In more prosperous days, the once-bustling paper-making town of Millinocket , incorporated in 1901, boasted numerous clubs to enrich the lives of residents and enliven the spirit of the community. Over the decades, Lions, Elks and Masons rubbed shoulders with Rotarians, Oddfellows and Knights of Pythias. Women could join the Supreme Emblem Club, Eastern Star, the Rebeccas, the Pythian Sisters and other groups.
Ladies with time on their hands and a taste for culture in this far-flung community in northern Penobscot County — typically the wives of mill executives, doctors and other professionals — might be invited to join the Millinocket Garden Club, the Millinocket Philharmonic Club, the Millinocket Art Society or the Millinocket Literary Club.
These days, with the huge paper mill closed since 2008 and the paper industry contracting across the state, Millinocket is in steep decline. The population has dropped from more than 7,700 in 1970 to about 4,400 in 2016. Three of the four elementary schools have closed in recent years. Property values have plummeted as the town tries to plot a course for the future.
Responding to these and other changes, most of Millinocket’s civic and social clubs are now defunct. A few have consolidated with groups in neighboring communities.
But the Millinocket Literary Club, founded in 1937, is alive, intact and well, and still committed to its historic mission: “to promote the intellectual growth of its members and to encourage an interest in social, civic and moral questions of the day.”
“A few years ago, we thought we were going to have to disband,” said club member and historian Trudy Wyman, who also is the curator of the Millinocket Historical Society. “But we’re doing better now. We’ve had kind of a revival.”
With so many Millinocket residents retired or just plain unemployed, she said, the club has recently picked up several new members and is busy planning the future.
With membership capped at 25, the club is not a book group. Instead, monthly meetings held at members’ homes from September through May consist of educational presentations. Recent talks have included photos and artifacts from a member’s recent trip to the historic salt mines, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Poland, a personal collection of handwoven fabrics from indigenous villages in Central America, and the personal email correspondence between one member and her daughter in India.
“Our programs are a wonderful opportunity to relive important experiences and share our interests with the group,” member Leslie Jenkins said.
In addition to enriching the social and intellectual lives of its members, the Millinocket Literary Club seeks to cultivate curiosity and creativity in the larger community. Its longstanding poetry competition for elementary school students was recently transformed into an art competition, which educators said would be more easily incorporated into cross-curriculum state and federal learning requirements. The theme this year was bats, and in addition to their art entries, students learned about the creatures through lessons in science, reading, mathematics and other disciplines.
Member Peggy Sturman misses the poetry contest.
“It surprised the students so much when they were able to write a poem that would mean something to someone else,” she said.
But, she noted, the youngsters do a lot of reading and research in developing their art projects, so the “literary” angle of the competition is preserved.
The club also raises a modest scholarship of about $300 every year, through a private auction, member donations and other activities, which is awarded to a promising college-bound student from Stearns High School.
At the Millinocket Memorial Library, club members maintain three prominent display cases, changing them each month. In May, the theme is “All the tea in …” and the cases are filled with antique tea sets, containers of tea, maps of tea-producing regions of the world and books about the history, commerce and culture of the brew.
Finally, the club each April brings in a guest speaker and hosts a “literary luncheon” with a featured speaker, open to the entire community. This year’s luncheon cost $7, attracted about 90 people and featured Maine author and longtime Bangor Daily News staff writer Ardeana Hamlin of Hampden. Luncheon speakers typically include writers, musicians, geologists and others with expertise in Maine culture and natural history. Proceeds from the dinner are used to support club activities and the public library.
Seismic changes in Millinocket’s fortunes and the town’s uncertain future have not shaken the group’s commitment to promoting literature, arts and current events across the community.
“We don’t look too far ahead,” club treasurer Margaret Bond said. “We’re just taking it a day at a time.”
The Millinocket Literary Club suspends its regular meetings in the summer months but will resume in September. For more information about activities, goals and membership, call club President Betsy Neal at 723-8753.