By Jef Rietsma
Editor’s note: We plan to feature people who worked at the mill in various capacities to provide some historical perspective to the potential redevelopment of the mill.
The tone in Bob Millard’s voice was unmistakably melancholic as he reflected on his 13-year stint at the former Simpson Lee Paper Mill that covered a portion of the ’60s and ‘70s.
Even after a series of promotions took him to San Francisco for another 20 years with the company, Millard said he always had a soft spot for the Vicksburg plant.
“I may have worked there during what were very likely its best years,” Millard said. “I started out in the customer-service department after having five years of experience in the paper-distribution business, worked up to middle management and eventually became mill manager for eight years.”
He said just about anyone who worked at the mill, regardless of in what capacity, will talk fondly today about what Simpson Lee Paper meant to Vicksburg and the region. Millard said through the balance of its 100-plus years, the plant was a community within a community.
“So many of the employees were local, either from right in Vicksburg or just on the fringe of Vicksburg, and so many were descendants of their parents who also worked there,” he said. “It had an impressive ethnicity … a strong Polish contingent who, along with people from all backgrounds, were the second-generation group of mill workers. It was just a very, very interesting place to work.”
Millard said its people were a significant component of the company’s strength. But it would be unfair to overlook the quality of paper the Vicksburg site produced.
He said the array of specialty papers set it apart from the 11 other mills within the company and among Simpson’s competitors. Its quality products filled a niche in a way no other mill could, he said.
“It was unique across the breadth of high-end paper,” Millard said.
Millard was part of a group that toured the 30-acre property last fall, around the time plans to convert the mill site into a multi-use parcel were being completed. Vicksburg-native Chris Moore is the owner of Paper City Development LLC and behind the project called, simply, The Mill.
The first phase of redevelopment includes a brewpub.
Moore owns Old Stove Brewing Co. in Seattle.
Millard said it was a treat to be able to walk the grounds and peer inside the buildings still standing, 15 years after the plant closed.
“It was kind of like stepping back in time …you think you see a lot of ghosts,” Millard said, recalling the tour. “I’ve seen the plans Chris has put together, I like the idea of the mill getting a second life. I just wish the project was moving faster because I’d like to be around to see the ground-breaking, at least.”
Millard, 86, returned to Michigan 20 years ago and lives on Gull Lake. He still meets monthly for breakfast with a number of retired mill employees, a gathering that features its share of reminiscing, he said.
Pausing to reflect, Millard shared a final anecdote about his time with the Vicksburg plant.
“My first boss was my kindergarten teacher’s husband … totally unrelated to me getting the job, of course,” said Millard, who grew up in the Grand Rapids-area community of Ravenna. “But thinking back to working there, no question whether you were hourly or salaried, it was a good place to work. Very fair in all aspects of the way they did business, whether it was with their customers or their employees. A real classy place.”
Next month’s issue will feature a profile of Jack Page.