The Paper City, Pt 1: "Where it All Began"

February-March, 2007.

Kalamazoo is sometimes referred to as the "Paper City," because it was to the paper industry what Detroit was to the automobile industry, and produced just about every type of paper and paper-related product there was, from tissue to cardboard. When I started paying attention to it, there were a grand total of three hulking abandoned paper mills to choose from for any given afternoon's entertainment. In this post I will talk about the oldest one, the Kalamazoo Paper Co., and in the next three posts I will cover the Bryant Paper Co., the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Co., and the MacSimBar Paper Co. mills.

My cousin lived in this beautiful town for a few years while he went to Western Michigan University, in a strange apartment on top of the "Vac Shack," where many a drunken party night was spent in the winter. The Vac Shack was down the street from the "Munster House," as well as the abandoned Southwestern Michigan Sanatorium. I will always have a special place in my heart for K-zoo...but perhaps this would not be the case if I had known it in the days when all the mills were still operating--I can't imagine the horrid sulphur smell that must have lingered over the town with all those plants going at once.

Today, the air in Kalamazoo smells happily quite clean. An exploring colleague of mine, David Kohrman, also was a K-zoo native and naturally knew the ins and outs of all the mills. I joined him one day for my first trip into the Kalamazoo Paper Co. Mill. As you can see the plant is old brick buildings mostly covered up by modern sheetmetal cladding to hide their true age. For whatever reason, this mill suffered almost no vandalism or graffiti, despite being wide open. I guess all the college kids from Western stuck to the more familiar sites like the sanatorium and the Bryant Mill.

Willis Dunbar's Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State says that the Kalamazoo Paper Co. was established in 1866, and that between 1890 and 1915 dozens more paper mills were built in the city as well as elsewhere in Kalamazoo County and other nearby counties. The towns of White Pigeon, Three Rivers, Watervliet, Plainwell, Parchment, Vicksburg, and Otsego all had paper mills, and in fact, many of the men employed at those plants were trained here at the Kalamazoo Paper Co. beforehand.

According to the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), one of the more important paper mills within Kalamazoo proper included the one at Cork Street near Burdick, which was built by the Kalamazoo Paper Co. to replace their original c.1866 mill that burned in 1872. David Kohrman says that it was taken over by Monarch Paper in 1899, though I believe it had already traded hands to the Gibson Paper Co. by that time.

The HAER notes that Monarch later merged with King Paper Co. and Berdeen Paper Co. in 1922 to form the Allied Paper Corporation, who took over the old Bryant Paper Co. Mill in 1956. 

Other important producers inside city limits included Saniwax, one of the first waxed paper producers in the Midwest; the Bartlett Label Co.; and Kalamazoo Loose Leaf Binder Co.

The c.1927 book Michigan's Thirty-Seven Million Acres of Diamonds said that the Kalamazoo area was home to the largest and the most paper mills in the world, but it was also a center for 175 other industries, producing $72 million in finished products annually.

Kalamazoo was at that time a town of 68,000 people, 54% of whom owned their own homes. Even a cursory ride through town will show that most of these homes are substantial and many of them architecturally stunning; Kalamazoo was a middle class powerhouse that played a large part in driving Michigan's industrial economy to greatness during the first half of the 20th century and the latter half of the nineteenth.

Kalamazoo's economy also diversified in other areas during its rise to prominence as an industrial bastion of Michigan. There were at least five non-paper-related companies in K-zoo whose brands have reached near-legendary status in their respective fields: the Kalamazoo Stove Co.Gibson guitars, Shakespeare fishing rods, Henderson-Ames Co. swords and regalia, and Checker Motors taxicabs. In fact, Kalamazoo can lay claim to being the birthplace of the first electric guitar.

But there were also manufacturers making plenty of other products as well, such as buggies, cigars, coffins, corsets, water heaters, furnaces, industrial fans, steel windmills, and some other automobile companies. The digestible pill was invented here in 1886 by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals. 

On the agricultural front Kalamazoo County was known worldwide as the center of mint and celery growing. The many Dutch settlers of western Michigan took advantage of the rich low-lying soils here to raise celery, a vegetable that was previously unfamiliar to American tables. Thus, Kalamazoo's other nickname came to be the "Celery City." 

There are several institutions that have been major employers in Kalamazoo, including Western Michigan University, Nazareth College, and Kalamazoo College (Michigan's oldest), as well as the Kalamazoo State Hospital (also Michigan's oldest) and the Southwestern Michigan Sanatorium.

So it goes to show how bad economic times got in Michigan, that despite seemingly doing everything in its power to avoid the same pitfalls that Detroit fell into by relying too heavily on one industry, Kalamazoo too struggled with the pains of deindustrialization.

Kalamazoo became the Paper City much in the same way that Detroit became the Motor City, thanks to a fortuitous combination of factors and resources native to this particular region. Being located at the crossroads between major cities like Chicago, Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Indianapolis gave it multiple markets to supply its goods to, and the presence of good railroad infrastructure facilitated this. There were plenty of immigrants here looking for menial labor jobs as well.

According to the Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, there were also several important minerals used in paper making back then, large reserves of which were lately being opened in other parts of the state. They included stone lime (used in the rag process), as well as chloride of lime, soda ash, and alkali, which were used more broadly.

Most important however was the presence of the Kalamazoo River, a vast source of flowing water that was mandatory to pulp making (and to dispensing with the affiliated wastes afterward, in an era with little to no environmental regulation).

