The Paper City, Pt. 3: "Bloodsweat & Gears"

Photos date from March 2007-March 2011.

RETURN to part 2

The Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Co., or Crown-Vantage Mill as it was later called, was easily my favorite Kalamazoo mill to explore and photograph. Nestled in a village on the outskirts of Kalamazoo that is actually named "Parchment" after an ancient form of paper, the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Co. (KVPC) Mill was actually the nucleus of what began as a model company town next to the famous Paper City.

Jacob Kindleberger set up his paper-making business in an abandoned sugar beet factory on the banks of the Kalamazoo River just outside of K-zoo's city limits in 1909, marking the birth of the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Co., and according to an online article by Alex Forist of the Kalamazoo Public Library, he did so with a vision of making more than just paper, but also a paternalistic community for his workers. 

"Uncle Jake," as he came to be known, had strong Christian convictions and believed the success of his company depended on the livelihood and well-being of his employees, so he made sure to provide a nice place for them to live as well as work. He kept buying up surrounding land, and thus was born the village of Parchment around 1918. 

Kindleberger's corporate paternalism was not necessarily a unique idea, and is usually referred to as a "company town;" Henry Ford was known for doing this in Highland Park, Dearborn, and elsewhere; so was Hiram Walker in Walkerville, Ontario; and so were the many copper mining companies in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, as I have discussed in other posts. It was not necessarily so benevolent, either—most of the time company towns were also designed by their creators in order to exercise more control over their work force.

David Kohrman writes that the mill produced wax paper and other products, and was expanded in 1923 to the point that it stretched for nearly a mile. In 1934, Jacob Kindleberger himself penned (or, perhaps had his secretary, Harold DeWeerd, pen, as the case may be) a company history of KVPC that "would be of interest" to present and future employees. There is only one known copy of the History of the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company left in existence, but thankfully it is currently available online in .pdf format.

Parchment started off as a tent city, Forist says, with the Kindleberger family residing in the KVPC plant offices. As time went on they bought more land and the workers' camp became more permanent. By 1930, with a population of 511, it was officially designated as the Village of Parchment within Kalamazoo Township. The company ran and financed all aspects of the town until finally the strains of the Great Depression took enough of a toll to where a public government was necessitated, and the citizens approved a charter. 

Not surprisingly, the town flourished and prospered in the postwar era, with the mill providing employment for a force of 1,700 men. KVPC was heralded as "the world's paper mill," according to Forist.

As time went on the company sold off pieces of property to the mill workers and families so they could own their own homes, as the "company town" model faded from popularity. Kindleberger himself passed away in January 1947.

KVPC merged in 1960 with the Sutherland Paper Co. to form KVP-Sutherland. In 1966 the Brown Company bought them out again, and by 1980 they were in turn bought out by the James River Corporation.

Starting in 1995 Crown-Vantage became the last company to operate this mill, which finally closed for good at the end of 2000. It was one of the last of the great old "Paper City" mills to fall. Today, Mr. Kohrman tells me, only the former Sutherland Paper Co. Mill still makes paper in Kalamazoo, operated by Graphic Packaging.

According to, this mill's closure resulted in the loss of 249 jobs, which was an especially hard blow, considering that (as Mr. Forist points out) the town of Parchment only had a total population of 1,936 at that time.

The fate of the mill stayed tied up in the courts of both legal and public opinion for a long time; meanwhile, the buildings were breached and scrappers had their day, as well as shifty-eyed unscrupulous folks such as myself.

In 2007, David Kohrman noted that the town of Parchment went to court against another paper manufacturer looking to reopen the mill, because the city wanted to build a golf course there. Ironically, "the city won in court but the golf course development fell through."

From what I can see on Google Maps, it looks like Mill 1 (pictured here) has been demolished, but Mill 2 might still stand.

Late KVPC founder Jacob Kindleberger writes in his aforementioned History of the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company that when it was purchased, this parcel of land where the mill was to stand was in fact not exactly occupied by the vacant sugar beet processing plant described by Mr. Forist, but by the heavily overgrown rubble thereof, which had to be cleared away prior to construction, including removing the old foundations.

Because he and his partner had admittedly organized the company with too little capital, this proved much more laborious than hoped for. The term "bloodsweating" occurs several times in the manuscript, if this is any indication of KVPC's truly humble (read: stubborn) beginnings.

They also "blundered" for their hubris in deciding to save money by not hiring an architect for the construction of the new mill, which resulted in having to rebuild a couple of the faulty original structures.

By the time construction was at last complete on this shoestring budget, they were so low on funds that when they started purchasing paper-making machinery they were forced to do so second-hand. "We were criticized time and time again because we did not install more modern machinery right in the beginning, but you can't buy a Packard Automobile on a Ford income."

