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Jay, Maine: What About Their Future?

August 12, 2020

My better-half comes from Maine and so stories like this one grabs for our attention.

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Smoke rises from an explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay on April 15.REBECCA BURHOE

Jay, Maine an hour north of Portland, has a Dollar Tree, a Hannaford, a half-dozen churches, a gun shop, and a convenience store, Franchetti’s Home Town Variety, reputed to have the best pizza on the planet.

With a population of just under 5,000, the town sits at the heart of the nation’s most forested state. Since the late 19th century, it has focused its economic energies on making logs into paper. In the early 1960s, Jay loomed so large in the industry that the International Paper Co. chose it to build what was then the world’s most sophisticated mill for wood pulp, there on the banks of the Androscoggin River. “It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen,” remembers Dennis Couture, who, at age 6, went to the grand opening holding hands with his mother (his father was a millworker). “And soon the mill was making the paper for those 1,200-page Sears, Roebuck catalogs. I thought, They’re making enough paper to feed the world.”

Many of Jay’s residents, predominantly French-Canadian Catholics, were already working at International Paper’s Otis Mill, which had been operating downtown for decades. Now workers began pouring into the new Androscoggin Mill, to feed the pulp digester at its center and shape the output into paper. Maine loggers from up to 300 miles to the north descended upon the mill with truckloads of pulpwood — the gnarled, skinny tips of trees, the twisting branches that could not be hewn into lumber — and drove away richer. And woodlot owners managed their lands with the confidence that they could turn their runt trees into Jay pulp, thereby giving their straighter, thicker trees sufficient space and sunlight to grow into lucrative lumber.

There are eight paper mills in Maine, and right up until this spring, the one in Jay, built more than a half-century ago for about $54 million, processed more low-grade wood — pine, hemlock, spruce, fir, tamarack — than any other. Then on April 15, just after noon, the digester exploded, bursting like a volcano and sending a brown geyser of wood chips several hundred feet into the air. A second, newer digester was bent and ruined by the fall of the first one. A widely-circulated video captured the logging trucks halted nearby as their windshields got pelted with dark slurry.

In Jay, those explosions spell money. In 2009, the mill accounted for 70 percent of Jay’s tax revenue. Last year it covered 46 percent. And now there’s a fear that the number may soon plummet to zero. Pixelle has made no promises that it will spend hundreds of millions to buy a new digester for the Androscoggin Mill. It’s kept its mill in Jay open, but it has also laid off 59 of the plant’s 500 employees and telegraphed that more job cuts may come. To feed the two working paper machines at the Jay mill, it’s buying pulp from another nearby mill — an expensive and likely unsustainable scheme. Maine’s paper and wood industry, which accounts for 15 percent of the state’s economy, is now up against the ropes, after many years of being repeatedly punched. And in town, the question on everyone’s mind is: How will Jay survive this?

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