My sister is a writer and a blogger. If you haven’t checked out Julie-Ann’s site, I highly recommend that you do so. She brings the goods, which translates into fresh content on a regular basis.
One of the features that she’s developed over the time she’s been blogging is a series of posts she calls, “Lady Alone Traveler.” These are some of my favorite posts that she’s been laying down over the past two years.
Lately, Lady Alone Traveler has been in search of Carnegie libraries, along with past excursions involving vintage architecture, abandoned relics from the Cold War, iconic locations with colorful names, maiden voyages, and trains. I’m always curious where she’ll end up on each subsequent adventure.
A few weeks back, she spent time in a burg where I did a little bit of work back in 2007 and 2008. She emailed me on Sunday night after returning home from a visit to downtown Rumford. She asked me a bit about the town based upon what she’d seen. She floated a balloon about a possible trip where I might be allowed to accompany Lady Alone Traveler on her possible return visit in April.
I was intrigued by the Harris Hotel and the Strathglass Historic Park of houses, now falling into degeneracy, although there is a nice restaurant in the hotel, Brian’s Bistro. Maybe the trip we should take would be one which incorporated a trip to Brian’s so Mr. B could cover it for Yelp.
I suggested a few dates; then my publishing boot camp got cancelled for lack of interest. Rather than wallow around, I went into plan B mode; could we move our trek up the Androscoggin River to Rumford and possibly Berlin, New Hampshire forward a week?
Saturday morning we were in Lady Alone’s Jeep at 7:00 and headed west. In Maine, going east/west isn’t as natural as north/south mainly because driving sideways doesn’t allow for travel on the interstates.
Our plan was to head up Route 4 out of Auburn, pick up Route 108, and then, cross over the Androscoggin in Peru, and enter Mexico on US Route 2. It allows for the best views of what remains of the big mill in Rumford, now owned by Verso Paper, which acquired NewPage Holdings Inc., which had owned Rumford Paper prior. The deal had been worth $1.4 billion, which indicates there’s still money left in papermaking for stockholders—not as much for the workers. That’s how our neoliberal economic model works these days.
Rumford and Mexico are paper towns. If you want to get a flavor of what the place used to be like back in the day when a job at Rumford Paper carried some real prestige, you should read Monica Wood’s wonderful, When We Were The Kennedys. Wood grew up in Mexico in the 1960s and her vivid account of this period is a rapidly yellowing snapshot of a time in mill towns just like the one she lived in. Papermaking—the lifeblood and soul of towns all across Maine, has fallen on tough times. There is no guarantee any longer that you can walk out of class your senior year and be guaranteed a middle-class living in the mill. There are reasons for that that I’ll detail in a bit.
Dick’s in Mexico is a long-standing eatery where if you sit at the counter long enough over coffee and breakfast, you’ll hear a few interesting tidbits about the town from locals residing in nearby booths. I enjoy stopping in for a piece of pie and coffee when passing through the other Maine.
On Saturday, Julie-Ann (or should I just call her, LAT?) and I stopped for a hearty breakfast to fuel our foray up the mighty Androscoggin into the neighboring Granite State of New Hampshire. Dick’s didn’t disappoint with the food, or the local conversations picked up from the early morning breakfast crowd.
We decided to drive over to Rumford Island and downtown and look around. I was interested in scouting out the old Hotel Harris, where she told me Brian’s Bistro now resides. It was too early for Brian’s to be open, but we did nose around in the lobby of the historic hotel that was originally known as the Strathglass Building. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by Oxford Paper Co. founder Hugh Chisholm back when a Rumford needed a high-end hotel.
Now, it’s bounced from owner to owner, recently going on the auction block because the previous developer filed for bankruptcy. It appears the new owners have turned it into a rooming house, possibly with subsidized rents.
During Rumford’s heyday in the 1960s, Rumford’s largest employer, then Oxford Paper, employed over 3,000 people. Many of them were chemists, accountants, sales people, and machine workers. They were high-paying jobs, the kind that gave workers enough money to buy homes, shop local businesses and comfortably raise families—a middle-class existence. The town’s population was just over 10,000. The town took in millions in tax revenue from the mill. The whole rural region benefited from its success.
