STRONG – Chiquita Swiney watched the last home-grown Maine toothpick, a square one with pointed ends, roll off the Forster Inc. production line with a lump in her throat and fear in her heart.
The factory that made Strong the toothpick capital of the world is shutting its doors in the latest blow to the state’s wood products industry.
The closing means big changes for Strong, a community so closely identified with toothpick production that the words “Toothpick Capital of the World” are emblazoned on the sides of its firetrucks.
In its heyday, the plant churned out 1,300 cases of toothpicks a day. With 48 boxes in a case and 250 toothpicks per box, that’s 15.6 million toothpicks. Forster also produced wooden clothespins, among other things.
“This was something to see when it was in action,” said plant manager Jack Lambert, pointing to a long machine sitting dormant on the plant floor, toothpicks littering the floor around it.
Swiney, like many in this town of 1,200 people, counted on the plant to provide jobs. But now she and her co-workers are looking for work.
“We just don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Swiney, 46, expertly sorting bags of multicolored 1-inch tiny spring clothespins during one of her last days on the job. “We all thought this place was going to be here forever.”
Rural Maine traditionally depended on wood manufacturing as one of its main sources of employment. Workers have long manufactured hundreds of everyday wooden products such as golf tees, toothpicks, yardsticks, kitchen utensils, and clothespins. For the most part, the plants are located in small towns, giving a boost to the local economy and jobs.
But competition from low-priced wood imports has driven nearly a dozen businesses to close in the past year. H.G. Winter and Sons Inc. in Kingfield closed in January, putting two dozen out of work. C.B. Cummings in Norway, a wood-turning mill, closed last December.
Forster was founded in 1887 by Charles Forster of Boston, who came up with the idea of manufacturing disposable wooden toothpicks to replace ones made of ivory, quill, gold or silver.
He created a market for the disposable toothpicks by having Harvard students eat at local restaurants and then loudly demand a toothpick after finishing their meals, according to the Smithsonian magazine.
He created the largest toothpick factory in the country in Strong after discovering an abundance of his favorite toothpick wood – birch.
Forster was bought in 1995 by Minnesota-based Diamond Brands, the nation’s other large toothpick manufacturer, which filed for bankruptcy last year. Jarden Corp., a New York-based manufacturing company, acquired Diamond Brands for $90 million last November.
The acquisition was approved in January by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and Jarden Corp. announced a month later that the Strong plant would be shutting its doors. The Forster plant in Wilton, which manufactures plastic cutlery and has about 320 employees, will remain open.
Fifteen of the Strong plant’s 88 employees lost their jobs on April 29, when toothpick production ended.
Another 23 lost their jobs on Friday, when wooden clothespin operations ceased. Most of the remaining workers will be terminated on May 30, when plant operations cease for good, or following a weeklong cleanup. The plant will officially close June 6.
The company is moving the equipment and remaining stock to a plant in Cloquet, Minn. The building will be sold. Town selectmen rejected Jarden Corp.’s offer to sell the plant to the town, citing potential environmental liabilities.
The company is seeking federal Trade Act re-employment assistance for its employees.
For employees, it’s not only the loss of a job but the end of an era. Some had worked at the plant since graduating from high school 30 or 40 years ago.
Lance Wilcox, 49, started in the plant’s lathe room in 1972 making toothpicks, several months after graduating high school, and later became certified as a maintenance specialist.
Holding a tray full of tools, he looked uncertain when asked what he plans to do next but said the closing didn’t surprise him.
“Production hasn’t been up as much. We’ve been losing a lot of orders to overseas (manufacturers),” he said.
Len Dell, 61, worked at the plant for 34 years as a machinist. He plans to retire and considers himself one of the lucky ones. But he’s not sure how the town he grew up in will survive.
“This is about it. Forster’s was their last resort,” he said.
Forster’s shutdown follows the closing of Strong Wood Products and a downsizing of operations at Cousineau Inc.
Just down the road from the plant, Beal’s General Store and the Rib restaurant depended on Forster employees to buy their products and fill the lunch counter.
“It will definitely make a difference in our business and our whole town,” said Troy Romanoski, who owns both businesses. “Those mills were our tax base and our customer base.”
On the Net: Jarden Corp. www.jarden.com/