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After 164 years, papermaking scheduled to end in Hamilton

Former Champion and Beckett mills face closing by early 2012

After 164 years, papermaking scheduled to end in Hamilton

Compiled by Jim Blount

In the early months of 2012, Hamilton could be a city without a paper mill for the first time since 1848. For at least 164 years paper has been a vital industry, employing thousands, contributing to a stable city tax base and, through its executives and workers, providing immeasurable leadership to the community.

Corporations that have been operating what once were the Champion and Beckett mills both announced in October 2011 they plan to cease operations in Hamilton.

SMART Papers has operated the former Champion complex on North B Street since 2001. In May 2000, International Paper acquired all Champion International assets. June 21, 2000, International assumed ownership of the Hamilton plant and its 800 employees. Less than six months later, Jan. 8, 2001, International announced the sale of the local mill to a Florida merchant banking firm, Smart Paper LLC.

The Beckett Paper Co., 400 Dayton Street, became part of Hammermill Paper Co. in May 1959. International Paper Co. acquired Hammermill in 1986. May 2, 2005, Mohawk Paper Mills of Cohoes, N. Y., purchased the Beckett mill from International Paper. At that time, the Beckett mill had 227 employees and produced seven brands of paper. Mohawk also restored the Beckett Paper Mill name to the Hamilton operation.

Hamilton part the "Paper Valley"

Beckett and Champion -- and other smaller Hamilton mills -- were part of "The Paper Valley," a name commonly used in the first half of the 20th century to describe the concentration of producers along the Great Miami River and the Miami & Erie Canal.

Paper companies extended north from Hamilton through Woodsdale, Rockdale, Excello, Middletown, Franklin, Miamisburg, West Carrollton, Dayton and beyond. South of Hamilton there were mills on the canal at Rialto, Port Union and at Crescentville on the county line.

Estimates of the number of mills in "Paper Valley" run from a peak of 30 or more in the 1890-1930 period to the low 20s as recently as 50 years ago during 1960s.

Another Hamilton firm, Black & Clawson, had an important role in "Paper Valley," but it didn’t make paper. From a modest start as a machine shop in 1873, Frank X. Black and Linus P. Clawson, built machines and equipment used to produce paper. Their customers were many of the mills along the Great Miami and the Miami & Erie

By the 1890s, the company was fabricating paper machines 750 feet in length (two and a half football fields). The plant at North Second and Vine streets also produced a variety of machinery for other industries. By 1900, it was shipping Hamilton-built machinery to England, Europe, Asia and South America. In 1926 it began expansion outside Hamilton. Black & Clawson operated in Hamilton until early 1970s.

Canal and hydraulic key factors

Paper mills flourished in the region because of water. It started with clear water from the aquifer, a vast underground river that runs north-south in western Ohio. The clear water was necessary to produce paper without discoloration.

In Hamilton, water was important for two other reasons -- power and transportation.

Hamilton products had an outlet to expanded markets after 1829 when the town was connected to the Miami & Erie Canal. The canal -- which also extended north to Lake Erie in 1845 -- provided early access to steamboats at Cincinnati, enabling trade over the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and their navigable tributaries, plus international opportunities at the port of New Orleans.

The water advantages outweighed the problem of obtaining wood pulp. The first mills in the region made paper from rags and wheat straw. Wood pulp became available as transportation systems developed, especially railroads.

The spark for the Beckett mill was the opening of the Hamilton Hydraulic, a water power system built for industry. Water was diverted from the Great Miami River north of town and passed through man-made channels, dropping 29 feet along its four-mile course. Jan. 27, 1845, the privately developed Hamilton Hydraulic opened, providing cheap, reliable water power and starting an era of industrial growth and diversification in the city.

Transportation options increased Sept. 23, 1851, when the first train arrived in Hamilton over the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad, giving local industrial and agricultural products access to national markets. Other railroad lines were built during the 1850s. By the end of the decade, the city enjoyed rail links with New York, Chicago, St. Louis and other major cities.

