vicksburg lee paper company



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Vicksburg's Lee Paper Company, 1930

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The historical notes in these pages were provided by Maggie Snyder


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Lee Paper Company, 1908

 By Maggie Snyder

Vicksburg’s Lee Paper Company, later Simpson Paper Co. and  most recently known as Fox River Paper Co., was originally built to fill a need for a rag-content paper mill in the Kalamazoo Valley paper producing region. Vicksburg was selected because it had a good supply of clean water, two railroads and was centrally located to possible paper markets. Scores of workers of Polish ancestry, some of whom had papermaking experience, were brought to the mill from Chicago and other area (the mainly Catholic Poles were reluctant to relocate until the new paper mill helped establish St. Edwards Church in Vicksburg - Village Views Page 4).  When construction was completed in 1905,  production was 35,000 pounds per day. There were 205 employees whose wages ran from 20 cents per hour to 32-1/2 cents an hour. Girls earned 10 cents an hour sometimes working 50 to 60 hours a week. Textiles in the form of worn-out clothing and other rags formed the raw material for rag-content paper. Women sorted the rags, removed buttons and foreign objects in the Rag Room. The cloth was shredded, cooked and processed into fine-quality writing papers.   

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 Lee Paper Company Beater Room, 1920's

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Lee Paper Company Finishing Room, 1920's

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 Lee Paper Company Rag Room - view 1, 1920's

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Lee Paper Company Rag Room - view 2, 1920's

Under Manager Norman Bardeen, the mill managed to operate throughout the Great Depression, though hours were cut and the available work was spread around so that as many employees as possible could take home a paycheck, however small.

Eighty-percent of the mill’s production was directed at the war effort during World War II. The post-war era brought a boom in business and major plant expansions. By this time the emphasis was on producing paper from wood pulp rather than rags, and in 1959 Lee Paper Company merged with a division of Simpson Timber Co. to form Simpson-Lee Paper Company, which in later years became simply Simpson Paper Company.

Lee Paper Company and its successors has had a tremendous effect on the greater Vicksburg area as its largest employer and biggest benefactor for many years. Housing construction boomed because of the mill. The Catholic Church was established here specifically to serve the mill’s Polish workers. The Vicksburg Foundation was formed with a $19,500 donation from the mill in 1943.

In 1996 the mill was purchased by Fox River Paper Company, who has announced its closing by March 1 of 2001. The fate of its beautiful buildings, among the oldest manufacturing structures in the area, is unknown.

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Lee Paper Company, 1930's

 Lee Paper Company, date unknown

The 1904 Vicksburg Wolverine Crank Newspaper ( Special Historical Edition as reprinted by the Vicksburg Historical Society in 1972) carried an article about the new Lee Paper Company - see the following images:

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Closing Lee Paper for Good

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Vicksburg's paper mill, 1905 - 2001

The following columns by Barbara Walters appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette on Sunday, September 2, 2001.  They appear here with the permission of Barbara Walters.


Mill's closing marks end of an era for Vicksburg

             BY BARBARA WALTERS 


VICKSBURG: Acres of tombstones frame the sprawling brick mill. Many who rest here once made some of the world's finest paper in the mill, which opened in 1905.Many of their children and grandchildren worked here, too, because the money was good. As the mill prospered, so did the village, which last year got nearly a quarter of its tax revenue from the mill, and whose charities and businesses had long depended on paper workers.

But the mill is a ghost town now, its parking lots empty, the complex silenced since March.  Fox River Paper Co. officials said they closed the plant because their mills were producing more than the market demanded. The Vicksburg mill was too old, they said, even though it was a good moneymaker.

By May, the mill's once pristine grounds were becoming overgrown, worrying village officials about blight. Today, blight is the least of their worries.  Fox River has indicated paper is never to be produced here again," says Village Manager Matt Crawford.  Fox River, which bought the mill from Simpson Paper Co. in 1996 with a pledge to remain a "good corporate citizen," now says it will not sell the building to any paper product firm.  "Wouldn't be prudent" to sell to a competitor,  Fox President Dan King said when he announced the closing in January. 

That's put Vicksburg in an "awkward" position,  compared to towns such as Parchment, which has sold its mill, Crawford says.  "The communities that helped build the plants and helped them grow are left with a company that says, well, we appreciated everything, but now here's a plant that's 500,000 square feet and it can't be used again for what it has been used for nearly 100 years," Crawford says. "The impact on the community is going to be great."

