In the spring of 2007, I spent forty days and forty nights, give or take, in Berlin for the Telling Our Stories project. (1) The Androscoggin Valley Community Partners invited me to gather stories of logging, paper making and the community. Once collected, the stories would be returned to the city in a staged performance as a tribute to the tellers, the industry, the traditions, and a record of a way of life fast disappearing.
On day one I wandered into an office to ask directions. The friendly receptionist asked what I was doing in town. “Collecting stories of the mills and logging,” I said.
Her eyes filled with tears. “My husband worked at the mill,” she said. “He got laid off.” Then, “It’s hard.”
Oh geez, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? Usually I write and tell funny stories. But when the opportunity came to collect all kinds of stories in Berlin, I grabbed it. To sit with people who’d lived this kind of history and listen to their stories -- that’s a privilege. From that first encounter, however, it was clear this was a community in mourning.
At one time 2500 horses and 1700 men worked in the woods around Parmachenee Lake felling trees to send down the Androscoggin River to the mills. According to the Statistical Gazetteer of New Hampshire, 1874, Berlin processed over twenty-three million feet of lumber annually. When the logs filled the river, and river drivers guided them downstream from bateaux, barges, and on foot -- yes, these men walked on logs on water -- people knew spring had come.
With the International Paper Company and Brown Paper Company going full swing, Berlin boasted the largest paper-making complex in the world. The mills chewed up 5000 cords a day, seven days a week. The Berlin Mills Company (later known as the Brown Company and by many other names over the years) led the industry in innovation. In 1938 writers for the Works Progress Administration described the company’s success in their American Guide Series: New Hampshire:
To meet competition from foreign producers, the company organized in 1913 an industrial research department, gradually expanding the work by recruiting young scientists from leading Eastern Universities. . . . At first the emphasis was placed on chemical specialties such as chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, and hydrogenated vegetable oil for use as cooking fat. (Originally called Kream Krisp, later Crisco) After the World War, attention was largely directed to wood pulps and their conversion into lacquers, explosives, plastics, and artificial silks. As a result the company owns 600 patents and is rapidly changing the whole wood-pulp industry.
The research and development department produced the finest Kodak photo paper. And Nibroc towels. In public bathrooms everywhere, you’d find dispensers for those brown paper towels. A man named Corbin (Nibroc backwards) invented machines to cut the towels just so. Jennie Parent went to work in the Towel Room when it opened in the early 20s. At the time it was the only department hiring women. She was 17 years old. Though the work was backbreaking, “when you’re young,” Jennie said, “you don’t mind it. We packed 15 bundles in a case. When I started, the towel room had just two machines. After a while it got up to 14. Men loaded the machines. Women packed the towels.”
I asked Jennie why she stuck with that hard work for 48 years. She said: “For the money, same as everybody else!”
She never married. In those early days if a woman married, she lost her job. “It was the rules,” she said. “It had to be accepted. There’s some good and bad in everything.”
The work could be dirty, hot and dangerous, but the money was good, and friendships sustaining. Pauline Griffin worked for the Brown Company from 1952 until 1992. What did she like about it? “The girls,” she said. “It was a good group, a very good group.” As a paper tester, she had to be fast to keep up with the big rolls. “We had to move.” she said. “You didn’t run the machines, the machines ran you.” But “when the machine plugged we just sat down and waited.”
“Some people say to me, ‘Pauline, where do you work.’ I say, ‘Towel Room.’ They say, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘What do you think? Make paper!’”
Long hours over long careers meant sometimes you saw more of your coworkers than your family. Twelve-hour shifts were common. The mills were a city inside the city. You didn’t see the outside because you couldn’t leave your machine. “You’d go to work with your lunch,” Paul Belanger said, “and you left with your lunch.” A homemade lunch was a sign of prestige -- you had a good wife. Others would say, “You’re not going to eat all that are you?”
I asked Paul what he missed most. He said, “The camaraderie. The interaction with other people. It’s like you had a family at home and then you went to work with your other family. You worked with the same guys all the time. You knew their kids. They knew your kids. Sometimes they knew what you were going through mentally or physically or emotionally. They’d give you a word of encouragement. Make you laugh. Make you giggle.”
Add to that mix of familiarity and camaraderie, the danger. Safety first, but there was always the possibility that somebody could get hurt. As one worker put it, “You walked in, but you never knew if you’d be walking out.”
Robert Theriault worked as a millwright; he made things right when they went wrong. “One time they called me over. So I notice, hey, the belt is off over there. What happened? I guess the guy got his hand caught in it or something. What is this? I pick up a finger. ‘Who owns this finger?’”
