New book details life and death of Groveton Papers Company

By Barbara Tetreault

GROVETON — “You had a Job For Life,” an oral history of the destruction of a mill town, details the life and death of the Groveton Papers Mill. But Jamie Sayen’s book could easily have been about Berlin and other paper towns that saw their economies collapse when foreign competition and shrinking markets closed paper mills across the country. The stories are hauntingly similar. Thirty miles west of Berlin, Groveton shared a workforce and for a period, common ownership, with the mills in the Androscoggin Valley.

Sayen will discuss his book next Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 6 p.m. at the Fortier Library at White Mountains Community College in a presentation sponsored by the college, Berlin Public Library, and Berlin and Coos County Historical Society. A slideshow of photographs of the mill and clips from interviews with former workers will accompany the talk. Admission is free, and light refreshments will be provided.

A kick-off event is being held Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Rialto Theater in Lancaster at 7 p.m.

The 270-page book traces the history of the mill from its beginnings in 1891 to its abrupt closing in 2007. Sayen describes the ownership changes and how market forces lead to the demise of the Groveton mill.

Mostly, however, he tells the story of Groveton Papers through the words and stories of the people who worked there.

Sayen interviewed more than 50 former employees, ranging from former owner James C. Wemyss Jr., and mill manager David Atkinson to paper machine operators like David Miles and tissue worker Pauline Labrecque. He collected more than 100 hours of taped interviews.

“The Groveton mill workers told stories about the daily operation of a hot, noisy, dangerous workplace that range from the comical to the tragic. They described an extraordinarily tight-knit mill community,” Sayen said in an email.

The book, in fact, traces its origin to a graduate course in ethnography Sayen was taking at Plymouth State University in 2009-2010. Students were assigned to develop an oral history project and he selected the Groveton mill, just a few miles from his home in Stratford.

“I so enjoyed getting to know former mill workers and learning their stories that early on I knew the project would develop into a book,” he said.

The title for the book came from an interview with Lawrence “Lolly” LaPointe, a 30-year employee at the mill.

“I think back then everybody had a good job, was making good money. I don’t know if everybody was happy, but at least they had a pretty secure place to work. ... Once you got in the mill back then, unless you chose to leave there, you had a job for life. ... We lived right across the tracks, and I used to bitch about the sound of the mill in the summer when the windows are open, but it was a pretty good sound when you was working here. I didn’t have to drive to work. Five minutes, I was in my job. Unbelievable,” LaPointe recalled in the book.

Probably the most colorful character in the book is Wemyss, whose grandfather purchased the mill in 1940. Wemyss, labeled the Crown Prince by Sayen, would remain involved with the mill in some form for 50 years before retiring in 1998. He had, workers said, an intuitive understanding of the papermaking process. The book described Wemyss’ temper and his legendary outbursts when he would throw his jacket on the floor and jump and scream at workers and his managers. But workers also noted that he promoted locals to top positions, cared about the community enough to move there, and worked hard to keep the mill running.

Sayen describes how the ingenuity of the mill workers managed to keep the aging mill competitive and their pride in continuing to put out an excellent product even after Wausau Paper announced it was closing the plant. He also reports the bitterness the former workers feel towards Wausau for selling the property with a covenant prohibiting its future use as a paper mill.

“In nearly every interview, former mill workers expressed bitterness toward the last mill owner. Most of them cited the covenant as the cruelest blow,” Sayen wrote.

Sayen has spent the last three decades “as a grassroots forest and wilderness activist” and in the book he offers his vision for the future. He calls for building an economy that relies on smaller scale low technology producing a diverse array of niche, value-added products. Pointing to the empty storefronts on Main Street in Groveton, Sayen urges people to shop locally and calls for economic development programs to support locally owned businesses. He proposes living simply to reduce our carbon footprint and restoring mature forests.

This is Sayen’s second book. In 1985, he published “Einstein in America: The Scientist's Conscience in the Age of Hitler and Hiroshima” about his next door neighbor growing up in Princeton, N.J.

Sayen will also discuss his book Sunday, Dec. 10, from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the American Legion Post 17 in Groveton during the Legion’s monthly Sunday breakfast. The event is open to everyone with breakfast $8 for adults and $3 for children.

“You had a Job for Life” was published by University Press of New England. Sayen will have copies of the book for sale at his presentations.

Editor's note: Barbara Tetreault's father was among the former workers interviewed by Sayen for his book.