The Rise and Fall of Paper Making
The Exploitation of Ontonagon, Pt. 4
By Bruce Johanson
Ontonagon Fibre Co., which was organized upon the financial wreckage of the old Northern Fibre, began the making of brown paper that is a material that was used in fabricating cardboard containers. This plant made good progress until hit by the great depression. In 1931 the company was reorganized as Ontonagon Fiber Corporation and throughout the depression years, this company struggled to keep going. The local manager, James Sickman was instrumental in saving this enterprise, literally “peddling” the goods of the paper mill to industrial customers via frequent railroad trips and then telephoning orders home to the mill. In these days, softwood was being utilized as feedstock and even local loggers or farmers could bring a load of pulp logs into Ontonagon and sell them on the spot to the mill. Keep in mind, however, that the depletion of the forests continued and local residents scrambled to survive these devastating times.
With the coming of the second great war, many locals answered the call to arms but the paper mill managed to stay in production. Wartime always brings some measure of prosperity to areas that are the source of what it takes to make war: minerals (iron and copper) and wood (timber and paper). All things considered, Ontonagon did quite well during wartime.
In 1945, the Ontonagon Fiber Corporation became the property of National Container Corporation, a large Chicago firm that noticed the proximity of the Ontonagon mill to the wood resource and saw profits. At this point, A. Newton Cuneo, step-son of James Sickman became the mill manager. There were jobs for locals, and the developing mining activity at White Pine was also providing the employment needed by returning service personnel. National Container continued the operation until suddenly, with no real warning to the employees, National Container closed the mill down in December of 1953 leaving many unemployed paper makers in its wake. Many reasons for the sudden closing were suggested but the most probable was the fact that the vast tracts of northern softwoods were now nearly exhausted. The exploitation of this natural resource had reached the terminal point.
The second big push for paper making came in the person of one Alvin Huss, a Chicago lumberman who was attracted to the area by one Abbott Fox, a sawmill owner in Trout Creek. Huss saw the possibility of using hardwood in making pulp and later paper. Hardwood includes the seemingly inexhaustible supply of aspen (poplar). Basically, the earlier mill has used trees with needles, but Huss saw the opportunity to profit by using the trees with leaves (deciduous).
Huss converted the pulping process to hardwoods and in 1957, installed a new paper-making machine. Huss Ontonagon Pulp & Paper, in a few short years, became the Huss Mill Division of Hoerner Boxes of Keokuk, Iowa. In 1967, the company grew into Hoerner-Waldorf Corporation after a merger with Waldorf Paper Products of St. Paul Minnesota. The mill expanded its operations as well as its appetite for wood but, fortunately, the durable popular recovers quickly. Alvin Huss, with an eye to the future, had purchased 32,000 acres of forest land in the area. Eventually, Champion International added the Ontonagon mill to its growing empire of papermaking and brought to the area the benefits of a benevolent employer and good labor relations, however, corporate growth does not always bring positive change to small towns.
Champion was really not a “brown paper” company and after a decade of sterling business practices, the mill was sold to Stone Container. Now began the decline. Stone was more demanding of the employees who had benefited under Champion’s years. Labor relations took a sudden nose-dive and this even led to conflicts with the Village of Ontonagon when Stone moved a number of mobile homes onto mill property to house strikebreakers who had been hired to staff the mill and a chain-link fence went up around the mill yard. The village demanded the removal of the mobile homes which were in violation of the village zoning ordinance. The strike was prevented, but the labor relations were never the same again.
Stone Container had its own internal problems and was eventually merged into an even larger paper-making empire, Smurfit-Stone. What follows is a matter of recent history. What is amazing is that a profitable paper-making enterprise, located near the wood resource and with a strong demand for its product, was sold out to another corporation after the owners virtually created a case for filing bankruptcy. This caused a huge vacuum in the tax base for the village, caused the local schools to lose over half their enrollment, and forced the railroad to abandon its rail service to Ontonagon.
Even the local hospital began to experience financial distress. As if to add injury to the insult, the owners of Smurfit-Stone, after turning a deaf ear to viable offers of purchase from other entities, sold the mill to a Canadian-based salvage operation that demolished the entire complex, leaving a huge empty field. A facility that had provided generational employment for 90 years was torn out of the heart of the community. The master forces of corporate greed had completed the ultimate act of exploitation of the village, but this is not the total story.