THE BLOG

Reinventing the Mill

03/25/2015 11:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015

How do you solve the economic problems of the New England mill town? Some have branded themselves as "gateways" for a new class of immigrants from Latin and South America. But for those nestled in rural areas, far from the urban center, population growth would be warmly welcomed. These towns are grappling with an aging and declining population. Some fear outright extinction. All are searching for a new identity, a sense of purpose to fill the holes left by the shuttered factories of yesterday.

Millinocket, Maine, with over a century of history and a passionate local government, has chosen to find opportunity in change. Recognizing its greatest resource, its people, coupled with outstanding schools built during the height of the boom, Millinocket is becoming a surprising destination for international students. And with Chinese students particularly galvanized to journey thousands of miles for a taste of clean air in the shadow of a snow-capped mountain, Millinocket has found a new identity on the other side of the world.

The town, population 4,500, is the sort of hidden hamlet where you might accidentally fall in love, not with a person, but with a place. First incorporated in 1901, Millinocket was built in only two years to house the workers of Great Northern Paper, once the largest paper mill in the world. It is a fitting historical irony that Chinese students, after driving just an hour from Bangor International Airport, will cite the area's incredible natural beauty, unknowing of how closely the town's industrial origins mirrors their present reality. In China, a small fishing village can become a city of a million seemingly overnight.

Base camp for incoming Chinese students is Stearns Jr. Sr. High School, originally built for 2,000 students, now burgeoning its numbers with students studying from 22 countries. Demand for American secondary education is stratospheric in the new China, and Millinocket has turned its empty classrooms into rocket fuel. Instead of waiting for commercial investment, a new superintendent has taken matters into his own hands.

To call Francis Boynton, native son of Millinocket, "new" is a bit of a misnomer. Though still in his first year of service, Boynton's family purchased "the fourth house in town," a beautiful Georgian home, back in 1898. They've held onto it ever since. Mr. Boynton's career as an educator has taken him to several districts around Maine, but he started as a teacher at the middle school, from 1974-1988. He has emerged from retirement to shepherd his beloved school system into a new era of international education, one destined to define and save its future.

There is something intangible beyond the awe-inspiring landscape that draws students here from around the world. It's a sense of place and pride that the people of Millinocket carry quietly around. It's that feeling when you walk into the grocery store that you're not there to simply shop, you're there to catch up on people's lives. It's a sense of community, alien to many Chinese visitors, who are accustomed to the paradoxical isolation of life in a metropolis.

One of Frank's fellow administrators, Vickie Baron, relates a story.

When I worked for the mill, there was a young woman who married and went to Atlanta. She was so excited at first; all of the shopping, restaurants, things to do. But once she got there, she realized everyone kept to themselves. She felt alone.

She came back home.

Millinocket is well-equipped for tourists seeking nearby Baxter State Park, with dozens of miles of trails for cross-country skiing, hiking and four-wheeling. From the center of town, you're only 10 minutes from the lake, where many people keep a cabin or a second home that has also been in the family for generations. It's there that Chinese students can spend a summer lakeside, learning everything from English to environmentalism.

In April, Mr. Boynton will visit several Chinese cities -- Shanghai, Beijing, Hanghzou -- that at first glance are a world away from his Maine home. But when he looks into the eyes of his international students, he sees beyond the surface difficulties of a rapidly globalizing world.

He sees a future for his hometown on the world stage, and he is ready to grab it.