The Paper City, Pt. 4: "A Fallen Satellite"

Autumn, 2011.

RETURN to part 3

Just north of the Kalamazoo County / Allegan County line, sits the town of Otsego, Michigan. I found out about the MacSimBar Paper Co.—yet another hulking abandoned paper mill out there that had just recently gone under—and made a road-trip to see what was up.

It was quite a ways from Kalamazoo proper, but it was still part of the "Paper City" boom that dominated southwestern Michigan's industrial economy at the dawn of the 20th century, being situated on the banks of the Kalamazoo River. The first building we went into was the powerhouse:

The MacSimBar Paper Co. began operation here in 1905 according to the Michigan Department of Labor. Lockwood's Directory of the Paper and Stationary Trade for that year showed MacSimBar as featuring twenty beating and refining machines, and one 138-inch four cylinder. Its products included roofing and deadening felts, carpet lining, corrugated and perforated boards, and rag paper specialties. Their output was shown at 80,000lbs in 24 hours.

By 1915 the Department of Labor showed MacSimBar to have a workforce of 176 males and two females, all of whom were over 16 years of age. There were two injury-accidents at this mill in 1913 according to the Department of Labor, and twelve in 1914, almost all of which were caused by machinery and classified as "severe."

According to the 1918 Lockwood's, the MacSimBar Mill's capacity had been greatly enlarged, and now boasted seventeen 1,000lb beating engines, and ten refining engines, two rotary boilers; one 126-inch six cylinder, and one 142-inch seven cylinder.

The widest trimmed sheets they could produce with this equipment were 115 inches, and 130 inches respectively, for making "high grade bending and non-bending combination boards." Marble and oak graining were available, and their factory output had jumped to 250,000lbs in 24 hours.

I assume that the skyrocketing worldwide demand for paper products during World War I played into this sudden expansion of business for MacSimBar, as it had for the nearby Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Co. during the same time period.

The book A History of Paper-Manufacturing in the United States, 1690-1916 observes that at a time when Michigan had 48 paper mills with a cumulative daily capacity of nearly 2,000 tons, the MacSimBar Mill cranked out 110 of those tons, producing "book and boards." I presume that could mean book paper, and/or the cardboard for making hardback book covers.

A peek inside one of the fireboxes:

Lockwood's Directory explains that the "MacSimBar" acronym comes from the last names of its president, vice president, and treasurer, who were as follows: M.B. McClellan, S.W. Simpson, and G.E. Bardeen. George Bardeen also headed the Bardeen Paper Co., and McClellan headed the Wolverine Paper Co. In 1905 the secretary was listed as R.W. Reynolds, and the superintendent as James Burby. 

A postcard from this time period also seems to imply that MacSimBar produced tissue paper as well, and the trade publication The American Stationer, Vol. 83 says that MacSimBar was also set up to produce paper stock suitable for making playing cards. Here is a nice historic photo from the Detroit Public Library's NAHC collection, showing what the mill looked like circa 1911.

Another trade periodical, The Paper Mill and Wood Pulp News, recalls that the Kalamazoo Valley Local Division of the Cost Association of the Paper Industry held a meeting in Otsego in mid May of 1921, during which they visited all of the paper mills in that town, including MacSimBar. The delegates then reconvened at the Murray Hotel where a banquet was served, and company executives gave a "very interesting" presentation on "how they handled the heater furnaces" at MacSimBar and other plants.

Apparently there was absolutely no lack of paper-making trade circulars back in the heyday of the Paper City. After all, when you make the paper, why not print it too? Anyway, in the 1922 article "Board Trade in Kalamazoo Shows Improvement" in Shears, Vol. 30, Charles White, the national secretary of the Box Board Manufacturers Association was reported as visiting the MacSimBar Mill for a conference with its president, Charles E. Nelson.

White said that none of the MacSimBar board members had been present at their recent Chicago meeting and so he decided to go visit them in Otsego, as well as the Standard Paper Co., during his "usual Kalamazoo rounds."

It appeared that the box board paper industry was in a state of flux at that particular time in history, judging by Nelson's comment,
I can understand Mr. White's hesitancy in giving out an interview for the general box board trade at this time...He dislikes to speak for the whole industry, with conditions generally unsettled and such a divergence of opinion existing. As far as our own plant is concerned, we are running along on a fairly satisfactory basis. We are not up to 100% production by any means. The buying public is still cautious and will probably continue to be.