The word "Kalamazoo" comes from the Anishinaabe language and is thought to mean "to boil like a pot," in reference to the rapids in the river here, but it could also just as easily refer to the hot mess that all the paper companies turned it into by using it as a toxic waste dump for a century.

And, also like the Motor City, the Paper City was able to support a broad ancillary industry directly related to the paper making trades.

As an online article by Alex Forist of the Kalamazoo Public Library points out, a vast support network of suppliers was bolstered up around the paper industry here, such as companies who do specialty things using paper products like making playing cards, or companies who build or make parts for paper-making machinery. Western Michigan University even has a Department of Paper Engineering, with facilities to make its own pulp and paper while teaching the most modern industrial methods.

The Kalamazoo Paper Co.'s c.1866 mill was located south of the city, but under the direction of Samuel Gibson in 1892, Kohrman wrote, the company started branching out with new mills on the east side, including this one.

As I mentioned earlier, they did not move to this particular site until 1899, but as Mr. Kohrman said, there were still a few classic New England-style mill structures remaining when we visited.

Kalamazoo Paper Co. was bought up by Georgia Pacific Corp. in 1967, who today are headquartered in Milan, Michigan. By the time this mill closed in the year 2000, "it had grown into a massive jumble of buildings" and could produce 400 tons of paper a day.

Probably my favorite part of this or any other paper mill was this area where the huge, arched-brick underpinnings of the structure could be seen.

We were standing in the basement of one of the main mills, and looking up into a cavernous craneway:

It resembled a sort of catacombs:

Elsewhere on site was a large Albert Kahn-looking reinforced concrete building that, oddly enough, had skeletonized steel girders for columns:

Here is another view of one of the earlier buildings that was never covered in the sheetmetal, probably because it could not be seen from outside the complex. Got to cover up that ugly old architecture, ya' know:

Looking back at the powerhouse:

I curved back to another section of the powerhouse we had apparently missed, where I found these huge engines:

If you look close at the overhead crane in this room, you'll notice that it is an Industrial Brownhoist, meaning that it was made in another plant that I've been to in Bay City:

We made our way into yet another mammoth mill with a long craneway over gaping chasms where the old paper machines used to sit:

The machines had undoubtedly been bought and moved to some other still-operating plant not in Michigan.

A lot of the equipment in here was still quite modern however.

Outside, the sky had cleared up and we made our way over to the water plant. Here is a view of most of the mill from there:

In the early days of the Paper City, the mills of Kalamazoo made their paper from virgin pulp, according to By the 1950s they began recycling waste paper stock, and mixed in with it was a lot of "No Carbon Required" copy paper. That carbon paper was sold by the National Cash Register Corporation, and between 1957 and 1971 it contained PCBs as part of the ink carrier. The PCBs themselves were manufactured by the good ole Monsanto Corporation.

The carbon paper itself was never made in Kalamazoo; it was solely because of the de-inking process prior to recycling this stuff into the pulp that the Kalamazoo River became so horribly polluted. After de-inking, the particles were in the mill's wastewater, which was discharged into settling ponds that were supposed to filter out the bad stuff, while the "purified" water was then subsequently discharged into the Kalamazoo River. Along with Allied Paper, Georgia Pacific was held liable for the massive environmental cleanup of Kalamazoo's paper making legacy.

The roof here seems to have been peeled open like a sardine tin, perhaps to allow a crane to remove a large, valuable piece of machinery for reuse elsewhere:

Now we made our way back toward the main mill building, Mill 3, and entered through its lower level.

This allowed us a great view of the many machines that were still left intact here.

Unfortunately, this was when my camera batteries started to succumb to the bitter cold that day, and I would miss out on some of the best photographs, especially once we went upstairs to the factory floor.

I could have spent several hours wandering through this endless warren of pipes and conduit, driveshafts and ductwork, and the many shadows and throws of light that colored them.

Going upstairs through a network of catwalks, the cool finds kept coming:

Here was another giant craneway.

And that's where my camera battery conked out for the day. I hadn't planned on this place being so huge and awesomely photogenic. We continued exploring for at least another hour if I recall correctly, before David had finally had his fill and we were both frozen stiff. Feel free to check out his account of that day for more (and better) photos.

I did attempt to come back again a few days later on my own to document the last building we checked out, Mill 3, which was extremely cool and also half-demolished.

Sadly, by that point it had already fallen to the building-eaters, and my trip was cut short anyway when a security guard stopped me and told me to GTFO.

The guard actually followed me all the way out to make sure that I left the property, glaring angrily all the while. Perhaps he suspected I was looking for OSHA violations to photograph.

Other Michigan paper mills I have visited include the Detroit Sulphite Pulp & Paper Co.Detroit Tullar Envelope Co.Peninsular Paper Co. in Ypsilanti, and the River Raisin Paper Co. in Monroe.

CLICK for part 2

Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, by Willis F. Dunbar
Michigan Yesterday and Today, by Ferris E. Louis, p. 560
Michigan's Thirty-Seven Million Acres of Diamonds, by Clyde L. Newnom, p. 41
Lower Peninsula of Michigan Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER, p. 31 & 80
Yesterday's Michigan, by Frank Angelo, p. 69
Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, (1906) p. 377


  1. Found your site very helpful. Doing family research on the Samuel Appleton Gibson and Bardeen families.

  2. Trying to see what role Silas Hubbard played in founding the company


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