Nestled into the palm of one of the prettiest river valleys in Maine resides a series of industrial plants that compose the Rumford paper mill. Blight or beauty, depending on your perspective, the mill creates its own distinctive landscape: jutting steam stacks; dark knolls of pulpwood sculpting the ground; golden hillocks of wood chips poised near giant conveyors; and a crosshatch of railroad tracks where boxcars and tankcars await unloading. Though recently turned over for the third time since its first sale back in 1967, the mill appears mighty and unassailable.As a native daughter whose grandfather, father, and brother made their livelihoods there, I find a certain scoured beauty in the spectacle, and much pride.
Rumford. So easy to dismiss as a "typical milltown," especially after some lacerating press of the past decade in the form of two major news events: an expose in the Portland Press Herald portraying the town as the seat of Maine alcoholism, and an inflammatory documentary from a Boston TV station entitled "Cancer Valley." Both pieces were widely seen here as a bad rap, a confirmation of an already skewed public perception. In fact, the National Cancer Institute's 2002 report shows cancer deaths for Oxford County as slightly lower than those for Maine overall. And though the bars fill up as reliably here as anywhere, last July's customary Independence Day roadblock netted not a single drunk driver. But because most Mainers glimpse Rumford through a car window on their way to someplace else, they miss the reality of the actual community: the day-to-day mill workers, teachers, insurance clerks, social workers, musicians, plumbers, athletes, journalists, loggers, artists, retirees, and others who make up a town that, like the river that runs through it, possesses more than one current.
Especially now. Despite its bad press, Rumford has not lost confidence in itself. These days the town seems fresh with possibility, full of people bursting with plans. It's a town looking to the future while deeply respecting the past.
"I've always liked being a papermaker," says Mike Madore, whose years "working up" have resulted in his current, salaried position as an electrical instrument planner at the mill — the guy responsible for a repair plan after a breakdown. "I remember back awhile — this is when we were Boise Cascade — we were building a valve shop in the mill, and my job was to explain how we were going to save the mill money by taking care of our own valves. The chairman of the board was there from Boise, and when I mentioned that the room we were standing in used to be the Number Two machine where my grandfather worked, the man stopped the presentation because he wanted to hear my story." He smiles beneath his robust mustache. "Papermaking is a proud tradition."
"It's an art," adds his wife, Sharon Madore, who works at the Rumford Library and personally knows "99 percent" of her patrons. We're sitting in the Madores' attractive front yard beneath a tree strung with a whimsical collection of working lanterns that Mike has scavenged from hither and yon.
As we reminisce about growing up here, Mike waxes philosophical. "It's almost as if I've seen the history of papermaking in this one mill," he says, referring to the old-style processes, when the paper was sold not only in industrial rolls but in neatly packaged reams. "We had cutters, trimmers, counters — and of course the ladies fanning the paper. Thirty years ago, coming to work was like old-home week. Everybody I knew was here. Nowadays, it's" — he waits for the right word — "it's sparse. Sometimes when I walk through the beater room, I don't know, it's kind of sad. It's like remembering a neighborhood you used to live in that's now gone."
We talk also about the stunning change in the river, which was abused for many decades by the mills along its course, Rumford's mill being among the worst offenders. It was not unusual to find a thick yellow scum on the water's surface, deformed fish, and the bemusing sight of tourists driving through town on Route 2 with hankies held to their noses. Though a high-pressure system still brings an unmistakable scent known to milltowners everywhere, it holds but a whiff of its former power. Not coincidentally, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts' chief architect was Senator Edmund Muskie, Rumford's most famous native son. These days the river, though still far short of meeting even the minimum standards of Muskie's legislation [Down East, September 2005], appears peaceful, even beautiful, as it winds its way out of town through an honor guard of burgeoning trees. On pleasant afternoons you can find people fishing from some of Rumford's many bridges.
In the heyday Madore recalls, the mill touched virtually every family in town. At midcentury the Oxford Paper Company employed roughly 3,000 workers, but that number gradually dwindled, along with the population. Though the mill still employs about 1,100 people in this town of 6,500, it is far from the enveloping presence envisioned by its founder, whose first view of Rumford came on a midwinter day in 1883. Stepping out of a horse-drawn sleigh at the top of what is now Falls Hill, he marveled at the rushing vision just below him: a magnificent stretch of the Androscoggin River, a series of three falls totaling a drop of 180 feet, the longest falls east of Niagara. This man was the formidable Hugh Chisholm — Canadian-born Portland businessman and entrepreneur, childhood friend of Thomas Edison, visionary of the paper industry — and he was some impressed.
At the time, Rumford was a wild backwater of subsistence farmers. Seized with the romantic notion of "planting a city in the wilderness," Rumford's future town father climbed back into his sleigh, afire with plans. Over the next eight years, with the help of a surveyor named Waldo Pettengill, Chisholm quietly bought up all the land along the river, and by the turn of the century he'd presided over the installation of several mills, a railroad company, and a power company, ending with a jewel of modern industry, a state-of-the-art paper mill called Oxford Paper Company. Rumford had been profoundly transformed, boomtown style, from a community of a few hundred hardscrabbling souls to a bustling industrial center of ten thousand.
Now, a little more than a century past that astounding transformation, Rumford appears poised for another, if less dramatic, shift in identity. One of the stewards of this shift will be Steve Eldridge, Rumford's new town manager. "All I knew of Rumford was what I'd seen driving through," he says of his own first impression, and goes on to describe coming to the Island (Rumford's business district, named for its location between the river and the canal) for an interview. "I fell in love with the town hall, and then the other historic buildings. Not to mention the mountains, rivers, streams — and the hardworking people who want things to happen here."
