Old mill towns looking for a brighter future

Bucksport, Maine, from the top of the    Penobscot Narrows Bridge   . The town may be a partial model for “Bealport’’ in Jeffrey Lewis’s new novel.

Bucksport, Maine, from the top of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. The town may be a partial model for “Bealport’’ in Jeffrey Lewis’s new novel.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

Jeffrey Lewis’s new novel, Bealport: A Novel of a Town, published by Haus Publishing, is about the socio-economic woes of a Maine Coast community all too dependent on a shoe factory (makes me think of Maine’s famous Bass Weejun loafers). A private-equity fund partner buys the company on a sort of lark because he likes its products. He and his partners load it up with debt and basically loot it before he decides to close it, in part because of bad behavior by a local guy whom the fat cat briefly puts in charge of new product development.

The crusty Bealporters, most of whom refuse to move to places with better prospects, are left with dark futures but mostly retain their sardonic sense of humor, but some also use drugs and booze as pain relievers, along with the distraction of a demolition derby.

Coincidentally, while working on this column, I came across an article in the current issue of Yankee magazine headlined “The Town That Refused to Die,’’ about Bucksport, another, but real, Maine Coast town that had been too dependent on a mill, in Bucksport’s case a paper mill that was shut down in 2014, and the town’s efforts to economically and culturally re-invent itself. Part of the reinvention will involve the planned opening of a huge salmon-aquaculture facility. Let’s hope that Bucksport folks don’t become too dependent on that single big employer.

The whole thing reminds me a bit of J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, about growing up poor in Appalachia. Why don’t more people just get up and move to places with more economic potential? Well, many aren’t well educated and so don’t have mobile skills, many feel that they’re too old to start over, many adore their gorgeous if sometimes harsh regions and many have very strong family and friend ties to these places going back generations. For good and for ill, they are rooted.