When I was growing up in Millinocket, Maine, I thought the reason the town was nicknamed the Magic City was because it was famous for its basketball team. In the sixties, the local high school team, the Stearns High Minutemen, became the New England champions, and for me that was a big deal. The whole town celebrated as the team paraded down the main street to wild cheering. I was twelve years old and thrilled to live in such an exciting time. Millinocket was indeed a magic city for me.
Eventually, I moved away and came to understand that basketball was not why Millinocket was considered a magic city. Instead, economics brought the magic. The town’s location in the middle of a vast forest made it an ideal place for a paper mill, enabling it to grow from nothing into a thriving community. Hence the nickname.
In 1894 the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad was extended as far north as Houlton. Rail service came to Millinocket by way of a spur line, setting the stage for the town’s industrious future. Construction of the mill began in 1899, when 432 Italian stonemasons arrived and began work, building the mill’s main structure from large granite blocks. Other laborers were made up of immigrants from Poland, Finland, Lithuania, and Hungary, while French Canadians came to work in the wood camps, supplying the pulpwood. In 1915, another major piece of infrastructure was added when the company built the Ripogenus Dam on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, bringing electricity to the mill.
Soon, the Great Northern Paper Company was in operation twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, providing jobs for hundreds of workers and growing the town by leaps and bounds. In 1968, a young man could graduate from Stearns High School and get a job at the mill the next day. My first husband was one of those boys. He made good money and was frequently able to work overtime. In 1972, I was twenty and he was twenty-two, and we soon had enough money to afford to buy his grandmother’s house. Like magic, our dreams were coming true, and so were the town’s!
As early as 1912, the population’s cultural aspirations were met with the building of an opera house. Eight years later the local doctor, C.S. Bryant, opened the area’s first hospital, which would serve the town until 1952. Meanwhile, schools, churches, fire and police departments, an airport, and light and water companies emerged as well. Recreational assets included a golf course, swimming pool, and playgrounds. All this growth required new housing, so the town opened up a large parcel of land for house lots, which sold fast, with houses going up as quickly as the carpenters could build them.
The sixties and seventies brought growth and prosperity in a variety of areas. The mill was enjoying its heyday, and so was the town. A new fire truck was purchased to replace the old 1936 truck. A new school was built, as well as a new hospital. On the cultural front, an acting troupe known as the Millinocket Players was formed, providing live theater, and the opening of the Heritage Motel provided a more formal dining experience as well as live music from a variety of bands.
In 1962, Great Northern Paper formed a subsidiary in Georgia named Great Southern Land and Paper Company to produce linerboard and corrugated mediums. In 1970, the company merged again with Nekoosa-Edwards Paper in Wisconsin and was renamed the Great Northern Nekoosa Corporation. At this point, logs began arriving at the mill by truck over the newly-built Golden Road, which ran westward from Millinocket across 97 miles of Maine wilderness. Trucking was a more efficient means of transport and, by ending the practice of floating logs down the river, did less environmental damage to the area waterways.
In 1989, the mill was purchased by Georgia Pacific in a hostile corporate takeover and ten years later it changed hands again when Innexon, a Canadian company, became the new owner. In 2002, Innexon filed for bankruptcy, triggering a steady decline that ended in 2014, when the mill finally closed its doors. This, of course, was accompanied by a steady decline in the town’s economic base, with closures of a drug store, a department store, and the town’s only movie theater. In addition, due to a steady decline in students, the school system was reduced to one elementary and a junior-senior high combined school. While the town’s population had risen to 7,700 in the 1960’s and 70’s, the 2020 census showed a population of only 4,104.
In 2014, a demolition company was hired to remove the mill’s smokestacks, which had long been central features of the town, along with a whistle that blew the hour four times a day and on stormy days blew to let families know that school was canceled. Indeed, the smokestacks and whistle had been integral parts of the town, Millinocket’s unofficial town crier. Thus, many residents were on hand to see the implosion and watch the dust fly as the stacks tumbled to the ground, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that the mill was not coming back. Its long and fruitful history was over.
With the mill gone, Millinocket needed a new plan, and many of the town’s leaders began to recognize that the town’s greatest asset had always been and still remained its wilderness surroundings. After all, in the immediate vicinity lay Baxter State Park, home to Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain and the head of the Appalachian Trail. Fortunately for Millinocket, the primary access to Katahdin went right through the town, and on August 24, 2016, the National Park Service designated 87,563 acres in Penobscot County as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, featuring opportunities for hiking, canoeing, biking, and cross-country skiing. The town’s leaders had been instrumental in advocating for the monument, convinced that the park would bring more people to the area to experience what the woods and waters had to offer. And they were right.
Now Millinocket is in the process of reinventing itself, not as a mill town but as a recreational hub in the Great North Woods. With Baxter State Park, the Penobscot River, and the area’s innumerable lakes as resources, the town turned its creative energies to transitioning from manufacturing to tourism. One exemplar of this collective effort was Matt Polstein, who in 1982 founded the New England Outdoor Center. Initially, his business was whitewater rafting trips on the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers, which proved very popular. From this start, Matt was able to create venues for snowmobiling, Nordic Skiing, canoeing, lodging, and dining, and his success would encourage others to provide a range of similar activities. Parachuting, dog sledding, and guided fishing, are just a few of the adventures now to be had in the near vicinity of majestic Mount Katahdin.
Millinocket’s promoters are also involved in various events to encourage visitors to visit the region. The Trails End Festival, held in September, provides three days of free music, as well as food and fun events for fall visitors. Winterfest runs through the second week of February for skiers and snowmobilers. Perhaps most ambitious of all is the Millinocket Marathon & Half, hosted by Crow Athletics and featured by Runner’s World magazine as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. Last year’s event drew 1,649 runners and hundreds of spectators from all over the country, filling to capacity the area’s hotels and restaurants. This year the event is slated for December 23.
Meanwhile, the town has gone on a clean-up campaign, tearing down many of the abandoned houses created by the mill’s closure, including the house I grew up in. For some reason, they left our old garage standing, however, and on a recent tour I was glad to see it, along with a new park and the old bandstand, now newly renovated. Meanwhile, one of the schools has been turned into apartments, and the area now boasts five hotels, a number of lakeside cabins and Bed & Breakfasts. It seems the old magic is returning!