- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

WINCHESTER, N.H.

The thundering machinery is quiet, replaced by the sounds ofwindeasing through the rafters. For Gary O’Neal, this is the strangest part about walking through the old mill.

Three generations of his family ran the paper mill on the Ashuelot River, employing generations of local workers, many of whom lived near the mill in the section of town known as Ashuelot. The sounds of the mill were the sounds of Mr. O’Neal’s childhood. They were also the sounds of a once-thriving town.

That history came to an abrupt end when torrential rains breached a nearby dam in October and the river invaded the boiler room. The floodwaters caused sections of the building to collapse and washed out ramps leading to the loading dock. Two trucks that disappeared downriver have yet to be found.

After analyzing the damage and talking with family, Mr. O’Neal, 53, found that he had no choice but to shut down permanently. He now spends his time dismantling an operation that he, his father and grandfather spent their lives building.

“It’s hard for me to go in the building for more than a few minutes,” Mr. O’Neal said. “There’s nobody there. It’s hard to talk about it even now.”

The Paper Service Ltd. mill, which made tissue paper for garment and gift wrapping, was one of five paper mills that once dotted a three-mile stretch of the river. Most of them dated to the mid-1800s, and older mills, including woolen mills and sawmills, have been integral to Winchester’s history since it was founded in 1733.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Town Manager John Stetser. “A lot of the homes in Ashuelot — families lived there and worked at the mills.”

As the mills cut back or closed, workers traveled to other towns to find jobs. “It’s no longer a mill community. It’s a bedroom community,” Mr. Stetser said.

Like many who lived here, Eugene Clark, a former state representative from Ashuelot, had family and friends who worked at the mill. “They used to bring in used newspapers from Boston and New York City [to be recycled] so we used to go down there at night to read the funny sheets,” he said.

Jim Ammann, the town’s emergency-management director, remembers his father, aunts and uncles working there. In those days, millwork was seen as a good job.

“You didn’t get rich, but you always had a quart of milk on the table,” Mr. Ammann said. If workers had unexpected expenses, they could go to the O’Neals for help.

“The O’Neals would give it to them and take it out of their paychecks gradually without interest,” he said. “That was the kind of people they were.”

Mr. O’Neal returns to the mill now to make final arrangements to close it. Pipes must be drained to prevent them from bursting. Oil stored to power the boilers must be pumped out. “We’re probably going to sell everything to pay for the cleanup,” he says.

Despite the dark, he walks quickly and without hesitation inside the interconnected tangle of buildings.

The flooding came as the mill was gearing up for the holidays, its busiest season.

Near a window lies a clipboard and a label maker that were used to prepare the last order for shipment. Packed in cardboard and neatly labeled, boxes of tissue paper intended to wrap Christmas purchases all over the Northeast remain in the warehouse because trucks couldn’t reach them.

Also derailed was a plan to launch a new line of premium tissue paper colored with natural dyes. Mr. O’Neal was discussing a marketing plan two days before the flood.

But Mr. O’Neal was not always the enthusiastic paper purveyor.

His father and grandfather started him in the business at age 13 cleaning the toilets. By high school, he was loading the factory’s products onto trains. As a young man, he went off to the University of New Hampshire, where he earned a master’s degree in fine arts. He traveled abroad whenever he could. But it was always understood that he would work in the family business once he graduated.

At its height, the mill employed 120 persons. Gradually, mechanization made the hand-operated machines — and the people who worked them — obsolete. But Mr. O’Neal still remembers the older workers and the remarkable speed of their hands.

In 1975, he set aside the arts to learn about pollution-control devices. His first contribution to the family business was to find a cost-effective way to meet new anti-pollution rules. His success allowed the mill to continue at a time when other mills were forced to close because of the expense.

Over the years, he documented changes and additions to the mill in photographs that capture the faces of millworkers now long retired. He sponsored artists-in-residence programs and invited children to paint murals inside and outside the mill. He opened its bathrooms and showers to kayakers on the river. He served on the town budget committee.

On Fridays, the mill always hosted a big potluck meal. Workers, retirees and their families all came. In a region of active hunters, there was always venison stew, Mr. O’Neal remembers. Three giant skillets were kept at the factory to cook up batches of steak and cheese.

In between, there were minor crises to manage: a worker needed housing, another was in detox, another was asking for help because she couldn’t get the medicine her doctor prescribed.

“Occasionally, it was a continuous loop of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ where you can’t get out of town,” Mr. O’Neal said.

Mr. O’Neal plans to return to his art and design skills to pursue opportunities in architecture and real estate. Still, it’s the Jimmy Stewart role that he says he will miss the most.

When the end came, he had his director of operations call area businesses and line up jobs for the 18 remaining employees. He is covering their health insurance until they qualify for coverage in their new jobs. He arranged for his customers to get the products they needed from his competitors.

Solving those kinds of problems made running the mill satisfying for him and for his father and grandfather before him. When the mill is gone, they are the memories he will take with him.

“We were able as a family to do a lot of things, and I was pleased to be a part of that,” he said.

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