Not long after he moved to Kalamazoo 19 years ago, Frank Cody started hearing stories about the City of Parchment – the town that formed around a paper mill, the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company.
"Then I found out that there were a history of different paper companies in Kalamazoo that were founded at different times,” he says.
Intrigued, Frank wanted to know: what drew paper manufacturers to Kalamazoo?
“My only theory which I don’t think is adequate is the fact that there’s a lot of water supply around here, which is very necessary in order to manufacture and process paper products,” he says.
The answer took us from Frank’s quiet living room to the inside of a very active paper mill. But first, we turn to historian Larry Massie for some background on Kalamazoo’s paper industry.
Massie says Kalamazoo’s first paper mill went up in 1867, just south of town by Portage Creek. An entrepreneur named Samuel Gibson led it to success.
“And over the years he had a lot of people who worked with him who soon learned the papermaking skill. It’s a very skilled trade, Massie says.
Some of Gibson’s employees then set up mills of their own.
Massie says sure enough, water was a big reason they built their mills in the Kalamazoo River Valley. But the area had other advantages – such as workers looking for steady jobs. And Kalamazoo could get the paper where it needed to go.
“Kalamazoo by the turn of the century had seven major railroads linking it with Detroit to the east and particularly Chicago where a lot of the paper went,” he says.
An industry booklet from the nineteen-teens lists 10 paper mills in the City of Kalamazoo – and another eight throughout the valley.
But Massie says the industry began a slow decline after World War II, that sped up in the 1960s and 70s.
“These were old, old factories by then. And other people came and bought them and didn’t install the new equipment, just kept making paper as long as they lasted and then eventually closed them down. One by one they closed down,” he says.
The City of Kalamazoo has just one full-scale commercial paper mill these days: Graphic Packaging International on Pitcher Street.
If you live near Kalamazoo, some of your paper recycling likely ends up here, says GPI Recycled Board Mills Vice President Mike Farrell.
“We get the blue bins that everybody puts out on the curb, we pick that up and that’s our newsprint,” he says.
GPI recycles the paper into the kind of sturdy flexible board that makes up a cereal box. It does this with what Farrell calls “the paper machine,” which doesn’t tell you much about the scale.
The largest thing you’ve ever seen enclosed indoors might be smaller than the paper machine. It’s two and a half football fields long. At the front end it’s a mass of pipes, rollers and blocks. Farrell says the company has invested heavily in this equipment to keep this mill competitive.
We walk up the stairs on the side to get a better view. As we rise, the air gets thick – hot and humid, until it’s difficult to take a photo without fogging the lens.
At this stage the paper is a wet gray ribbon that zips past with steam rising from the top and water dripping underneath. Farrell says at the beginning you want your mixture thin.
“Think about it like oatmeal,” he says.
“If you’ve got a bowl of oatmeal and not enough water it’s all clumpy and stuff. If you were to try and make that into a sheet it’d be real lumpy.”
From here it’s a matter of removing water to form a smooth surface. Rollers press the paper until it’s about half-solid. Dryers that look like a vast row of shiny metal garages take it the rest of the way.
The final product is a paper roll that weighs as much as a minivan.
Frank, who asked our question, says he’s impressed.
“I think whenever I see paper from now on I’ll remember this experience,” he says.
Historian Larry Massie, who helped to answer Frank’s question about the origins of Kalamazoo’s paper industry, poses a question of his own.
“One thing you notice in the photographs of the old paper mill workers, they were all barefoot,” he says.
“I’m not sure just why,” he adds. “Maybe they didn’t want to wear out their shoes.”
GPI’s Mike Farrell says they did it for safety. Older paper mills were on the messy side.
“With all the water on the floor, it was slippery, so the workers back then preferred to go barefoot because it gave them better traction,” he says.