Right on the dot.
Exactly noon in Park Falls.
If one stops to listen carefully, the hum of the city goes on. The usual bird song. Traffic sounds. Kids on bikes calling to each other as they weave down the sidewalk. Dogs barking. Lawnmowers buzzing. The thrumming of a passing Harley. Those sounds and that rhythm continue as in the past.
However, sometimes it is not what you hear that tells the tale, but what you don’t hear.
The Flambeau River Paper mill’s 12 o’clock whistle has gone eerily silent. That familiar loud blast signaling that it is lunchtime for mill workers and the city residents beyond … sounds no more.
It marked the top of the hour. Time for day shift workers to swing open the small lunch coolers they brought from home and take a break. Enjoy a cold soda and a sandwich maybe a chat with co-workers and let’s not forget that inside the mill it is also time for office staff to take a welcome break from numbers, desks, and computers.
The sound of the whistle signals those who work down in the cavernous workspaces to step away from the huge paper-making machines that they’ve been running since their 12-hour shift began.
But, last week the edict came down. The mill has closed. Go home. You are officially and indefinitely laid off.
The grind of towering presses, the repetitive clacking of the machines that turn pulp into paper have slowed to a stop and most of the workers walked away.
Rumors have always been rife in the mill’s community. The mill is sold. The mill is closing. The mill is laying off.
Despite the ongoing rumors, Park Falls was still startled by the announcement that the mill had gone into receivership. A 60-day alert to workers that the feared layoffs were pending. The two-month warning was put into place by the state after troubled factories were suddenly closing and locking employees out — and that was their notice. A lock on the gate. It wasn’t supposed to go down like that here.
Now, tension is almost palpable, it floats over the city like one of the steam clouds that have ceased to rise from the stacks. Productivity is an important element in a paper mill environment. Paper. Although other products were made there, it was always about paper. It was always about the enormous trucks, and before that train cars, bearing loads of logs for production. Area loggers now must scramble to find new markets.
It seemed the 60-day warning had not held. The state would take the owners to task for that. There was a large order that had been delivered and that company had declined to pay Flambeau River Papers for the product. It was a check that was to have covered payroll.
Not only were workers told to go home, they were told that there was no money to cover their paychecks.
Generations of Park Falls men and women have been mill workers.
They worked long, tedious hours. In the summer the mill floor was hot and dusty. It was a difficult way to make a living, but they did their work and struggled with the cacophonous din of grinding machines because it is what you did.
The mill worker’s community owes them respect for that work. It was not easy, but it was honest work. There is a certain pride and integrity that comes from taking a tree and turning it into paper products. A certain life cycle.
Across the area, there are serious conversations going on around kitchen tables.
Will a buyer be found at the 11th hour? Hope springs eternal.
Workers have roots here. Family. Schools. A deep and abiding love of the Northwoods. They’ve made their life here and many workers will not want to leave Park Falls to find gainful employment. Those are the operative words: gainful employment.
It makes me think of a sweet story I was told when I first came here. A little girl was very proud of her Grandpa who worked at the mill. When asked what her grandpa made, the little girl responded: clouds.
The steam clouds spewing from the stacks along the Flambeau River are idle now and it is anyone’s guess if the clouds will return.
Gentle readers: Keep a good thought for the workers and their families and for the community that they support and hope that some other entity will come along and see the value of a dedicated workforce and blast the whistle once again.