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Princeton: Woods and Water Built This Town

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Merciers Mill & Peabody Woolen Mill, Princeton, ca.
Merciers Mill & Peabody Woolen Mill, Princeton, ca. Item Contributed by
Princeton Public Library

The year 1864 brought many changes to Princeton. The country was in the midst of the Civil War, and in the fall of 1864, there was a major fire in town. All of the mills on the "roll" except the tannery and the woolen mill burned.

Princeton was facing economic devastation. At a special town meeting on November 29, 1864, some businessmen were given tax abatements, and the Lewy's Island Railroad was abated all taxes "on condition that the railroad continue to run for one year."

The destruction of the mills brought an abrupt end to the lumber being shipped from Princeton to Calais, thereby cutting off a large part of the railroad's income. But, according to Bruce Belmore's Early Princeton:

"In the course of a year or so new mills were built by Squire Buckman; Waite and Company; Belmore (Dan) and Sargent (William); Belmore (James) and Porter (George M.) who soon thereafter sold out to Stewart and Woodcock; and Ferd Mercier. Ferd built his mill, a small spool-bar mill, on the Indian Township side of the dam over which a roadway was constructed. With the building of Paul Spooner's new grist-mill and John Monk's new blacksmith shop, the Roll resumed its former appearance and stride; and soon the people began to forget about the big fire of 1864."

In 1866 John Furbish came to town and started a hoop-pole business. Staves were already being manufactured in town for making barrels, and the hoops were the wooden bands needed to hold the staves in place. Large quantities of the resulting barrels were shipped "below," especially to Eastport where fish, and other commodities were shipped out. The seconds were sent to Red Beach where they were packed with lime.

The Tannery, Princeton, ca 1880
The Tannery, Princeton, ca 1880Item Contributed by
Princeton Public Library

The majority of the hoops for the barrels were manufactured by local people at their homes. As Parks Carle of Princeton recalled, "Everyone made hoops ... that didn't have a horse."

Parks said the hoops were bundled and sold to dealers, "or if you needed ready money there was always someone right there to buy your hoops ... right when you came out of the woods."

Joyce Carle Hett of Princeton recalled hoops being made at her home when she was growing up: 

"My father and my grandfather used to shave hoops in the winter. And they had a little hoop shack down there by the lake and they made hoops that they made barrels out of, and there was a Frenchman, out of upper Frenchville, Maine, wherever that is, and he used to come down in the spring and buy their hoops. They had these drawer knives and that is what they did in the winter and they had a stove down there. My father and grandfather Libby."

She said they used ash for the hoops. She recalled, "It is in the swamps and they would cut it and then they made the hoops and bound them up in bundles and the guy would come down in the spring and buy them. That was in the wintertime."

Then in 1876 fire again raged through the mills along the river, and again all but the tannery and the woolen mill burned. Ferd Mercier's Mill in Indian Township also remained. There was much debate about what caused the fire and laments about not having employed night watchmen after the first fire.

Put Rolfe was the only one to quickly clean away the ruins of his second mill and build a third. He died two years later on July 7, 1878.

US Peg and Shank Mill, Princeton, 1930
US Peg and Shank Mill, Princeton, 1930Item Contributed by
Princeton Public Library

In 1880, manufacturers in Princeton consisted of a lumber mill, a woolen mill, a tannery, a harness maker, four blacksmiths, two wheelwrights and two hoop dealers, all of which were directly tied to wood or water. Other sideline businesses to support the people who worked with wood or on the water were general stores, a drug store, a confectionery, a tailor, a milliner, and a painter.

In 1888, James Murchie of Calais built a hardwood orange-box factory in Princeton, one of only four in the state, and Charles Eaton and his wife Alice Eaton, daughter of James Murchie, came to Princeton to operate it.

When the townspeople heard that the mill was going to be built, they realized the economic boost this new industry would have. The mill ran about six months of the year and employed about fifty people.

Hardwood -- mostly birch, maple and beech -- was used in making orange box shooks. The logs were sawed in lengths of about four feet and these lengths were steamed in a tight compartment for several hours. They were then taken out and made to revolve in front of a long, sharp knife that cut off a veneer of any desired thickness. These veneers were dried and then cut into box shooks to form the sides, top and bottom of orange boxes, the ends being usually made of spruce boards.

A.M. Nason Lumber Company, Princeton, ca. 1940
A.M. Nason Lumber Company, Princeton, ca. 1940Item Contributed by
Princeton Public Library

These box shooks were sent around the Mediterranean Sea, many coming back filled with oranges. The mill at this time was known as the "Murchie-Eaton Hardwood Mill" or the "Shook Mill."

The Eaton hardwood mill generated electricity for a few years, until the town built its first powerhouse in 1916. In 1920 the Eatons sold the business to Edward B. Draper of Bangor, and later it was owned by John Lewis of Brownville.

Louise Deschene interview, Princeton, 2012
Louise Deschene interview, Princeton, 2012Item Contributed by
Princeton Public Library

In these latter days it was referred to as the "U.S. Peg and Shank" and was manufacturing hardwood into products such as ice cream spoons, popsicle sticks, shoe shanks, and pegs under the management of Arnold Smith.

The mill, which was back of where the Post Office is now, burned around 1939 or 1940.

Louise Deschene talked about working at the mill six days a week, with only Sundays off. Her brother lost his fingers in one of the machines. She was 16 years old when she went to work there.

In 1930 the last major lumber mill in Princeton was built on the Grand Falls Flowage by Ally M. Nason of Monticello. It burned in 1941 and was immediately rebuilt. It burned a second time and was rebuilt again.

Nason Sawmill, Princeton, ca. 1930
Nason Sawmill, Princeton, ca. 1930Item Contributed by
Princeton Public Library
Pulpwood Chute, Township 26 ED, ca. 1955
Pulpwood Chute, Township 26 ED, ca. 1955Item Contributed by
Princeton Public Library

Then Nason sold it to NE Lumber owned by Stewart and Campbell. They sold it five years later to Passamaquoddy Lumber which was a subsidiary of Dead River, and later it was purchased by Hunt Brothers. In more recent years it also burned, and was never rebuilt.

In 2013, long logs can still be seen in Princeton as they go by on trucks headed to mills to the north and to the south.

And many visitors come from around the country to the Princeton area to recreate in its woods and upon its waters. Guides and lodges cater to hunters, anglers and ecotourists.

Woods and water still play a major role in the local economy of this area known as "Sportsman's Paradise."