In the mid 19th century, Hamilton was in the strategic center of the nation's "Manufacturing Belt" that stretched from Portland, Maine, and Richmond, Va., on east coast to St. Louis and Minneapolis on the Mississippi River. In 1900, about 80% of U. S. manufacturing output was in the 18-state belt that covered only about 17% of the nation’s land. Those factories relied on "Paper Valley" mills to meet their needs for catalogs, advertising, correspondence and a multitude of other uses.

Beckett mill opened in 1848

Beckett has been recognized as Hamilton's oldest operating industry. It also has claimed to be "the oldest operating fine paper mill west of the Allegheny Mountains."

The $12,000 mill opened in May 1848. Initially, it produced about a ton of rag-based newsprint each day. Calvin Reilly, a Toledo businessman, hired Adam Laurie, a young Scotsman experienced in papermaking, to design, build and manage the mill. Also involved in the construction was John L. Martin, a Vermont native who was an experienced civil engineer and millwright.

When Reilly encountered financial problems, Laurie sought capital to save the project. The new investor was William Beckett, a young Hamilton lawyer who had been acquiring real estate in the area. Other partners in the new mill were Martin and a Hamilton lawyer, Francis D. Rigdon. Laurie was superintendent of the Miami Paper Mill until 1857, and a partner until 1886.

The mill’s name has changed often -- from Miami Paper Mill; Beckett, Rigdon & Martin; Beckett, Rigdon & Co.; Beckett & Laurie; Beckett, Laurie & Co. to William Beckett & Son. In 1887, it was incorporated as the Beckett Paper Co., a name that endured.

Beckett has produced a variety of products, ranging from newsprint made from rags through the Civil War era; writing and bond papers until World War I, to uncoated fine grades for the advertising industry in the 20th century.

In the 1970s, a company publication said "many old-timers in the industry still call us 'The Cover Mill,' since we developed the first cover paper, the famous Buckeye Cover, in 1894." The same source said at the end of the 19th century, "the company's experiments with the then new analine dyes led to the development of the industry's first extensive range of colored cover papers."

Among its thousands of customers was the American Book Company, a Cincinnati publishing house that produced the McGuffey Readers in the 19th century.

The mill has been rebuilt, modernized and expanded several times. The original mill was razed and reconstructed in 1905. The 1913 flood wreaked extensive damage, interrupting production for six months while the plant was rebuilt.

A Beckett managed the mill for 126 years. William Beckett, a founder, directed operations until 1896. He was followed by his son, Thomas Beckett, until 1923; his eldest son, Minor Beckett, until 1928; Guy Beckett, a grandson of the founder, until 1960; and two sons of Thomas Beckett, Dan Beckett until 1948, and William Beckett, president from 1958 through 1974.

The hydraulic company's water power led to the building of the mill, but water supply is one of the reasons for its endurance, according to Dave Belew, who headed Beckett operations from 1974 until his retirement in 1992. "People who come to our mill are almost always amazed that we have no river or lake nearby," Belew said in a 1975 interview. "We have to explain that our water comes from artesian wells under the ground. That is a big plus, and that is the main reason that the Miami Valley has so many paper mills," Belew explained.     


Above: Beckett paper mill from 1875 Butler County Atlas

Champion founder capitalized on change

The Champion Coated Paper Co. -- the first of several name variations -- opened in Hamilton in 1894 -- 46 years after Beckett had started paper production.

When Peter G. Thomson came to Hamilton in the early 1890s, he intended to build houses, not a paper mill. In 1891, he bought 187 acres west of the Great Miami River to develop into subdivisions. His plan fizzled when a national recession led to a local housing slump. Instead of residences, Thomson erected a small mill that coated paper made by other paper companies in Hamilton.

There were only nine employees April 15, 1894, when coated paper production began on a modest scale in the plant on Seven Mile Pike (now North B Street).

Experienced as a bookseller and publisher in Cincinnati, Thomson believed paper demand and manufacturing was changing. Recent improvements in photography and development of halftone printing, he surmised, would increase the demand for coated paper. Advertising, catalog and magazine publishing would demand smoother printing surfaces. Instead of rougher grades Thomson was correct.

