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The paper chase at Brown's Mill

Just about four years ago we drove north to a Maine town with an intriguing double identity -- Dover-Foxcroft, as if one name were not quite adequate to cover 4,100 inhabitants. Fog hung over the road until we were well out of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. When the route moved away from the coast, the mist finally broke, like a curtain parting, and suddenly there stood the green of Maine countryside in the bright sunshine of late May.

We had entered another world, in more senses than one.

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Our particular destination was Brown's Mill, an old red-brick structure with twelve-by-twelve beams, dating back to 1867.

What did this grand relic, standing in the sunshine on the bank of the Piscataquis River, have to do with the concrete-and-glass high-technology industries we had passed on Route 128, shrouded in Boston mist, just a few hours before?

And how could Charles E. MacArthur -- who had lured us nearly 300 miles to look at Brown's Mill - possibly regard this ancient complex (and not Route 128 high-tech) as the model of the future?

Well, that's Charley MacArthur for you. You can't expect standard buttoned-down ideas from a man who once soared over the Arctic Circle in a balloon of his own design.

It has been four years, but we can still see Charley MacArthur looking at the battered dam of Brown's Mill and seeing a restored hydroelectric plant, looking at the empty floor space in the mill itself and seeing an ''imaginative business hatchery for starting second careers,'' as one of his ads read in the Maine Times.

Already, back then, a cabinetmaker had rented a corner for $1 a day, sawing and milling his own wood and using an adapted chicken incubator to dry it.

In another part of this mill that had produced everything from wool to tanned leather in its first 100 years, African violets grew in an improvised greenhouse while a family of kittens played in the potting soil.

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Yankee ingenuity was in the air, and Utopian visions in Charley MacArthur's eyes. He saw crowds of folks coming on weekends to a sort of Brown's Mill fair. There would be live music. There would be a nature food restaurant.

Charley MacArthur had seen the future, and it was small and it was beautiful and it was without OPEC. He had, in the spring of 1978, a sort of five-year plan , and now it was four years later.

A postcard arrived from Brown's Mill a week or so ago, showing an aerial view of the restored complex. Very impressive. A letter accompanied the postcard, reporting that the hydroelectric station ''generates almost all the electric power needed'' by Dover-Foxcroft. Despite the recession, nine businesses, it seems, are thriving in Brown's Mill -- including that nature food restaurant. The State Department has written up Brown's Mill as an example of American free enterprise. A clipping is on display outside the United States Embassy in Moscow , Charley MacArthur has been informed.

But meanwhile, crosstown in Washington, D. C., the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is wrapping red tape around Brown's Mill on the matter of a license for the power station.

''FERC told us we could fill out all the necessary papers for a license 'in a single evening, while watching television,' '' Charley MacArthur writes in his letter. ''So far we have a man-year invested, a pile of paper eight inches high, an estimated $14,000 in money spent, power production reduced as I spend my time in the office rather than in the power station, legal fees mounting.''

Charley MacArthur darkly quotes the mutterings of colonial revolutionaries against King George: ''He has erected a Multitude of New Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.'' Our Brown's Mill correspondent concludes: ''I would race down to the harbor to toss in a box of tea, but now that too requires a license.''

Will bureaucracy do what floods and high interest rates have failed to do -- stop Charley MacArthur? We hope not.

Government economists have their own indicators of the state of the economy. We hardly expect Brown's Mill to become one of them.

Still, most people have a personal index or two of their own. We remember that day along the Piscataquis River four years ago, vividly brought back by the postcard and letter. Are we being whimsical to say that the success or failure of enterprises like Brown's Mill may constitute an even truer test of The System than the destiny of Braniff or Chrysler?

Let those spirit-of-'76 letters and postcards keep on coming.

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