WEST PARIS — Penley Corp., founded by three brothers in 1923, became known as the “Clothespin Capital of the World” for its brisk sales of one-piece birch clothespins.
A decade after the mill opened, brothers Fred, Lester and Walter Penley expanded operations to manufacture flat-slotted and wooden spring clothespins, according to a summary of the company’s history.
In 1982, the plant employed between 110 and 130 people, operating under import quotas designed to help domestic companies remain more competitive. According to an Associated Press story at that time, Penley and other clothespin manufacturers in Maine reported output and productivity increased as a result of the quotas, and the industry spent $700,000 on modernization to meet the foreign competition.
At the Penley Mill, then being run by Richard Penley, the third generation of his family to manage the business, the company made two years’ worth of capital improvements to keep up with demand. But, Penley told the AP, “If the quota system hadn’t been in place, we wouldn’t have the improved sales in 1980 and ’81, and we wouldn’t have been able to justify the expenditures.”
Without the continuation of those quotas, he said, “whether we would survive in some fashion, we don’t know.”
While operating in West Paris, the Penley family became known for its philanthropy in education and government.
When the mill closed in 2002, unable to compete with foreign imports, it was the last wooden clothespin manufacturing company in the United States.
From its opening to closing days, the mill was the largest employer in West Paris, manufacturing clothespins, producing pallet stock and operating as a log storage yard. When the mill closed, 39 of the company’s 54 employees were laid off; the remaining employees stayed on to work in the log yard and the mill’s importing and distribution center, filling orders for clothespins, matches, plastic flatware and straws.
In the year before the mill closed, town officials had worked with Penley Corp. to reduce the tax burden on personal property, granting a break for depreciation on equipment, hoping it would help Penley sell the mill.
In talks with selectmen, Penley said he was forced to close because foreign manufacture of clothespins was more economical due to lower labor costs, and orders for pallet material had dropped in recent years.
Penley-made clothespins are still available through online auction sites, some sold in original packaging, for as little as $6.95 for 50 pins.
In 2003, Bill and Karen Birney purchased the mill, which had been vacant for more than two years, with plans to convert it into a warehouse called Old Mill Storage.
The couple converted 20,000 square feet of bulk storage space for large items like cars, snowmobiles and boats.
The Birneys had plans to open an additional 28,000 square feet for self-storage on three floors where the assembly, shipping and bagging processes occurred when the clothespin mill was fully operational.
In 2007, the mill was selected to receive federal Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields assessment funding to evaluate the potential industrial contamination and cleanup of the site.
A large storage building on the property, which is next to the mill building, is now home to AAH Fireworks, owned and operated by Andre Vandenbulcke.
Vandenbulcke is leasing the building from the Birneys.
The company, with two full-time and six seasonal and part-time employees, reported strong sales through 2012, the first year of legal fireworks sales in Maine.
Vandenbulcke, a Gould Academy graduate who started his business in 2007, imports fireworks from China and sells them in Texas, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Florida and now, Maine.