The Shears article continued, "There is a generally better feeling among the board mills of the Kalamazoo Valley district. Mill managers are conservative in their statements, but the consensus of opinion is that better times are ahead."

Admittedly, without knowing too terribly much about the nature of the paper industry some fifty or sixty years before I was born, I can only assume that this market slump being discussed may have been due to a sudden shift in supply vs. demand at the start of the 1920s after the gangbusters days of World War I had come to a close, leaving all the mills tooled up to a much higher output capability than was needed anymore.

An array of giant heat exchangers on top of the three-story-tall boilers made for some nice abstract photography:

MacSimBar also held at least one U.S. patent, which was a felt cleaner for paper-making machines that could remain in continuous operation while the machine was running. It was issued in May 1926.

The 1906 annual report of the Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics outlines a brief but interesting sketch of the corporate lineage of the Kalamazoo paper companies—penned by Mr. Bardeen of MacSimBar himself. In it, he explains that he got his start in 1870 as the bookkeeper of Kalamazoo Paper Co., the grandaddy of them all, before moving on to partner with Noah Bryant of Bryant Paper Co., to form the Bardeen Paper Co., Otsego's first paper mill, in 1887.

Mr. Bardeen closes his epistle to the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics by noting that "union labor has entered into many of the mills in the state." This, he observes (rather tersely, it would seem), "has caused a reduction of hours without reduction in pay," and thus "materially reduced" the state's output capacity, "although it has never caused any open rupture worth commenting upon."

Thank goodness for no open ruptures, eh? Bardeen contended however that because many out-of-state paper mills in competition with the Michigan paper industry were not organized, unions represented a detriment to this fair state's economy. Perhaps the Paper City counted itself lucky that it did not suffer the bloody labor clashes that rocked Michigan's Copper Country in 1913 when the mining companies stomped-out the unions.

When the Michigan paper industry got underway in the nineteenth century, most of the product was sold to markets within the state and its immediate neighbors. When Bardeen was penning those words in 1906, he claimed that there was hardly a country on the globe that did not buy some paper from Michigan.

There is a rather interesting Wikipedia article posted regarding the personal history of one of MacSimBar Paper's founders, George Edward Bardeen. Not surprisingly, the information contained therein is almost entirely based on material presumably pulled from a single source, which (also not surprisingly) happens to currently be a dead link.

Yes, I know that using Wikipedia is against my practices, but this is one of the rare and justified exceptions, since I did find a couple print sources via Google Books that seem to corroborate much of the information, so I guess I'll give the Wiki-scholar the benefit of the doubt. One is the book Nutting Genealogy: A Record of Some of the Descendants of John Nutting, of Groton, Mass., by John Keep Nutting (the other is the aforementioned 1906 annual report of the Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics).

Besides founding MacSimBar, the Wikipedia article states that Mr. Bardeen also owned the semi-professional baseball team the Otsego Independents, and was among the first team owners in white baseball to allow African-American players on his team. In 1902, he signed pitching star Andrew Rube Foster, of the Chicago Union Giants Negro League team. 

The book Nutting Genealogy says that besides MacSimBar and Bardeen Paper., Mr. Bardeen was president of the Otsego Coated Paper Co., Otsego Water Power Co., Angle Street Sled Co., Boyne City Lumber Co., vice president of Lee Paper Co. in Vicksburg, Michigan; held some level of directorship in: Babcock Tissue Paper Co., Paraffin Paper Co., Kalamazoo City National Bank, Kalamazoo Gas Light Co., Kalamazoo Laundry Co., Kalamazoo Lakeshore & Chicago Railroad, Detroit Stoker & Foundry Co., several other municipal gas and light companies, Elbe Casket Mfg., Merchants Publishing Co., chairman of the Michigan delegates to the 1900 Republican National Convention, and served as president of the village of Otsego for six years, as well as on its board of education.

Bardeen supposedly helped start the Kalamazoo Stove Co., and was a major financial backer in the founding of Olivet College. The Wikipedia author claims that in 1895 Mr. Bardeen built himself a large residence in Otsego that "boasted eight fireplaces and even a full-sized bowling alley."

It was rumored that it had a tunnel "that went under the Kalamazoo River all the way to his paper mill," though I highly doubt this would have been the case. Which of Bardeen's two mills the tunnel supposedly led to—the MacSimBar or the Bardeen Paper Co.—is not specified, but it goes on to say that the Bardeen Mansion stood vacant for many years, becoming known as the local "haunted house" to local children. It was eventually torn down. For what it's worth, a rumor about a similar secret tunnel from a Kalamazoo mansion, the "Henderson Castle," has proven to be true.

