Death of a mill town
Historic North Carolina community prays for new purpose—and revenue
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Zeb Smathers’ aviator sunglasses hide his tired eyes from the warm, spring sun. The mayor of Canton, N.C., is only 40 years old, with a mop of brown hair combed neatly above his boyish features. As he makes his way through the crowds at Sorrells Park on May 24, all eyes are on him. So are boom mics and local news cameras.
Smathers is mainly stoic but shares smiles and handshakes with a few older men. Just before noon, the attention and chatter shift from Smathers to the giant steel structure across the street.
Then, everyone waits.
It’s the whistle they’re waiting for. A sound that has marked the rhythms of life in Canton since the early 20th century. It’s a steam-powered whistle, its song low, long, and distant, almost like a siren. It once blew four times a day, along with a separate “wildcat” whistle that blew at noon on Saturdays. The distinctive sound also heralded seasons and celebrations, such as ringing in the New Year or the kickoff for high school football games, and even the end of World War II. But this day’s whistle would not sound in celebration.
Just before noon, small figures begin to appear one by one on the roof of the old pulp and paper mill, like birds on a telephone wire. Mill workers have left their work, and so has everyone else in town. They’re all waiting to hear the whistle blow one last time, marking an end to Canton’s 115-year history as a mill town.
BY THE TIME IT CLOSED, the mill employed 1,100 workers in the immediate Western North Carolina region, not to mention the loggers, wood chip suppliers, truck drivers, train conductors, contractors, and repairmen. Now, the domino effect of the mill’s closure reaches beyond Canton’s borders to the entire region.
Local restaurants once filled by millworkers on their lunch breaks now have tables full of empty seats.
Perhaps the greatest hit to Canton is the tax fallout. The mill paid about $3 million in municipal taxes each year—just over one-quarter of the city’s budget. Mayor Zeb Smathers expects the state of North Carolina to offer help as that burden falls on the remainder of the town’s economy.
“But I don’t want to live off of the government,” he told me. “We are going to need to build back our economy.”
That’s a daunting task for a town Smathers says is going through a months-long funeral.
Canton once wore its industry identity loud and proud. Businesses line Main Street with names like Papertown Coffee and Milltown Furniture. A downtown mural just a block from the mill still shouts “Papertown” in red letters.
The “Milltown” moniker even adorns the local high school’s football helmets, just above the face mask.
Smathers has one of those helmets in his downtown law office. He graduated from Pisgah High School over 20 years ago.
“I’m a product of this place,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. Dark circles envelop his eyes, and a five o’clock shadow testifies that he hasn’t gotten enough sleep in days, maybe weeks.
“This is family. And we’ve suffered a death in the family,” he says.
CANTON IS CERTAINLY NOT the only mill town that no longer has its mill. Starting in the 1990s, small towns in Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine began to lose their primary industry. As in Canton, it’s a gut-wrenching loss. But many of the old mill towns are surviving, even thriving, as they find ways to reinvent themselves.
Three weeks before the final whistle in Canton, I sat across from 56-year-old Susan Reece at a Mexican restaurant just off Main Street. Reece is a single mother who still lives on the family land where she raised her son and daughter.
She worked at the mill for 23 years but wasn’t shocked to find herself out of a job now. “I was surprised but not really … you know what I’m saying?”
Reece’s dark black hair is pulled into a tight ponytail and she’s wearing all black: T-shirt, pants, and shoes. It’s basically her mill uniform. Her strawberry-pink watch adds the only color.
At the mill, Reece worked as a roll storage checker. She spent most of her time moving giant paper rolls from point A to point B using a forklift with a roll clamp attachment. Standing upright, some of the rolls are as wide as 5 feet and as tall as 10.
Reece worked in other departments aside from storage, but that’s where she was forced to end her 23-year career at the mill, at the tail end of its long and vibrant history.
Until the plant’s closure, Canton was a paper mill paradise, perched on top of the Pigeon River and surrounded by greenery. Water kept the mill running, and the Blue Ridge Mountains kept it supplied with wood.
You can’t see the mill from Interstate Highway 40, since the rolling mountains hide the smokestacks from speedy travelers. But within the city limits, you can see them from just about anywhere. Canton grew up around the paper-pumping giant, so it’s nearly impossible to think of the city without thinking of the mill. For more than a century, it was the town’s beating heart, running 24/7 except during planned maintenance or a flood.
If you didn’t see the mill, you heard it and smelled it. Sharp, sulfur-like fumes drenched the mountain town, as did the sounds of production: Low hums slipped from the core of the steel structure. Semi-trucks’ air brakes screeched when they arrived and hissed when they left.
