Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Groveton paper mill offered good work ... if it didn't kill youBy MIKE COTE
March 10. 2018 10:31PM
For 116 years, the Groveton paper mill was the engine of the Coos County economy. It was where most people worked, and where several of them died.
They endured long shifts at jobs that could be monotonous and were often dangerous. Workers lost fingers or limbs while operating giant machines that in the early years offered no safety protection.
Even with temperatures that rose well beyond 100 degrees in the summer, harsh chemicals that produced noxious fumes, and noise levels that caused hearing loss, the mill was a magnet for workers.
They needed jobs. They needed to eat. They needed a future. The mill became their life and the life of the town, its fortunes depending on the mill's success for more than a century.
In 2007, the mill's Wisconsin-based owners shut it down without a word to local managers, slamming the door shut by including a covenant that prohibited the Groveton mill from ever producing paper again.
More than 10 years later, Groveton is still grieving. Most of the mill buildings in the Northumberland village have been demolished. Many downtown storefronts remain vacant.
Jamie Sayen, who lives in the nearby town of Stratford, spent several years interviewing the mill's former owner, managers and workers. What started off as a project for an ethnography class at Plymouth State University became his passion and ultimately a book.
"You Had a Job for Life: Story of a Company Town" was published in December by the University Press of New England. Sayen tells the story largely through the voices of more than 50 people who worked there, some for decades.
"The first interview was a couple of days before New Year's late in 2009. By January 10, I'd done three or four interviews altogether," Sayen said last week. "I knew I had hit something really wonderful, and I just wouldn't be satisfied just turning in a term paper."
Sayen expected workers to be reluctant to talk about the mill, especially since its sudden closure had left many feeling betrayed. But two years after the mill closed, they were ready. Of the 60 people Sayen contacted, only four turned him down. Two were simply too ill to speak with him.
"That was just their poor health rather than anything else. Only one or two didn't want to talk about it, and one said, 'I just don't want to relive those tough times,'" Sayen said.
Jim Wemyss Jr., whose family owned the mill for decades and employed hundreds of workers, ended up being one of Sayen's best sources. Wemyss was brought into the business by his father and grandfather and ran the mill as an independent company until it merged with Diamond International in 1968, when the Groveton company needed capital to update its equipment and reduce the pollution the mill created.
"We ended up doing 10 or 11 (interviews) over the course of a few years. And invariably he would say, 'I'm a busy man. I can't give you more than a half hour. Come on over,' Sayen said. "I'd come over, and three hours later I would say, 'Thank you for your time.' Sometimes it ended with a cocktail."
While there was plenty of tension between management and workers in the mill's century-plus existence, Sayen found that the relationship was more benign when the Wemyss family owned the operation, especially under Jim Wemyss Jr., who had grown up around the plant and knew as much about operating the machinery as the workers did.
"They had a few strikes, but really the only truly bitter strikes were in 1917 - long before the Wemysses - and in 1946 when old Jim (Wemyss) said, 'Here are the terms,' and that was the adjustment to the postwar inflation. That was after the wage freezes in the war. He took a hard line and yielded, but it took six or eight weeks to resolve the strike," Sayen said.
"But other than that, the other strikes were pretty short. And, yes, I think probably they were very unpleasant while they were going on, but after they were over I think people sort of got back into their customary relationships - which is bitching about your job but also having some respect for an owner who knows which wrench to tighten which bolt on the napkin machine."
The mill thrived in the 1950s and 1960s, buoyed by the country's postwar prosperity. High oil prices in the late '70s and early '80s and other aspects of globalism - including cheap labor overseas - began the decline. Groveton's reliance on a single large employer was ultimately its downfall. The mill's final owner, the Wassau Paper Mills Company, bought it in 1992 and closed it without warning 15 years later.
"The downside of a small town dominated by a big paper mill is when things are good it seems like the world is your oyster. But when things go bad, as they did in later years of the mill and since the mill's closing, we're a basket case," Sayen said. "If we had had 10 midsized employers and one or two of them had gone down, it would have hurt. But that economic diversity probably would have helped us muddle through."
Sayen doesn't think Groveton should rely on another big company for its revival. Last year, NSA Industries of St. Johnsbury, Vt., a sheet metal fabrication company, moved into 73,000 square feet in one of the remaining mill buildings, now owned by developer Bob Chapman, and employs about 100 workers there. While Sayen welcomed the news, he worries about the town once again becoming too dependent on a single employer or industry.
A longtime environmental activist, Sayen envisions higher education taking advantage of Groveton's natural resources.
"Partly because it's my bias and interest, partly because of our geography, it would be something more along the lines of natural history studies - ways of conducting low impact, non-degrading timber and agriculture, ways of restoring or helping to restore damaged and degraded ecosystems, celebrating and learning more about natural history," said Sayen, 69.
"That's what I'd like to see us trying to explore rather than look for another Wall Street or absentee investor to come in, build a big plant, have us super dependent on basically one industry again and hope that we have a better outcome."
Contact Business Editor Mike Cote at 206-7724 or firstname.lastname@example.org.