Losing fingers, hands, or arms was not unusual. Some lost their lives. One worker tried to clear some “broke” out of a nip -- where two rolls come together. Robert said, “He checked the nip and pulled the paper through, but he got his hand caught in there. Pulled him right in to the shoulder. Broke his neck.”
Another time, “This guy, I saw him. He wanted to check his reel. He put his hand over the guard and the machine pulled him right in there and that roller grounded up his arm. I had to take the guard off and pull him out of the machine. Lay him down. I said, ‘Geez, I hope they’ll be able to save his arm.’ You could see all the nerves and stuff. They took him to the hospital and we heard later they had to take his arm.
“Right after, the boss says, ‘Okay, get the machine going again. He’s being taken care of. This was the mentality. It was a rough way, but that was our lives at that time.”
Everyone knew someone or was related to someone who’d been hurt or killed on the job. This, in itself, created communion. So much sacrificed to keep the mills going made watching them decline even more wrenching.
Besides the danger of working around machines were the dangers of chemical exposure. Rene Theriault worked around chlorine, one of the chemicals blamed for the smell that often permeated the air in the city. I asked about ill effects. He said: “I threw up many a lunches. You eat your lunch then you get some gas and you cough and cough. Back then we only had full face masks. Course they worked, but somebody tries to talk to you, you lift your mask up so you can hear them. You get some gas. Then you get sick. But I never got so sick that I lost work.”
Once he had to wear a mask in the control room. Because of a leak, the chlorine was seeping in. Rene’s supervisor said it would be fixed next time they shut down. “I says, ‘Next time we shut down?’ He says, ‘Yes.’ I pushed the button. I says, ‘It just happened. I shut it down.’ The supervisor wasn’t happy but the leak got fixed.”
One of Louis Gagnon’s first jobs was in the tank room: “Rolls of recycled newspaper, maybe 100, 150 of them cores would go in the tank, and they’d sink that down and put tar in, then drain that all out and fill it with water. But when they opened the cover, like a clam steamer, all that haze and mist would come out. They used to give us cold cream to put on our face so we didn’t burn. I was walking to work one day on the railroad tracks. My face was burning just like somebody had a blow torch on it. I said to hell with this. I said to the guy, if this is all you got for me, I don’t want it. Went back a year later. They put me in the tube mill. I had my mind made up I’d stick with it. I was married then.”
Louis’s wife Rita said, “They got so dirty. The men were all tan. There were no white faces. They killed themselves in that tube mill. I washed his clothes separate. I would never wash them with mine and the kids.”
“Five out of ten in my family had cancer,” Rita said, “In his family, three or four, I don’t know.” How much that had to do with exposure to pollution from the mills, who knows? What doesn’t kill you, as the saying goes, makes you stronger. And fosters, it seems, in the case of the Berlin mills, an abiding pride in goods produced with skill and hard labor at great personal cost. Ironically, by the time the mills shut down in 2001, many of the hazards to workers and the environment had been minimized with new technology.
The End of the Beginning
A population of more than 20,000 in the late thirties filled Berlin to bursting. The community thrived. The Browns, owners of the Brown Company, were fair, smart, competent, and kind. They took care of their people. The mill workers “worshipped” the Browns. Mrs. Brown started a kindergarten -- a public school, privately endowed. The Community Club with a gym, swimming pool, and bowling alley, was built by the Brown family. The Browns personally delivered soup to the sick, and always gave presents to the children at Christmas. The Browns cared what happened to Berlin.
During the Depression, hours were cut but all jobs saved. Unfortunately, the company was forced into bankruptcy and emerged with owners: the banks and insurance companies that had loaned the Browns money. The Brown family lost ownership, but remained part of management.
The pulp and paper industry in Berlin employed thousands of workers until the 1950s. For years Berlin held its own as the fourth largest city in New Hampshire. The economy provided livings for mill workers and satellite businesses -- barber shops, theaters, bars, shoe stores. It supported doctors, dentists, and lawyers with a per capita income that rivaled any other in the state. No need to travel south for goods and services; you could get anything you wanted in the Berlin.
The decline that some say started with the Depression was slow and, in hindsight, inevitable. Now, the population of The City That Trees Built is half what it once was and dropping, as evidenced by boarded up store fronts and homes for sale. No work for the young people; little reason for them to stay. Older people, many of them, are hanging on. What do you do when your house is paid off and you’re caring for elderly parents? You might not make the money you did at the mill, but maybe with a part time job or two, you can survive until Social Security. You don’t want to leave. You have lifetimes -- all your generations -- invested in this place.
