ASHLAND — J. Paul Levesque, Ashland industrialist and the son of a Quebec lumberjack, is made from the mold of people who came to this country with little, yet through determination, hard work and courage built themselves an enviable empire.
Armed with rudimentary English and a dislike of “boring office work,” Jean Paul Levesque of Ville Degelis, Quebec, a small lumbering and farming village 30 miles from Madawaska on the Maine border, came to the northern Maine woods in 1952.
In the 45 years since, Jean Paul, as his friends, workers and business associates know him, has carved out a busy and fulfilling life and become one of the legends of the northern Maine woods.
After years of buying, developing, upgrading and selling sawmills, Levesque, 67, now oversees operations for Fraser Papers Inc. sawmills at Ashland and Masardis. He developed operations at the two mills and sold 50 percent of his mills to the Canadian forest industry giant in 1986 and the remainder in 1996.
Levesque came to Maine with a basic business degree from St. Joseph’s College in Memramcook, New Brunswick, and a desire to work with his father, Antonio Levesque, who had been in the northern Maine woods since the early 1940s, and with his brother, Frank Levesque.
Soft from office work, Jean Paul Levesque wondered more than once during that first year in the Maine woods whether he had made the right decision.
Since then, Levesque has become a major force in Maine’s forest industry, a humble and benevolent resident of his community. He wonders no more if he made the right decision to leave Montreal and Canada in 1952.
“I owe my success to my wife, all my children, and my employees who are some of the best around,” Levesque said modestly when asked about his successes. “I owe it to this country which accepted me in 1952 and allowed me to do what I did.”
Levesque has donated volunteer time and is on the boards of trustees for many organizations and businesses in northern Maine, including The Aroostook Medical Center, Arthur Gould Memorial Hospital, Washburn Trust, Maine Public Service Co., Farm Credit, Portage Hills Country Club, the Ashland Water and Sewer District and the Northeastern Lumber Association.
“You can’t forget people,” said Levesque. “I’ve helped some, along with schools and especially kids.
“My father was poor, yet generous. Maybe it’s something I learned from him.”
Today, fully bilingual, Levesque remembers his French roots, and his face lights up when addressed in French. He agreed to an interview, conducted entirely in French, in his spacious, second-story corner office. From there he can see most of what are still called the J. Paul Levesque Mills of Ashland, now owned by Fraser.
Don Tardie, vice president of woodlands for Fraser Papers Inc., worked for Levesque starting in 1972, and said, “We have remained good friends. We have maintained, through the years, a strong personal and business relationship.
“Paul’s a sharp businessman. He crosses his t’s and dots his i’s. I respect him tremendously. He’s one of the best mill operators around. He knows how to break down lumber and how to get people to work.”
On a day last fall, dust rose high in the air from beneath the wheels of heavily laden trucks bringing tree-length logs to the Ashland mill yard, a yard seemingly already full with long, wide rows of bare tree-length logs from Maine’s northernmost forests. Also visible were hundreds of packets of covered lumber, ready for shipping.
Wood, the natural resource used to create his successful industrial career, is evident in Levesque’s office. Large, double, finely sculptured wooden doors open into his wood-paneled office where he sits behind a large wooden desk. Wooden bookcases, large photos of the Masardis operation and a map of the northern Maine woods complete his office.
The lumberman seemed more comfortable in his plaid shirt and wide suspenders than he had a few days earlier at a shirt-and-tie banquet. His appearance at the formal affair belied his everyday schedule of “walking through mills, talking to employees and taking care of problems firsthand.”
“It’s something I’ve done for years,” he said.
Bert Martin, a Fraser Papers Inc. vice president and manager of the company mill in Madawaska, summed up Levesque as “one of the best sawmill operators in eastern North America.”
“He’s very shrewd and is a hard worker,” said Martin. “I have seen him watch a piece of operating machinery for hours to figure out why it was not operating correctly. He had to know what was wrong.”
From the small beginning when they sawed 15,000 feet of lumber a day, the Ashland and Masardis mills now produce 750,000 feet of sawn lumber a day, about 175 million feet a year.
“I started with a crew of 15 people in our first mill,” said Levesque. “Today, these mills employ about 260 people. We also had crews of woodsmen, as many as 100 men at a time, over the years.”
A memorable time for the industrialist was a December 1994 fire at the Masardis operation, which caused $4 million in damage. The mill was rebuilt in the dead of a northern Maine winter and was in operation in a few months.
His son Dan Levesque said the fire would have stopped many a man. “If it had not been him, it would have taken a year before that section was operating,” he said.
Yet during this trying time, the company kept most of the workers displaced by the fire employed in other parts of its operations.
