When the paper mills leave

I’d love to put my arm around the people of International Falls and tell them everything is going to be alright after the big layoff at the paper mill there. History tells a different story, though.

Jennifer Vogel’s story about the impact of the plant’s sale and layoffs is like a walk back in time. I grew up in a paper mill town.

The plants in my hometown — Fitchburg, Ma. — were alternately a blessing and a curse upon it. They were locally owned back then. The owner of one of the paper mills had his name on everything — the library, the skating rink, even a planetarium in a city of 43,000.

It was a heck of a place. The mills, spread throughout the industrial city, provided thousands of jobs for the immigrant-rich town of French Canadians, Italians, Greeks, and Finns who called it home.

The downtown was alive with stores and shoppers. The buses ran every few minutes. If your dad didn’t work at the plant, he worked at a job that sold things to the people who did.

It was also the death of us. The paper mills treated the river that ran through it like their personal sewer system. Depending on what the paper mill was up to, each day would start with a surprise: what color would the river be today?


Paper mills are dirty things, fouling air and water. But they also provided jobs so we put up with the poisons in exchange for a paycheck.

The environmental movement changed that; so did the cheap labor of the south. And, most important, so did the new plant owners when the local owners sold out to the big fellas.

The jobs are all gone now. The downtown is abandoned. The tax base has withered. Some neighborhoods are crack zones. The huge magnificent churches are still there, but they’re empty. My hometown’s sons and daughters — if they could — got out while they could. The ones who stayed behind waited for the jobs to come back and the good times to return.

The agony is it was a slow death. It started with a sale, and then some layoffs. And then more layoffs until one day, my city was out of the paper-making business.

The planetarium is gone, too. The bus company sold off its fleet. The library operates on reduced hours. Even the hospital closed.

But the air is clearer now that the factories are all closed. The river runs clean. The city recently built a park along it and people fish in it again. They’ve got time on their hands. The unemployment rate there is 9.7 percent now. It’s going up; not down.

My city tried to hold on to what it once was. When the factories left, they tried to entice new factories instead of recognizing that the old days weren’t coming back and that if it didn’t change and be something else, it would be nothing at all.

We’re living a pretty good life in Minnesota now. Unemployment is low, there are jobs to be had. But we’re isolated from the real American economy. My hometown’s plight is being repeated in nearly every city in the country where people got dirty for a living until the out-of-town owners could find someone else who’d do it for less.