So I was in a facebook discussion with my tea partying father-in-law today (I love him dearly, even though we disagree on almost everything political). We go through our more civil and our less civil phases--we're in a more civil phase, and I'd like it to stay that way--and the conversation wandered to the Oxford Casino, a fairly recent and no-longer-so-controversial addition to the local economy in this part of the proud state of Maine. My father-in-law wrote that downtown Rumford would've made a much better site, having superior value as a tourist attraction, and several hotels which could be rehabbed to accommodate the casino clientele. And that got me to thinking...I dislike the proliferation of casinos in this country (or anywhere). They sell addictions and produce broken lives. But what could be made of a dying paper town in one of the most beautiful valleys in eastern North America? After a few moments' musing, I thought...of course! A college!
Rumford was founded in 1779 at the location of Pennacook Falls, the largest waterfall in North America east of Niagara. In 1893 the first paper mill was founded near the falls, beginning Rumford's more than one-century as a paper manufacturing site. Rumford was one of three principal mill and industrial towns, the others being Berlin, New Hampshire and Lewiston, Maine, located on the shores of the Androscoggin River. (Thanks to the paper mills in Berlin and Rumford, the falls in Lewiston were long known as Root Beer Falls.) Rumford's population peaked around 1930, at roughly 10,340; since then the local population has declined steadily, following the fortunes of the paper industry. The 2010 census counted 5,841 in the town. The original Oxford Paper Company was bought out by NewPage Corp., itself likely soon to be bought out by Verso. Earlier in the 20th century over 2,000 people were employed at the locally owned plant; now the total stands at fewer than 850, and the plant is corporately owned. (Wikipedia)
My wife, daughter and I moved up to Rumford Point, about ten miles west of the falls along Route 2, at a bend in the river where a long, rickety bridge spans the Androscoggin. About 10 houses make up Rumford Point. Before we'd even moved in I was hearing dismal stories about the decaying state of downtown Rumford Falls. A few visits confirmed this. Next to dying giants like Detroit, small towns like Rumford are insignificant, but doorway by doorway, the emptiness and sense of faded fortunes are the same. Much of the town, especially the neighborhoods, is boarded up and unoccupied. Along the main street, you can walk into a gift store and look at the monumentally tall ceilings, the impressively deep store area, and the broad archway leading into an adjoining room with a soda fountain. Only, the adjoining room is full of empty cardboard boxes and fold-up chairs, and the deep store area is mostly full of unused furniture and more boxes. The active store occupies the front half of one room, and the very nice gifts and decorations are surrounded by an almost palpable darkness and gloom. Rumford is, like so many other river mill towns, a dying place with a grander past.
Drug use, alcoholism and poverty are common here. It meets most any definition of a depressed economy, despite its natural beauty and being surrounded by much wealthier locales such as Bethel, with Gould Academy and the Sunday River ski area, the outdoor mecca of North Conway not too much farther to the west, and the well-to-do lake town of Norway to the south.
A local banker told me that within ten years the paper plant will be closed. The paper plant employs about one-quarter of the town's remaining residents. Its closure will mean the functional end of Rumford as a municipality. I began thinking of ways to maintain some industry in the area. An environmentalist and an oceanographer, I am very much aware of global warming. Whatever severe climatic changes are headed our way, I know mankind is not about to go cold turkey off of oil and electricity. So given that I'd like to help society maintain itself and do what we can to transition to more sustainable methods, I wondered about building a wood chip-fired electricity generation plant there. It would use the existing system of logging trucks supplying the plant--part of the extended economy which will fail once the paper plant closes. But this bright idea had (at least) one huge flaw--a decent-sized wood chip plant requires fewer than 50 employees. It would do little or nothing to help the unemployment in the town.
But a school...yes, tradesmen with perhaps little more than a high school education wouldn't be doing such things as teaching. And any college, as a start-up, would be small enough that the total number of jobs might be only one or two hundred. But the students themselves would bring an economy. They would need places to live, they'd need food, they'd want entertainment. A school, even a small school, could revitalize the economy.
Many superb diarists at this site have chronicled the slow and outrageous demise of American education, at the primary, secondary, and university levels. Assault by private interests has decimated what was once the world's finest educational system. One college cannot change all of this, but I think it's possible to make a beginning, even a modest beginning, at genuinely educating people to help them improve their own lives, and the lives of people around them. I mean the opposite of the online for-profit scam schools, which are designed to take advantage of their students. I mean a real college, whose philanthropy is its teaching.
I'm an ancient lit wonk. My wife is homeschooling our now 4-year-old daughter, and soon to join her will be the 2-year-old son. I look forward to reading Vergil and Homer with them when they're teens. My kids will learn the classics and I'd like something like that at any school I help to found. The University of Maine at Orono has a fine school of oceanography, as does the nearby University of New Hampshire. Orono also features an excellent school of forestry (as you'd expect in Maine). So what could a tiny start-up school offer as a distinctive discipline, when surrounded by such world-renowned departments? Well, my father spent a few years as VP admin at another start-up school in New Hampshire, Belknap College. And they had a good little meteorology program. (Boston Channel 5 meteorologist Bill Hovey graduated from Belknap. According to my mother, Bill coined the phrase "We woke up to six inches of partly cloudy on the ground.") I'd like a school to contribute scientists able to participate in worldwide exchange of ideas. (And this meteorology program would not live in denial of climate change as so many meteorologists do.)
These are a few somewhat organized ideas I have on how to make a start at improving education in the area where I live, while also helping out the local economy. I'm looking into ways to make this happen. If anyone has any interest, or ideas to contribute, I'll be very happy to start a discussion. Maybe Daily Kos could have its own college?