GREENWOOD – Time is frozen inside the Saunders Brothers mill here. Resting on a stack of maple dowels is a sales order from last March for 1,392 rolling pins. Some of the dowels are sanded and polished, stacked where workers left them five months ago, when the factory suddenly closed and put 55 local residents on the street.

Now the machinery is being prepped to run again. Investors bought the factory at a foreclosure auction this summer for $450,000, roughly a third of its value for tax purposes. They got everything needed to restart the mill — all the machines, $743,000 worth of dowels and wood products, even the clipboards and hard hats.

What they couldn’t buy is the people who know how to operate a dowel mill. But in recent weeks, laid-off residents — longtime millworkers who say they have sawdust in their blood — are returning to show how it’s done.

Wood products manufacturing is a part of Maine’s economy and heritage that has been fading for decades, eclipsed by cheaper imports. The recession, prolonged and deep, threatened to finish off any survivors.

But in a surprise development, local investors have begun buying shuttered wood mills at bargain prices, hoping that low debt, better management and sales strategies that include direct retail outlets and Internet marketing can make them profitable.

“The costs are way down,” said Louise Jonaitis, one of the new owners here. “The question is, is this the time for wood manufacturing to come back? We think it is.”

Jonaitis and her partners have purchased four mills since last spring: The Saunders Brothers plant here in the village of Locke Mills; a Saunders Brothers complex in Fryeburg; the Ethan Allen furniture plant in Andover; and the Moosehead Manufacturing Co. property in Monson. They plan to slowly restart Locke Mills in the next week or so and Moosehead within the next six months. The others will come on line as the economy recovers, Jonaitis said, sharing resources such as a sawmill and kiln to help cut costs.

Her operating partner here in the Locke Mills venture, Steve LaFreniere, recently purchased the Old Town Lumber Co. with another business associate. They’re in the process of buying two more sawmills in northern Maine.

“Our goal is to keep them from being torn down during these hard times,” said LaFreniere, president of Eastbrook Timber Corp. in West Enfield, “so when the economy recovers, they can make a profit and be successful again.”

Despite the enthusiasm, saving a mill is a speculative venture. Other entrepreneurs have tried and failed to make some of these operations profitable. But at the least, Jonaitis, LaFreniere and their associates have succeeded in keeping these mills intact for the time being. At foreclosure auctions, bidders show up aiming to buy pieces of equipment and cart them away on flatbed trucks, sometimes shipping the machines to other countries.

“You can never duplicate a mill like this,” Jonaitis said.

For skiers hurtling along Route 26, the tall smokestack at the Saunders Brothers factory is a landmark that means Mount Abrams and Sunday River are within reach. What happens inside the cinderblock walls is a mystery to most, and few know that this is one of only three American factories that made glue pins, the wooden dowels used to join furniture.

But in 2010, the Chinese have all but cornered the market on glue pins. Jonaitis and her advisers said the strong interest in food and cooking provides a better opportunity to produce high-quality rolling pins. There’s enough stock in the mill to make 14,000 of them. Before the closure, the rolling pins being made here for $6 were being sold in a Williams-Sonoma catalog for $36, she said.

Beyond wholesaling, Jonaitis and LaFreniere plan to sell 30 percent of the rolling pins retail, on the Internet and perhaps in an outlet store in coastal Maine.

Operating a 72,000-square-foot mill is a learning experience for Jonaitis, who grew up in Rumford and is living in Portland. She spent the last five years mining for gemstones in western Maine. She and her mining partners discovered a significant blue tourmaline deposit at Plumbago Mountain in Newry.

Familiar with mills from her childhood, Jonaitis got interested last spring in the auction of the Saunders Brothers factory in Fryeburg. She bought it for $200,000. Backed by a private investor, Jonaitis then successfully bid on the Ethan Allen plant, at $182,000. She got the Moosehead factory for just over $1 million, well below its $2.6 million value for tax purposes.

Moosehead, especially, was a high-profile purchase. Recent attempts to save the iconic Maine brand were defeated by the harsh economy, notably under a 2007 partnership led by former House Minority Leader Josh Tardy and Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

But Jonaitis is optimistic that by starting with low debt and easing into the market slowly, these manufacturing plants can find a profitable niche. To help her get started, she’s relying on the people who know these plants best, the workers who spent much of their adult lives inside them.

Because the plants closed only recently, most of the people who worked in them have remained in the area. When they heard about the new owners, they came by to look for jobs and offer advice. Jonaitis said she plans to rehire slowly, paying $15 an hour, which is above average in western Maine.

“The biggest asset of these operations is the people who know wood,” she said, “the ones who say, ‘I’ve got sawdust in my blood.’“

People like Foster Davis, who helped set up equipment at the mill before it closed.

“I can get every machine running here in 10 minutes,” he said, explaining what needs to be done to get a glue pin inspection machine running right.

The new owners, he said, will need a versatile work force who can switch between machines and products as needed. They can make wood product manufacturing viable again in Maine, even if it’s given up for dead by many.

“It is a difficult industry,” Davis acknowledged, “but dead, I’d hate to say that.”

Jonaitis also is getting advice from the University of Maine and its Knowledge Transfer Alliance, which helps businesses and communities recover from economic hardships.

Starting with low debt is critical, according to Hugh Stevens, the alliance’s director. But to be profitable over time, the mills must make high-quality products that offer good design at a competitive price. That will mean a smaller company, lower volume and the added margin from selling direct retail, he said.

For furniture, Moosehead could emulate a successful Maine-based company such as Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers, but at a lower price.

“There’s a big space between commodity furniture and Thomas Moser,” Stevens said.

The first test for Jonaitis and LaFreniere will come as early as this week, when they plan to restart the rolling pin line with seven workers. The business plan calls for turning a profit by the end of next year.

“People say these mills aren’t worth anything, but somebody should pick them up,” Jonaitis said. “It’s a cliche, but fortunes are made and lost in a recession.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]