Mill exhibit offers chance for reflection
The first roll of paper was produced at the Fort Frances mill on May 14, 1914.
Ever since then, the mill and the logging industry supporting it have gone through many changes and been the sources of employment for thousands of individuals, all of which are chronicled in a new exhibit at the Fort Frances Museum.
The community also provided photos, newspaper clipping, scrapbooks, documents, lunch baskets, and other personal items for the exhibit that together reflect the local mill and logging history over the past 100 years.
A wine-and-cheese celebration to kick off the new exhibit, held last Wednesday, was the first chance for the public, including mill employees and their families, to take a trip down memory lane.
“I enjoyed working in the woods,” said Don Dickson, who worked in the mill’s woodlands division from 1974-98.
“There was a lot of interesting fellows to talk to and work with,” he noted.
“We did some interesting things.
“I was involved with road location,” Dickson added. “I was involved with tree planting and forest inventory and logging layout—almost all of the phases that you could possibly think of in forestry.”
Looking over the logging display, Dickson said “things were just about winding down on the river drive” when he started on the job.
“There was still a few more deliveries by water but time was limited,” he recalled.
Dickson first worked in forestry near Sudbury, “just as the horses were disappearing from the woods.”
“The power saw was coming on board about then,” he remarked. “Skidders were coming on board about then.
“It was a very interesting time, let me tell you.”
Referring to Resolute’s recent decision to permanently close its mill here, Dickson noted “it’s sad for the community that we no longer have a pulp and paper mill.”
“No paper will be made in Fort Frances anymore,” he reflected. “But I, for one, feel the town really benefitted in the long-run, over a long period of time, by having the mill here.
“A lot of people got some nice jam on their bread, that’s for sure,” Dickson chuckled.
Dickson said the new exhibit is “a really good show,” noting museum curator Sherry George and the committee put a lot of time and effort into putting it all together and deserve to be commended.
“You need lots of time to look at all the pictures,” he smiled.
Dave Legg, who currently works in the woodlands division, flipped through a scrapbook chronicling the mill’s history of safety awards.
“I’ve been here 23 years but you realize there’s still years and years [of history] before that,” he noted.
“People put in so much effort and so much time and their entire lives into [the mill],” Legg added. “And you don’t really realize that when you’re here for such a short part of that time.
“This sort of brings it all together.”
Legg agreed the committee did “a fabulous job” on the exhibit.
“In light of the mill situation and still being able to put this on, and seeing so many people here, it means that the committee did a good job to promote the thing,” he lauded.
“It’s part of the culture of the community.”
Neil Whitefield, who has worked at the local paper mill for nearly 38 years and currently is area superintendent, was equally impressed with the exhibit.
He noted it’s extremely important to acknowledge what the mill—and the logging, pulp, and paper industry as a whole—put into the town’s growth over the past century.
“It really helped develop the town, the area,” Whitefield said. “It’s really done well for the area, I think.
“It’s a shame that it’s come to an end,” he remarked. “It just seems like it should be glorified a whole lot more.
“The time and the effort that went into this exhibit is extremely nice; it’s really unfortunate that [the closure] had to happen the month of the 100-year anniversary of the mill itself.
“It’s not just about the mill, it’s about the industry as a whole,” Whitefield stressed.
“It also helped develop the OSB [mill in Barwick], which is another aspect of what to do with wood.”
Whitefield also said he found the way the exhibit traces the changes in technology, both for logging and for paper-making, to be very interesting.
“I’ve seen, personally, a tremendous amount of change in the way paper was made, and the type of paper made, throughout the years,” he recalled.
“It was well thought out,” he added. “One of our forefathers that was planning at the mill at the time, when we were associated with Kenora, converted us from a newsprint mill to speciality papers.
“It was wonderfully well thought out, well-planned and executed, and we survived for many years making the paper grades that we did,” he reiterated.
The timeline for the exhibit was laid out thanks to Doug MacDonald, who has been taking distance education at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
MacDonald coincidently was working on his Honours thesis, “The History of the Pulp and Paper Industry in Fort Frances,” when he got involved in the planning for the 100th-anniversary exhibit.
“Digging into it, I found so much amazing information,” MacDonald said of his research.
One fact he finds interesting is the key role of the historic power agreement in the growth of the mill.
“It was originally negotiated in 1903, was ratified in 1904, then it was renegotiated after a change in government in Toronto in 1905,” MacDonald explained.
“That’s the hydro agreement that we’re working under now.
“But for the longest time, the mill and the town used the hydro agreement kind of against each other,” he noted. “Taxes and what the town was paying for hydro all entered into it.
“The company wanted to export power to International Falls,” MacDonald recalled. “The government had said the town had a veto over that, so the town used that veto to force the company to expand.
“‘You want to export hydro? You’re going to export jobs. You’re going to make the like number of jobs in Fort Frances.’
“And that’s where the third paper machine, No. 7, came from,” MacDonald said. “It’s because Backus, the president of the company, wanted to export hydro developed on the Seine River to International Falls.
“[But] in order to get permission to do that from the town, he had to get another paper machine and expand [the Fort Frances mill] to be the same size as [the International Falls mill].”
Another interesting fact is that in 1944, to aid the war effort, the mill’s machine shop—during evening and night shifts—produced gun mounts and gun sights for the Royal Canadian Navy’s Corvette escort ships.
MacDonald said the town and the mill has had a symbiotic relationship over the past century. And while he acknowledges the mill now has been permanently closed, “don’t count out the paper industry in Fort Frances.”
“The reason there is a paper mill here now still exists,” he remarked. “There’s still trees. There’s still power. There’s still a skilled workforce.
“Those items aren’t going away right away.
“Maybe this is just going to be like pressing the re-set button,” MacDonald reasoned. “This mill is pretty small, pretty old, and been run down, comparing it to great big monster machines elsewhere in the world.
“But we still have trees,” he stressed. “Maybe 10 years, maybe five years, who knows?
“Something still could happen.”
The exhibit highlights the history of the mill and logging on the museum’s main floor.
The upstairs meeting room, meanwhile, is filled with thousands of photographs taken over the years by employees on the job and at various employee events.
The Fort Frances Museum, which switched to summer hours as of Friday, is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.