Scrambling to make up the lost revenue, the village hiked its millage by 1.3 mills and boosted sewer and water rates. The measures fall short of generating the $161,000 Fox River annually contributed to village coffers, so many street and park improvements have been put on hold, Crawford says. The ripple effect of the mill closing reaches far beyond the village budget. Some 214 people lost their jobs. More than 100 others had already been laid off in the five years since the Wisconsin-based Fox River bought the plant. 

It's in the heart of this village of 2,320 where people are feeling the loss of Vicksburg's biggest taxpayer and employer. "It's been a huge impact on our community and   our business," says Steve Schimp, owner of the Vicksburg True Value Hardware store, where Fox River bought hundreds of gallons of paint and other supplies. "They were our No. 1 customer. They supported us here locally."  Schimp senses a new caution about spending money when former mill workers come into his store. Most of those laid off are now working, but many make less in benefits and  wages ."They have to watch their dollars more," he says bracing for a different future, Schimp opened a framing shop that features area artists next to his store.  "I guess you've just got to adjust," he says. 

In the village post office, residents rarely come and go without exchanging greetings and news of the day. But Postmaster Gerry Reeves worries the mill's closing might lead postal officials to someday shut it down, too. "Financially, it's impacted us a lot," Reeves says. "We've lost one of our main revenue sources, and along with that, a lot of people who used to come in here." Carrier Donna Harris used to struggle with the mail sacks she delivered to and picked up from the mill. But as the plant moved into a shutdown mode, the flow of mail slowed to a  trickle. As the layoffs increased, she saw the remaining employees moved from other jobs into the mill's mail room. It was their last stop "on their way out," she says, before joining the ranks of the unemployed.  

In Mar Jo's Restaurant on South Main Street, there's still the clatter of coffee cups and the hum of people chatting. But the place is not nearly as busy as when the mill's second an good home-cooked meal for a fair price. Janet Reitz, who's met some friends there for lunch, had worked at the mill for 24 years  when she was laid off soon after Fox River bought the plant in 1996. Her grandfather, father and brother-in-law had worked there, too.  "When Fox River came in and bought Simpson, we all said we had about five years left," she says. "We were right." When she finally found another job, she went from five weeks of vacation to two days and took a $4 cut in hourly pay. A couple years ago, she started her own business as a cosmetic consultant. Now she has no regrets. "Once you get over the initial shock, life can be good if you don't harbor bitterness," she says.

Yet the cycles of company buyouts and layoffs has changed the outlook of many around town. "People found out how dispensable they were," she says. "They found out there was no loyalty. They found out the commitment to quality wasn't there any more. When I was there, we made the top grade print paper in the world. "Now they can make it cheaper in China." People can find new jobs, she says. "But working in a plastics company at $9, $10 an hour, that's not something you can raise a family on. "It's not the American way." "The mill was very good to me," she says. "And I didn't know how good until I was asked to leave."

An era has ended as the village moves away from a century of dependence on one business. There's development in a new subdivision, although Crawford estimates it would take 200 homes valued at $200,000 each to make up the  lost tax revenue. The Henry A. Leja Industrial Park is virtually full. There's possible funding support for street improvements from the Vicksburg Foundation, which was started in the 1940s with paper mill money.  And there's Vicksburg's spirit, which over the last 15 years has turned around a timeworn downtown into a commercial district with Norman Rockwell charm.

Vicksburg Community Schools Superintendent Pat Reeves is optimistic. The district covers 110 square miles, far beyond the village boundaries, and residential development will make up for the lost tax base, she says. "Fox River's loss will bump it down, but only  temporarily," Reeves says.

At South County Community Services, which runs most of the charities for the needy, program director Jo Ann Miller says she'd  "expected to see worse" once the mill closed.   "They're used to supporting us," she says of the Fox River workers. "They're not used to asking for help."  The company was a major sponsor of the village's annual Summer in the Park concert  series, so now residents will have to raise the  money.  "It's sad," Miller says, "to see a major pillar in  the community go down."   


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 Lee Paper Company , 1910

  By Barbara Walters

Old mill echoes with local history 

Thousands had walked through these doors before me. But on this day as I enter the Fox River Paper Co. mill in Vicksburg, I'm alone. Climbing the stairs past the brick walls, I come to the first landing. Workers posing beside roller machines stare back at me from a glass case highlighting the mill's 75th anniversary in 1980. Theirs was a proud history.