A string of articles about this plant say that Rock-Tenn Paper Co. was the last entity to operate the old MacSimBar Mill, which they shut down in July of 2004. At the time, the Georgia-based company was the preeminent employer and taxpayer in Otsego. Rock-Tenn foreclosed on this property (and on another, in Ottawa County) in April of 2011. 

In September 2006 Michael Davis Jr. of Cogswell Property LLC (based in Redford Twp.) bought the site for $70,000 and talked of converting the mill site into "a golf course with a nearby housing development" or renting sections of it out to small businesses for industrial or storage space.

Another idea was to use some of the property "for growing mushrooms."

In my personal opinion it's arguable that such plans were a smoke-screen, and Davis's only real interest in the property was the value of scrap copper and metals inside, since they purchased it for so cheap and yet somehow failed to make a single tax payment on it for as long as they owned it. Eventually it was seized by the county for back taxes.

Davis had tried to auction off the mill in 2008, but nobody bid on it. Just before going into foreclosure, he listed it for sale for the mysterious and/or comical sum of $225,000 (several times what he paid for it). The Michigan DNR’s real estate arm said that the state was not interested in buying it from foreclosure because they considered the 50-acre property to be contaminated.

It would seem that the owner, Mr. Davis, is currently sitting in prison over violations of the federal Clean Air Act stemming from his scrapping of the mill. Another MLive article says that he knowingly hired people to strip out valuable metals from the plant when he knew the pipes were wrapped in asbestos, without taking the proper legal steps or disposal precautions first.

Incredibly, us taxpayers may not have been saddled with the rest of the "emergency EPA cleanup," which pulled 18 more tons of various hazardous wastes from the site in 2012. The judge ordered Davis to pay $168,000 in restitution to the EPA in 2013. Almost a happy ending!

I have to say that of all the Kalamazoo mills I've been through, this one—contaminated or not—was one of the most fun to explore and photograph. I'd have a hard time choosing between it and KVPC.

These are not lonely chairs—they have company:

Clearly this was the turf of dangerous gangs...or possibly even terrorists, judging by the anti-Bush graffiti:

This was the old-timey, wooden-framed milly goodness that had endeared Kalamazoo to me...


Though Mr. Davis is in jail serving out his sentence for his flagrant crimes against the environment, we at least in some small part helped him achieve his pipe dream of turning this place into a golf course. We found some (presumably stolen) golf clubs laying around, and used them to whack small rocks around the impromptu driving range that some (presumably arson) fire had left on the top floor:

Who knows, maybe they were actually Mr. Davis's own personal clubs? Well, in any case he should buy some new ones when he gets out of the pen, because these definitely did not hold up to the test. Every single one of them bent all to shit as soon as you use them on anything bigger than a grapefruit. crap.

The Kalamazoo River:

Airborne flecks of what I presume to be pulp had affixed themselves to every imaginable surface here, like barnacles on the hull of a ship:

For whatever reason, this place was all about the Jesus Rays today...

It's enough to make one want to get the band back together.

Perhaps it was all of Mike Davis's asbestos particles still suspended in the air that make them stand out so much?

Good thing I already have lung cancer, so I don't have to worry about wearing a respirator.

On our way back out we stopped at the plant offices.

Yes, those are urine samples. There were boxes and boxes of them as I recall. I am guessing that they represented the "30lbs of medical waste" that the EPA reported finding and having to dispose of at Mr. Davis's expense.

Thirty-Second Annual Report of the Department of Labor of the State of Michigan, (1915) p. 20
Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, (1906) p. 377-378
Lockwood's Directory of the Paper and Stationary Trade (1905)
Lockwood's Directory of the Paper and Stationary Trade (1918), p. 125
The American Stationer, Volume 83, p. 16
A History of Paper-Manufacturing in the United States, 1690-1916, by Lyman Horace Weeks, p. 339
The Paper Mill and Wood Pulp News, Vol. 44 (May 28, 1921), p. 5
"Board Trade in Kalamazoo Shows Improvement," Shears, Vol. 30 (April 1922), p. 129
Nutting Genealogy: A Record of Some of the Descendants of John Nutting, of Groton, Mass., by John Keep Nutting, p. 184-186 (dead link, via


