March 19, 2019  
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Review: ‘You Had a Job for Life’ by Jamie Sayen
Review: ‘You Had a Job for Life’ by Jamie Sayen
Richard Adams Carey reviews ‘You Had a Job for Life’ by Jamie Sayen.

Once upon a time—and for a very long time, in fact, before its last gasp in 2007—there was a paper mill on the banks of the Upper Ammonoosuc River, in the little northern New Hampshire town of Groveton.

One of the many voices heard in Jamie Sayen’s “You Had a Job for Life,” the story of this former company town, belongs to Pete Cardin, who in 1971, at the age of 21, came home from Vietnam to a job at the Groveton Paper Co. He began as a machine operator and rose over the decades to production manager.

“When the demolition of the mill began late in 2012, Pete often drove over to the old parking area to watch and to grieve,” Mr. Sayen writes. “His marriage broke up, and his health deteriorated. In May 2015, at age sixty-five, he died. His death certificate may have said otherwise, but the cause of death was a broken heart.”

On the evidence of this oral history, such a determination seems justified. Mr. Sayen’s book—which began as an assignment in a graduate ethnography course at Plymouth State University—touches only glancingly on the alchemy of converting wood fiber into paper. That’s too bad. Yes, this is a book about people, not machines, and properly so, but there is a sort of magic to a paper mill’s combination of chemistry, engineering and huge, intricate machines—and to the genius that keeps it all in balance, tuned and running.

In Groveton it was a collaborative genius, one drawn as much from knowledgeable machine operators as from top management and ownership. The mill was built in 1891 and had a number of owners along the way, but during its golden years it was run by three generations of the Wemyss family, most notably James C. Wemyss Sr. (“Old Jim”), the son of a paper magnate who bought the mill in 1940, and James C. Wemyss Jr., who continued to run the operation after Groveton Paper merged with Diamond International in 1968.

These were hands-on bosses, gifted engineers in full command of the magic. The younger Mr. Wemyss once came upon a crew about to drain a stock tank into which a hose had fallen and become tangled in an agitator. Instead “Young Jim,” a scuba diver, took off his bow tie, coat and shirt, dove to the bottom of the great tank with a knife, and cut the hose into pieces. “Let’s start this goddamned place up,” he said, surfacing.

Young Jim, who grew up in Connecticut, dominates the stage in this story. As an infantryman in Europe during World War II, he became close to the coal miners and steelworkers in his outfit. “I had never been exposed possibly to the real America that was fighting this war,” he told Mr. Sayen, “and seeing how people were poor, as poor as they were . . . I started to understand there was another world, and it affected me greatly.”

Groveton millworkers had unionized in 1905, and a 1917 strike involved horsewhips, gunfire and arson. There were more strikes to follow, but during Young Jim’s three-decade reign, there were only two brief strikes and a work stoppage. “Young Jim was no pushover during negotiations,” Mr. Sayen writes. “However, his war experience, the zeitgeist, and his carousing with many of the younger mill workers in the postwar years ensured that contract negotiations never degenerated into the sorts of battles his grandfather and father fought with the unions.”

Jim Wemyss Jr. wielded enormous economic and political power in Groveton. Some of the voices in this history paint him as a bully, and occasionally ruthless on behalf of the mill as a business. But others applaud his acumen and basic decency. And because he lived in Groveton, the welfare of the town and his workforce—i.e., his next-door neighbors—weighed strongly in the calculus of his business decisions.

This sort of calculus was abandoned, however, with corporate raider Sir James Goldsmith’s 1981 attack on Diamond International. That inaugurated a quarter-century of absentee ownership—Goldsmith, then Virginia-based James River Corp., then Wisconsin-based Wausau Paper—that coincided with soaring energy and shipping costs, shrinking demand, and the general effects of globalization.

This latter part of Mr. Sayen’s history is heartbreaking. Young Jim remains involved, helping to avert a strike in 1993, until driven out four years later. Remarkable feats of Yankee ingenuity are achieved to cut costs and produce paper even more efficiently. In the mill’s last years, Mr. Sayen writes, “Groveton was earning a 7.5 percent return on investment—a respectable profit . . . after factoring in all the other benefits it provided the community.” The directors and shareholders of Wausau, however, demanded 15%.

In 2007 Groveton made the brilliant red interleaf paper for the last of the Harry Potter books. But Wausau, without consulting local management, had already decided to sell. When at last the complex was shut down, it was done so with a covenant in its deed that it could never serve as a paper mill again.

This was the cruelest blow. “A gross injustice to the community,” said Groveton manager Roger Caron. “I think they [Wausau] were afraid of the competition because of the nature of the people that work here . . . an excellent workforce [with] a can-do attitude.”

Nowadays only a quarter of the storefronts in Groveton house active businesses. “Another quarter are gone, replaced by vacant lots,” writes Mr. Sayen, “and the remainder are empty.”

The mill itself is among those vacant lots. Mr. Wemyss, now 92, has scant enthusiasm for free trade and globalization, but in his mind these were not the pathogens that killed his hometown. Rather it was the speculative capitalism practiced by financiers such as Goldsmith. “These people in Wall Street have been disgraceful,” he told Mr. Sayen. “What they’ve done in the last fifty years in this country.”

Mr. Carey is the author, most recently, of “In the Evil Day,” the story of the aftermath of a violent crime in Colebrook, N.H., 26 miles north of Groveton.

Posted on Sunday, February 25, 2018 (Archive on Sunday, March 18, 2018)
Posted by Jym St. Pierre   Contributed by Jym St. Pierre

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