A Family Business Celebrates its Long History
Tucked off Katahdin Avenue inMillinocket, just before the trek into the Baxter State Park region, a 115-year-old family business has persevered through hard work and reinvention. The Millinocket Fabrication and Machine Company (MFM), affectionately known as “The Foundry,” has been making machinery and metal parts
for more than a century.
The business was started by Thomas Corrigan, whose iconic portrait hangs in the office. He was Canadian born and worked in the foundry trade in the late 1800s in New Hampshire. In 1905, when he was 33, he came to Millinocket, seeing a need for the trade where two world-class paper mills were being built. The story goes that Tom’s partner, Ed Ayling joined him, yet after a difficult winter in the Maine woods, he commented, “I’m not spending my life in this God forsaken place,” and left. Soon after, four of Tom’s brothers signed on. John and Edward joined in the organization of the business, while Patrick worked the trade and William shared in the enterprise.
The business had its share of hard times, starting with the first hurdle— losing a shop to fire in the 1920s. Also, the wood and paper industries’ ongoing changes meant MFM was always shifting gears. And when wartime restrictions were placed on the use of scrap metal, it was a threat to the business. But the Corrigan brothers were able to nail down a contract to cast shaft bearings for Liberty ships being built at 18 shipyards. The Foundry became a staple of the community for decades, courtesy of the Great Northern Paper Company (GNP). GNP owned two mills in the area and offered guaranteed work for the only fabrication business in town.
Fred Lewis is the current owner of MFM, which was founded by his grandfather. He has worked here for 40 years. As Fred candidly shares how his passion developed for the family’s fabrication business, he thumbs through his grandfather’s pocket notebook from 1906. He says that the company has had to continually reinvent itself for success— that need for resourceful flexibility has become a key trait of The Foundry.
Fred’s work ethic began to develop when he was just six years old, working in the potato fields. Following that, his keen business sense was acquired while working with his father in the Lewis family-owned IGA in Sherman Mills. He admits, “You had to learn how to work with people, and that’s a lesson I carried over.”
Fred graduated from Boston College in 1980, and his mother, Helen Corrigan Lewis, suggested he consider applying for a job at The Foundry. “I walked in for my interview wearing a three-piece suit, and everyone chuckled at me,” he says, laughing at the memory.
Fred recalls his early start, saying, “My degree was in marketing, yet my cousin Raymond, a second-generation family member who was running the business, was interested in my accounting and management skills for the office.”
As years went by, Fred’s determined mindset, complemented with his outgoing personality, led him to increase his marketing efforts, and he started positioning this small fabrication business. “Marketing ramped up, as the mills kept eroding. I created the business’ first brochure, went to trade shows, hired reps, tackled road sales, and made international connections.”
In 1986, when Fred returned from a vacation to attend a Board of Director’s meeting, his cousin abruptly announced he was closing the business. “The Foundry was not vibrant. The grinder rooms were closing, and the mills were getting smaller,” says Fred. “I went to my mother and said I need to figure out how to buy this place or find a new job. I had no money, so I asked my mother if she’d be willing to take her stockholder shares and back me in the purchase.”
Though many accountants and business experts expressed skepticism about the company’s financial stability, the determined 28-year-old secured two mortgages to buy the business. “One mortgage was to pay my mother back her shares, and the other was to buy out the other family stockholders.” He goes on, “I needed a job, and I enjoyed the work and saw a lot of potential here with a good crew.”
In the early 1990s, the paper company GNP was selling out, a change that created instability. About 85 percent of MFM’s work came from the mills. Over the years The Foundry provided fabrication and machining services and did repair and capital building projects for GNP. “During this time, I married and had two children. One was two and the other six months old when my wife got ill, forcing us to move closer to Boston for her doctors. Yet, I still ran the business from 300 miles away.” He goes on, “I’d say that has been my biggest accomplishment. I was able to keep my wife as healthy as possible and keep the business alive.”
In 2008, Millinocket—known as the Magic City—lost its magic when the mill closed, followed by the neighboring mill in East Millinocket. These closings forced millworkers to scramble, and many started their own small businesses. “A shop with the capabilities that we had could not compete with these small job shops. So, we had to evolve to larger projects, which meant acquiring larger machines and material handling equipment.”
As Fred walks through the facility, showing the various projects underway, he notes that each job is unique. “Today we can handle projects up to 30 tons. And we have the largest turning capability in the state to include machining parts up to 12 feet in diameter and lathe capacity that ranges up to 84 inches in diameter by 21 feet long,” he says.
Continuing the tour, Fred talks about ongoing work on a power generation project. It has become one of the company’s biggest lines of work. The company also has product development jobs in other industries, such as creating a prototype for a company working on helium booths for hi-tech manufacturing applications. In the past year, MFM completed a Tender Car for a steam locomotive, part of a restoration project underway for Maine Central Locomotive 470.
Because of the company’s focus on custom orders, Fred is constantly on the lookout for manufacturers and industries that need MFM’s large and unique machining and metal fabrication capabilities. Admittedly, he says no day is like the next. “Some days we have orders for parts the size of a bread box and the next day the size of a locomotive. As a manufacturer, we build to customer specifications.”
“There is no seasonality to the business. When the economy is good, we are busy,” says Fred. Despite the stagnation of the economy through 2020, MFM is tackling a couple of large projects. This year remains a time of survival like that of the 1940s. As Fred says, “It’s been one day at a time and one foot in front of the other.” When you ask the now 63-year-old about the numerous hurdles he has conquered over the last 35 years of ownership, his quick reply is, “Who’s counting?” At an age when many are planning for retirement, Fred keeps on, continuing the family tradition of reinventing the business.
Meanwhile, his grandfather Tom’s distinctive portrait holds its prominent position on the wall. Fred says, “It’s uncanny how much my older brother Bill [who works at The Foundry] looks like Grandfather, so I feel like Tom is here watching over us all the time.” And I have a memory of my own, in this regard. I am a cousin to Fred Lewis, and I recall visiting The Foundry with my mother (who was raised in part by the Corrigan family) each summer. We would come to visit Uncle Charlie, the son of Thomas Corrigan, who worked at The Foundry. Then as now, the portrait of the man who started the company, Thomas Corrigan, hung sedately on the office wall. It is an imposing reminder of the company’s and the family’s heritage and their inspiring resourcefulness.
Although there are no family members interested in the business at present, the “wheels keep moving,” Fred says. “One of the things that has enabled me to make this business work is you have to be able to figure out how to overcome problems and make it work.” It is this attitude and resolve that has Fred and his crew looking forward. “There certainly is a future here, even after I move on.”