Dowagiac industrialist Fred Lee put up the building, hiring Italian immigrants to build it and Polish immigrants to run it. The new Americans settled here, and their children and grandchildren's lives remained tied to the mill and the village around it.

Those ties ran deep. During the darkest days of the Great Depression, Max Bardeen, who succeeded his father as mill president, personally went out on the road soliciting orders. Otherwise, old-timers say, the mill might have closed down.

But times change. In 1959, Simpson Timber of Washington bought the mill and 10 years later moved its corporate headquarters out of Kalamazoo to San Francisco. That same week Max Bardeen's son, the third generation of the founding family to be an executive at the mill, left the firm. The local and family ties to the mill were disappearing.

When Simpson put its Vicksburg and Plainwell mills on the block in 1996, the company acknowledged they were the "crown jewels" of its U.S. operations, good moneymakers whose loyal employees had helped establish that part of Simpson's business. "The flagship business of a long-established industry leader," a Fox River official called the Vicksburg mill when it bought it in January 1996.

Five years later to the day, Fox River announced the sale of the plant. The company also announced something else. It would never sell the mill to a firm that made paper. "Wouldn't be prudent," the president said. That's why, when I come to the door that has a sign warning that "ear protection is required," I hear no hum of machines or shouts of workers. I open the door and in the vast, dimly lit emptiness, I imagine the men and women in the photos busy at work.

I climb the stairs one more level, to the reception area. It's deserted, but on the counter is an open log book. Please sign in, it says. Among the entries on the open page is a moving company worker who signed in a week ago. 

Down a hallway, mill manager Tom Crockett is alone in his office, one of five employees left in this vast complex of nearly half a million square feet. Crockett is on the phone and his voice echoes; the words "all in the same situation" trail off. Everything is in boxes. A dusty portrait of Fred Lee, bearded and stern, sits propped against a wall. A young man, Crockett came here from Crown Vantage in Parchment a year ago, believing Fox River was a good opportunity. Now he's "looking for other opportunities," he says. He looks through some of the plant's anniversary photos. "It's always sad to lose productive people," he muses. Fox will give the photos to the Vicksburg Historical Society, he said. Two weeks after I interviewed him, Crockett left to take another job.

The place is empty now.


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The now defunct Lee Paper Company in view behind the Vicksburg Cemetery


New life for Fox River Plant

Friday, January 4, 2002




VICKSBURG:  An Indiana-based pallet company has purchased the former Fox River Paper Co. and could begin some warehousing and distribution operations in the plant by this weekend.

Pallet Management Corp. of Howe, Ind., formerly of Sturgis, was to sign a purchase agreement by today for the455,000-square-foot former paper plant that closed last year, putting 214 people out of work. Brian Smith, vice president of Pallet Management Corp., said the new operation will hire only about 10 to 12 employees at the 96-year-old Vicksburg building, but the village is still happy to have the firm moving in. "We're not going to be a big operation, and right now we're at 15 to 20 people where we are now (Howe, Ind.)," said Smith, who is a co-owner of the company along with majority owner and president Maria Marcinek. "But since day one (Village Manager) Matt Crawford and (former Village Manager) Don Flanders have been amazing. They said, 'Thanks for choosing Vicksburg. We appreciate you being here.' "

Smith declined to identify the sale price, but he said Fox River was asking for $1.4 million. Pallet Management paid "a little bit less than that," he said. "We're not going to be a huge employment base, but at least it keeps that building from becoming a fire trap or a big piece of rubble that will fall down," Smith said.  Crawford said Thursday that the village is excited about having Pallet Management come to Vicksburg, especially since it puts the building back onto the tax rolls and will be a unique incubator site for southern Kalamazoo County.

"It's great to have them, especially after hearing the horror stories of other communities that lost mills," Crawford said. "We were praying it would not be 10 years down the road before we could do something with it." Vicksburg is working on how much new tax base the company will bring into the village, Crawford said, but it will likely be far less than the $120,000 in annual taxes Fox River generated. Most of those taxes, he said, were in the company's machinery, not the 96-year-old building, which had some new renovations in recent years. "We have no idea what the taxes will be at this point," he said. "But we do know it's better to have those buildings occupied."

