Rayonier and Container in Fernandina – A brief history and reflection


“This morning at 10 a.m. the announcement for the 7 million dollar pulp mill came out and the town went wild.”    12/14/36                    

Mrs. O.H. Anderson

Submitted by Susan Hardee Steger
February 9, 2016 6:33 p.m.

My grandfather Ira William Hardee along with his brothers John and Noble opened a hardware store on Centre Street in 1900 and sold a somewhat odd combination of hardware and groceries. Eventually, John and Noble left the business to pursue other opportunities leaving my grandfather as the sole proprietor. Ira ran a successful business but tough times came during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. My grandfather, said to be a good, kind man, stopped selling groceries since he could no longer extend credit to families desperate for food, and he could not bear the thought of turning anyone away. The town of Fernandina suffered greatly.

In January 1936, the City of Fernandina hired O.H. Anderson to bring industry to town. Anderson, who happens to be the great-grandfather of Wes White, current candidate for State Attorney, 4th Judicial Circuit of Florida, was paid $300 a month to be the city clerk, auditor, and city manager. Anderson was sent to Fernandina by Seaboard Air Line Rail and according to city minutes, he was convinced “there is no better place to bring a pulp mill or other industries,” and two pulp mill businesses agreed. In 1937 and 1938, Container Corporation (Kraft Paper), and Rayonier began operations in Fernandina.

Anderson’s wife, Alberta Avant Anderson, captured the town’s excitement over news that a mill [probably Container] was coming and recorded in her diary on December 14, 1936:

“This morning at 10 a.m. the announcement for the 7 million dollar pulp mill came out and the town went wild.” The next day she reported, “People calling over the phone and coming to see us so happy with mill announcement. We went to Judge Baker’s home in evening to a celebration.”

Rayonier Driving wood piles 8-23-1937
Rayonier Driving wood piles 8-23-1937

Today as we spend millions to lure tourist to Amelia Island, it is hard to imagine that during construction of the mills, the city mayor appealed to the public through newspapers across the region to stay away from Fernandina. Available housing was earmarked for construction workers. According to a WPA Writers’ Program book published in 1940 titled “Fernandina, Florida: A guide to the city and its industries,” the total amount of building permits issued in August, 1937 totaled $6,308,900. The population increased an estimated 45% between 1935 and 1937.

Rayonier Employees Working on beams 1939 Photo courtesy of Rayonier A.M.
Rayonier Employees Working on beams 1939
Photo courtesy of Rayonier A.M.

My childhood would have been very different without the mills. They brought money to a town that had little. Our mills brought young families. They brought hard working people, well educated managers, chemists, and engineers. They provided needed tax revenue to improve and expand our educational facilities. They hired college-bound students for summer jobs and for years Rayonier gave four-year college scholarships to promising young students in need.

Rayonier Building Pulp Machine 1938 Photo courtesy of Rayonier A.M.
Rayonier Building Pulp Machine 1938
Photo courtesy of Rayonier A.M.

Many mill wives and at times husbands taught in our schools and helped educate students who went on to attend state universities, military academies, and top- tiered schools such as Princeton, MIT, Yale, and the University of Chicago. They became doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, and even a Smithsonian Museum curator. This community (population 5,000 to 6,000 ) had for a small town excellent schools with graduates who made us proud.

F-O-Smaller2-300x300Fast forward to the tragedy of 9/11. Perhaps we need a reminder. 9/11 was a rude awakening for our local economy, and it brought fear and uncertainty to this community. The economic impact was unexpected, and it happened overnight; so quickly. Merchants and restaurateurs on our now not-so- bustling Centre Street suffered as did the Ritz and Plantation. Jobs were lost, businesses were hurt, but our mills continued uninterrupted. As much as I appreciate what tourism brings to our local economy, I have come to realize that an economically diverse community is critical to our area’s financial stability.

When news broke of the potential partnership between Rayonier and LignoTech Florida which promises to bring 50 to 60 high paying jobs to our community and improve emission levels, I was excited and grateful. Having a new product developed on Rayonier A.M.’s site brings value to our community. Both companies will become more profitable, and I believe the partnership will extend the life of our soon-to-be 80-year old Rayonier A.M. mill.

During LignoTech’s presentation before the City Commission (click here for information), important questions were raised about the impact of the proposed partnership. On February 12, from 3 to 6:30 p.m. Rayonier A.M. will open its doors at the foot of Gum Street to allow the public to ask questions, receive product information, speak to the experts, and tour the facility. Closed- toe shoes are required on the tour. I plan to attend, question, extend a warm welcome to representatives, and thank and encourage both Rayonier A.M. and LignoTech Florida and our commissioners to seal the deal. I hope you will join me.

As community discussions continue, some may warn of the negative aspects of increased industrial activity. I will listen and learn, but I will focus most of my attention on the positive aspects of this partnership. You see, I can’t help but like the mills and support their efforts. In my lifetime they have given so much to a community I love.

Susan Hardee Steger is a sixth generation Fernandinian whose Davis and Mizell ancestors made a living from Nassau County’s vast pine forests as saw mill operators in Kings Ferry, Orange Bluff,  and Crandall, Florida.

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Wes White
Wes White(@wes-white)
8 years ago

Great article!

Every time I hear someone complain about the mills on the island, or the logging trucks on A1A, I wonder where our county would be without our industry that has harvested “green gold” for generations. We are blessed to be in Nassau County!

