Metro

Closing of Maine papermaker ends a way of life

Mill for generations held jobs for Bucksport

Heather Hersey and other workers were greeted by a huge crowd of supporters on the mill’s last day.
Fred Field for the Globe
Heather Hersey and other workers were greeted by a huge crowd of supporters on the mill’s last day.

BUCKSPORT, Maine — Dan Wentworth left behind more than a job when he finished the final shift on the final day at the Verso paper mill Wednesday afternoon.

Wentworth left behind a way of life.

It is a life that transcended the smoke and grime of a belching, monster mill. Where visitors saw a gritty blot on the landscape, four generations of Wentworths saw good incomes, small-town camaraderie, and the comfort of neighbors with shared values.

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The 84-year-old Bucksport plant is the latest paper mill in Maine to fall victim to increased energy costs, global competition, and a decline in demand, which have upended the industry. Verso is the second paper mill, both on the Penobscot River, to have closed in Maine this year with a combined loss of 700 jobs.

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Now, Wentworth and hundreds of others in this small, stunned, waterfront community are wondering what the future holds. When the last millworkers trudged out of the plant at 3 p.m., greeted by a throng of townspeople, about 500 jobs and 44 percent of Bucksport’s tax base went with them.

“You're wondering if this is just a dream, but it’s not,” Wentworth, 53, said a few days before the end.

Wentworth now finds himself on the outside, reimagining a life that suddenly changed when he received a text message from a supervisor while driving home from the Fryeburg Fair in October.

Verso planned to close the mill, the message said.

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Wentworth was stunned. “We’re done. It’s over!” he said, throwing the cellphone against the dashboard.

That news signaled the end of 80 years of family employment at the mill, beginning with Wentworth’s grandfather, who landed a job there after emigrating with 11 children from New Brunswick. Wentworth’s father and mother went on to work at the mill, too, as did two uncles, a younger brother, and a son.

Even after Verso’s announcement, townspeople hoped the mill would be sold to another papermaker. But those lingering hopes were dealt a body blow last week when Verso announced that the mill had been sold to a subsidiary of American Iron & Metal, a metal-recycling company.

“They’ve made clear they’re not going to operate it as a mill,” Town Manager Derik Goodine said, adding that he doesn’t know what the buyer plans to do with the paper-producing facility.

An attached power plant will continue to operate with about 50 employees.

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The mill once produced paper for magazine giants such as Time and Newsweek and nourished generations of Bucksport families — and not only those who worked in papermaking. The mill benefited suppliers who trucked wood to the plant, the small businesses in this riverfront town, and hundreds of ancillary services.

‘You’re wondering if this is just a dream, but it’s not.’

“I looked at it as money, not a mill,” said Don Houghton, editor and publisher of the weekly Bucksport Enterprise newspaper.

The sprawling factory can be seen from nearly very vantage point in Bucksport, a strategically placed town that the British burned to the ground in the War of 1812. Its smokestacks tower over the pine trees, and the view down Main Street ends with its big, boxy profile.

The mill has been a generous giant. Particularly during its halcyon days more than two decades ago, the mill donated heavily to local charities, sponsored banquets, helped the Little League, and even catered meals for employees who worked overtime.

“I grew up here, I’m from the town, and my dad lived it every day,” Wentworth said. “I loved it.”

Now he’s is making plans to commute 80 miles each way for a new job, at half the pay, at the Bath Iron Works.

Workers have realized for some time that the industry is under pressure, but most believed they had five, maybe 10 years left at the mill. Then, on Oct. 1, the ax fell. Many employees heard of the closing from reporters, who waited outside the gates as the workers left to ask them for reaction.

“It had been kind of like we were dying a slow death. Then, all of a sudden, we had cardiac arrest,” said Alden Blodgett of Penobscot, who started at the mill in 1981.

Bill Cohen, a spokesman for Verso, said the Memphis-based company tried to make all workers aware of the shutdown at the same time. But Emery Deabay, president of the United Steel Workers local that represented 200 workers at the mill, scoffed at that.

“I feel that the disrespect was terrible. It was low-brow,” Deabay said.

Dave Milan, the town’s economic development director, said the sale seems like a strategic decision linked to Verso’s efforts to acquire NewPage, another manufacturer of coated paper used in magazines and catalogs.

The proposed acquisition, which would make the combined company the dominant US player in the market, is being scrutinized by the Department of Justice. Without the Bucksport mill, the merger is believed to have a better chance of approval.

To most people in Bucksport, however, talk of sales price, strategy, mergers, and federal approvals is only extraneous noise in the discussion about where the town goes from here. To optimists, the sudden availability of 400 prime acres is a once-in-a-century opportunity. But to pessimists, Bucksport will become a ghost town.

“The feedback I’m getting is the town is going to die without the mill,” said Donna Brickett, manager at Gold Star Cleaners and Laundry, which sits on a ridge beside the plant.

“I see people moving out.”

One of those moving out is John Bakeman, a 60-year-old millworker who put his house on the market the day after the shutdown announcement.

“A way of life is coming to an end to another small town in Maine,” said Bakeman, who worked at the mill for 38 years. “I’m looking for employment in the Bangor area, but I know I’ll never make the money I was making here.”

Goodine, the town manager, predicted that budget cuts and tax increases are on the way, but that Bucksport will diversify and be transformed.

The community is located near busy highways, has a deep-water port, and is an appealing place to live, Goodine said. “We survived the British burning us down,” Goodine added, “and we’ll survive this.”

The road to rebirth, however, could be a difficult one. For Glenn Baker, a 60-year-old from nearby Searsport, the loss is personal.

“You know what it’s like? You’ve got a 93-year-old grandmother, and you know some year she’s going to die. But you go to wake her up one day, and she’s dead,” Baker said.

“No matter how much you prepare mentally, it’s still a shock, and the grief is painful.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, Dave Milan was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.