“Levesque is a man of his word,” said Tardie of Fraser Papers. “During his disastrous fire, Paul kept his people working. Not only his people but contractors in the woods. He figured contractors had obligations to meet, and they needed to sell their wood. He bought it.”
Martin recalled that Levesque “kept his people going. He kept his men working and his contractors bringing in wood during the bad times because he knew he would need them in the good times. That’s why some of them have been with him for years.
“Paul is one of the fairest men I’ve met. He would cut a penny in half to give a man what he has coming to him. He’s tough, but he’s fair,” said Martin.
Jean Paul Levesque’s voice choked when he talked of his father and brother.
“My father was a great woodsman,” he said. “He came to Maine in the 1940s and was a woods foreman for several companies. He was a driver on spring drives and was known as a great woodsman.”
His mentor died in 1986, said Levesque, looking away momentarily.
His brother, Frank, who died of cancer in 1980, “quit school and came to work with our father in northern Maine. He was a good man. We all worked together for a long time,” Levesque remembered.
Of his business and personal life over the last four decades, the lumberman recalled that “we cut pulpwood in 4-foot-deep snow. It was hard. I also drove trucks and did clerk work for my father’s operations.
“I remember in the early years doing the purchasing for our operations. I knew so little English, I sometimes had to point out what I wanted to purchase,” said Levesque.
“I’ve been treated well over the years. I’ve heard of discrimination of French people, but it’s never happened to me.”
Levesque served his adopted country for two years in the Army. Upon his return in 1956, he was back in the woods with his father and brother.
Shortly afterward, he married Blanche Tardiff, also from his hometown of Ville Degelis, Quebec. The couple had four children, three of them boys, who also are in the lumber business, and one daughter.
After his return from the service the three Levesques formed a company and bought a Canadian woods mill at Bloomfield, New Brunswick, just across the border from Monticello. A short time later, the mill was moved to Masardis.
“We had no money. It was a $15,000 investment. Canadian banks would not finance us because we were Americans, and American banks would not because the mill was in Canada,” he said.
“We were pioneers in the woods. We were the first to stop using horses, going to machinery. We were also one of the first operations to saw tree-length logs. We built a slasher to cut tree-length wood into 4-foot wood,” said Levesque.
His father and brother took care of the woodland operations, and Levesque handled the mill operations. In 1968, they built a second mill for a stud operation, in the same yard as their first mill, and replaced the original mill in 1972 with a state-of-the-art sawmill operation.
This was the beginning of Levesque’s empire in northern Maine. In the 25 years since, Levesque has sold and repurchased mills from International Paper Co., built them up even further and sold 50 percent of the operation to Fraser Papers Inc. in 1986 and the remainder in 1996.
“Now, my sons and I work for Fraser. I am operating the mills for them for five years,” said Levesque.
There’s another side to the tireless industrialist. He is very much in tune with needs of local people and the community in which he lives and works. He is a member of many community boards and organizations and has helped his family establish a scholarship trust fund for area schools.
More than a dozen recognition plaques and tokens adorn the walls and lie on Levesque’s large desk. Included are recognitions for safety advances made in woods and mill operations, a citizen of the year award given him by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a distinguished-citizen clock from the Katahdin Area Council of Boy Scouts of America and recognition of his company’s support of and approach to employees’ military service and health and safety issues.
Jim Collins, Ashland town manager, said Levesque has been “generous in many instances. Most of the time he wants his generosity to remain anonymous.”
“He knows about those who are not in good shape, and he helps them out financially, especially during the holidays,” said Collins. “He doesn’t want his name associated with the gifts, and he doesn’t want them lacking during that time of the year.
In his short time in Ashland, Collins said, he has heard of instances when Levesque donated lumber to local groups and organizations.
“One that comes to mind is a new floor for the warming hut at the local winter skating rink. He donated the needed lumber. There’s a lot of instances like that,” said the town manager.
Tardie also knows Levesque as a person who gives often to local organizations and to the less fortunate. When Tardie was a Cub Scout master in Ashland, he got permission from Levesque to use company equipment to cut Christmas trees for the Cub Scout pack could sell. The program continues today.
“He’s done a lot for people in need,” said Tardie. “You hear little about it because he stays in the background with all that stuff. He wants to be there to help, but he does not want credit for it. He does not do it to massage his ego.”
Martin commented that “Ashland would not be what it is today were it not for men like Paul Levesque and Tom Pinkham [another lumber giant of years gone by]. When Pinkham sold to Great Northern Paper Company, Levesque was the only one left for Ashland. GNP favored its home mills in Millinocket. He’s given a lot to that [Ashland] community.
“If anyone needs help, Paul would be on all fours to do whatever he can,” Martin said.