Many long years ago, I spent the weekend in Berlin, New Hampshire, where my college roommate’s sister and brother-in-law were living while he worked as a Legal Aid lawyer.
I remember a few things very clearly about this trip.
One, Berlin is a long way up there. Almost as far as the North Pole (or at least the Hudson Bay Colony).
Two, we saw a black bear out the back window of the house where we stayed.
Three, the Androscoggin River, which ran through Berlin was covered with an unnatural, yellow-ish white froth.
Four, the town smelled horrible, the noxious odor emanating from the same source that produced the Androscoggin froth: Berlin’s pulp and paper mill.
As the locals will tell you, that smell was the sweet smell of jobs, which pretty much left Berlin (and a lot of other old New England mill towns) when the factories shut down.
Berlin, once a Coos County paper hub whose motto is "The City That Trees Built," had been a bustling mill town of more than 15,000 in 1970 but by 2010 had lost nearly 40% of its population, he said.
As has often been the case when one industry falls off, another one steps in. For Berlin, the job slack has taken up by the prison-industrial complex. (Thank goodness for those criminals!) New Hampshire has a state correctional facility there, and the Feds are now taking job applications for a medium security facility they’re opening there.
A bit further down the Androscoggin, however, in Gorham, papermaking remains a going concern, mainly because going remains a going concern.
When the region's last mill closed in 2010, 197 workers were out of good-paying jobs, and the pain of lost paychecks rippled through this tiny mountain town of 2,848….
But the century-old Gorham paper mill is running again, under new owners, with 176 employees and plans to hire 48 more. The rebirth, and optimism at other paper mills nationwide, is due to one of the few bright spots in the industry: steadily rising demand for toilet and tissue paper that goes with population growth.
"I know of nothing that can replace it. You can do digital on books and financials and all this, but it's hard to do digital on tissue paper, hand towels and so forth," said Willis Blevins, the 70-year-old manager of Gorham Paper & Tissue. "Your bath tissue is always going to be there, in my opinion. What are you going to replace it with?" (Source: Wall Street Journal.)
Well, I guess if you’re rich enough one of those Japanese toilets that hoses you down you wouldn’t need toilet paper.
And I guess if you’re poor enough and live on a farm you could use corn cobs. (No more Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs, I’m afraid.)
But I’m with Willis Blevins here. What are you going to replace it with?
Which is good news for those in the paper biz, now that folks don’t write letters, read newspapers, or take notes on yellow pads. (Other than me, I guess: I still use yellow pads for my weekly and daily to-do lists, as well as for general purpose notes. I do economize and environmentalize by using both sides, however.)
For those who work in paper mills, of course, the decline of this industry, which employed so many in northern New England for so many years, is devastating.
As much as those of us with other options might be just as happy to be rid of the smell and the riverine froth, it’s a different story if you swing a lunch bucket and want to stay put in your home town. When one of Gorham’s old mills was dismantled, three smokestacks were blown up:
"I could hear it and I was crying," said 56-year-old Mike Johnson, a fourth-generation mill worker. "It was like someone taking out a part of you."
And the mills provided pretty good jobs – “as much as $23.17 an hour with benefits.”
Fortunately for those who toil in toilet (and other tissue) paper mills, tissue manufacture is not so easily offshored. The combination of low cost and bulk makes it less than economical to ship from “over there.”
There’s a danger that, with so many tissue plants being opened or re-opened – Gorham is not alone – supply will outstrip demand, and prices (and no doubt wages and benefits) will be tamped down.
Still, for now, for some paper mill workers, the news is good.
One of them is Mike Johnson, who’s back in the mill.
Good for him.
One hopes that the next generation is better prepared for the brave new world of employment. (And I don’t just mean as prison guards.)
On my part, I’ll do my bit, buying toilet paper and tissue to stuff in gift bags. I’ll have to find out where Scott, my t.p. of choice is made. I’d like to act locally.
And is it too much to hope that the plants no longer produce all those noxious effluents?