Wilma Allen
Wilma Allen(@wilmaa65gmail-com)
8 years ago

Susan, Thank you for giving us this side of the story. Excellent article.

Ernie Davis
Ernie Davis (@guest_46680)
8 years ago

Dad went to work for Rayonier before WWII, and the job was waiting for him when he got home after the war. He worked there until he retired. I’m sure some things have changed, but those jobs have disappeared most places, along with the factories and mills. Lots of places and people would love to have the opportunities that exist there.

Eric Childers
Eric Childers (@guest_46681)
8 years ago

50-60 industrial jobs…bring it!

Janice Sweatt Schmidt
Janice Sweatt Schmidt (@guest_46682)
8 years ago

Great article, Susan. As a “Child of Container”, I will tell anyone who will listen that the mills were the “Bread and Butter” of Fernandina. Whether your father was a chemist or the CEO or a millwright like mine, the mill was a unifying force. I had uncles who worked at Container and Rayonier. One of them died while at work. My own father was severely injured while on the job and was off work for many months. Thanks to the generosity of his fellow workers and many others in town, our family survived until he was able to return to work. That was the response when anyone was badly hurt. That was part of the culture of Fernandina. The mills were the basis of the economics of the entire town. And when that west wind would bring that distinct smell (not the porgy plant one) all the way out to the beach where we lived, my folks would just say “Hmmm…That smells like money…”

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_46684)
8 years ago

It’s about knowledge, exploration of good vs. bad choices, and balance. I like this.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
8 years ago

Great article. Any type of industry, whether manufacturing or tourism has both positive and negative impacts. While tourism is often regarded as a “clean” industry, the reality is that it creates substantial pressure on the infrastructure of an area both in terms of utilities as well as in public safety resources.
LignoTech seems to have made it clear that FB isn’t the only location they are pursuing and if they aren’t welcomed then they will locate elsewhere. Any evaluation of their operation’s impact on the City/County, both environmentally and financially, should be thorough and objective.

Robert Prager
Robert Prager (@guest_46690)
8 years ago
Reply to  Dave Lott

Hi Dave, I agree with your comments but have you ever heard of anyone entering a negotiation with, “This is the only place we are considering”. Part of the reason we are being considered is the quality of life we offer their employees and the the assurance that the quality will be maintained or improved. We can be welcoming but still ask the tough questions.

Marc Williams
Marc Williams(@willimarcgmail-com)
8 years ago

Susan, this is a well-written and informative article. I appreciate learning some of the history of the local mills and it’s good to be reminded of the integral role they play in the success of our community. I don’t like fighting with truck traffic every day and our little frame house sometimes rattles from work going on at West Rock, but to me, that’s just part of Fernandina. We chose to live here and the mills were here first. As others have posted, it’s all about balance, which is true of life in general.

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
8 years ago

Great article, Susan! As with all life, we need balance and Fernandina’s economy is balanced between tourism and the industries of RockTenn and Rayonier (among others). The most important factor in the success of Fernandina Beach as a city and Amelia Island as a home for all of us is the informed involvement of citizens in local issues. We have talented and knowledgeable residents who research and present intelligent questions regarding issues that impact our island. I hope that we all continue to listen to all sides of an issue, realize that there are many ways to move forward, and work toward the good of the whole community.

Robert Prager
Robert Prager (@guest_46688)
8 years ago

I found the article interesting but one-sided. On January 7, 2015, Ms. Steger submitted the article, “Gustav George Gerbing – A renaissance man”. In that article she stated, ”Gerbing was a former raccoon hunter, fishing pier operator, oyster cultivator, restaurateur, and shrimper…” Later she stated, “Fernandina’s transformation to a mill town in 1937 caused great distress for Gerbing. He noted the environmental impact of millions of gallons of industrial waste entering the rivers and ocean. Gerbing sued one pulp and paper mill for 1 million dollars over concern of the mill discharge and its impact on oysters, shrimp, fish, and wildlife. No mention was made of the outcome of the lawsuit.” Together the two articles reflect comments by others. As a community we should ask tough questions. The mills have supplied good paying jobs over a long period and has helped underpin our economy. However, previous pollution from the mills contributed to the loss of the oyster industry and the decline of the shrimping industry. Prosperity gained must be balanced against prosperity lost. LignoTech Florida looks promising. We as a community must do our due diligence and carefully and unsentimentally consider the broader aspects of our decisions.

RaffaelaMarie Fenn
RaffaelaMarie Fenn (@guest_46717)
8 years ago

Beautifully articulated Susan! There are many of us who have benefited tremendously by the outstanding corporate citizenship of Rayonier A.M. and its generous and giving employees. This is a company that takes its social and environmental responsibilities very seriously. It’s part of their culture that permeates throughout all who work there and everything they consider and do. While it’s great to have some history, it’s worthwhile to point out that this taxpayer in our community has continued to expand its thinking with the times. This potential relationship brings jobs as well as more efficient way to utilize waste materials. In addition to their history, their goals and efforts are forward thinking and aimed at improvements, safety and modern, cleaner ways to fully utilize all their outputs to the benefit of the greater good.

Chris Bailey Hendrix
Chris Bailey Hendrix (@guest_46795)
8 years ago

Thanks Susan for the brief history lesson. I , like you, grew up in Fernandina because of one of the mills. As a result, I and my family made many life long friends. Due to the diverse lifestyle and the draw of those same family and friends, I have chosen to remain in this paradise. Forever grateful for the life experiences I have been given largely due to the opportunities and livelihood offered by both of our local mills.