Where There’s a Mill, Is There a Way?

The scrappy eco-insulation startup TimberHP is taking a big swing by bringing Madison's shuttered paper mill back online. Can a novel pulp product sow the seeds of a homegrown green-manufacturing success story?

TimberHP mill in Madison, Maine
By Kathryn Miles
Photos by Peter Frank Edwards
From our August 2023 issue

When Madison Paper Industries folded, in 2016, locals around the central Maine town of Madison feared their community’s 600,000-square-foot mill was shuttered for good. Built in 1980, at a cost of $200 million, Madison Paper was, throughout its run, a state-of-the-art producer of magazine and insert paper — and very much the anchor of this small Somerset County town. At its zenith, the mill employed more than 300 workers and turned out more than 200,000 tons of paper a year. But as periodical subscriptions dwindled in the smartphone era and paper production increasingly moved offshore, the mill’s balance sheets took a hit. When its joint owners — a subsidiary of the New York Times Company, together with a Finnish company called UPM-Kymmene — pulled the plug, Madison Paper joined the ranks of 13 Maine mills to have closed in just over two decades.

The closures have left behind abandoned buildings primed for decay. New England winters, hard on any structure, are particularly ravaging on industrial sites like paper mills. Concrete cracks. Moisture accumulates, turning corrugated metal into filament. In the region’s more urban pockets — Worcester, Providence, or Biddeford, say — some historic mills have been successfully repurposed as condos, studios, or shopping centers. But across rural Maine, the specter of permanent abandonment looms large: buildings slowly reclaimed by wind, water, and time, stand- ing as silent testaments to the ever-evolving nature of technology and global commerce.

Nestled on a sharp bend in the Kennebec River, the town of Madison literally grew up around its mills. From the late 19th century onward, brick and cement smokestacks rose higher than any steeple, while behemoth piles of timber dwarfed homes and businesses. Families settled in Madison for the jobs, first making textiles, then paper; Maine industrial titan Great Northern Paper got its start here before moving to Millinocket. When skiers and paddlers started flocking to the region in the mid-20th century, the smell of simmering wood mash — pleasantly yeasty on some days, all sulfur and brimstone on others — marked the gateway between central Maine’s industrial corridor and the wilds of the western mountains and upper Kennebec. Travelers who happened to pass through town during a shift change found traffic on Main Street backed up for blocks.

Mill workers in Madison, Maine, in an undated image, likely from before 1910
Mill workers in Madison in an undated image, likely from before 1910. In the early 20th century, the Kennebec River outside was often crowded with pulp logs. Courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine.

The mill’s closure left more than 200 jobless, gutted the town’s tax base, and prompted the inevitable cascade of boarded-up shops and diners. It brought other, subtler losses too: for the first time in anyone’s memory, the town just felt quiet. Yes, the American Legion still held baked-bean cook-offs. The town’s next-largest employer, a 42-acre commercial greenhouse, kept turning out hothouse tomatoes. But locals and visitors agreed: the tenor of the town changed, becoming more muted.

When I visited on a warm day this spring, however, I found no such stillness. Main Street was packed with pick-ups and construction vehicles, and the mill thrummed with activity. Behind its security fence, a 300-foot crane cast a shadow that extended to the bank of the Kennebec. Beneath it, a dozen construction contractors were busy installing an aluminum chimney stack that would soon rise higher than the massive mill itself. Hundreds of yards of gleaming ductwork connected the stack to a state-of-the-art cyclone dryer, adding some futuristic flair to the aging infrastructure around it.

The dryer and the stack are among the many renovations the mill has undergone since GO Lab, a Belfast-based research-and-development firm, purchased it in 2019. Now known as TimberHP, the company has a plan to take 230,000 tons of green wood chips each year and turn them into sustainable, high-performance insulation products. If it’s successful, TimberHP will be the first operation in the country making wood-fiber insulation. Its founders, Joshua Henry and Matthew O’Malia, want the company to serve as a blueprint that can help bring other abandoned mills back online, in New England at first and eventually across the country. Along the way, they’re hoping their product will revolutionize American construction practices — and, in doing so, help save the planet.

