Wednesday, May 22, 2013
No other world
Hugh Chisholm, founder of pulp and paper companies, had the kind of entrepreneurial drive that Maine could use more of today.
But this one:
Willows and the river
And the factory
With its black smokestacks
-- Gregory Orr
In her touching memoir of life in Mexico-Rumford in the 1950s and 1960s, Monica Wood depicts the two sides of Maine's economic psyche.
On the one side is the driven, visionary spirit of Hugh Chisholm. Orphaned in Toronto at 13, childhood friend of Thomas Edison, Chisholm went from selling newspapers on a train to making newsprint in the woods.
In 1882, he climbed a hill outside Rumford to study the falls where the Androscoggin River crashed over the rocks on its way to the Atlantic.
What he saw was power and wood fiber. And what he created was a factory that for well over a century provided generations of Maine people a prosperous way of life and an opportunity to take pride working hard to make the highest quality paper in the world.
On the other side was Monica's father. Another Canadian immigrant, Red came to Mexico, Maine, from a farm on Prince Edward Island that could no longer support all its inheritors.
At age 20, he started in the grinding room at "the Oxford" and, for the next 35 years, devoted his life to his family of girls on the top floor of a triple-decker in Mexico and to the mill.
Over the years, a similar story could be told about George Bass and the shoe workers in Wilton, Peter Cianchette and the construction workers from Pittsfield, Kate and Tom Chappell and their employees in Kennebunk and David Shaw and the employees of Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook.
But great as all of these entrepreneurial achievements have been, none matched that of Hugh Chisholm in transforming the entire state and bringing an entire region -- the great northern forest -- into the industrial age.
In fact, Chisholm's achievement has, in some ways, become a burden.
The very success of paper production over generations, all across Maine, has led too many people -- both workers and policy makers -- to focus solely on the quality of production.
"A good day's work for a fair day's pay" became the mill town mantra. The Navy brass, in deciding not to close the shipyard in Kittery, called Maine's work ethic "the gold standard" against which other bases were measured.
The only problem with that focus on making a good product without knowing or caring much about where it went was losing sight of the mill's entrepreneurial origins.
As other places around the world came to produce forests and pulp and paper faster and less expensively, many Mainers were ill-equipped to adjust to the demands of more globally competitive economic conditions.
Many adopted a "cargo cult" mentality, hoping that if they just built another mill by the side of the town, someone "from away" would drop in from the sky and put a business in it. Occasionally that policy worked, but often its success was temporary, as other towns made similar but more attractive offers.
More than tax reform, more than regulatory reform, more than educational reform, Maine needs cultural reform.
It needs to revive its entrepreneurial spirit -- the spirit of Hugh Chisholm, of George Bass, of the Stanley brothers, of the Cianchette brothers, of the Chappells, of David Shaw and of many others struggling today, not to find a job but to create an enterprise.
Maine needs to transform the optimism and determination and creativity of individual entrepreneurs -- the stubborn drive to make one's vision a reality -- into a cultural expectation.
We need a catalyst to link those individual and necessarily company-specific drives into a community force so that Maine itself becomes an entrepreneurially driven enterprise.
And for this effort we could find no better inspiration than the conclusion of the Gregory Orr poem with which Monica Wood began her memoir.
No other shore, only this bank
On which the living gather:
No meaning but what we find here.
No purpose but what we make.
That, and the beloved's clear instructions:
Turn me into song; sing me awake.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be reached at: