In Gilman, A Family Deals With Changing NEK Economy

06/04/12 7:50AM By Charlotte Albright
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VPR/Charlotte Albright
System Operator Bill Dixon prepares to tests samples at the water treatment facility in Gilman. Dixon also serves as Essex County Deputy Sheriff, and plows Gilman's roads in the winter.

To the rest of the state, Vermont's Northeast Kingdom has an image as a region unto itself: A place of rugged natural beauty and independent, hard working people. But the Kingdom is also a place hit hard by mill closings and the loss of manufacturing jobs. It's a place where unemployment is higher, wages are lower and opportunities fewer than the rest of the state.

This week in the series Kingdom Comeback we look at how the region is trying to transform its economy into one where jobs are more plentiful and the future is brighter.

Today in part one of our series, we meet a family that's been rolling with the punches as the region's economy has changed.

Unless he's doing part-time duty as Deputy Sheriff, you can usually find Bill Dixon in a cramped office at the municipal water works in the village of Gilman. It's down a dirt road from the paper mill where he started baling paper when he was sixteen, and worked his way up to Superintendent of the mill's hydro-electric steam and water plant.

"That was my whole life. Just like everyone else in this town, that was their whole life," Dixon says.

But about 15 years ago, the mill shut down for good, and about 150 workers, most of the town, were suddenly out of work.

"I mean we were doing good, we were making Harry Potter paper, and that's what I couldn't believe, but the place was so worn down and we needed, I think, something like $500,000."

As sole operator of Gilman's water treatment facility, he makes about $37,000 a year, about half his former salary as superintendent at the mill. Like the mill, the village's water system is worn out.

"And there's no money because there's no money in town, the town is dying," Dixon says.

To upgrade the facility would mean raising water rates by as much as $360 per year per household, which Dixon says few could afford, especially older people on a fixed income.

"The people that I knew when I was a kid are still here and I hope they're here for a long time, but I make sure they're taken care of," Dixon says.

Bill's wife, Carol, also has a soft spot for the town's elderly. They often start their day chatting with her at the village post office, where she's Postmaster.

"I think I'm the only person they see during the day. So they have someone to talk to," Dixon says.

And the job means a lot to Dixon, "I love my job, and I love all the people that come in here. We're like a big family here, and whenever the town goes through something bad we all go through it together. "

But what if the next bad thing is the death of this rural Post Office, which is on a closure list?  Carol and Bill say maybe they would have to move to North Carolina, where two of their five children have gone to find jobs. Carol says it's hard, watching so many young people move out of town.

"It's sad, it's sad, and I hear all the old stories from the old people how this town used to be hopping and there was hotels and barbers and butchers and drugstores and everything here, bowling alleys, restaurants, and now we have a Post Office, a school, and a senior center," Dixon explains.

But even though his town isn't in great shape, Carol's step-son, Adam Dixon, is hanging on in the Northeast Kingdom.  He had planned to work at his father Bill's paper mill, but when that closed, he ended up in a factory, which he hated, and then in construction.

Now he works as a foreman at quarries throughout the state, crushing stone.

"I fell in love with this industry, you kind of have to be a certain kind of person to work on a crusher," Adam Dixon says.

But Adam, at 37, is about 20 years younger than the typical stone crusher.

"It's hard to find the new generation to work but the jobs are still there I guess if somebody really wants to work I think they can find one."

Still, Adam Dixon would be surprised if his own son follows in his work-boot-steps.  He says the nine-year old is fascinated by smart phones and computers. His fifteen-year old stepdaughter wants to work as a make-up artist on horror films.

Those aren't easy jobs to come by in the Northeast Kingdom. So, like other members of the Dixon family, they may have to leave home to find work.

Tomorrow in part two of Kingdom Comeback, we look at efforts to revive the wood products industry in the face of global competition.

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northeast_kingdom kingdom_comeback the_vermont_economy business cities
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