After the Factory Closes: On Kerri Arsenault’s “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains”

November 17, 2020   •   By Alex Hanson

Mill Town

Kerri Arsenault

A CONTEMPORARY RESIDENT of New England could be forgiven for thinking that the region no longer harbors anything you’d call a “mill town.” Manufacturing hasn’t disappeared, of course, but the 19th- and early 20th-century mills have gone quiet.

Trailing south from Worcester, Massachusetts, where I was born and where my grandfather worked in a tool-and-die shop, the mill buildings along the Blackstone River are now part of the Blackstone River Heritage Corridor, which celebrates the river’s history as the “birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.” My great-grandfather worked as a heat-treater in a factory that made baby carriages in Gardner, Massachusetts. It’s still known as “the Chair City,” for its many furniture manufacturers. But only a few remain.

Where I live and work now, in Vermont near its border with New Hampshire, all the old textile mills have been repurposed. The former Bridgewater Mill is now home to a high-end furniture and pottery operation. The former Hartford Woolen Mill was turned into artist studios and apartments. The former H. W. Carter and Sons clothing factory, in Lebanon, New Hampshire, was renovated by the Alliance for the Visual Arts into a complex of galleries, classrooms, and studios.

So Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, the debut collection of essays from Maine native Kerri Arsenault, serves as a salutary reminder that there are still places in New England that are organized around churning factories. The towns of Rumford and Mexico, where Arsenault grew up, exist at the service of a colossal paper mill feeding on the power of the Androscoggin River.

Mill Town is a hard book to classify. It’s partly a memoir, in which Arsenault investigates her family history, and partly an exposé, in which Arsenault investigates the horrific pollution generated by the paper mill and the litany of death that led a TV news crew to call the area “Cancer Valley.” The interweaving of these narratives is an ambitious project, one that Arsenault doesn’t quite pull off. Even so, Mill Town is a valuable addition to the literature of New England’s industrial legacy, something many residents have either forgotten or choose to ignore, to the region’s detriment.

At the heart of Mill Town is a simple story: in the 1880s, Hugh J. Chisholm visited Rumford Falls and saw in the steep tumble of the Androscoggin a source of power worthy of a great enterprise and consolidated all the land on both sides of the river for a huge paper mill. The census records tell the story: in 1890, the population of Rumford was 898, and Mexico, 355. By 1930, there were 10,000 people in Rumford alone. A company town was born.

Among the people who flocked to Rumford and Mexico were French Canadians, or more accurately, Acadians, French settlers driven out of Eastern Canada by the British. By the middle of the 20th century, residents came to realize that the mill, which covers 52 acres, was both their engine of prosperity and a giant exhaust pipe of toxic fumes and sludge. In Arsenault’s own lifetime, the mill became a dying animal, going through a series of ownership changes in the decline of New England’s paper industry.

Three generations of Arsenault’s family are tied up in the mill town’s history. Her book, which was a decade in the making, is centered on her father’s death and the question of whether his years at the mill poisoned him and many other mill workers and town residents.

Memory is recursive, as were Arsenault’s movements. She left home to go to college, married a man in the Coast Guard, and traveled with him around the world from one posting to another. Her own trips back home to visit family, into archives for research, to Canada and France in search of family history are a doubling back. Her story weaves in and out. The book’s first essay is titled “What Goes Around Comes Around” for a reason: she sets the scene, taking a walk with her mother from her family’s home through a town that has fallen into decline.

My mother reappears and as we leave the store she says the mill plans to shut down Number 10 paper machine, and others are on a transitional schedule, meaning they too may slither to a slow, hissing halt. In the past few decades, with technology displacing people and digital media overtaking print, the production of coated magazine paper — our mill’s primary product — has become as precarious as the livelihoods of the men and women who make it.

“Nobody will want to live here anymore,” my mother says, panning her hand from one side of the street to the other. Homes sag with ruined lawns.

From what Arsenault calls “this forlorn landscape,” she takes us into her own life; in 2010, she starts researching her family history after finding her grandfather’s obituary tucked into a book. A suggestion leads her to Terry Martin, the widow of the town doctor and a genealogy enthusiast. “‘My husband, he tried to speak up about what was happening,’ Terry says. ‘When he stumbled on what he thought was causing all the cancer in town, they did everything to destroy us.’”

This leads Arsenault on her long investigation into her hometown and the mill and the cloud of willful ignorance that has hung over it for decades like smoke from the stacks. Terry Martin’s late husband, armed with a report that showed levels of prostate and colon cancer at twice the national per capita rates, tried to alert officials at the mill and at the state in the 1980s. At the same time, Maine environmental officials were finding elevated levels of dioxin, a carcinogen, in fish downstream from the mill.

Much of this was hushed up and it isn’t hard to see why. In a brief preamble, on the book’s first page, Arsenault writes, “That’s money coming out of those smokestacks, our fathers used to say about the rotten-smelling upriver drafts that surfaced when the weather shifted.”

There’s more than one of those cancer valleys. A 1978 Mother Jones story bestowed the name on a community in West Virginia that’s home to multiple chemical plants. A 1991 Los Angeles Times story used the name for the Boise Cascade mill in Rumford. A passage stands out:

The mill discharged 1.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 1989, the most recent year for which records are available. “We have a very, very high cancer rate, but we always have lived with that,” said state Rep. Ida Luther. “Nobody can prove anything, but I just can’t see how tons and tons of air pollutants going into the air can do you any good. At the same time, I don’t want to make Boise out to be a villain. They’re here to make paper and — there’s no question about it — this valley depends upon that paper mill.”

She’s speaking a hard truth of certain New England towns. Our livelihood appears to be killing us, but we can’t prove it, and the pay is pretty good. This neatly encapsulates the question at the heart of Mill Town. What does it mean to go searching for information that everyone seems to know about already but isn’t willing to acknowledge?

Arsenault’s investigation leads her to a dump for toxic sludge in her hometown, into records kept by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), into the homes and lives of people who stayed in Cancer Valley, and into the current American unease, Trump and all. How do we solve problems like these?

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains suffers from Kerri Arsenault’s inexperience as a journalist, so her investigations can come off as less than dogged, regardless of how many years she spent on them. And at times, I wished Arsenault had investigated herself a bit more deeply. I wondered how she felt leaving Maine for a college in the Midwest, for example.

Her conclusions offer little hope. “If I learned anything in my research, it was that records are wrong all the time,” she writes, partly in reference to her time in the state DEP archives. She’s also writing about our post-truth era, when we are all searching for the straight story and can’t find it, even when we’ve seen how it ends.

“We lean on science for proof, but it rarely provides it,” she writes. “Science thrives on skepticism, interpretation, hypotheses, predictions, assumptions, uncertainty. Scientists are trained to be inconclusive and cautious.”

The story Arsenault tells isn’t over, and it won’t be until the mill shuts down, which it will someday. New England itself is a place of memory, once so depopulated that states promoted tourism and events such as Old Home Days to try to bring people back. Rumford had a population of 10,000 in the middle of the 20th century, but by 2017, Arsenault reports, Rumford and Mexico combined housed only 6,000. The boom is over and the bust is ongoing.


Alex Hanson is a writer and editor at the Valley News, a daily paper in Lebanon, New Hampshire.