By Jef Rietsma
By the time the Lee Paper Mill (then known as Fox River) closed in 2001, its history stretched nearly 100 years and had impacted several thousand families in south Kalamazoo County.
Its impact has the potential to go as far or deep in its proposed new life as The Mill, a multi-use development that will include retail and residential components. But once completed, The Mill will keep alive and pay homage to a Vicksburg icon when it was Lee Paper Company.
Bob Millard served as vice president of operations of the Lee Paper Mill in the 1960s and ‘70s. He said the operation’s historical value to the community can’t be overstated.
“It opened not too long after the turn of the 20th century and provided a job with fair wages for many, many families for several decades,” Millard said during a June interview. “In a lot of cases, for generations of families.”
He said the Vicksburg plant was unlike other paper companies in the so-called Kalamazoo River Valley because its finished product was comprised of rag content. The fibers yielded a higher-quality paper, setting Lee-produced paper at a higher standard compared to its competitors.
But the labor involved was intense and demanded a solid, dedicated work force. Jack Page, of the Vicksburg area, who spent nearly three decades with the company in a span that covered the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, said Lee benefitted from a willing core of men and women able to meet the challenge.
He said the company in its early years attracted a large number of Polish immigrants; men and women with roots to other European countries had plenty of brawn to offer who would later secure employment at Lee.
“There was nothing easy about the labor that went into making our paper and from the beginning, Lee was always blessed to have a strong workforce,” he said. “People took a lot of pride in what they did and no question that showed. It showed very clearly.”
The company was organized in 1903. Construction started in 1904 and the industry opened in 1905. The machinery rolled for the first time on May 31, 1905, with a payroll of 205 people, including 95 women.
Early newspaper accounts mentioned how a quasi-school was set up at the mill and workers would attend night classes. Many were immigrants learning the English language.
Workers were encouraged to notify their families back in the old country about job opportunities at the mill. The ripple effect, of course, was predictable. Vicksburg suddenly found itself scrambling to meet demands for housing, businesses, churches and services.
But the heavy debt borne by Lee’s construction costs and its payroll nearly doomed the operation within a few years after it opened. Four years after its first wheels rolled, the company found itself $600,000 in debt.
Four executives – George Bardeen, Fred Lee, William Howard and Archie Gardner – in 1909 managed to raise $150,000 from their own wealth to help temper the hemorrhaging. Their commitment paid dividends and for the first time in its history, Lee turned a profit in 1910. Its mortgage was retired nine years later.
But there were some bumps in decades ahead. The Great Depression slowed production to a trickle. In 1932, the company’s insurance inspector condemned the plant’s boilers. Restrictions in place during World War II created unprecedented obstacles. In its later years, Lee dealt with labor disputes and challenges posed by environmental regulations.
“It’s pretty easy to remember the good times and all the good that (Lee) brought to the area, but like any business, there were issues to overcome,” Millard said.
“But I know long before I started there they had company picnics, banquets, a bowling league … just an incredible amount of community involvement.”
Archives show the company expanded in 1951 and added a new paper-producing machine. It had a 50-year anniversary celebration with no shortage of fanfare in 1955 followed by additional expansions, a merger with the Simpson Paper Company and a celebratory-filled 75-year anniversary in 1980.