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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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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