Craig Leeman started at the mill in 1968-1970, after finishing his service with the Coast Guard, and then from 1972 until he retired in 2009. Leeman’s co-worker was Jerry Farrin. Like many Maine jobs, it was hard physical labor, outdoors, in all weathers.
By the 1950s, the Pooles were buying all their pine from the West Coast because of local overharvesting and mechanization. Leeman remembers hand-loading lumber at the train station in Newcastle and hauling it down to Pemaquid. At the mill, planed lumber, 18 or 20 feet long, would be handed up from the truck through the upper windows of the mill. Rough lumber to be planed on the machine in the building was stored on the first floor. Purchases by retail buyers in the Bristol area were planed and finished to order.
Leeman recalls that the planer needed to be started slowly because of frost affecting the belts. It was then worked gradually up to full speed, at which point a belt might jump and have to be put back on by hand, often under the mill near the frozen ground. The slow start-up process would begin again.
Leeman remembers stories about Carl Poole bringing the logs down the Pemaquid River on Sunday so as not to waste any time during the week and he talked of the machinery that has been preserved within the mill building. The original four-sided planer was gone when he began working there but the 24-inch planer used in the 1960s and ’70s and driven by electricity is still there. The complex set of pulleys and belts and the water-driven turbine that used to run the mill still remain.
When the planer finally broke down, throwing belts and breaking blades, Poole exclaimed, “That’s it!” and the mill was shut down for good. Timber continued to be sold and everyone was cautioned on a handwritten sign in the loft: “The first thing out of place starts a MESS.”
The Poole family, who bought the mill in 1923, was always careful to keep the mill buildings repaired and restored, and the fine condition of the old mill and machinery can be attributed to their care and attention to detail. Leeman relates that they made many repairs over the years, particularly to the 6-by-6-inch cribbing underneath the building: “We did a good job keeping that mill in the condition it was.”
The building now, in fact, looks better than it did in the old photos. We are lucky to have a structure in good repair, thanks to the good stewardship of the Poole brothers and the continuing care of LaValley Building Supply and Hammond Lumber Co.
Leeman also recalled working the day the store stayed open during a blizzard and selling one board (“What a long day!”), watching the Poole store being pulled up the hill with a system of stakes and pulleys, and the night the heavy (empty) safe was stolen and broken open on a neighbor’s farm. He believed that what was most important was the Pooles’ attitude toward others. “Take care of the people” was in effect their motto.
When an elderly employee was ailing, Carl Poole Sr., would pay him every week, whether he worked or not. Leeman recalls that Carl Poole Jr. was “such a good man, such a good friend to me” — a remarkable employer-employee relationship.
The old mill pond, depicted in many photos from the early part of the century, was by Leeman’s day no longer used to float logs. However, during the alewives run, a wooden dam was lowered into place to fill the pond as a resting pool for the alewives before they continued their climb up the Pemaquid River. (Eventually, the wooden dam rotted away and the mill pond was filled with gravel.)
This concern for conservation and ecology may seem surprising given the times and the abundance then of the small herring, but the Poole brothers no doubt felt a responsibility to the fishing community around them. Leeman stressed the generous traditions of the mill, which sought to serve the needs of Bristol residents from the late 1700s until the 1970s.
Bob Ives and Neill DePaoli, of the Old Bristol Historical Society interviewed Leeman. Russ Lane’s video of the interview may be seen online at vimeo.com/russie/craigleeman.
The Friends of Pemaquid Mill, with the Old Bristol Historical Society, Pemaquid Watershed Association, and Damariscotta River Association, plan to restore the mill as part of a historical site. Part of the project will be to improve the fishway for migrating fish at the head of the tide and create a canoe and kayak entry upstream.
The opportunity to purchase the site with the mill building and begin its restoration as an important historical and recreational resource for Bristol and the Midcoast region must be completed by Friday, Nov. 30; currently, we have $270,000 from 256 donors and must find $90,000 in the next 10 days.
Donations can be made by check to DRA with “Campaign for Pemaquid Mill” on the memo line, mailed to DRA at P.O. Box 333, Damariscotta ME 04543, or hand-delivered to the Bristol town hall, or by debit or credit card online at bit.ly/campaign-for-pemaquid-mill.
For information about pledges payable over three tax years, obtaining corporate matching funds, gifts of appreciated stock or tax-exempt qualified charitable distributions from retirement plans, contact Deb Suchar of DRA at 563-1393.
For more information about the project, call Phil Averill at 529-5349.
For more information about donating, call Suchar at 563-1393.
(Bristol native Russ Lane is a local filmmaker.)