Champion Fibre Company broke ground on the factory in 1906. Canton’s population jumped from 230 to 2,500 in just two decades. Businesses, restaurants, houses, and a YMCA soon followed Champion Paper Mill into town. Champion kept that name for almost a century, before it became Blue Ridge Paper Inc. in 1999. Eight years later, Evergreen Packaging (now known as Pactiv Evergreen) acquired it.
ALL THAT’S GONE NOW—that death in the family Mayor Smathers laments. He isn’t the only one grieving. And the town’s collective trauma was made worse by the way residents learned about their loss.
Cory Vaillancourt of Smoky Mountain News posted a headline to Facebook on March 6 that read: “Canton mill will close by summer.” It went viral, at least in Haywood County.
Vaillancourt says a local source tipped him off earlier that day about an emergency meeting Evergreen had called for 5:30 p.m. Few others in Canton knew about it. The small auditorium could only fit 40 people. Undercover security guards stood at the back of the room, anticipating an outburst of anger that never materialized.
In his article, Vaillancourt quoted Byron Racki, the president of Beverage Merchandising: “This is not at all a reflection of the people in this room … people in the mill. It is largely, almost exclusively a reflection of the market conditions along with capital costs that would be needed to upgrade the Canton facility.”
Simply put, the closure boiled down to market conditions and outdated machinery. It turns out, that was a familiar refrain in Canton.
Until 1999, the mill kept the Champion name despite mergers and changes in owners. But that year, Champion International announced it would sell the Canton mill for three reasons: cheaper foreign imports, uncertain markets, and pricey upgrades to ancient machinery.
Like Racki, Champion emphasized that it was purely a financial decision, nothing personal. But to the mill workers, it was very personal. Hundreds stood to lose their jobs in the sale.
In response, a group of six millworkers banded together to buy the mill, with help from an investment group in New York.
New owners, new name, same function. It was now called Blue Ridge Paper Inc., and the giant rolls of paper and paperboard continued to roll out the door to buyers at a rapid rate.
In 2007, ownership changed again, this time to Evergreen. The company quickly became prominent as a food and beverage packaging manufacturer, creating a wide range of products that included cups, envelopes, food trays, even lollipop sticks.
Pactiv Evergreen filed for an IPO in August 2020 and by September was publicly traded on the stock market exchange. It had a successful fiscal year in 2022 and reported higher results than even its executives projected. Net revenues rose 14 percent over the previous year.
That’s why it came as a surprise to Canton residents when they opened Facebook that Monday evening and read Cory Vaillancourt’s article.
The mill had seemed invincible.
MILLWORKER SUSAN REECE doesn’t blame Evergreen for shuttering the mill.
“I mean it’s 115 years old and built on a swamp and the floors are awful,” she says.
The day before her final shift, Reece offered to take me inside. Throwing on a hard hat and safety goggles, I follow her around the 200-acre lot.
“That’s my ride,” she says as we pass a forklift.
It’s dark and warm inside the mill, and rank with the putrid smell that comes from the pulp bleaching process. It’s like rotten eggs that have sat in warm salt water for a few days. Canton residents call it “the smell of money.”
Once, the wood chips piled outside were fed into a vat of chemicals that bleached them, turning the chips into bright white pulp.
The pulp was then fed through paper machines. Steel rollers larger than an SUV are still packed close together in a room longer than 100 feet with cranes hanging overhead.
As we make our way through the building, it’s easy to see why upgrading would cost so much. Control boards are a mashup of 20th- and 21st-century technology. A computer is mounted on top of a broad silver control center with prominent colorful buttons.
The floors are deceptively firm, made of solid epoxy and concrete. But underneath, the floor joists aren’t as steady. Cobwebs hang from the dilapidated wood. Some sections have begun to dip from the weight of the machines.
Most of the employees are gone by now, so the mill is empty and quiet. Haunting. Caution tape drapes lazily over much of the machinery. Reece leads me past warehouses, pulp vats, machines, and the lunch room. The chef who made the best meatloaf retired long ago, she tells me, and the food hasn’t been the same since.
Then we pass machine 19, and Reece stops to tell me how it almost killed her. She was standing on a stationary sheet of paper when a hard-of-hearing co-worker flipped on the power switch.
She was just a few feet from the hungry steel rollers as they began to grind up the paper.
“I hop-stepped off that sheet like a cartoon character,” she says, chuckling at the memory. “I was about to give him an earful, but all of my co-workers already beat me to it.”
The last roll to come off machine 19 stands upright in one of the warehouses. Workers’ signatures cover its crisp white surface. On our way out, Reece tears off a piece to keep as a souvenir.
OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS, paper and paperboard consumption dropped 30 percent in America, according to Statista.
