July 20, 2019

Imports hurt Maine wood product firms

NORWAY – For decades, the C.B. Cummings & Sons plant buzzed with employees transforming logs into dowels – tens of millions each year.

Dozens of workers made dowels – round sticks of all sizes – used in furniture, toys and novelties. The plant at one time made parts for Tinker Toys and the tiny wooden hotels and houses on Monopoly board games.

C.B. Cummings’ aging cinder-block and wooden buildings, 85,000 square feet of space, are empty now, victims of cheap imports. The company has auctioned off its equipment and is seeking a buyer for its building and 4 acres of real estate.

Across rural Maine, wood product businesses are in trouble. In the past year, nearly a dozen have closed; a similar number have laid off workers or reorganized.

Some say the closures mark the passing of an era, with the family-owned, multigenerational enterprises fast disappearing. With easy access to birch and maple, and ash, oak and poplar to a lesser extent, these companies historically have provided thousands of jobs in Maine.

Five years ago, C.B. Cummings had 200 employees and annual sales of more than $7 million, said Brad Cummings, company president and the great-great-grandson of Charles Bradley Cummings, who started the company in 1860.

The decision to shut down came last September, after the company lost a million-dollar toy account. By then, annual sales had fallen to $3.5 million. The work force had dwindled to 35.

“It comes down to American labor-intensive manufacturing – it’s out of here, and it ain’t coming back,” Cummings said, standing outside his empty buildings.

Maine workers long have manufactured hundreds of everyday wooden products: golf tees, toothpicks, yardsticks, tongue depressors, Popsicle sticks, pepper mills, rolling pins, kitchen utensils, drumsticks, bird feeders.

For the most part, the plants are located in small, rural towns like Kingfield, Strong, Bethel, Burnham, Wilton, Oxford, West Paris, Solon and Guilford. They have been around for decades, some more than a century, and many have been in the same family since day one.

One by one, though, the plants are vanishing. Cornwall Wood Products is gone. H.G. Winter and Sons, gone. Houlton International, Kendall Dowell Mill, Bickford Woodworking, all gone. The Forster Inc. plant, a factory that made Strong the toothpick capital of the world, is closing in June.

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