Mill Town Tales

Please welcome our special guest, Maine crime writer Brenda Buchanan.

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Mill Town Tales

 In 1971, when I was old enough to start noticing things beyond my own nose, a writer named Doris Kirkpatrick wrote a history of my hometown. Published by the local historical society, The City and the River was 453 pages of text, photographs and illustrations about Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the mill town 40 miles northwest of Boston where I’d spent my entire young life.

Mill with smokestack (300x225)Until Kirkpatrick’s book provided me the context, I had little sense of the go-go Fitchburg where paper, shoes, guns, textiles, saws and motorcycles once had been manufactured and shipped the world over. The ‘burg I knew was scuffed around the edges, infamous for the sulphurous stench of its paper mills and its multi-hued river. Though it had been on the decline for decades, the town still was peopled by first- and second-generation immigrants who held out hope it would regain its status as a hub of commerce and industry. The stories and photos in The City and the River gave me perspective on them, and on the institutions that had been endowed by the families that built Fitchburg’s once-robust economy.

The hospital where I was born—set high on a hill where we kids were free to ski and toboggan during the winter despite the danger posed by cars whizzing by on the busy street below—was named after the Burbank family, which had established Fitchburg’s first paper mill.

The athletic field where I watched home football games was built by the Crockers, who merged their fledgling company with Burbank Paper in the 1820s and built a ten-mill complex that was at one time the largest paper mill in the United States.

Fitchburg Youth Library (300x191)The Wallace Library—which had a separate children’s wing starting in 1899—was a gift to the town from another prominent family engaged in the manufacture of paper. At age four I became the proud owner of a youth library card and spent countless afternoons in that building’s warm, bookish embrace.

When the philanthropic families that had bestowed Fitchburg with its hospital, playing fields and library sold their mills to giant corporations, the same ugly spiral that occurred in Maine’s mill towns happened in mine. Work was shifted to states with lower labor costs. Hours were cut back. The new owners demanded contracts be restructured. Unions went on strike. Mills downsized, then closed.

Mill in process (225x300)My parents didn’t work in the mills, but as the owners of a small service business they had plenty of customers who did. In the summer of 1972 my father was busy installing and maintaining oil burners, but a prolonged paper mill strike forced him to parse through his invoices at the end of the month. He sorted them into two piles—people whose income likely wasn’t affected too much by the strike and those who were walking a picket line. Ignorant of the etiquette required in such a circumstance, I asked why we were holding some bills back. “You don’t send a customer a bill you know they can’t pay,” my dad said. “Those bills can keep until the strike is over.”

My father’s words illuminated one of the central truths I learned growing up in a mill town on the downswing—we were all in it together. Kind of like a marriage: for better or worse, in good times and in bad.

Other Maine writers who grew up in mill towns have described this same feeling with powerful eloquence. Monica Wood’s memoir When We Were The Kennedys captures the tight-knit world of Mexico, Maine and the common sense compassion provided by her neighbors in times of terrible loss. Richard Russo’s protagonist Miles Roby toils under Mrs. Whiting’s weakening thumb in Empire Falls, paying the price for real and imagined sins of others in the past-its-prime town of the same name.

I moved away from my hometown long ago, but on some level you never really leave the place that hatched you. My books are set in Riverside, Maine, a faded textile mill town west of Portland on the banks of the imaginary Cascabago River. It’s best described as an amalgamation of a number of Maine towns—Biddeford, Lewiston, Westbrook, Skowhegan, Bucksport, Old Town and Millinocket, with a little Fitchburg thrown in for good measure.

Tower mill photo (225x300)My mythical Riverside hit bottom many years ago, but in the past decade it has begun to fight its way back. By the summer of 2014 a young developer announces plans to renovate the long-shuttered Saccarappa Textile Mill into condos, artist studios and an all-local brew pub designed to pull the hipsters west from Portland.

Portland Daily Chronicle reporter Joe Gale is touring the defunct Saccarappa when a long-dead body is discovered bricked behind a wall, putting the mill renovation on hold and a cold case investigation into high gear. Fueled on caffeine to stay ahead of the Tweeters and Facebookers who are a modern reporter’s competition, Joe works the story hard, ignoring signals that someone is tracking his every move. When his prime source vanishes, Joe fears his tenacity has provoked another murder, this time to conceal four decades of deceit.

