March 29, 2020

‘THAT WAS OUR MILL’ For some sites, stepping into future takes time Eastern Fine Paper Co., South Brewer

When the machines inside Eastern Fine Paper Co., which operated for a century on the banks of the Penobscot River, ceased to operate two years ago, the city’s slowly dying papermaking giant finally passed away.

The mill’s hollow remains were left behind, and the remaining 240 employees were left reeling.

“It was like all of a sudden your family was gone,” Manley DeBeck, who worked 181/2 years at Eastern Fine, said recently, unmistakably upset by the topic. “That was hard, and it’s still hard.

“We’ve all moved on, we’ve had to, but we don’t necessarily have to be happy with what was done down there,” he said.

The city, which took over ownership of the defunct mill after it closed, is in the process of redeveloping it into a regional destination spot that returns jobs to the South Brewer locale.

Donn Goodwin, who worked at Eastern for 44 years, and George Craig, a 35-year veteran, were given a tour of the empty facility recently, which spurred memories of their hard work and numerous good times.

“My truck used to be able to get to the mill by itself – it was so automatic,” said Craig.

A red freight elevator door, scratched with workers’ names and dates from years ago, caused the two friends to stop to look for former co-workers. Walking past peeling layers of paint, exposing six or seven coats in blue, green and teal, they visited their old offices.

A square yellow note with the words “from temporary to indefinite” remains stuck to one abandoned computer.

The duo took time to point out everything from ink that was used to make colored paper to an old coffee can hung from the finish room ceiling by a string that could be filled with water and pulled as a prank.

“That was Glen Field’s little joke,” Goodwin said.

Eastern Fine’s closing in 2004 shut the doors on Brewer’s second-largest employer and left vacant an industrial site with a small hazardous waste dump in its backyard.

“We decided we wanted it, if we couldn’t get it to reopen,” Drew Sachs, the city’s former economic development director, said after the mill closed.

City leaders wanted to ensure that the historic riverfront property didn’t become a junkyard or home to another low-use industry, D’arcy Main-Boyington, economic development director, said recently.

After working inside Brewer’s industrial giant for most of his life, Goodwin said he wants to see new jobs and opportunity at the site.

“If a good developer comes in, I think a lot of good things can come out of it,” he said. “They have a lot of good plans.”

For residents, two years is a long time to wait for progress, but in terms of redeveloping an enormous industrial site, it’s relatively short, City Manager Steve Bost said recently.

“Redirecting the function of a facility such as Eastern Fine Paper, which has been in Brewer since its inception as a city, takes time, creativity and a bit of patience,” he said.

While the city continues to move forward, DeBeck anxiously waits for the giant in his backyard to come alive again.

“It’s hard for me to look out my back window and not see activity at the plant,” he said, adding that he continues to miss his former co-workers even though he still runs into them at the grocery store. “When you work with people for that long of a period of time, you become family.”

Eastern Fine, Brewer

Mill type: paper, Eastern Fine Paper Co.

Size: 336,000-square-foot building on 41 acres in South Brewer

Constructed: 1889; papermaking begins 1896

Closed: January 2004

Redevelopment: public-private; site acquired by city, May 2004, North Carolina-based developer Tom Niemann selection in August

Concept plans: expected to cost approximately $60 million

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