This story is part of the Maine’s Progressive Business 2013 series. To read more historical retrospectives, click here.
Michael Ojala, a Finnish immigrant, settled in the Thomaston area before World War II with an eye on becoming a lawyer. Back then, no schooling was required; you only needed to apprentice under a lawyer and pass the bar exam. But the lawyer Ojala was apprenticing under, a Mr. Miles, advised that he change his name; it was difficult to pronounce (OY-ah-la) and Finns weren’t too favorably looked upon (this was before the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939, after which Finns’ reputation in the U.S. did a complete one-eighty). Since “Ojala” meant “beck,” a swiftly running brook, Michael chose the last name “Brooks.”
By 1935, Michael Brooks was working as an insurance agent in Thomaston, no longer pursuing law. Then, like many Finnish immigrants, he went into a business that he was good at: working with wood. He was listed in the city directory as a farmer by 1940, but by 1942 was also listed as working in lumber.
Michael got serious about lumber by 1946, when his son, Karl, returned from the war. Michael opened a small sawmill on Camden Street near the Rockland waterfront sawing lobster-trap stock, although by 1949 Michael relocated it to Beechwood Street in Thomaston, across Branch Brook from his home.
Karl, who had joined the U.S. Navy at age 17 (he told them he was 18 in order to serve), had served as an electrician’s mate on a U.S. Navy destroyer in World War II. Karl had grown up with four brothers and four sisters in a house where Finnish was the first language — which had him a bit behind until later in grade school. He’d missed school a lot when he was young to work in the sawmill, and hadn’t finished high school when he joined the Navy, so after the war he was ready to put his G.I. Bill to use. After passing a high-school equivalency test, he attended the University of Maine, earning a B.A. in business education in 1954.To pay for school, Karl took time off to scallop, build boats, and lobster, spending several years in Eastport. In 1961 he earned a master’s in psychology at UMaine; while there, he held a position as a graduate assistant instructor in the Department of Psychology.
After that, Karl went on to earn a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Florida at Gainesville 1966, with a minor in nutrition. While working on this doctorate, Karl married Sally Mabelle Gillchrest in 1963. During his education, he was named to Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology, and also was a recipient of a National Science Foundation fellowship based on his academic achievements. Thanks to his study of the etiology of the peptic ulcer, he was initiated into Sigma Xi, a fraternity based on scientific research ability and potential. He was also a member of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society.
The Next Generation
When Michael Brooks died in 1964, the business was renamed Brooks Brothers, with Karl, Lawrence, Michael Jr., and Raynold working there. But the sawmill wasn’t steady; eventually, Raynold became contractor, Michael drove a truck, Lawrence went lobstering, and Karl taught in Florida. But in the early 1970s, Karl began thinking about changing careers.
“He said the attitude of the students changed,” Julie Brooks Russo, officer manager, recalled. “He didn’t feel like he was making as much of a difference with the students… And he’d grown up doing things with his hands working in a lumber mill, so he came back.”
After a family visit to Maine in the summer of 1972, and with land prices increasing, Karl returned to Thomaston the following year to invest in land and to deal in logs and gravel with his brother Lawrence, which they named Lawrence A. Brooks, Inc. but which was commonly known as Brooks Mill. A year later, they built a larger mill with room to saw trap stock for building lobster traps.
As the real estate market tanked, the brothers concentrated more and more on pulpwood and lobster-trap stock, while the long-lumber mill fell out of use. By 1980, the trap business was huge. The brothers’ interests diverged, as Karl focused on the traps and Lawrence on pulpwood and firewood, and in 1986 they separated their businesses. The 1980s had already seen the trap mill producing not just trap wood but the entire traps. Soon after, wire traps became in demand, so Karl started building those as well. Brooks Trap Mill continued sawing oak runners for its traps, and providing them for other trap manufacturers, with oak runners for the traps’ bottoms.
In the late 1980s, Karl bought three railroad cars and had them installed door to door to create storage bays. These were later supplemented with box trailers. This makeshift warehouse is still in use today to store wire, twine, and other supplies, even though the complex has grown significantly.
Innovation was always part of the company’s growth. By 1990, Brooks Trap Mill was using several custom-designed (and custom-built) wire-cutting machines, which Karl designed, that greatly decreased trap-construction time. What was once done entirely with handheld snips was now possible with these machines, such as one which feeds entire rolls of mesh to cut to length, or one that notches smaller segments in big bundles.
“These [machines] really gave us an advantage on selling kits compared to our competition — being able to cut wire so much more efficiently,” said Mark Brooks, general manager.
In 1997, Brooks Trap Mill built its first new steel warehouse, and along with that came its first forklift. A second steel warehouse followed in 2001, and a third in 2003, the year Julie, Mark, and their brother Stephen took ownership of the business from their father. Karl had turned over shares of the business to his children over the years, and sold the remaining shares in 2003. The siblings had all worked part-time at the business when they were young, and each went full-time after graduating from college.