On the day I visited the rebooted Madison mill, members of TimberHP’s newly assembled operations team were working on a just-installed bin-feeder system, which will convey wood chips into a steamer to make them pliable before they’re shredded, then reconstituted as one of three types of insulation, then slowly baked in a massive conveyor oven. The oven is one of many pieces of equipment that TimberHP purchased used from mills across Europe — where there’s already an established market for wood-fiber insulation — delivered via 80 trans-Atlantic shipping containers.

It falls largely to the small operations team to determine not only how to reassemble the machinery but also how to use it to produce a product never before made in the U.S. Ops team members on the floor that day included several former employees of Madison Paper, like Joe Clark, who served as mechanical-maintenance manager there for 25 years. Now 62, Clark had assumed the closure of Madison Paper had spelled permanent retirement for him and other longtime employees.

“But Josh had me at hello,” he says of TimberHP cofounder Henry. “I’ve spent over half my life in this building. It’s invigorating to be on the ground floor of a new company, a new product.”

Standing next to him was 39-year-old Jessica Vigneault. Born and raised in Old Town, another Maine mill town that’s seen dramatic ups and downs, she’d grown up believing that mills were good employers that took care of their people. She got a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Maine with plans to work in her hometown’s Georgia-Pacific paper mill. Two months shy of her graduation, in March 2006, the company announced the closure of its Old Town location. Vigneault went on to work for two other Maine mills. Now, as TimberHP’s operations manager, she’s found herself at the center of the effort to master a brand-new enterprise.

“I pretty much spent the winter reading dense 600-page instructional manuals,” she says. “None of us have ever done anything like this before.”

But Vigneault says she’s undaunted. She’s seen what it takes for a mill to survive. “It’s the nature of these markets to shift — we have to be able to transform alongside them,” she says. “It’s a lot to learn. But it’s also the nature of Maine mill workers to come to any task with a can-do attitude.”

Industrial papermaking has never been a static affair. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution prompted both a boom in worldwide demand for wood-based products, especially paper, and the technology to mass-produce it. Before the mid-1800s, most paper was made out of rags. Once mill owners figured out how to turn trees into wood pulp, Maine, unsurprisingly, became the seat of America’s paper industry. Not only was it the country’s most forested state, but its seven major rivers provided easy conveyance for logs, along with the hydropower needed to animate a mill’s machines.

By 1870, Maine dominated the pulp industry. Paper was to Maine what cars were to Detroit, says University of Southern Maine economics professor Michael Hillard, author of Shredding Paper: The Rise and Fall of Maine’s Mighty Paper Industry. Paper companies owned half the state’s land mass, an area larger than the whole rest of New England. Mills sprung up across the state, and many communities became de facto company towns. In their heyday, paper companies built schools, stores, and parks. They also polluted the state’s air and water and, in some cases, left behind toxic legacies at mill sites.

In Madison, the first paper mill appeared in 1889 (two woolen mills preceded it by about a decade). Initially, Madison’s paper mills turned out newsprint and brown bags, but by the 1920s, they’d begun to shift to the more lucrative market for magazine-quality paper. Soon, they’d cornered that market, prompting the 1980 construction of the mill now owned and operated by TimberHP.

But the paper bubble burst not long after Madison Paper opened, and the mill’s lifespan saw one long, gradual decline in demand for the only product it was equipped to produce. In 2014, UPM-Kymmene and the New York Times subsidiary, which had been renamed Northern SC Paper Corporation, asked the town for a significant revaluation of the mill — from $229 million to $50 million — which cut their tax contributions by 60 percent, forcing the town to take out a $2.5 million loan to make up for lost revenue.