No name has been chosen, Smith said, but most likely "Fox River" will continue to be a part of it. The company expects to close on the sale March 1 or sooner. The building will be used primarily for warehouse and distribution operations, not the storage of pallets as had been rumored in late December when word first got out about the company's interest. Pallet Management has a couple of industrial customers who will be trucking their products to the site for distribution. Smith declined to identify the products but said there will be wood and paper collections at the plant. The building will also be used for some recycling operations to go along with the firm's cardboard recycling work. Recycling industrial wood waste for landscape mulch is one option.

One key to the plan, he said, is Pallet Management's intention to work with the village of Vicksburg to provide about 30 percent of the building for incubator firms to locate in the village. "Maybe a small company would like to come to Vicksburg, so what we would do is donate some space with the idea that these people could get on their feet before they decide to build in Vicksburg or move into an existing building," Smith said. "The idea is we can help them if they will make a commitment to Vicksburg. We've been working with Matt and Don on the incubator concept."

Crawford said the incubator concept is common for larger cities like Kalamazoo, but not for a small village such as Vicksburg. The village has experience luring business with its Henry Leja Business Park and in the past working with the CEO Council for a starter building that brought in River City Plastics years ago. "There's nothing like that (incubator sites) in this part of the county." Crawford said. "It's going to be a neat challenge."

The village will work with Pallet Management to generate grants to renovate portions of the Fox River plant that will be used for the incubator firms, Crawford said. The company will not need to do much with the building for its own purposes, but areas that would house the incubator companies would need renovations. "If we don't do anything with the building now, a great majority of the building will be useless for start-up businesses," Crawford said. "If we can get some grants or work through a brownfield redevelopment authority, we could redevelop portions of the building for incubator or an industrial/ commercial operation."

Smith said the company just moved out of Sturgis, where it had been operating in one of the old Kirsch plants. For three years, he said, his company has been fighting the city over a number of issues. "It's where I grew up and we wanted to stay there, but due to a lack of cooperation we said no way," Smith said. "We had hit a wall with them." As of Jan. 1, the company has been in Howe, Ind., just over the Michigan border. Smith and Marcinek are residents of Lake Templane near Centreville, and they plan to divide their time between the Indiana and Vicksburg operations. He said the company has been in touch with several former Fox River employees to see whether they will work for Pallet Management. The work will be primarily trucking and forklift operation. "We might as well go to the well (for employees)," Smith said. "They have the experience we're looking for." He said the company is excited about coming to Vicksburg, especially since the village has been so cooperative. "We really think it's a tremendous opportunity for the company," Smith said. "We're hoping to grow there."

As part of the agreement, Fox River demanded that Pallet Management sign a "non-compete" clause that prohibits it from running any paper operations out of the old paper mill. "I don't really understand that, because Fox River probably could have gotten significantly more if they had sold to a paper company," Smith said. The mill closed early last year, the last of five regional paper plant closings during an eight-month span beginning in August of 2000. Fox River officials had said that one of the terms of the sale would be that no competing paper company could purchase it. This year Bridge Organics, a small chemical company, purchased a small portion of the old mill complex that it had been leasing from Fox River for several years. In addition, portions of undeveloped Fox River land was purchased by Schoolcraft Township farmer and township supervisor Robert Thompson for farming operations, and some has been purchased for potential residential development. Crawford said that as far as he knows, all of Fox River's 979 acres have been sold. All but 120 of those acres, which are in Vicksburg, are in Schoolcraft Township.

Vicksburg plant could re-open in two weeks 
Wednesday, January 23, 2002

VICKSBURG Opening the new company in the old Fox River Paper Co. plant is taking longer than expected, but the new owners say business should begin in two to four weeks.

Paperwork for such processes as appraisals and environmental assessments is still being prepared, but owners of Pallet Management Corp. of Indiana say that next month the first stages of the new business will begin at the former paper plant. "We already expected to be in, but we hope to be two weeks from now," said Maria Marcinek, president of Pallet Management, who appeared
along with company Vice President Brian Smith on Monday night before the Vicksburg Village Council to give an update. The new business will be called Fox River Warehouse & Distribution Inc. By March 1, it should be fully up and running, they said. "We will warehouse customers' products and do the trucking for them in half of the building," she said.

