Bob Neal

In my first workweek at the Bangor Daily News, an item came across the desk stating that 30,000 Maine people depended on the paper industry for their livelihoods. An editor (not I) questioned that figure but no one could verify it.

Soon, I learned that 30,000, if anything, understated paper industry jobs. Paper mill jobs at the time were about 18,000, according to a master’s thesis submitted at the University of Maine by Ariel Alejandro Listo Argul. Then add all the ancillary jobs, working in the woods, driving pulp trucks, selling and fixing forestry gear, opening restaurants by 5 a.m. to feed woodspeople.

Over the 41 years since, that figure has fallen steadily, emblematic of the decline of rural Maine. Between 1980 and 1999, three paper mills closed. In the next decade, seven closed. Since 2010, six more have closed, leaving us with eight paper mills, Argul wrote.

We all know that the decline of paper making is part of a decline in manufacturing, especially in rural Maine, but when you list the declines together, it really hits home. A short list: Forster Manufacturing (toothpicks, clothespins, etc.) closed all its mills in rural Maine, four of them in Franklin County. At least three tanneries have closed, all rural. Of the once-strong industry of shoe shops, not much remains other than the three New Balance shoe shops. Diamond Match in Peru and Oakland? Gone.

Not just manufacturing. Dairy farms, rural by nature, have fallen from about 1,100 to fewer than 300. All broiler farms went belly up in the 1980s, closing five abattoirs where 500,000 birds were killed each day. That was after voters approved a bond to build a feed mill to serve the broiler houses more efficiently. The bond was sold, the mill wasn’t built.

Here are some of the consequences of vanishing jobs.


As we lose jobs, we lose population, even while southern Maine and most of the lower 47 gain. The 2020 census shows Wilton down 261 people, Farmington 168. Etc. High school enrollment is down. In 1989, when I joined the SAD 9 school board, Mount Blue High School had 1,100 pupils in three grades. Now, Mount Blue has 675 in four grades.

Maine towns depend on volunteers. Some selectpeople are paid as little as $100 a year, but most get more. Most volunteer firefighters aren’t paid, though the practice of paying a “turnout fee” is growing. In New Sharon, it’s $10 a call, enough for gas to go to the scene.

Volunteer fire departments are shrinking, too. For example, my town of New Sharon has nine firefighters. When I was on the select board (2016-19), the department usually had between 15 and 20. This may reflect lower commitment on the part of people moving to our towns. Though New Sharon has about 1,400 residents, only about 200 people really live here. The rest sleep here but their lives are in Farmington, Augusta, Waterville.

Rural police departments are competing for fewer qualified officers. A selectman tells me that towns are offering police officers $50,000 a year to sign on. Some will happily leave a $40,000-a-year job for that.

In Franklin County, Farmington, Wilton, Jay, Rangeley and Carabbassett Valley have police departments. The sheriff’s office provides police service to the rest of us, even though everyone paying county taxes is paying for the sheriff’s operation.

Here’s another sign. On Jan. 30, returning from a UMaine women’s basketball game after a snowstorm dumped nearly two feet on us, I counted empty houses along the way from the triangle in Palmyra, where Route 2 meets I-95, to my house in New Sharon.


Through the towns of Palmyra, Pittsfield, Canaan, Skowhegan, Norridgewock, Mercer and New Sharon, I counted 34 empty houses. The test was simple. If, 30 hours after the storm, the driveway wasn’t plowed and no lights were on, I counted the house as empty. Norridgewock had the most at 11, Pittsfield and New Sharon the fewest at two apiece.

That’s 34 houses that had been occupied by families who have left their empty houses behind. Don’t know where they went, but I’ll bet it wasn’t just down the street.

I have quoted Dr. Mark Lapping here before. He may know more about rural Maine than any other person alive. A retired University of Southern Maine professor of rural planning, Dr. Lapping was reared on a dairy farm in northern Vermont. The urban elites’ attitude toward rural America is, he said, “You’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And frankly we’re not that interested.”

I’m not sure much has changed since he said that a decade ago or more.

Bob Neal is committed to living in rural Maine so long as he can still garden and lug in firewood. Certainly, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for him rural life is a red rose. Neal can be reached at

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