Down East 2013 ©
The summer after my freshmen year of high school, my buddy Sam and I found ourselves confronting two undeniable facts about the women in our lives: the girls we’d grown up with wanted to hang out with older guys, primarily the ones who had jobs and cars — two things we, at fifteen, were too young to possess — and our mothers didn’t want us loafing around our homes because now we ate too much and stayed up too late and our music was too loud and we swore; in short, our lack of purpose took up too much space. What Sam and I had learned since finishing junior high the year before was that we were no longer little boys; what we’d learned after our first year of high school was that, really, we were just little boys. And so, after a week or so of watching beach traffic glide by on Route 1, we found ourselves exploring the forgotten part of our town that, like us, had been deemed useless.
The old yellow mill haunted the Topsham side of the downtown stretch of the Androscoggin River like a crumbling castle. The bigger mill on the Brunswick side, Fort Andross, had already begun a period of post-industrial rebirth, its giant factory-size doors open to a Thai restaurant, an indoor mini-golf course and video arcade, and a Saturday flea market. But across the river, perched atop a rocky ledge, the yellow mill remained in a ghostly state of dereliction. A tall chain-link fence, adorned with barbwire and “No Trespassing” signs, guarded the mill grounds. Through the fence, the tall factory windows and doors were smashed and broken, the long yards and pathways shimmered with glass and discarded metal. The once-proud gambrel roof had sunken in on one side, and it looked as though the grand cupola that rose up from the middle might, in the next summer rainstorm, break loose and sink to the bottom of the river.
Sam and I spent a good week plotting our invasion. Climbing the fence and vaulting the barbwire was too dangerous; hack-sawing through a portion of the fence and sliding through the gap was too public. And then, while studying the mill from the bridge one afternoon, our revelation arrived: if we could descend the ledges into the water, we could swim through the eddies at the bottom of the dam to the mill’s front exposure.
That evening, Sam and I packed a small bag with rope, a hatchet, and a flashlight, and by dusk we were moving through the shadows of the ledge, lowering ourselves into the river and wading through the stinking foam along the rocks. Minutes later, we were climbing the ledge, shimmying up the splintered pilings, and hacking our way through the broken floorboards. Suddenly, as if waking from a dream, we found ourselves standing within a massive cathedral-like emptiness.
The air was musty, the silence heavy. We crept across the splintered floor boards with great caution: as if any noise might wake the giant hibernating machines whose real functions had been buried beneath layers of rust. In one corner, I found several hundred stacks of blank paper, yellowed and decaying, in eight-foot piles. Sam, a navy kid and always braver than me, climbed inside an old service elevator. “Press the button,” he said, and I watched him ascend into the darkness of the shaft until I heard his voice calling me up from above. After climbing several sets of stairs, I followed Sam up a broken ladder, ascending three stories through a narrow square shaft. At the top of the ladder, we viewed our town in a way we never had before: Maine Street, the college, even the woods beyond Mere Point, all seemed to melt into the waters of Merrymeeting Bay, as if returning to an original home in the Atlantic.
Now, fifteen years later, the yellow mill is home to a real estate office, a medical practice, and a nice bar with good beer and decent crowds and a pleasant porch that hangs directly over the river. On the walls of the barroom are beautiful old photographs of the period when the mills were very useful to our town, when men and women made their livelihood in industries that have become long forgotten. But sometimes, when I am fishing for stripers on the Brunswick side of the river, I look at those ledges and the pilings and I think back to that period of the mill’s history that is without any documentation, when it was of no use to anyone but me and my old buddy Sam.