Smokestack removal won’t take memories with it

  • The chimney at the former Strathmore Paper Co. between the Connecticut River and the power canal in Turners Falls is to be taken down. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • TThe chimney at the former Strathmore Paper Co. between the Connecticut River and the power canal in Turners Falls is to be taken down. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The chimney at the former Strathmore Paper Co. between the Connecticut River and the power canal in Turners Falls is to be taken down. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ


Published: 10/11/2020 3:18:47 PM

Good morning, neighbor,

   As most of you know, I grew       up in Turners Falls. It was a great place, and though I was considered a “downtown” kid — my mother, father, sister and I lived on Second Street until my last year of high school — I wouldn’t trade the experiences I found there.

Yes, the kids who lived on “the hill” had different experiences, but I don’t regret that, because living on Second Street allowed me to watch history in the making. I got to hear the daily whistles of the paper mills from just a few blocks away, as I watched numerous neighbors walk onto Avenue A from the Strathmore mill complex just after 3 p.m. with metal lunch boxes in hand as they headed home for the day or to their second job.

I got to watch up close Michael “Rapunzel” Metelica and his Brotherhood of the Spirit, renamed the Renaissance Community in 1974 when I was a sophomore, move into the downtown and “revitalize” it by opening eateries and performance venues and renovating an entire block for their housing. It was one of the largest and most enduring communes in the Northeast United States and it was literally in my backyard. It was pretty active through 1988 — several years after I had married and moved to Greenfield — and “its rise and fall (had) mirrored that of its charismatic and mercurial leader ...”

But, I digress.

The town was designed as a planned industrial community and Strathmore, one of the town’s original mills, was built in 1874 by Keith Paper Co. The Strathmore Paper Co. acquired the site in 1953 and operated it until 1994. The town eventually took ownership, and it has been trying to decide what to do with the property ever since. But one thing it came to realize was that the smokestack has to come down. It, like the building, is deteriorating and bricks have been falling, a potential hazard to anyone who finds themselves in that area.

That leads me to a conversation I had last week with one of the three men who are deconstructing the smokestack, brick by brick.

Our neighbor Ryan Gunnison, who grew up and lives in Bernardston and works for Boston Chimney & Tower Co., is working with a father and son who also work for the company taking the smokestack down.

“It’s just the three of us,” Ryan told me. “We’ve built the staging all the way up the coal chimney and we’re ready. It might be a slow process, because what we do each day depends on the weather and the wind. You don’t want to be way up there if the wind is blowing hard. This is not a job for the faint of heart.”

The 178-year-old smokestack has always given the older folks — especially those who worked at the mill — a sense of pride and history. That mill was an economic driver at one time for Turners Falls. Ryan said it gives him a sense of pride, as well, even though he didn’t grow up in Turners Falls.

“You stand up there and you look over the town,” he said. “It’s such a different perspective. It’s beautiful. You see all of the church steeples. But I also, sometimes as I’m standing at the top, think about the people who built the smokestack. They didn’t have all the modern tools and options and they built it from the ground up. I also imagine — can see in my mind — the people leaving each day when the whistle blew.”

Ryan said the 180-foot-tall smokestack, which rises from inside Building 10, he believes, can’t come down like smokestacks typically do.

“You can’t get a crane into the building, so it has to be done the way we’re doing it,” he said. “It’s so cool in these buildings. There are tunnels that bring the canal to the river. Amazing. But you can’t get distracted by the view of the river and town, as phenomenal as it is, because one wrong step and it’s all over.”

Ryan told me he’s never razed a coal chimney. A couple of days ago, a bald eagle flew by his head as he stood on the staging at the top. He said he believes, if weather and wind permit, it will be down in three to four weeks.

“We’re dropping some of the bricks into the smokestack, but some are being dropped to the ground below.”

The smokestack is just another piece of my childhood that will soon disappear. Many of my neighbors and relatives worked in that mill. Sometimes when I drive by on my way to my daughter’s house in Montague to see my sweet twin grandsons, Owen and Travis, and my beautiful 2-year-old granddaughter Lilah, I drive by the mill and imagine the men and women, my old neighbors and relatives, who worked so very hard to keep it going all those years ago.

I watched fire consume what was left of the former Rockdale/Railroad Salvage building in 2016. That building, several yards from the Strathmore building, began as the Griswold Mill in 1879, producing cotton cloth. Another textile company bought the factory in the 1940s and in the 1950s, it saw retail use as the Rockdale Store. In 1973, Reuben “Rubie” Vine opened one of his Railroad Salvage discount retail stores in the building, and that closed in 1994. It employed several of my relatives over the years, and my family and I spent some time there shopping over the years, especially for school clothes.

The older I get, the more I realize that it is true: life is about change and changing and nothing ever stays the same. And though that is truer than I ever believed when I was young, I also know that almost nothing, even change, can steal your memories. So in my mind, the whistles will continue to blow, the smokestack will continue to stand and life in Turners Falls as I knew it will continue as it once was for many of us.

Be well and stay safe, Ryan, and tell Devin and Andrew Toledo, the other two men standing at the top of the world with you, to do the same.

Senior Reporter Anita Fritz grew up in Franklin County after moving from Spokane, Wash., when she was just a few weeks old. She covers Greenfield and does regional and COVID-19 reporting for the Greenfield Recorder.

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