Papermaking has a long history in the Pine Tree State, and most of it has been connected with the forests of Maine and the all-important wood fiber they supply.

That wasn’t always the case. Paper was once a product of other fibers mostly found in rags.

A couple of mills on the Little Androscoggin River in Mechanic Falls played a major paper industry role around the time of the transition from rag to wood fiber.

Early issues of this newspaper were among the users of that local product which had a significant national reputation for excellence.

It was the Eagle Mill Paper Works where tons of rags arrived for transformation into paper in the 1850s. Descriptions of the process were printed in a Dec. 3, 1858, issue of the Lewiston Falls Journal and reprinted in the 1993 commemoratory history of Mechanic Falls from files of the Androscoggin Historical Society.

The three-story Eagle Mill was described as “substantial, commodious and convenient” and it was built on 1,700 cubic feet of solid granite basement walls. The newspaper said, “all the heavy machinery now moves with scarcely a perceptible jar.”

It’s the description of the papermaking process that is particularly fascinating. Most of the fiber stock came from the cotton and other mills in Lewiston, as well as other communities. Old sails and rope from thousands of Maine vessels also supplied much of the hundreds of tons used yearly. Trimmings from government documents in Washington, D.C., were baled and delivered to the Maine mill. Lastly, many individuals collected rags that amounted to 10-20 tons annually.

“The principal collectors of the latter are the tin peddlers who are constantly scouring the country, getting a few pounds at this house and a few pounds at that,” the report said. “As but a few of these itinerant merchants trade directly with the paper mill, they dispose of their rag accumulations at some general rag depot which happens to be in their particular ‘beat’ of the country.”

The rag pickers got three to six cents a pound for domestic rags, while the cotton waste from area mills brought two to seven cents a pound.

The first step in extracting tiny fibers was a trip through a four-sided revolving wire cylinder called an “elephant duster.” There also was a “threshing and deviling duster” for coarser stock such as ropes and bagging.

The partly-cleaned rags went next to a sorting room on an upper floor where about a dozen young women were employed to divide the stock by quality and color.

From this point on, the process was much like today’s papermaking from wood pulp. After bleaching, the stock was reduced to a milky solution by beaters and it became paper on a moving endless wire mesh where water drained out and the new paper moved through rollers and over heated cylinders.

The account said, “Two men only are required to superintend the operation of the ‘Machine,’ while three girls look after the paper” as it came off.

The writer closed his story by saying, “The rags that were once so mean as to be despised even by beggars now make their way unquestioned among the aristocracy of the land. Mirabile dictu!” meaning “amazing to say” or “wonders never cease.”

Another historically-significant paper mill operated in Mechanic Falls. A mill that came to be known as Dennison Paper Manufacturing Co. was built on the Little Androscoggin in 1865. Its place in history comes from its experimentation with the chemical process of reducing wood to pulp for paper. It had a mill in Canton that produced 10 tons a day for the Mechanic Falls mills.

“Poole’s 1890 History of Poland” says, “We believe this company was the first to make paper exclusively of all wood, which they did for a long time previous to 1887.”

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer. He is a resident and native of Auburn and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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