Low demand for printer paper isn’t the only culprit. Beverage merchandising is struggling too. Starbucks and McDonald’s use Evergreen’s paperboard for their beverage cups, and even before the pandemic Americans were eating out significantly less than they did 20 years ago. In 2000, per-person restaurant visits topped 216, but by 2018 that number had dropped to 185. Three years post-pandemic, even more families are staying away from dine-in options. Carry-out has certainly increased in popularity over the past couple of decades, but that only accounts for part of Pactiv Evergreen’s market.
Evergreen largely blamed market conditions for scaling back production, but foreign imports also play a role. U.S. imports have increased by almost 34 percent since 2000.
Canton isn’t the only mill town feeling the effects. Evergreen is also closing a carton converting facility in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. Its mayor, James Patrick Graven, reached out to Smathers for help on how to lead a mill town that’s losing its mill. At the time, Smathers didn’t have many answers for him.
But Canton does have models to follow on its road to recovery. The century-old mill in Millinocket, Maine, closed in 2014. Charles W. Mullen planted the mill in 1900 for the same reasons as Champion’s founder: water and lumber nearby. The Great Northern Paper Co. boomed, especially in the ’70s and ’80s. But bankruptcy in 2003 was the beginning of the end, and five years later the mill closed. The list of reasons sounds familiar: outdated machinery, cheap foreign imports, and decreased demand.
The ensuing years saw a revolving door of companies pledging to resurrect the mill. None of them succeeded.
Canton should expect to see the same thing in the next few years, said Lloyd Irland: “This community can expect a lot of tire kickers … promoters who will make promises.”
Irland received a Ph.D. from Yale in forest economics and policy in 1973 and has been a consultant to wood products and paper companies since 1987. Much of his research has been conducted in Maine’s declining paper industry, and he currently lives south of Millinocket. The wave of mill closures have all followed a similar pattern. And promised resurrections have proved deceptive.
“Most of them are not going to work out,” he said. “They’re preying on people’s incurable optimism.”
Millinocket sits at the doorstep of Baxter State Park. That has allowed the town to transition into tourism. Canton’s opportune location could also be its saving grace. It’s just 15 miles outside Asheville, a popular spot for visitors year-round. The average cost of housing in Asheville is upward of $500,000 while Canton’s median home price is $150,000 less. Now that the distinct mill smell no longer pervades the town, it could attract commuters looking for a cheaper place to live.
But most mill workers won’t be able to stay, especially if housing prices rise. Canton has few options for good-paying jobs. According to a 2022 report from the North Carolina Department of Commerce, workers at the Canton mill, on average, earned $84,000 annually, not counting overtime.
Local Canton churches hosted job fairs to help workers find new employment opportunities, but there weren’t many. Those same churches also banded together to host a public prayer gathering at Sorrells Park, just days after the March announcement.
More than 100 residents showed up, including Mayor Smathers, for the public outpouring. Though emotional, the crowd resonated with a hopeful spirit. With prayer, music, and speeches, they celebrated the vital role the mill played in Canton. Some expressed gratitude, others surrendered to the uncertain future.
Two months later in that same park, silence sweeps over the bustling crowd as the seconds tick toward noon. Slow and crescendoing, the mill’s final whistle echoes over the town for about five minutes. As the sound fades, the crowd breaks its solemn silence with an eruption of claps and whistles.
Jason Hartline nods his head and wears a slight grimace. Like many, the 50-year-old father and husband thought he would retire here. Hartline wears a T-shirt stamped with a large gold token engraved with the number 20. It represents machine 20, where he spent his decades-long career at the mill. When it closed, he moved his family six hours away to New Bern, N.C. It was the nearest paper mill job he could find.
“I think they [Evergreen] could’ve kept us going for a while,” he says. “I don’t think this was the answer.”
BY JUNE 9, all but a few of Hartline’s former co-workers had vacated the mill. Only a skeleton crew remained to clean up acres of hazardous material.
Meanwhile, Susan Reece was sitting in a classroom at Haywood Community College, starting a social work practicum. On June 12 she posted a photo on Facebook, sporting loose curls that framed her face: “New hair and, y’all, I have a skirt on!”
Evergreen paid the tuition for millworkers who lost their jobs. Reece already has associate degrees in machine technology, electronics engineering, and computer engineering. Social work will be her fourth. Those degrees make her more marketable in her job search, but not in Canton. For her, that last whistle was the sound of freedom.
Before the mill closed, Reece made a four-hour round-trip drive every week to visit her son, daughter, and grandson in Forest City, N.C. She’d spent her whole life in Canton. Now she’s relocating to Forest City to be with her family.
“I didn’t want them to have to work in a mill,” she said, reflecting on the lives her children forged away from Canton. “Because they just keep shutting down manufacturing in the United States.”
The mill had provided a good job. It paid the bills, and it allowed her kids to get an education. Now it’s just a memory.
“I get to try something new,” Reece said, amazement filling her eyes. After a pause, she chuckles. “Who knows, I may end up driving a forklift again.”