Today, the business has ample storage for everything it manufactures and sells — over 45,000 square feet of warehouse space and acres of outdoor storage.
There’s also a retail store which grew out of requests the family heard every day from lobstermen looking for things they couldn’t find. So BTM kept adding products, and today carries everything a lobsterman needs except for the boat: rope, buoys, bait, clothing, rain gear, cleaning products, electronics, and more.
“That’s the way we’ve been since the early 80s,” said Mark. “Our motto was ‘One-stop trap shop.’”
Beyond the on-site growth, BTM has expanded afar. In 1987, it acquired Portland Trap on the waterfront, as well as a trap shop in Jonesboro and a store in Bath. The company assembles traps everywhere except Bath, but the cutting and manufacture happens in South Thomaston.
Karl Brooks died on Nov. 30, 2010, leaving the legacy that his father had created, and that he had nurtured and grown, in the capable hands of his children. Today, Mark Brooks is the president, CEO, and general manager; Stephen Brooks is the vice president and retail manager who oversees the retail store and trap sales; and Julie Brooks Russo is the secretary, treasurer, and CFO. Brooks Trap Mill regularly services an area from Nova Scotia to Connecticut, with occasional sales to New York. Some aquaculture products go further south and to Louisiana, and some go worldwide; recently, BTM shipped a pallet of wire trap kits and one completed trap to a monastery in Greece.
The company no longer saws logs but buys the wood runners all cut and trims to needed lengths. Although traps are made of wire, the runners can be any number of wood types, as well as plastic, cement, or steel. There are many options for lobster traps, from the runners to the ballast to even the color (which for some lobstermen is an aesthetic preference, while some believe different colors attract more lobsters). Each trap order is customized and Lobstermen frequently bring in sample traps so the mill workers know exactly what the customer wants.
The company also sells kit traps — unassembled to save the lobsterman money. Used traps are also available.
BTM has about 50 employees, and typically doesn’t lay off during the slow season, although sometimes hours get cut back. These skilled employees are invaluable for Brooks Trap Mill’s business; despite the time-saving machinery, the job is highly manual.
“You’ve got to have people doing this work,” said Mark.
Since Brooks Trap Mill’s founding, some of those people have been family — three generations so far. Karl’s widow, Sally, still works there every day: in by 6:15 a.m., works until noon, then back later to close up the office.
“She’s one of our best workers,” Julie said with a smile.
Brooks Trap Mill received an honorable notation in the official congressional record on July 11, 2012, when Sen. Olympia Snowe recognized the company (from page S4890):
• Ms. SNOWE. Mr. President, today I wish to recognize and commend the tremendous success of Brooks Trap Mill, a family-owned lobster trap manufacturer headquartered in Thomaston, ME. The lobster industry is iconic of my home State and the hard work, perseverance, and success of everyone at Brooks Trap Mill is emblematic of the strong tradition of entrepreneurship in Maine.
As former chair and current ranking member of the Senate Small Business Committee, I have had the tremendous privilege of hearing countless small business success stories from hard-working entrepreneurs across the country. Simply put, Brooks Trap Mill is one of these extraordinary stories. Since its inception in 1946, it has grown to become an indisputable leader in the fishing industry, while consistently creating quality jobs for Mainers. As a critical supplier to the commercial lobster industry, as well as other trap fisheries, Brooks Trap Mill offers Maine fishermen a vast selection of products to haul their catch. Their extensive inventory ranges from bait, buoys, foul-weather clothing, and rope to traps for lobster, oysters, sea bass, and shrimp.
Like so many small Maine businesses, Brooks Trap Mill is rooted firmly in family tradition. Founded by Michael Brooks over 60 years ago in a stock mill in Rockland, ME, Brooks Trap Mill has expanded considerably throughout the years but continues to be a family-owned and operated business. With three locations, the largest of which entails over 45,000 square feet of storage space, Brooks Trap Mill has accumulated one of the largest stocks of lobstering materials in the industry. Currently run by the third generation of the family, siblings Mark, Julie, and Stephen Brooks are fully involved in leading the business’ success. Under their watch, the company manufactures, sells, and distributes nearly 50,000 new lobster traps annually.
Brooks Trap Mill is also dedicated to serving its community through support and participation in a variety of organizations and events including the Maine Lobstermen’s Association; the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, Maine; and the Festival of Lights Lobster Trap Tree. Brooks Trap Mill has earned a reputation as a devoted and hard-working fixture of the lobster fishing industry, and its community service is admirable.
Through their remarkable growth, ingenuity, and dedication to its customers, the Brooks family has left an indelible mark on Maine maritime history. Brooks Trap Mill remains a tribute to the work begun 60 years ago by Michael Brooks. I thank the entire Brooks family for all of their efforts and wish them and everyone at Brooks Trap Mill success in their future endeavors. •