June 25, 2018
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Depression in northern Maine

By David Robinson, Special to the BDN

The state and federal government say the worst of the recession is behind us, but in northern Maine it’s a depression and its going strong.

I was born in 1959 in Island Falls and grew up in Benedicta, in a family of 10. We were poor in the financial sense. My father worked as a woodsman and later as a road maintainer for the Maine Department of Transportation. We had one family car, a stay-at-home mom who cooked from scratch, Catholic school and bag lunches, and government surplus food was our way of making due. Our home was a small three-bedroom house, one bedroom for our parents, one for my five sisters and one for my four brothers and me.

As with most of the children in town, we didn’t know we were poor. We were all poor and being poor was normal.

Our town had numerous potato and dairy farms, several small woods operations, and close by were two lumber companies that  kept our fathers employed. Returning home from school each day to home-cooked treats and the smell of homemade bread made our life seem the way it ought to be.

Life was not all roses. Hand-picking potatoes, pulling gale, haying, picking rocks, feeding and milking the cows, and shoveling the driveway were jobs we all did. A game of sponge ball or kick ball in the pasture would attract kids from a mile away and we’d play till dark.

This was no depression, it was a way of life.

Today Benedicta is no longer self-governed. Gone are all of the dairy farms, all but one of the potato farms, both of the lumber mills and one remaining logging contractor. The school is closed and the church is hanging on, but the archdiocese would like to close it as well. Many other companies in a 50-mile radius have closed. A starch factory in Island Falls, biomass plants in Sherman and Ashland, lumber mills in Patten and Ashland, paper mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket and farms too numerous to name have closed.

Children of today can tell their story much differently than I told mine. I surmise it will go something like this:

“My mom and dad both work and leave before I go to school and get home after I do. They don’t make very much money ‘cause Daddy says the insurance and travel costs are almost as much as he makes. Good thing we get WIC for baby brother, he’s at day care.

Mom shops in Millinocket so people won’t see her using her food stamp card. It’s been cold lately, but thankfully we get fuel assistance. Daddy said if he gets laid off again he can get 99 weeks of unemployment and maybe finally have time to fight for disability Social Security over his old back injury. We could get MaineCare and Mom could quit her job.

Life is the way it oughta be for us. We all have iPods, cell phones, laptops, TVs, Wiis and other fun games. Dad and Mom bought them for Christmas. It was great; they charged it, no interest for a whole year. Well, I gotta go, the man who sells Daddy his pain pills is here. He’s a nice man.”

Now this is a depression and collapse is eminent. Perhaps it is too late to turn our town around, but if we keep going this way it will be a beautiful national park.

David Robinson is retired from the U.S. Navy and drove big rigs hauling potatoes, lumber and logs. He is now a school bus driver.

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