BREWER – Rainwater poured into sections of the stripped-down former Eastern Fine Paper Co. mill building on Thursday as seventh-graders from Brewer Middle School got a firsthand glimpse at the interior of the century-old defunct papermaking facility.
Without electricity to light the way, the pupils carried flashlights to see and digital cameras to record the two-hour tour through the giant edifice while being led by former millworkers and newly named North Carolina-based developer Tom Niemann.
Some pupils said they thought the 336,000-square-foot mill building was spooky, and others said it smelled funny.
“It’s huge,” Tony Bischoff, 12, said during the tour.
The seventh-grade class has an assignment of recording and documenting the history of the closed Brewer mill and is working with the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine, which began collecting oral histories from former Brewer millworkers more than a year ago.
The History Channel awarded the Folklife Center a $10,000 “Save Our History” grant to work with the pupils and to study how the January 2004 closing of Eastern Fine affected displaced workers and the community.
“My great-grandfather worked here – I found that out” from participating in the project, Bischoff said.
As the class was led through the huge mill, they walked past lots of debris, time clocks covered with a thick layer of dust, and areas where former workers had welded their names into metal panels.
Several former millworkers, including City Councilor Manley DeBeck, an 181/2-year veteran millworker, and Dave Morrison, who worked at Eastern Fine for 33 years making paper, helped to lead the group.
At stops along the tour, the displaced workers gave the pupils and their teachers a short history of what each area of the mill was used for.
An old red freight elevator door that is scratched with numerous names of former workers and the dates the names were added was one of the last stops of the field trip.
“It would be neat if they saved some of this,” teacher Tom Burby said after taking a photo of the welding.
Preliminary plans call for portions of the welded signatures and the red door to be preserved for future generations to view.
Niemann, who leads Niemann Capital LLC, the community development firm selected by the city in August to refurbish the defunct mill site, spent the tour asking the pupils what they wanted to see at the 41-acre South Brewer locale.
“I’m trying to get their plans, too,” he said.
The focus of Niemann Capital is preserving and restoring historic landmarks. Initial plans for the 100-year-old Brewer mill call for it to be refurbished into townhouses, a health club, a restaurant, retail space and an art-theater complex.
An ice rink and a spraying fountain were two ideas the young scholars suggested, Niemann said.
“They want to work here and would consider the idea of living here,” he said. “That’s what I hear.”
Several of Bischoff’s friends said they were hockey players and supported the ice rink idea, and all added they were excited about the future of the historic site.
Having the community involved in the history project is extremely important, Pauleena MacDougall, associate director of the Folklife Center, said Thursday.
“They’ll be involved in the actual historic preservation,” she said.
The pupils will collect oral histories from former Eastern Fine workers, develop a timeline for the facility and create a Web site other pupils across the state can use, she said. They also will visit the university to see how paper is made.
While the middle-school pupils work on preserving the history of the former papermaking giant, city leaders continue to work on a pre-purchase and sales agreement with Niemann Capital.
A letter of intent between the development firm and the city was signed this week, D’arcy Main-Boyington, Brewer economic development director, said Thursday.
“We’re just getting it back from them today,” she said.
A lot of work still needs to be done, but “I’m convinced we can pull it off,” Niemann said before the tour. “The city has set the stage, and it’s the right location.”