The Bucksport Historical Society is expecting to soon buy the former Verso paper mill guard house, the brick building to the right, in order to turn it into a papermaking museum. The building is the last remaining structure from the mill, which closed in 2014. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

A new museum honoring Bucksport’s role in the papermaking industry could open on the same grounds where the town’s paper mill operated for almost a century.

The Bucksport Historical Society has secured enough funds to buy and insure the old guard house at the former Verso Paper Mill, which closed in 2014 after 84 years of operation. The historical society expects to close on the property next month and could open the museum in the next couple years.

“We’re hopefully near the end of the whole process of acquiring the property,” said Gary Bagley, the vice president of the historical society. “It’s the last structure of the old mill still standing.”

For decades the mill was the economic engine of the town. When it closed, Bucksport lost 40 percent of its tax base and hundreds of jobs. The idea of creating a museum as a testament to papermaking and how it shaped the town first started to gain momentum in 2019.

Pat Ranzoni, the co-chair of the Bucksport Paper Mill Working Group, met with the historical society and said there was an Orland storage unit full of artifacts that American Iron and Metal let former workers take after the company purchased the shuttered mill in order to turn it into scrap.

There wasn’t enough room to showcase all of the artifacts at the historical society, so the organization explored the potential for a museum where the paper was once made.

Bagley and Ranzoni started talking with Ironclad, the  company that now manages the gas-fired power plant at the old mill site, in January 2021 and made the pitch to use the old guard house, the small brick building that’s immediately visible from Main Street, as a museum.

Ironclad told them they weren’t interested in leasing the building and instead wanted to sell it, according to Bagley.

“My heart sank,” he recalled. The Bucksport Historical Society is a small operation and “obviously we didn’t think we’d have the money to buy a building.”

But the company disclosed the price they were looking for: $1.

So the museum was back on. Last Labor Day, the historical society set a one-year fundraising goal of $10,000 to cover closing costs, insurance and the $1 price tag. Last month, they surpassed that goal and are moving forward with the deed transfer process.

The museum plans to highlight the old mill, the papermaking process and the lives of the hundreds of people who worked at what once was the primary economic engine for Bucksport and surrounding towns from 1930 to 2014.

“We hope to explain how paper is made because most of the paper mills in Maine have closed,” Bagley said.

Since the closure, Bucksport has revived itself without the mill, but a museum at the redeveloping site could epitomize the town’s slogan of “rich in heritage, looking to the future.”

A salmon farm has started work on a large portion of the mill, Maine Maritime Academy has opened a professional mariner development center and is working on a firefighting training ground.

The group behind the museum will soon start another fundraising campaign to get the museum up and running. Bagley said that optimistically it could be ready by next summer, but with the current busy schedules for most contractors in the region, it may be more realistic to expect the doors to open in 2024.