“People feared the worst,” says Tim Curtis, Madison’s town manager. “And some of it did come to fruition. That revaluation was the start of a decade of foreclosures and empty storefronts.”

Curtis recounted the town’s history as he gave me a walking tour of Madison’s downtown. Pointing to some of the still-empty shops, he rattled off what had once been there. The revaluation was the bellwether moment for Madison, he says, and he wasn’t at all surprised, in March 2016, when it was announced that the mill would cease operations entirely. UPM-Kymmene and Northern SC Paper sold their hydro dams to an energy company that continues to operate them. The rest of the mill and its contents were handed over to a pair of asset liquidators based in New Jersey and Canada.

“Their mission was to sell off everything they could,” Curtis says. “It was clear they weren’t interested in redevelopment.”

Unheated and without a power source, the mill languished more with each passing winter. Curtis says the town of Madison received occasional inquiries from potential investors — interested in restarting the mill to produce biofuels or toilet paper — but none had a viable plan.

As for Madison Paper’s former employees, some enrolled in a re-education program offered by the state. Others, like Joe Clark, took early retirement.

“We went away just like buggy whips did when the Model T came around,” he says. “For some workers, it was probably a relief. Others were totally despondent and beside themselves. They’d paid off their mortgage and put their kids through college on mill salaries. And now there was nothing.”

Much of the machinery powering TimberHP was shipped from Europe.

A third group found work down the road, at the Sappi North America mill, in Skowhegan. Clark, Vigneault, and Hillard all agree that Sappi bucked the mill-closure trend by committing to constant innovation, shifting from paper to high-end packaging materials.

As recently as 2022, the company announced a $418 million project to update its machinery, this time to create a more sustainable packaging alternative to plastic.

“We’ve seen this for over a century now,” Hillard says. “The mills that innovate are the ones that survive.”

Henry and O’Malia, TimberHP’s founders, will tell you that innovation is the driving force behind their partnership. Henry is a materials chemist and onetime professor at both Bates College and the University of Maine. O’Malia, an architect by training, cofounded the passive-house design and construction firm GO Logic, based in Belfast. Their origin story starts with the two of them serving on the board of Belfast’s Waterfall Arts and chitchatting about work. When Henry heard O’Malia was installing traditional insulation in GO Logic’s otherwise hyper-efficient, sustainability-minded homes, he was horrified.

He remembers telling O’Malia, “You’re basically wrapping a green house in a cheap beer cooler, just replacing one environmental disaster with another.” O’Malia, for his part, couldn’t disagree.

Most traditional insulation products offered in the U.S. are made of either fiberglass, polyurethane, or cellulose. They’re known to contain harmful additives, like formaldehyde and ammonium sulfate; exposure to insulation can irritate one’s skin, nose, and throat. They also have a tendency to lock moisture into a house, resulting in mold and mildew.

Both Henry and O’Malia studied in Europe, where wood-based insulation is common. Its champions say it outperforms synthetic insulation by multiple measures, but until recently, Americans were little incentivized to produce greener construction materials, and there were many more lucrative markets competing for the country’s wood supply. So it’s only ever been manufactured across the pond — and as an import, it’s been too costly to catch on. Maine, the pair thought, seemed like an obvious place to produce it domestically: not only is there a surplus of empty mills, the raw material is in close and ready supply. The state timber industry, Henry and O’Malia say, is operating well below sustainable replacement rates — the ratio of trees felled to those planted or grown to maturity. Meanwhile, the state’s logging and sawmill industries already produce thousands of tons of wood byproduct that can be converted into wood chips and then, eventually, wood-fiber insulation.

