the Appalachian Trail Cafe and the Appalachian Trail Lodge (which put up 2,000 hikers this summer at an average rack rate of $27.50 per person, per night). They also run a backpacking gear store targeted directly to long-distance hikers, a seasonal coffee shop with private $5 showers for hikers, and a pick-up, drop-off service for hikers going in or out of Baxter State Park.
Last year, Baxter Brewing Company offered to sponsor the Trails End Festival pub crawl. This year, they did it, again, donating classy steel insulated travel mugs to the effort, which festival organizers sold to offset the cost.The Renauds moved to Millinocket in 2007 after Paul, a Vietnam veteran, had completed hiking the Appalachian Trail in sections after years of barely being able to walk as a result of a war injury. It signalled a change for both of them, and Jaime walked away from a career as an OB-GYN nurse and the Renauds chose Millinocket as a place to land. They bought the run-down hikers' hostel and the cafe, renovated both, and started niche businesses. If they weren't making a killing, they were certainly making a living.
The Renauds aren't the only bright spots in town. The foundry was busy and hiring and a new bakery had just opened down the street. Some, but not all, of the small economic activity catered to recreationists. That slice of the economic pie has a lot of potential for growth, according to the Renauds.
"People are still commuting to Bangor for work, some of them," said Jaime. "But I do see the town turning a corner ever so slowly. I?do see it happening. I?just feel like the key people are getting here and lining up. I?would have thought it would happen sooner, but it's just a matter of time."
The Renauds cited the access to Katahdin, the surrounding lake, the snowmobile trails, hunting and fishing. They believe the town has not tapped into the economic value of recreation that is already here, and that it could also benefit from the proposed national park to the east of Baxter State Park.
A national park won't solve the town's problems, said Jaime Renaud, but it would diversify the local economy.
"Did you know there are some of the best groomed cross-country ski trails in the state right here, right now?" said Jaime, who mentioned a local schoolteacher was just beginning to develop a winter festival for the area. "Why is that a secret?"
"I don't think this town will ever be what it was," she said. "We are never going to be big and booming again. But there are a lot of small vibrant communities, and we can be one of them."
Jaime smiled and held up her hands in a what-are-you-going-to-do gesture.
"All I know is people that come to the mountain need a place to eat and a place to stay. If you can give them that, you can make a living here. This restaurant has been here for 77 years. Our cook has been here for over 30. People had quit coming because it had gotten run down and now it's friendly and the food is affordable and good. It's busy. We are just going to keep doing what we do."
"The people here, they are very warm and welcoming, most of them, even if you don't agree with them," said Paul. "There's a few who aren't, but most are."
"You know, though, auctioning off the Number 11 was a major, major thing," he said. "That was the end. People felt it. It's going to take some time for the town to move on."
3.Jane Disselkamp turned onto Granite Street, crossed the bridge over Millinocket Stream, passed the Granite Street Elementary School, which the town had managed to keep open this year, in spite of crippling budget cuts. Probably next year, it would be closed.
We followed the perimeter fence up to Jane's house on the corner of Somerset Road beside the old truck gate, got out and slipped though a gap in the fence.
"Trucks used to come in and out of this gate every 15 seconds," she said, when we reached a pile of rubble that the demolition team had dumped in huge piles, probably to block the gate, which had now been closed for years.
"It's pretty quiet, now," she said.
Most of what remained of the mill was over the swell of a rise, largely out of sight.
I had come up here, over and over, to see and try to understand all the forces pulling at this place and how the town and the people would respond, but like the locals who drove up to Little Italy to see the demolition across the stream, it was hard to pull my eyes away.
Trying to figure out all the forces at work here, in this town, was like trying to piece together an intricate puzzle that had to fit, just so. The timber industry wasn't dying and the North Woods wasn't a dying forest, either, but this mill hadn't kept up. Each successive owner had taken some of the value, stripping the mill down. In a company town, it was like stripping flesh down to the bone.
Jane drove past the hospital ("It's an excellent hospital, with specialists coming up from Bangor to do mobile clinics"), past busy Rideouts Market on the Brownville Road ("Best butcher around. If you buy meat, buy it there") and past the old school, an imposing and elegant building on a hill in the center of town that had been turned into an assisted living facility.
Along the way, we passed a deserted and historically important "tin house," with pressed and patterned tin lining the hallways and ceilings and a sapling growing up between the porch steps, and then, around the corner, a small Victorian with a turret that Jane said had once belonged to a mill administrator and, in the economic downturn, had been bought by several Massachusetts families who seemed to take turns coming up with their snow sleds, boats and ATVs, in a parade of trucks and toys that kept coming and going.
"The driveway is always full of cars and such," said Jane. "They keep rotating through, so one week it will be one family and the next, one of the others."
I asked what she thought of all the out-of-staters who have snatched up properties at rock-bottom prices - under $25,000 for a three-bedroom, in some cases - and use them as vacation homes or plan to retire in Millinocket, someday.
"They pay their taxes, they buy groceries here," she said.
The decades of one-employer rule over the town were over, said Jane. Like most residents of Millinocket, she didn't see a future that included that kind of timber-industry monopoly of the town's economy.
"There is not a lot here, but we love what we have. I never get tired of looking at the mountain, and I've always felt lucky to live at the base of it."
"I see us headed more towards a service economy and less toward an industrial one. There is so much wilderness and so much potential out there," she said, nodding in the direction of the mountain.
And the proposed national park?
She shook her head, making the observation that the most obvious place to put an entrance to a national park, if there is one, would be right off the interstate at Medway, not 11 miles west in Millinocket.
"I don't think it will make much of a difference in Millinocket, at all," she said.
Stay tuned . . .