The plant's then-remote location northeast of Kalamazoo proper also proved to be a hindrance since transportation was still poor in those early days, meaning that receiving incoming supplies and shipping outgoing product was slower and at higher expense.

The road to the plant was so rough as to be impassable by automobile. As if things could possibly get any more comically difficult for KVPC, when they attempted to buy a cheap horse to do their transportation, they found that the bargain-bin animal was unwilling to pull the wagon most days.

In Chapter VIII of the company history, the author notes that KVPC "was unfortunate to have among its key men some very pronounced and radical socialists, and our Superintendent was also imbued with the Socialistic Spirit."

Kindleberger goes on,
This socialistic prattle was paraded around our little factory to such an extent that the writer saw that it was going to seriously effect the efficiency of the plant unless it was stamped out. So, little by little we raised our voice strenuously against men taking the Company's time to spread the socialist doctrines, and we let it be known in no uncertain terms that this was fundamentally wrong, and it would eventually undermine the foundation of our industry. By working through the Superintendent, who was imbued with this spirit, we succeeded in quieting it to some extent.
So I guess we can assume then that Mr. Kindelberger was anti-union, and possibly a strike breaker as well.

Regarding the next "social" problem that affected Kindleberger's company, he said that a "good deal of our inefficiency in manufacturing occurred on account of bad whiskey that seemed to be very plentiful in Kalamazoo at that time." KVPC soon mandated that any man who drank could not be employed by the company, a principle that they "religiously" adhered to thereafter. Starting to sound familiar?

In Chapter IX, Kindleberger outlined "Our Marketing Problem." He said that there "was afloat in the land a great deal of propaganda" against the company, as KVPC's competitors "had a lot to say about our paper, and they prophesied long and loud that we would not remain in the business very long."

It was around that time however that KVPC came up with the idea of a specialty line of ice blankets, nursery blankets, maternity blankets, cake liners, jelly protectors, and "household parchment paper." I'm not sure what any of that stuff is exactly, but they were able to patent some of it, and some trade publications therefore wrote articles on them, so KVPC gained a lot of positive publicity out of it.

Finally their fiscal prospects improved, and they saw a need to build expansions onto their plant. They soon got into the waxed paper business as well, which proved to be even more timely and profitable. That—their fourth year of operation—was when the company started thinking about building actual houses for some of their workers.

By 1916 they were making serious mill additions, and this time even hired a real architect to do it. This architect was M.J. Billingham, and the mill being expanded was Mill 1. "Of course," the author wrote, "we received more criticism from others because the mill was built too large and the construction was too good. Time has proved that this criticism was not founded upon facts." I heartily agree.

Six months later the buildings were again "crowded to the walls." Business was booming—especially when World War I broke out and paper prices skyrocketed "beyond the fondest dreams of optimists."

When Mill 1 was completed, it had the tallest smokestack in the state of Michigan—285 feet tall—and KVPC reportedly passed up no opportunity to brag about this to all who would listen. An engineer once came through town to see it, and informed Kindleberger that it was "a fine monument" to his stupidity. Kindleberger wrote, "we have since learned that this man was right." I wonder if it had to be so tall in order for their extremely long company name "KALAMAZOO VEGETABLE PARCHMENT COMPANY" to fit on it?

Oh well, I guess it's not about the size of your smokestack, but in how you use it. Both profits and wages kept rising on an almost weekly basis during the war as labor was scarce, with a constant stream of men coming and going. The author stated that it was the only time in all of his 43 years in the business when paper product was ever sold without the customer's inspection, no questions asked.

Paper and the raw materials to make it became so scarce that KVPC organized a partner company called the Glendale Pulp & Paper Co. for the reclamation of pulp and paraffin from waste, but due to problems with their recycling methods, it was not long-lived. In the ever-deadpan words of the author, "it caused much bloodsweating."

In 1921 KVPC decided that since modern newspaper machines could now put print on paper at 1,000 feet per minute, that paper making machines too should be able to spit out product at the same rate. This would prove to be an ambitious advance in paper making technology if it could be pulled off, and KVPC sent delegates across the globe to study other companies' methods and gather ideas on how to accomplish such a feat.

But everywhere they went, they "could find no one who would believe that a sheet of paper could be formed on any kind of a paper machine running 1,000 feet per was simply blind faith that lead us into the building of what is known as our No.2 Mill."

The modern Mill 2 was where Kindleberger was determined to innovate a process that could achieve the 1,000 feet per minute goal, and he partnered with a Mr. Monahan from a mill in Wisconsin to help engineer speed presses for it.

