By Jef Rietsma
Listening to Don Ulsh recall his days and his numerous jobs with Simpson Paper, it’s hard to believe nearly two decades have passed since he last worked at the Vicksburg-based plant.
Considering the clarity with which he remembered his two stints with the company, it would be reasonable to assume he was there as recently as a few months ago.
“The places and people that were so important at a certain time in your life, especially at a time you recall with great fondness, you tend to remember those days with a little more affection and a little more clarity,” Ulsh said. “I get quite emotional when I talk about the mill to any great extent because it was so much a part of my life. And not just me but it was for other people, too.”
The 76-year-old Ulsh had two runs at the mill. His first was June 1959 to November 1971, a period during which he held a number of titles and performed a variety of duties, including quality-control technician, assistant to the production superintendent and personnel assistant. At the time, the company was known as Lee Paper.
Ulsh remembers cursing his later-in-the-year birthday, which forced him to work on a farm as a 17-year-old the summer he graduated from Vicksburg High School. Meanwhile, a number of his 18-year-old classmates secured employment at the mill.
He turned 18 in 1959, toward the end of his freshman year in college. Ulsh wound up landing a job that summer and as an incentive for him to finish school, the paper company paid for his college education. He took advantage of the offer, attending Western Michigan University for a year and a half before he was transferred to the West Coast.
“It didn’t take long for me to feel like part of the family … not long at all,” he said. “The mill was never publicly owned, it had always been a private company, and they treated you like family because it was owned by one family. I never had to ask for a raise; they would always take care of you.”
Ulsh said friends he made with people during his tenure at Lee Paper, then Simpson, are people with whom he is still close to today. His job as Schoolcraft Township supervisor provides its share of unpredictable but joyful reunions.
“It’s not unusual for some of the people who were there when I was mill manager to come into the township office and pay their taxes, and it’s always a good feeling. It’s usually pretty nostalgic,” he said.
Ulsh was a general sales manager at Plainwell Paper Co. when it was bought by the Vicksburg plant, then known as Simpson Lee. He returned to the Vicksburg mill in December 1987 and eventually became its manager in 1991, a duty that continued through 1996. One dubious job-related task to which he was assigned was showing the mill to prospective buyers. He recalled that the mill was considered a “hot commodity, it was a profitable organization and that’s why a lot of people wanted to buy it.”
He was offered work as director of international sales when Fox River Paper bought the operation in 1996. It was an opportunity he accepted, but Ulsh would only stay on board a year.
“I decided to move on to greener pastures; it just wasn’t the same,” Ulsh said, declining to elaborate. The mill eventually closed in 2002.
Ulsh went on to manage a paper company in the Detroit area, where he was working when he found out the Vicksburg plant was closing. He said it was “humming along great” at the time he left, and he was amazed at the news.
Eight years after he left Fox River and three years after the mill was shuttered, Ulsh was contacted by a company that ultimately hired him to help it conduct an environmental assessment of the property. He said it needed someone intimately familiar with the facility who could walk a team of people through the site and explain what kind of work went on in various locations.
Though he hadn’t been in the mill since his last day as a Fox River employee, Ulsh said he was initially excited about seeing the property again. His zeal, however, quickly turned to dismay not long after stepping foot on the site.
“I was just sick when I went through there … until that moment I had a picture in my mind of what the place had looked like, and to see it in such poor condition was just sad,” he said. “I went to see where my old office was and the ceiling was hanging down, it was just trashed because people had been coming in there and nothing had been done to the place. I was saddened and absolutely sick about it.”
Ulsh is part of the team helping to shape the redevelopment of the century-old mill and its property. The plan, backed by Vicksburg native Chris Moore, is an ambitious proposal that will focus initially on a brewpub and eventually incorporate other components.
The plan, he said, is exciting, in part because Moore aims to keep as much machinery and signage as he can, and incorporate it all into a quasi-museum that pays homage to the mill and its glory days.
Ulsh, who has some relics to offer, called the group an ad-hoc advisory team and is pleased to play a role in the mill’s rebirth. The plan, in fact, typically dominates the conversation when he and other former employees meet monthly at the Antique Kitchen in Portage.
“We never run out of things to talk about despite how many years we’ve been meeting like that; I’d say a dozen, maybe 15 years,” he said. “We have a lot of laughs and we share a lot of good memories.”
Ulsh proudly recalls how the mill set the standard for quality product. He said Hallmark was a major customer, as it preferred a quality of paper the mill produced exclusively for the greeting-card company.
He said the type of paper is called Impressions, and Ulsh said he smiles when he has occasion to leaf through greeting cards and sees the Impressions trademark on the back of a Hallmark card. “Somebody else is making it now, obviously,” he said. “But we developed that Impressions paper and I see it now as a legacy of the Vicksburg mill.”