He noted that the demand for coated paper "is increasing constantly, printers having found that no other paper will give such excellent results." He chose Hamilton, he said, because of "the purity of its water, its proximity to numerous paper mills in the Miami Valley, its central location and nearness to the principal dealers, and the excellence of its shipping facilities."

By 1900, the Champion Coated Paper Co. had doubled the capacity of the original plant five times. In June 1902 the company manufactured paper for the first time in Hamilton, opening a new paper mill simultaneously with a rebuilt coating plant. By 1910, the mill was regarded as the largest coated-paper mill in the world.

During its first 20 years, the mill survived two floods (March 1898 and March 1913), two fires (December 1901 and March 1913), several business cycles, numerous technological advances and constant market changes.

For its employee base, Champion management welcomed transplanted Appalachians, especially Kentuckians. Thomson said he hired people from the hills and hollows because they tended to be loyal, adaptable, hard working and ingenious at fixing machinery problems.

Thomson was regarded as an innovator in papermaking and employee relations. B Street workers were able to save at an in-plant company store from 1917 to 1934, and had group insurance coverage for themselves and dependents from 1917. He provided a full-time industrial physician after 1916, added an advertising department in 1924 and built a research facility in 1926.

Thomson -- whose philanthropy and civic leadership aided all Hamiltonians -- directed the mill and the company until his death July 10, 1931.

In the 1930s, when the Great Depression idled many local factories, production at the B Street mill shifted to plain grades of paper that were in demand and a "work-for-all policy" was implemented. Instead of devastating layoffs, most of Champion's 4,000 or more coaters, millwrights, pipe fitters, sorters and other employees worked five or six days a week, a one or two-day reduction from the boom years of the 1920s.

When the U. S. entered World War II in 1941, the demand for paper soared. The private sector, the government and the military needed paper for everything from patriotic posters, ration stamps and war bonds to maps -- and, of course, thousands of applications, forms and required records.

Examples: Champion shipped 95 tons of paper that became 4.5 million maps for army maneuvers in the Carolinas in 1942. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Champion supplied 6,000 tons of paper for maps used by U. S. forces.

The war also brought more females into the mill, mostly to replace 676 employees who entered the armed forces. They supplemented the 200 to 400 women who had been employed on the sorting lines during much of the mill's existence.

Until August 1961, corporate headquarters were on North B Street. That month, administrative offices moved to Knightsbridge elsewhere in Hamilton. After a 1967 merger, corporate leaders relocated in New York City and later shifted to Stamford, Conn.

Employment totals are seldom released by business and industry. But Champion figures were reported periodically, starting with its original nine workers in 1894.

Other milestones were 410 people in 1901; about 1,000 in 1913, the year of the flood; 1,500 in 1918 during World War I; more than 4,000 at the start of the Great Depression; 2,600 on the eve of World War II; 3,300 in 1961; about 1,500 when the plant’s 100th anniversary was observed in 1994; and 800 employees when acquired by International Paper in 2000.

Employment once approached 5,000

Mohawk announced Oct. 25, 2011, its intent to close the Beckett mill by year’s end, eliminating 137 jobs. Twelve days earlier, Oct. 13, SMART Papers reported plans to sell its Hamilton property or cease operations. Closing would mean loss of about 200 jobs by the end of the first quarter of 2012. That totals about 337 jobs from two companies whose combined employment once approached 5,000 employees.

Hamilton will no longer have a claim to being part of the "Paper Valley." That boast joins "Home of the World's Largest Machine Tool Factory," "Home of One of the World’s Largest Stove Factories," "The Safe Capital of the World" and "One of the Nation's Most Productive Industrial Centers" on the scrap heap of local slogans.

Above: Champion mill in 1896; addition built since plant opening in 1894.

Above: Beckett mill machinery; undated photo.

Above: Champion Papers complex along North B Street in Hamilton;
former corporate office at right; Great Miami River in foreground.
Recent photo.