Many folks I talked with remember the heydays of the city -- full of people and shops, churches, theaters, restaurants. Big bands stopped by the Shelburne Inn or Town and Country just a few miles away to play with great local musicians like Louis Catello. People remember wild Friday nights when the loggers came in to raise a little hell, sometimes at the one of the many bars on Main Street. These were the shining years of championship hockey, Olympic-level jumpers breaking records at the Nansen ski jump, and the Joliette Snow Shoe Club Drum and Bugle Corps on parade. It was the Berlin of trains, traveling circuses, winter carnivals, and dancing on the ice. Crack the whip! A long line of girls held hands and skated fast. When the one in front turned quick, the line whipped. If the one in front slipped, everybody fell.
September 10, 2001, “That’s the day they put the padlocks on the doors,” they say. One day before the tragedy in New York, the great mills of Berlin shut down, possibly for good. People remember where they were and how they found out. Normand Caouette learned of the shutdown at the funeral parlor. “One day I’m burying my mother,” he said, “the next day I’m losing my job.”
Deep down many didn’t believe this was the end. The mills shut down before, but always reopened. And so they did this time, off and on, in fits and starts, for the next few years. But as time passed and the work slowed, it became clear that this time the mills were going down for the count.
Normand Caouette’s last job was “cooking the wood.” At the computer panel one night, an alarm went off. Not enough softwood chips in the mix. He called the guy who fed the chips, thinking he might be taking a nap or maybe nature called. “Where are the chips?”
“There’s no more.”
“I only need a couple tons,” Norm said.
“Norm, there’s no more.”
The yard was empty. There were no more chips.
When Norm walked out he said to his men: “Take a good look. We may never come back.”
Roland Aube managed the Floc Plant, where pulp was pulverized for use as filler in foods, pharmaceuticals and other products. In the final days, Roland and his crew acknowledged “lasts” -- the last time a machine would be used or a time sheet submitted. On the last maintenance sheet is a handwritten note Moving on into the sunset and a sad face. “My last day at the Floc Plant was the saddest day of my life,” Roland said
This time, instead of some corporation swooping in to try once again to make a go of paper making in the North Country, plans were made to demolish the mills. By 2007, when I arrived on the scene, many buildings had been torn down. The rest were in the process of being dismantled. The four smoke stacks that had for so many years dominated the cityscape stood intact. But those too were slated to fall.
One night I caught a ride with Gina and Paul Belanger from Milan to Berlin after a storytelling session. Gina looked across the river. “What are those lights?” she said. Then, “Oh!” We were looking at the rows of street lights on the East Side. “I never noticed them before,” she said. “There was a mill in the way.”
When the stacks fell, some held parties. Some considered such parties obscene. The city raffled the privilege of pushing the buttons that would ignite the explosives to fall the stacks. Some hoped to be among the lucky winners. Others considered the raffle sacrilegious. Two stacks fell without a hitch. One held on through the first blast and a second. Workers rushed in to cut some stubborn rebar. Eventually the stack succumbed, but as it toppled, debris damaged nearby cars and injured onlookers. (3)
Nothing has been easy about Berlin’s transition from mill town to . . . Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Without the mills, what is Berlin? Between the prosperous past and the possibilities of a prosperous future lies this awful void called now. As retired mill worker Jennie Parent, almost 102, said, “What else they was in Berlin? What else they is?” And in the next breath: “There’s some good and bad in everything.”
Here a man or woman without a high school education could earn a good living. The work was hard, sometimes grueling, sometimes dangerous, but satisfying. Damage to the environment was significant, but money from the mills provided food, homes, cars, vacations. Money from the mills sustained families. Sometimes the stench in the air made your eyes burn. Sometimes the river foamed. But the workers took pride in the jobs they did, the paper they made (used to in the Harry Potter books!). They were proud of their innovations and inventions. Money from the mills put first generations of children through college.
When the stacks blew on September 15, 2007, Berliners knew the mills were gone for good. There would be no coming back from this. This time people believed it.
Yes, the famously polluted Androscoggin River now ran clear -- no sludge, no foam, no balls of mercury in the shallows big enough to poke with a stick. True, the air no longer smelled of rotten eggs and rottener cabbage, and you no longer had to worry about driving through a puddle that might eat the rubber from your tires. You could hang laundry on the line and it would stay clean. You didn’t have to sweep your porch every morning just to get rid of the soot. Now, perhaps, there would be room for cleaner industry or a beautiful riverside park on the site of the old mill in the center of the city. Now, perhaps, this city could be revitalized.
But a way of life was ending, one that had sustained the people of the Androscoggin Valley since the 1850s, when the first log drives filled the river. And for many, this change felt like death.