Today, following waves of layoffs over the past four decades, the mill is down to less than 700 employees. Layoffs at the mill are always big news in Rumford. Rumford’s population continues dropping and it dipped below 6,000 for the first time in 2010; the last time it had been that low was back in the early 1900s.
We walked around briefly and then my traveling companion suggested we get on the road for Berlin. Before leaving Rumford, however, we made two more stops. Lady Alone and I had to stop and see the muffler man over at Rumford Falls, and I also wanted to make a quick drop-in at Maine Made Furniture and Showroom, next to Premium Specialty Hardwoods, and the headquarters of local entrepreneur, Clint Bradbury, and his various businesses.
Then it was off to the White Mountains, and another post-industrial community waylaid by global capital movements, in Berlin, New Hampshire.
When Lady Alone Traveler said that I could crash her party and make the trip up through Rumford to Berlin, I realized that we wouldn’t be far from Bretton Woods. While most people think of skiing and outdoor recreation when the community of Bretton Woods gets mentioned, for me, I was thinking back to an event that very few people know about that occurred at the historic Mount Washington Resort and Hotel. The economic system put in place there 70 years ago continues affecting how we make our livings in the 21st century. Interestingly, so few people know about it that it may has well have been a secret, but it rests right out in the open for anyone willing to Google, “Bretton Woods.”
At the historic Mount Washington Hotel, 730 delegates from all 44 Allied nations gathered for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, also known at the Bretton Woods Conference. The delegates deliberated during for 22 days beginning on July 1, 1944, and signed the Bretton Woods Agreement on its final day, on July 22.
This set up the system of rules, institutions, and procedures that regulated the international monetary system, establishing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which today is part of the World Bank Group. These organizations became operational in 1945 after a sufficient number of countries had ratified the agreement.
Interestingly, the period when the Bretton Woods’ system of rules were in place, from 1944 until August, 1971, a “golden age” for capitalism existed. Americans’ standard of living grew unabated, homes filled up with consumer goods, and postwar America saw its economic fortunes expand, at least for most families, especially in communities like Rumford and Berlin, New Hampshire. That all began to change in 1971, when changes were made to the Bretton Woods Agreement and the great unwinding began.
Actually, stopping in downtown Berlin wasn’t as depressing as expected. Like Rumford, mill jobs aren’t as plentiful as they used to be, but Democratic politicians like current governor, Maggie Hassan, and politicians before her have convinced the residents of places like Berlin, in the less wealthy northern parts of the Granite State that their economic fortunes reside in the prison-industrial-complex. That’s the tradeoff of neoliberalism that takes away jobs paying middle-class wages for the privilege of buying junk at China Mart for pennies on the dollar. You just have to be willing to ride herd on your neighbors when they get locked up for minor drug infractions and when the DEA undercover agents kick in the doors at local trailer parks, where meth is now one of our last American-made products.
We enjoyed our drive through the mountains, including our visit to the historic inn where the industrialists used to vacation for weeks at a time in the early years of the 20th century. Now, it’s mostly skiers and their families staying at the resort owned by the Omni Corporation. Some people still have enough wealth to afford resorts like this one; either that or they haven’t maxed out their credit lines, yet.
Lady Alone Traveler chauffeured the JBE back across Route 16, up through Pinkham Notch to Gorham, a town where our Uncle Bob, struck out 17 members of Doc Johnson’s ball club loaded with the best college talent in New England in 1953; then, we turned back east on US Route 2, back to Rumford and dinner at Brian’s Bistro.
Brian’s was a good choice. It was hopping on this particular Saturday night. Apparently there’s still a bit of money left in Rumford and surrounding communities; the remaining members of the middle-class, probably people working in healthcare, for nonprofits, and the remaining millworkers, need a decent restaurant so they don’t have to drive all the way to Lewiston, or Gorham, or even Berlin.
Thanks, Lady Alone Traveler. It was fun having our little Saturday adventure with you in the White Mountains. We made it back home, and those white vans following us weren’t really checking up on us after all.