The other half of the 455,000-square-foot building mainly the former Fox River offices likely will be used for incubator firms. Pallet Management would donate the space to those firms until they find permanent places in
Vicksburg. Vicksburg officials are working with the new
owners on the incubator aspect. Apparently Vicksburg has learned that one company is interested in using the incubator space, but talks are preliminary.

Plans still call for a work force of 10 to 15 in the building, which had been a paper company and the chief employer in the town for 96 years. There is no way, the new owners said, that Fox River Warehouse & Distribution could
hire the 214 workers that Fox River Paper Co. had employed. They told Vicksburg council members they are
excited about coming to the village and doing
business for a long time. "We hope to be a part of Vicksburg for many years," Marcinek said. "We've made quite a few contacts just in the past two weeks. It's
very promising." Smith added: "It's our lives and it's our
livelihood. We have everything invested in this."


Deal is off at Fox River

Saturday, March 30, 2002


VICKSBURG -- A proposal to purchase the old Fox River
Paper Co. plant and turn it into a warehouse and distribution business appears to have fallen through.

Fox Valley Corp., owner of the old paper mill that was
Vicksburg's major employer, told village officials Thursday it has canceled a sales agreement with Fox River Warehouse & Distribution. 

"The deal is off," said Vicksburg Village Manager Matt
Crawford, who met with Fox Valley representatives Thursday to learn the fate of that former 455,000 square-foot plant. 

The company did not give specifics of why they canceled the agreement. 

The owners of Fox River Warehouse & Distribution had announced in January a proposal to purchase the former Fox River property and buildings for a new warehouse and distribution operation. 

A work force of 10 to 15 in the building, which had been a
paper company and the chief employer in the town for 96
years, was proposed. Fox River had 214 workers when it
closed the Vicksburg plant last year. 

The proposed new owner had also been working with the
village to lease space for incubator firms that would like to get their start in Vicksburg before setting up business in another location in town. 

But financing became a problem for the property, which was on the market for $1.4 million. 

Bryan Smith, vice president of Pallet Management Corp. of Indiana, which was proposing to establish the new Vicksburg business, said he's not sure the deal is dead. 
"I really don't know yet," Smith said Friday. "Maybe they had buyer's remorse or maybe they had a better deal. We had a commitment of financing and will go ahead to see if we can force the agreement." 

Smith said the deal falling through did not have anything to do with the fact that another of his companies, Midwest
Environmental Recycling, also known as PMI, is in U.S.
Bankruptcy Court. PMI filed for bankruptcy June 12, 2001, showing it owned $502,373 to more than 20 creditors and assets of $97,856.  There has been no final decision in the case by the bankruptcy court. "That is a dissolved entity," Smith said of PMI-Midwest Environmental Recycling, which had sales of $2.3 million in 1999 and $1.2 million in 2000. 

"The corporation that was created for this (Vicksburg) project has absolutely nothing to do with that one. One is not tied to the other."  The company went into bankruptcy, Smith said, to protect itself from a product liability settlement over landscape mulch. Its bankruptcy, he said, would not prevent he and president Maria Marcinek from starting a new company, such as in Vicksburg. 

The Vicksburg project, he said, has been hurt by a
lower-than-anticipated appraisal. Because the appraisal of the former Fox Rover came in less than the amount of financing, the financial arrangements "were going slower than we thought," Smith said. 

At this point, Smith said, "We're really following what the
attorney said. We've had our positive side of publicity and now we're having the negative side. We're hopeful this is not a done deal." 

Crawford said the village got positive signs from Fox Valley Corp. that even though the new business appears to be dead Fox River wants to work with the village to find another buyer. 

The Lear Corp. is leasing space, an estimated 40,000 square feet, for warehousing automotive parts. The employment and the amount of space is minimal, Crawford said, but it shows that Fox River wants to try and put that building back in business. 

"The exciting part is that Fox Valley is committed to doing
whatever the community wants and to assist the community in anyway we feel is best for that facility," Crawford said. 

"That's a statement we have not heard before from Fox." 
The company still refuses to have another paper company in the plant. But it is willing to work with the village on the
incubator plan and any new businesses that wants to establish there. 

"The fact they are coming out and saying let's get this done together is promising," Crawford said. "We don't have a new owner but we still have an existing owner who is really willing to cooperate now that they are seeing what the community is willing to do to make this work." 


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