By Leeanne Seaver
Many of those gathered to see the herculean renovation and restoration at the Mill in Vicksburg echoed the reaction of former accounting department staffer Guila Hoehne Harrison: “It’s kind of hard to even call it the ‘old’ mill anymore!”
Harrison was one of nearly 400 – including 150 former employees – who came to the “Family Reunion” at the Mill on a Saturday in early October.
“Family” was very much the feeling amongst the crowd; in some cases, literally. Many brought their families with them, including parents and grandparents who’d been employed over the span of mill operations from 1904 to 2001. “It’s ‘old home week’ for many of us,” said Guila’s husband, Mike Harrison, who worked there during summer breaks from college. Beyond genetic ties, the bond was palpable as a community.
That’s how it felt to Dick Moyle who started as an hourly paster helper in 1977. “The Vicksburg mill was a tight organization within the ranks. We wanted to do the right thing and take care of each other. We wanted to make the mill successful. Everyone took pride in the work and the product we were producing. Over the years, we grew to know each other and everyone’s family,” he said.
Moyle remembers picnics, softball teams, volleyball teams, and get-togethers away from mill business. He also remembers how work would on occasion turn into play. “On those hot summer days when the outside temperatures were pushing 90-plus degrees, the paper machine room would be unbearable. If you were walking through the area during ‘housekeeping’, you ran the risk of ‘accidentally’ getting sprayed by whoever was hosing down the floors,” Moyle recalled. “Well, it helped them cool down! It was good for a laugh!”
Moyle also remembers the day in January 2001 when then-owner Fox River – once the mill’s top competition – called a meeting of upper management. Moyle, converting superintendent of the mill by then, was present. “They got right to the point. They were closing the mill. You could’ve heard a pin drop… my heart stopped,” Moyle said. The process took months, but “in the end, I was probably the second to the last guy out of the building. It was a hollow feeling to walk out of there knowing this place had been my life for 23 very good years. I poured everything I could into it, and it was tough… like having to leave your family, your home, and just move away.”
The last guy out was Gary Jones who was production scheduling manager. After the mill shut down, Gary was kept on as a caretaker. “The building now was just a shell with just empty rooms. No humming of machines, no people laughing or talking. Just silence and the sound of my footsteps. Very sad….”
Fast forward 20 years, and the Mill is again bringing the community together in new ways. The mood was festive at the reunion event as folks shared mill memorabilia and reconnections over food and drink provided by host Paper City Development, the company that’s redeveloping the site.
Paper City owner Chris Moore is very much a part of the past and present life of the Mill. Grandson of Gordon Moore, who was the mill’s chief engineer during the 1940s, and son of retired mill Purchasing Agent Tim Moore, Chris’s own history goes back generations there. In some ways, it was the family business, but not always business as usual. “Both of my boys went to work at the mill,” Tim Moore said. “Chris worked in the sample room. They’d have reams of colored paper. He took upon himself to make some signs for his team… and Michigan fight songs. He’d leave a note in my mailbox to go look for a certain ream of paper, and there it’d be – a big GO BLUE sign!”
Stories of the antics and the angst were plentiful under the tent and on-camera as the Mill documented its living history. “One of the most entertaining things about this event is the opportunity to be a fly on the wall as old friends reminisce with each other,” said Jackie Koney, Paper City chief operating officer. “The Mill Family Reunion is one of the highlights of my job.”
Guided tours provided more opportunities for sharing memories of what once was alongside what will be in the vast spaces being repurposed as a music venue, a brewery museum, restaurants, a conference site, and more. Guila Harrison says “It’s just really exciting to know there’s more ahead for that Mill in our community.”