This history buff talks like a man besotted, and much of his vision for Rumford specifically honors the town's past. Plans are under way to rehabilitate Chisholm Park, which once spanned the length of the river along the Island. With federal grant money and a public-works crew "that can do anything," Eldridge hopes to oversee the restoration of a greenway and pedestrian walk, with old-fashioned streetlights along River and Canal streets that will allow dreamy types to traipse the Island's perimeter. Strathglass Park — known locally as the "brick park," a compact neighborhood of small brick duplexes that once served as company housing — was recently placed on Maine Preservation's list of the twenty most endangered historic sites, and the hope is that money will follow.
With 9 percent unemployment and too many empty retail spaces, economic growth is a pressing priority, and there are plans afoot that speak directly to reviving the economy, beginning with the Downtown Revitalization Committee. For this volunteer, long-term undertaking, Eldridge informs me, "We had ten slots and seventeen applicants. People here really want to get involved." Working with Kent Associates, a planning and design firm hired by the town, the committee expanded the definition of "downtown" to include a neighborhood of needy buildings in the Waldo Street/ Lincoln Avenue area. A few are beyond help; others retain historical value and are destined for rehab. "If you improve housing," Eldridge reasons, "you raise the quality of life for everyone. It's an economic issue, taking care of these neighborhoods." Other plans are already well under way. An industrial park just off the Island on Route 108 has three tenants; the University of Maine plans to move its local satellite campus to the Island; and there are talks ongoing with Maine College of Art, in the hope it will do likewise.
The art component is no accident. Eldridge and others refer to a "creative arts" economy as part of a comprehensive plan. He floats the possibility of gathering the well established RAAPA (Rumford Area Association for the Performing Arts) with other arts organizations under a single umbrella to coordinate schedules and venues so that "something will always be going on." He also points to the year-old Pennacook Art Center ("New Pennacook" was Rumford's original name), the town's first art gallery. Opened by Marylander Lem Cissel, who discovered Rumford on a bird-hunting excursion, the gallery features seventy-five artists, most of them local. The building also features Rumford's first revolving door. "We only had to dig it out once last winter," laughs gallery manager Betsy Bell of neighboring Mexico, "after a storm with a lot of blowing snow."
With local artists suddenly "coming out of the woodwork," Bell sees the gallery as a natural unfolding. "This is Oscar Legere's legacy," she notes, referring to a respected painter and longtime owner of Legere's Hardware, now a Florida retiree in his nineties, who taught art classes in his day to as many as thirty students at a time. "He came up to see the gallery," Bell says, "and Lem had found two of his paintings in an antique store. We've got a picture of Oscar with his paintings." The artistic surge should be no surprise, though; Rumford in its glory days claimed three movie theaters and an opera house, and the town's been turning out creative types since little Rudy Vallee hung out at his father's pharmacy in the early 1900s.
Though no one I spoke to could imagine Rumford without a mill, they all had ideas about diversifying Rumford's economy. With a four-million-dollar helping hand from the Libra Foundation, the Black Mountain ski area, a scant ten minutes from downtown, has undergone an eye-popping makeover, which many here see as one sign of imminent economic upturn. Rich Kent, who has taught and coached a generation of Rumford students, sees the update as much more than a face-lift: "When 'people from away' drive up the access road and see the stunning new lodge, the chairlifts, and all the rest, they know they have come to a community that has faith in itself."
That faith lives large in newcomers like Eldridge, Cissel, and attorney Curtis Rice, who stumbled across Rumford three years ago on the Internet. "I was job-hunting," he explains. He and his wife, Abbey, moved to Rumford to put down serious roots. He's from Los Angeles, she's from Washington, Maine, both enthusiastic history majors who found a brick four-story home, circa 1901, topped by a widow's walk with a view of Black Mountain. Bought for the astonishing price of $15,000, the house needs work — it's a project, in fact — but the Rices got a bargain, and there are more to be had.
"Rumford's history as a boomtown means that all the building took place more or less in one era," Curtis explains. "If you look around now, you see a time capsule, with all these beautiful buildings and homes all built between 1900 and 1930. There aren't many places like it." He's channeled some of his enthusiasm into a Website — www.rumfordfalls.org
— on which a visitor can tour some of Rumford's architecturally notable buildings.
I follow Abbey up one staircase after another, marveling at her home's unique woodwork and cavernous fireplaces, touched by her intention to fill these rooms with children. Her first will arrive as a "water birth" at the Rumford hospital. "You can't get that just anywhere," she points out.
Abbey already seems to know everyone in town, possibly owing to her job as a reporter for the Rumford Falls Times, the town's century-old weekly newspaper. She points to different houses on their street. "They're from California. Over there, Massachusetts — they just moved in. And over there, the wife is originally from here, and came back." She notes that with today's online lifestyle, many people are able to "go to work" from anywhere, though one of her neighbors still commutes the old-fashioned way, driving to Rhode Island three days a week.
"What I love most about living here," says Sharon Madore, "is the unbelievable generosity." Though she minds having to leave town to find a movie theater, she speaks tenderly of the community outpouring of help and comfort toward a friend who lost a son. Her husband recalls a recent fundraiser for a respected teacher and coach struck grievously ill. "We raised $30,000," he says quietly. "Can you imagine that?"
"That's what this place is like," Sharon adds.
Steve Eldridge recalls making a similarly passionate pitch to the Maine College of Art: "They said, 'Rumford? Why Rumford?' But I said to them, 'Let me tell you about Rumford. 'And they listened." He pauses a moment. "Things are happening. Rumford is on the verge of change. You're going to see a lot in the next three years." Which might be exactly what Hugh Chisholm said to his driver as he climbed back into that sleigh.