With a plan in place, they began approaching investors, eventually raising $85 million in bond funding, exempt from state taxes because the wood they’re using is a waste product (the state considers TimberHP a recycling facility). The company also received an additional $750,000 from the state to purchase and maintain a fleet of green vehicles, along with multiple federal grants. To hear Henry tell it, securing that kind of financing for this kind of project was no small feat. “It can be hard to persuade investors to contribute money for an industrial site,” he says, “when our country doesn’t really do that kind of work anymore.”

project manager and COO Rick Veinotte, vice president Matthew O’Malia, mechanical and utilities support Joe Clark, operations manager Jessica Vigneault, CEO Josh Henry, electrical engineering manager Marty Troy, electrical engineer Teagan Prince.
Left to right: project manager and COO Rick Veinotte, vice president Matthew O’Malia, mechanical and utilities support Joe Clark, operations manager Jessica Vigneault, CEO Josh Henry, electrical engineering manager Marty Troy, Troy, plant manager Steve Thibert.

In the summer of 2019, they began looking around the state for potential mills. Built relatively recently, Madison’s was in exceptionally good shape, Henry says, and required no environmental remediation. Equally key was the availability of Madison Paper’s former workforce. Henry and O’Malia soon assembled a small team of former mill employees to help with the renovation and conversion of the site. “Between them, they have over a hundred years of experience,” Henry says. “That pretty much saved our asses.” TimberHP eventually plans to employ about 140 people at the Madison plant.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether American consumers and contractors are willing to switch to wood-fiber insulation. At the time of my visit, TimberHP had yet to secure any distributors or installers. Next to the mill, a demonstration center functions as a hands-on science lab, where prospective clients can handle the company’s wood-fiber insulation products, with displays explaining how they outperform existing types in breathability, energy efficiency, noise reduction, and more. The insulation has the added benefit of being both nontoxic and sustainable, O’Malia says. But what he’s most proud of is its environmental impact.

“Wood is really just stored carbon,” he says. “Our insulation arrives at the job site already carbon negative.” Yes, converting green wood chips into insulation is energy intensive, O’Malia and Henry concede. But they’re quick to point out that the electricity used at the mill is generated from a neighboring hydroelectric dam (the conveyor oven is fueled by natural gas). They also point to a recent report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, which finds that wood-based insulation has a much lower carbon footprint than traditional materials.

Finally, O’Malia says, wood-fiber insulation also offers an incentive to cull small, low-value timber that remains after logging operations in fire-prone areas, like Colorado or California. Termed “coarse woody debris” by forestry scientists, naturally occurring detritus serves an essential role in forest ecology. But when it’s left after intensive logging activities, it skews that ecology and promotes hotter, faster-moving fires.

“Converting that kind of byproduct into fiber insulation,” O’Malia says, “is a viable solution not just for rural Maine but also for rural communities around the country.”

Town manager Curtis says he’s guardedly optimistic. “Right now, I see my job as mostly about managing expectations,” he admits. “Once upon a time, Madison was seeing $4 million in taxes from the mill. We have to accept that we may never get that back.”

A part-time minister and a former car salesman, Curtis says he’s unfazed — on a personal and a civic level — by the prospect of cobbling together uncertain income. He also says TimberHP’s eventual valuation isn’t the point. His ancestors settled in Madison at the turn of the last century, not long after the first mills got up and running. His family has seen boom and bust. Any investment in the mill is good for Madison, Curtis says, even if it only serves to make the property more appealing for the next buyer. And ultimately, he adds, bottom lines are only part of the equation. “We are already witnessing life return to the most iconic part of this town. There’s a returning sense of pride in the community. That’s invaluable.”

After I left Curtis, I heard similar sentiments over chats at Madison’s indoor shooting range, cannabis dispensaries, dinner theater, and elsewhere. At the Elm House Laundromat, 69-year-old Carolee Webster was waiting for her wash while her young grandson sat nearby, playing a handheld video game. A resident of the area since 1980, she reflected on the changes she’s witnessed.

“Things got slow after the mill closed,” she said. “It was hard for a lot of people.” She admitted she didn’t know much about TimberHP or its products, but she likes the idea of the mill reopening. “It seems like a good thing,” she said and then paused. “At least, I hope it will be. For all of us.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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