  1. I worked at the mill in the early 1970's as a junior salesman for Mead Paperboard Products. We sold an array of products to the automotive industry (sun visor board, door panel board), shoe box board (Muskegon Blue, Muskegon Orange would turn the Kalamazoo River bright colors for weeks after a run until the Clean Water Act forced the company to build aerating ponds), furniture board for mirror and case backs, a resin-impregnated mobile home protective bottom board, and a #400 White used for skin packaging. We also produced grades of board for book covers. One day a young woman was laid off and was so shocked that she screamed loud and long prompting the security guard to come running in from the parking lot. You can find an excerpt from this story in Red Sky Anthology (Crooked River) available on Amazon books or in a short story titled The Woman Who Screams When She Sees Orange on Kindle. Thanks for documenting part of my life!

  2. I see you've done alot of the kalamazoo paper mills but noticed you haven't posted anything about the papermill in vicksburg. If you're ever back down in Kzoo you should check it out sometime, its probably the most still intact one around here and is pretty nifty.

    1. Yeah the Vicksburg mill's been on my radar for a long time, but i didnt get the chance to come out that way enough to keep tabs on it. A friend of mine has been inside it though.

  3. Thank you for this article on our local history. I've lived in this town 53 years. My father worked at Allied Paper Mill 25 years, another Mill in Kalamazoo. He died at age 49 of heart attack. He worked many long hours on swing shifts,and was very dedicated. He also had a very serious mill accident when his left arm got caught in a paper machine. Harry Connors saved his life by getting him out of that machine and driving him to the hospital so he didn't bleed to death. Awesome doctors at Bronson repaired his hand and arm and he was able to go back to work to support his wife and 5 children.

  4. You need to see Parchment, just North East of Kalamazoo.

    1. I have been there many times:

  5. I worked for Rock - Tenn company for 5 years then when they started to phase it out I took their severance package. I worked as an "Extra" then ended with my own position on a cut-to-size machine. The building was so old and was literally falling apart with no intentions from the company to fix it up. I left every day blowing out black snot. I would always mention it to the other workers there and they would say "oh yeah, paper dust is everywhere in here." "Our Union has been after them for years to put in equipment to suck it out of here and they refuse to do so." I always wondered if they were a union shop why didn't they strike for a healthier workplace? Maybe making more money out weighed health? Anyway, I made a great paycheck there and the people I worked with were mostly (yes, there were assholes there lol) great people. A very proud group of people as we were creating very unique products for other companies to use for their products. The ending to that place was nothing short of a disgrace to us workers who busted our tails for that company. Rock Tenn had us going to mandatory meetings over at WMU and they promised us NEW machinery and other things to make us "happy". What really happened is that they came in with old machinery and took away from us. I told a few people that the end was near for this old place and soon enough they started to phase it out. Rock Tenn stated that they couldn't afford to operate our facility anymore and that wages were a bigger part of the whole thing. They were wrong but sure ok if that's the story we'll buy it. I know exactly why they decided to let it go. The building needed more repairs Ford had cars and they knew they had a pool of infested chemicals within the building. The old insulation being the biggest problems. It would had cost them a fortune to get rid of it. The wages were higher than the Mills in the south but profits to losses were greater. We had the most efficient and best quality making our facility the first choice of products to other companies. We produced the finest paper in the industry.

    To all of you that I had the pleasure of working with I would like to say thank you for years of experience. I had a lot of fun working there and made a few friends along the way. Yep and even with the nickname "Precious" don't ask!!

  6. This brought tears to my eyes. My father worked here from the age of 18 until Rock-Tenn shut it down. The picture you have of the back overhead door is were mom and I would meet dad every Thursday to get his check. This place robbed my father of everything. At the age of 56 he was placed in a nursing home and has frontal temporal lobe dementia and cannot speak or comprehend anything anymore. Along with him are 6 fellow maintenance workers 2 of which are now deceased. I hate this place more than anything.
    Shawn L. Gleason

  7. I was one of the people that got paid to remove steel from this plant. I was exposed to allot of hazardous materials. From pcb asbestos and more. I was a 19 year old kid with a family and needed the money. I came down with cancer 3 years later. There are some pretty elaborate tunnel systems under this plant. They go 3 stories down. Idk if you made it that deep. But it's quite interesting.

  8. Are there tunnles under the city of otsego? If so can you please give me a hint where?


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