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Mill Town Girl

I am a lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool New Englander. I attended college in Connecticut before moving to my forever-home in Vermont in the early seventies. But I was born and spent my childhood in the northern most county of New Hampshire. Above the town, the Great North Woods reached into Canada, and all around the river valley, the peaks of the White Mountains’ Presidential Range

rose rocky and majestic above the landscape.

The town itself, though, was characterized not so much by the beauty of its surroundings as by the Brown Company paper mill, its main employer and polluter. In the heyday of the logging industry, men felled the great trees of the northern forest and floated them down the river where they were pulped and made into paper at the mill.

The Browns, and other members of the company’s management, built large houses along the high street in town and had offices in the three story brick building that was the company headquarters. Across the river, the millworks stood within the boundaries of its chain link fence. The digester, the stacks, the mountainous piles of logs waiting to be turned into paper towels for the kitchens and rest rooms of homes and businesses all over the East Coast and beyond.

When I was growing up, the mill was still belching smoke from its lofty stacks and dumping great piles of sulfurous foam into the Androscoggin River. Its noxious odor stung the eyes and family members routinely suffered bouts of bronchitis from the polluted air. My dentist had an office overlooking the river, and I’ll always associate his large and fearful presence with the sluggish foam and nauseating smell produced by the mill.

Years after I left my hometown, the mill closed. The river cleared and kayaks and canoes took the place of logs moving along its current. The boon docks are still there, parked in the middle of the river, some with spindly saplings sprouting from their tops. A salvage company has dismantled the huge smokestacks and vast paper works. The log piles are gone, as well, but the chain link fence remains.

My family is gone, too. The older generation of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles has died, the cousins scattered throughout New England, some few in the mid and far west. The few school friends who stayed in town periodically send out high school reunion invitations to a dwindling number of graduates.

A second cousin is the only relative left in my hometown and she doesn’t actually live there. Her restaurant and bar, The Mill Yard, does a brisk business in what was once the shadow of the mill. Great food reasonably priced, a generous measure of red wine, and my cousin herself — tall, buxom, efficient, and capable of bouncing you out of the place should the need arise.

My hometown was stinky, but it was also the place my extended family lived and gathered on Saturday afternoons to drink instant coffee and gossip. It was the place where from an early age I was able to jump rope with friends in the street and walk downtown alone to browse the shops or go to a movie. It was the place where I received an adequate, if unimaginative, education; one that

prepared me for college and gave me my ticket out.

It’s a place I continue to return to, but only in my memories.


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