Sunday, August 2, 2015

Exhibit lauds forest industry role

On May 14, 1914, the first roll of paper was produced at the Fort Frances mill.
Sadly for our community, the last roll of paper to be made locally came off the same machine (#5) on Feb. 28 of this year.

To give the past its proper send-off, the Fort Frances Museum has put together an exhibit that reflects not only the many changes to the industry, but the contributions made by hundreds of employees who worked in the mill or logging through the years.
As the fur trade declined west of the Great Lakes, local inhabitants turned to farming and wood harvesting.
The river system that winds through our area not only provided the transportation required to get lumber to markets, but the Alberton Falls at the centre of Fort Frances provided the means to harvest electric power and build a paper mill.
American investor E.W. Backus secured rights to dam the Alberton Falls on the U.S. side and immediately began negotiating with the Ontario and Canadian governments to do the same on the Canadian side.
Dam construction between the sister communities was completed in 1910, and paper production began on the American side at International Falls, Mn.
Four years later, the paper mill on the Canadian side was completed at Fort Frances.
The paper mill—the community’s only industry—was crucial to the town’s development. But it was the power agreement negotiated by our town fathers that ensured the profitability of the mill and thus the prosperity of the town.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the wood harvested in Northwestern Ontario was primarily red and white pine, used for lumber that was shipped worldwide. Sawmills sprang up everywhere and included the Shevlin Clarke mill at Fort Frances and the J.A. Mathieu mill on Sand Bay.
Although this summer’s exhibit at the Fort Frances Museum deals primarily with paper production, the bush camps that dotted the river and lake system served both purposes.
Many men, including area farmers, supported their family through logging. Wood typically was harvested in summer, then hauled when the ground was frozen, making it easier for the teams of horses that did the work.
Logs were stacked high on the ice-landings until spring—ready for the natural waterways to transport the wood to the paper mill and sawmills in and around Fort Frances.
Up until the late 1970s, wood was transported primarily by water, in large booms towed by “gators” and tugs. As the forests were logged further and further away from the mill, it became more economical to use truck transport.
Mechanized harvesting also meant that wood could be cut and hauled year-round.
The Fort Frances Museum is the repository of thousands of photographs taken over 100 years and more. Pictures document old-time logging using axe, cross-cut, and horse-and-sleigh, and follow the seasons through cutting, hauling, the river drive, and the tow.
We can see the march of progress through mechanization and note when tugboats gave way to pulp trucks.
The same is true with the production side of things. Although many of the earlier sawmills are gone and the paper mill idled, historic documents and photographs have marked the changes brought by advancing technology and through modernization.
Records show that the paper machines were rebuilt numerous times, the paper-making process reinvented to reflect environmental and safety legislation, and computers replaced manual control rooms.
The museum’s exhibit will run from May through August, with the gallery on the main floor displaying the history of the mill and logging.
The upstairs meeting room, meanwhile, will feature employee photographs taken at various functions and on the job.
Even if you have never worked at the mill, you will know many of the faces in the photographs as they are neighbours, family, and friends.
Fort Frances Museum staff invite you to join them for a wine-and-cheese reception this Wednesday (May 14) from 4:30-8 p.m. to mark the exhibit’s official opening.
Opening remarks are scheduled for 5 p.m.
There will be birthday cake and everyone is welcome!

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