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Sleepless nights after the mill winds down

Cory Clapsaddle, 37, Jay, Maine

Last Updated: February 3, 2009: 11:18 AM ET

(Fortune Magazine) -- While so many Americans were overreaching during the boom years, Cory Clapsaddle appreciated what was right in front of him. He wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps, working at the local paper mill and raising a family in the home he grew up in. "If it was good for my father, it was good for me," he says.

Clapsaddle was patient, working construction and odd jobs for seven years. Finally, in 1998, he took his place among the 235 workers at the century-old mill owned by Wisconsin-based Wausau Paper. He had faith in its durability. "It seemed like a mill that could never die," he says. For ten years he thrived there, turning paper pulp into everything from masking tape to writing tablets.

Then the real world intervened. A few days before Labor Day last year, Wausau Paper announced it was shutting down one of the two giant papermaking machines in Jay and laying off about 150 people, citing "difficult market conditions."

"It's going to devastate a lot of personal lives," town manager Ruth Marden told the local Sun Journal. Clapsaddle's was one of them. Since finishing that last 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. shift, Clapsaddle hasn't slept well at night. "It's always on my mind," he says, "the whole big picture. Looking for a new job, losing a job, bills. The whole picture."

Clapsaddle doesn't have a cushion beyond his severance package of $10,000. Two years ago he and his wife, Amanda, bought his childhood home in nearby Livermore Falls to make room for their two boys, ages 4 and 7 - and their mortgage quadrupled to almost $1,000 a month. He gets $344 a week in unemployment benefits. They've cut costs by reducing cellphone minutes and using their wood-burning stove instead of heating oil.

Clapsaddle is only gradually adjusting to the idea that the mill is no longer part of the family's future. He still has the wooden basket his dad used to carry his meal to work every day.

"It hurts," he says, staring out the window at his sons playing in the snow. "You drive by and know you'll probably never drive in again, and that someday it won't be there at all."

But leaving central Maine will be the family's last resort. Jay (pop. 5,000) is the kind of place where an out-of-state license plate turns heads. It's far enough north that locals consider a few inches of snow a dusting. The Clapsaddles don't yearn for the Sunbelt.

What now? Clapsaddle has thought about going back into construction. He'd like to be a full-time firefighter, but he doesn't think he can compete with the younger folks coming out of school. He didn't make the cut on the law-enforcement test, but he might retake it.

In the meantime he has enrolled in a heating and air-conditioning course in Scarborough, an hour and a half away. A federal program will pay for his tuition, books, and travel. At this point he just knows he has to make a move. "It's coming down to the wire," he says. "I need to do something."

Next: An odyssey of downward mobility To top of page

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