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Quick Pivot will be released April 27—two months from today(!)—by Carina Press, a digital first publisher. I hope readers of this blog who are fans of mill towns, newspapers and traditional mysteries will look for it wherever e-books are sold, and will come see me when I visit your local library this coming spring and summer so we can continue the conversation.

Brenda Buchanan is a former newspaper reporter with a deep reverence for small town journalism. Her Joe Gale Mystery Series features an old-school reporter with modern media savvy who covers the Maine crime beat. Brenda worked as a reporter trainee at the Boston Globe while an undergraduate at Northeastern University. She was a reporter and columnist at the York County Coast Star in Kennebunk before attending law school at the University of Maine. Now a Portland lawyer with a daily writing habit, Brenda lives with her spouse in Westbrook. 

Brenda can be found on the web at, on Facebook and on Twitter at @buchananbrenda.

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6 Responses to Mill Town Tales

  1. Gram says:

    How wonderful to have had a father with ethics, compassion and common sense. We see so little of that today in business that when it happens we are surprised. I am waiting for April 27th!

  2. karla says:

    Thanks Brenda. This hits close to home. My husband and I earned our undergrad degrees at Fitchburg State College, and I’m visiting my mom in Lawrence, MA today. Every time I see the brick factories I think of my immigrant grandparents with pride and gratitude. I’m adding your dad’s lesson in ‘proper etiquette’ to my list of warm thoughts about mill towns. Looking forward to ‘Quick Pivot’.

  3. Mary Anne Sullivan says:

    Enjoyed your perspective on growing up in mill towns here in New England where the mills have been empty and silent for decades. I confess that I haven’t read the books you cited and perhaps I should. I find myself sometimes aggravated by books about this world written by people “from away” who didn’t live it. You grew up in Fitchburg so I expect that your voice is authentic so I’ll check out your books. As for Empire Falls by Russo, I found it pretentious and he misunderstood a lot about people in a town similar to Waterville, ME. I grew up in Auburn and spent 4 years in Waterville for college. I had neighbors who worked the mills at high levels and low levels. One thing in Maine, the wealthy professionals and mill bosses live in the same neighborhoods as the working people and their kids all play with each other. The parents from the varied backgrounds actually form friendships. I had a friend “from away” who wrote a coffee table type book about Auburn without talking to those of us who grew up there. She wanted to surprise us with the book when it was published and on display in her bookstore. It totally missed the mark and omitted mention & history of the rural outlying areas of Auburn that needed to be in the book to make it of interest to people who grew up there. The city hires people from away now to manage the city. At a meeting with citizens about rezoning areas, my cousin did an excellent job explaining to our clueless town manager what she was stepping into. Folks from the old families don’t look upon their homes and places of business as property with a price on it. He said a home is where an ancestor returned home from the civil war with his rifle, leaned it against the fireplace, and it was still there in the 1990s. Sorry your mention of Russo aroused all these thoughts. He totally didn’t get the dignity of Maine workers; he had that notion that one must prosper to have dignity. But that isn’t the Maine way.

    • Thanks Mary Anne, for your perspective on this. I especially appreciate your insight about Auburn. If you haven’t ready Monica Wood’s book, When We Were the Kennedys, you really should. It is one of the best books of any genre I’ve read in the past decade.

      Gram and Karla, thank you for your kind words about my Dad. He was a man with a keen insight into what mattered.

  4. MCWriTers says:

    Welcome, Brenda! Your post also reminded me of a family link to Fitchburg. During World War II, when my father was overseas, my mother, who was an artist, moved to Fitchburg from NYC to design greeting cards for a company in Fitchburg. Her family was from Massachusetts, and she lived in an apartment in Fitchburg for about 2 years. She never said much about those years, except, “Fitchburg wasn’t New York.” No argument there! But I, too, love the story about your father!

  5. Barb Ross says:

    Welcome to Maine Crime Writers, Brenda! It’s so great to have you here.

    I, too, have a Fitchburg connection. One of my oldest friends was born and raised there. Her father was a shop steward and I’ve heard many stories about the family’s hardships during the strikes.

    I’ve been excited about reading Quick Pivot ever since I first heard about it and I’m even more excited now that I have some of the backstory.

    Good luck with it.

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