Unfortunately when Mill 2 was completed and fired up it was plagued with endless malfunctions and difficulties, losing the company a horrific sum of money. I'm guessing that a lot more bloodsweating was done as well, since KVPC was forced to refinance itself due to the dire operational loss.

Kindelberger fought through the disaster, determined to make it work, absorbing ever more "criticisms" along the way, especially in regards to "spoiling a perfectly good company" for the sake of such a "crazy idea."

In 1923 a Mr. Ralph Haywood, who taught a course in paper engineering at University of Michigan, was persuaded to have a look at the fiasco Kinderberger was mired in, to perhaps lend some advice on how to make his gremlin-infested "fast machine" work effectively.

In 1928 it was replaced, and a new speed machine was installed in Mill 2, built by the Beloit Iron Works in Wisconsin, but that too was plagued by difficulties initially. These problems were slowly ironed out after several years, and eventually the machine was acting properly.

By the time Kindleberger's account was written in 1934 there were two such machines running efficiently in Mill 2 spitting out fine paper at 800 and 900 feet per minute, respectively.

I imagine that matching the speed of papermaking to the speed of newspaper printing represented a turning point in the history of the mass media, allowing for greater and wider dissemination of information prior to the age of radio and television.

Once again the author pointed out that it took much bloodsweat, but because of his perseverance, in the end he prevailed in his assertion that it could be done—and he was the only one in the industry currently running at that capacity. If it weren't for his blatantly Germanic surname, I would have had the stubborn bastard pegged as a Scotsman for sure.

Another paper industry innovation claimed by KVPC was the production of the first transparent waxed paper.

These photos are all still from Mill 1...little did we know, we hadn't even made it to Mill 2 yet. Keep scrolling...

Once we had finally finished ogling all that there was to be ogled in the gorgeously sun-bathed buildings of Mill 1, we realized that the day was getting toward its end and we still had another entire half of this place yet to cover—we had not even touched Mill 2 yet!

We started walking over in that direction and shortly came to the conclusion that it was just too much to attempt in one day. Another heaping pile of huge buildings awaited us, and looked just as interesting as the ones that had just consumed our entire afternoon thus far. It was obvious that we were going to have to come back for this another day. Wow.

Clearly Mill 2 had been built in the 1920s of reinforced concrete—and as such it had quite a different look than the quaint, New England-style Mill 1.

It was a few weeks later that we happened back through town to finish investigating KVPC Mill 2:

Some of the interiors here bore evidence of the fact that this end of the complex had been in use up to the year 2000.

Looking back toward Mill 1:

The company office building is seen in the upper left corner of this shot:

In one of the taller buildings of Mill 2 we found several large pallets worth of old paper stacked up, which all turned out to be old KVPC stock certificates dating back to the 1950s.

Reportedly the Bryant Mill also had old stock certificates strewn around its offices before it was demolished; maybe they were deemed worthless and slated to be recycled into a batch of pulp?

The engraving on the certificates showed the KVPC works as it stood in its heyday, with several buildings illustrated that had since been demolished.

There was a bit of a fog inside the building on this gray day:

I assume it was from the fact that it had been so cold for so long, but lately the weather had warmed up outside, while the mill's concrete buildings trapped the old cold air inside.

In some areas more than others...

It was somewhere in one of these vast buildings that Mr. Kindleberger's iron Teutonic willpower (read: stubbornness) had achieved that elusive 1,000 feet per minute paper-making threshold.

As in the other abandoned Kalamazoo mills I had explored previously, there were giant elongated pits where paper machines had lately been removed for installation elsewhere.

We now came within sight of the mammoth powerplant that provided steam and electricity to this gigantic factory complex:

If I recall correctly, this cavernous room here was labelled as an "acid storage" facility:

On one wall was still emblazoned the huge company logo of the mill's original owners, even though Crown-Vantage was the last corporation to operate it.

This place just kept going and going...

The sign in the distance marks this building as the Waxed Print Shop:

We went inside the powerplant first:

In these gaping holes recently stood several mammoth boiler units.

The faded paint sign on the side of this plant marks it as the Print-O-Department, which we had just gone through:

Though we had just spent another entire day exploring KVPC's Mill 2, we still felt that we had only scratched the surface of this mammoth complex. Sitting up here to rest and survey its enormity from the roof of the powerhouse, my comrade and I both agreed that this place was comparable in size to the gigantic Packard Plant back home, and regretted not having more time to spend here.

CLICK to continue to part 4

The History of the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company, by Jacob Kindleberger

1 comment:

  1. The photos of this building do not do justice to how massive it actually is


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.