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Bucksport's papermaking lore captured in "Still Mill"

BUCKSPORT, Maine (From The Ellsworth American) -- "Farewell, dear materials coordinators, mill controllers and mill managers," writes Bucksport's poet laureate, Pat Ranzoni, toward the end of her new book "Still Mill."

"Oh, and, numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 paper machine tenders, clothing specialists, machine tenders, third hands, stock prep operators and coordinators," Ranzoni continues. "The sounds of your jobs are poetry to us."

Ranzoni's list goes on to include the titles of dozens of other jobs that were held by thousands of workers over the 80 years that Bucksport's paper mill was running.

The list is one of many essays in "Still Mill," a newly published anthology of stories, songs, poems, illustrations and other recollections about the Verso Paper mill, which closed in 2014.

"That mill was people and families, histories," said Ranzoni, whose father worked in the mill after he returned from serving in the Navy in World War II.

The stories in "Still Mill" were contributed by 150 people: mill workers, their families, their neighbors, their managers and many more. After two and a half years of work, Ranzoni launched the book Saturday, July 22.

"When I started writing poetry seriously I wanted to save the cultures that I had come from," the poet said.

Part of what inspired Ranzoni to create the book was the speed at which the town seemed to be moving past the mill.

"There wasn't much attention given to helping those workers hear how valued they were," she said.

"Still Mill" provides that attention. It chronicles the history of the mill and of the people who worked there, through small details that bring those people to life.

One contributor describes the hogs head cheese sandwiches her father would take to work. A 17-year-old's poem captures the late night roar of the mill's cargo trucks down Main Street. A few neighbors' conversation on a Facebook page recalls the corn chowder they ate while growing up -- one mill paycheck at a time.

"When I put out the call for submissions, I stressed that I wanted both the good and the hard," Ranzoni said, "because I was worried that it would all be romanticized."

Ranzoni need not have worried, because work in the mill was often dangerous. Several workers lost limbs while transporting massive, multi-ton rolls of paper via cable crane. Others went deaf while working at the site's loud wood chippers. Still other workers developed cancer, in part due to chemical exposure at the mill.

"I got stories of pain and people getting hurt," Ranzoni said. "It was part of the lore of the mill."

Another part of the lore was the legendary skill of the workers, some of whom knew the mill so well they could practically hear it talk.

One of them was Wesley "Chip" Stubbs, a 40-year veteran of the mill and a machine tender for No. 5 Paper Machine, also known as "The Big Dog." At one point in his essay, Stubbs recalls The Big Dog making a troubling sound.

"We had a wet end break, cleaned the machine up, started to thread machine and heard a clink, clink -- and then the start of a bad rumble that I knew wasn't good," wrote Stubbs, who says later that the noise was caused by a bolt falling out of the machine.

"The more you learn and know about your machine and job, the easier it is," he wrote.

One can only imagine how it must have felt for people like Stubbs to leave the mill forever.

"I just couldn't go out but stood by the window crying, seeing the men and women leave for the last time" said Johanna Dorr, a loan officer and marketing coordinator for the Seaboard Federal Credit Union, whose interview with Ranzoni is featured in "Still Mill."

The credit union is located right across the street from the mill. According to Ranzoni, it was first formed in the 1940s by a group of frustrated mill workers who couldn't get a bank loan anywhere else. During her 25 years working there, Dorr had come to know the mill workers as family.

"'What am I going to do?' they would ask," Dorr said. "All I could say was, 'We're here for you.'"

Later, Dorr said that the worst days were filled with the sound of the mill being torn down.

"Being right next to it, we could hear the buildings' distress like the sound of orcas crying," she said.

Still, some people in Bucksport were glad to see the mill gone, so that new businesses could take its place. But for workers and their families, the mill had come to mean much more than just a business.

"'Thank God we're not going to be a mill town' sounded a lot like 'Thank god we're not going to be a town with people like you anymore,'" Ranzoni said. "But we could forgive them, because they were trying to make sense of it as well."

Now that the mill is half-torn down and the town is discussing ways to promote new business at the mill site, it seems like the perfect time to remember those who worked there.

"Even the workers are going to see it in a different way," Ranzoni said. "And the people who didn't know any workers are going to be astounded, I think."

Ranzoni said that people can still contribute their stories to the Bucksport Historical Society. All the proceeds from "Still Mill" are going to the same place.

"We never could get it all, because thousands of people worked there," Ranzoni said. "Our hope is people will continue to tell their stories and collect them."

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