A gentleman who sat with his wife in the pew in front of me at church brought a newspaper clipping one Sunday last spring. The news story was written by Richard Adams Carey, and was titled, “Requiem For a Paper Mill.” It was in the Bookshelf section of a newspaper, I’ve no idea which one, but it struck a chord. Things were changing at the local paper mill and the book mentioned in the clipping, “You Had a Job for Life,” authored by Jamie Sayen and published by University Press of New England, sounded interesting and perhaps had some parallels that would give me insight into navigating the changes that seemed to be coming down the pike. The ladies at the Park Falls Public Library kindly requested it for me via ILL (interlibrary loan, for those who are not library users) from the West Bend Public Library. Parts of the book are rather ponderous, but much more of it is interesting, as well as slightly familiar. My husband was employed by every owner of the mill here in Park Falls except the originals, the Sherry family, who sold it to the Kansas City Star before we were even born. It was under KCS ownership he would begin his work life that continued for 44 years. For him, as well as for many others, it had been “a job for life.” As of this writing, others may not be so fortunate.
My column usually avoids the political and this may fall under that heading, but my hope is that readers will take it as I intend — a bit of history as well as, to borrow from Lemony Snicket, what occurs when there comes a series of unfortunate events. By no means am I making light of the situation here in Park Falls or what occurred in Groveton, New Hampshire, but both occurred for much the same reasons.
The mill in Groveton was a bit older than the mill here in Park Falls, having been built in 1891, and a whole lot larger. There were at least six paper machines that produced several varieties of paper, something like 500 grades. For much of its existence, it was family-owned by three generations of the Wemyss family. This is something the Park Falls mill has never had under any of its business names — local ownership. We can only guess, but perhaps that weighed heavily in business decisions — the fact those men of the Wemyss family had to look their employees, their fellow townspeople, their neighbors, in the eye, day in and day out. But, we can only guess, perhaps that mattered not at all. Perhaps the local “distance owners” cared just as much. We’ll never know.
The book talks of pre-OSHA working conditions. Pre-environmental impact study operations. The workers unionized early on, in 1905, and a strike taking place in 1917 is said to have involved horsewhips, gunfire and arson. (If memory serves, the mill in Park Falls did not unionize until the 1940s.) There were other strikes of course, all settled rather amicably.
I only recall a few local strikes — one when I was a junior high school student. The mill had little to do with me then. No one in my family worked there, and though my dad was a logger there were plenty of other outlets for the wood he produced, Nekoosa-Port Edwards being one. I recall Rick walking the picket line once, but there may have been other times — he’d remember better than I.
In any case it’s not a book about papermaking, though papermaking is a fascinating mix of chemistry, engineering and gigantic, intricately-built machines run by people who sometimes develop an affinity with them. It is a book about those people and their town.
We are people who have lived in the shadow of the term “mill town” too. In business, as in life, there are factors that none of us has control over, and oftentimes we lose sight of the controllables and thus, lose our way. My two cents, which is probably what it’s worth: We live in a world that is a far cry from the one my generation was raised in. Our parents lived in the boom days following WWII. They raised us with dreams they thought could come true. Keep that nose to the grindstone. Work hard at whatever you do and better days will naturally follow. Wall Street was far away. Globalization was a term never heard. How could they have known? How could any of us have known?
Sometimes positivity is difficult to maintain, but negativity leads down a dark path. There comes a time for reinvention, even of thought, if nothing else. Perhaps that time is upon us here, now, in this place. Personally, I’d rather we didn’t replicate Groveton.