Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 12, 2016 12:36 p.m.
About fifty people, eager students of local history, attended the Amelia Island Museum of History’s Brown Bag Lunch program on April 6, 2016 to learn more about the history and early days of Fernandina Beach’s pulp mill operations. Colin Campbell, an eight-year employee of the mill, provided the audience with a look back at the early days of the first island mill, which began operation in 1937 as Kraft Container Corporation of America. Over the years this mill, located between the Port of Fernandina and Old Town, has changed ownership several times. Today it is owned by WestRock, a company that employs 42,000 employees in 30 countries worldwide. According to their website westrock.com, the company’s aspiration is to be “the premier partner and unrivaled provider of paper and packaging solutions in global consumer and corrugated markets.”
Campbell provided his audience with an overview of the paper industry and the Fernandina mill within the context of the economic conditions that existed in the 1930’s. He reminded listeners that in the 1930’s, the national unemployment rate exceeded 23 percent. Between 1930-33, more than 9,000 banks had failed, wiping out $2.5B ($35B in today’s dollars). The only jobs in Fernandina were low paying jobs in shrimping, pogey fishing, and lumber. There was little economic growth seen for the future.
Charles Herty develops the chemical process
Charles Holmes Herty (1867-1938), an internationally recognized chemist, revolutionized the southern forest and naval stores industry. He devised the cup and gutter system—sometimes called the “cat face”—for collecting more, higher quality turpentine from Southern pine trees. The most important success of this new method was that it lengthened the useful lifetime of the pine trees from only a few years to decades. This extended use not only saved the trees but the naval stores industry as well. Herty’s less destructive collection method also allowed the trees to eventually be milled as lumber.
Herty was determined to find a way to increase the economic prosperity of the South. At the age of 65, when most people are looking toward retirement, he built a research facility and pilot plant in Savannah to make pine into the pulp that would become paper, using acidic sulfide solutions to digest the wood, remove impurities and increase the effectiveness of bleaching agents. His plant has been designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark is now known as the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center.
Walter Paepcke, Founder and President of Container Corporation of America
The success of Herty’s researches was soon seized upon by Walter Paepcke (1896-1960), president of the Chicago-based Container Corporation of America (CCA), founded in 1926 to manufacture corrugated boxes. Walter Paul Paepcke was only 25 when he inherited his father’s Chicago-based wooden crate empire. Sensing the shift to a consumer goods-driven economy and the need for smaller, lighter packaging, he began moving production from wooden crates to paperboard containers. His bet on the cardboard box paid off and he was soon the owner of several small wood and paper mills that he consolidated into the Container Corporation of America (CCA).
Paepcke was widely respected in philanthropic endeavors and went on to found the Aspen Institute. Utilizing his appreciation of design, he was early to recognize the opportunities presented by paper as packaging and the importance of advertising art. In time the CCA would become the largest cardboard manufacturer in the world – having 76 US and 48 international facilities.
The development of the Fernandina Mill was by some measure a consequence of world events. In the mid to late 1930’s importing wood from Norway became increasingly problematic, and CCA turned its attention to the South for raw material.
When CCA began its search for plant locations in the South, they found themselves enthusiastically welcomed by the state of Florida and the Mayor of Fernandina. They chose the Fernandina site for 7 reasons:
- Cheap pulpwood
- Natural harbor
- Rail connections
- Artesian wells
- Favorable housing and labor markets
- State tax exemption
- Strong cooperation from city, county and state government
Hundreds of men were needed to build the new plant, which was completed in 10 months. There was an immediate need for additional housing for these workers and their families. Local merchants found that their businesses were booming with the influx of new people.
Fernandina pulp mill begins production
The Fernandina plant began production in December 1937 and was officially dedicated to Charles Holmes Herty on January 14, 1938, a day that was proclaimed a local holiday and which was also declared Florida Industries Day. The event was so important for the state and local economy that CBS broadcast the ceremony on radio, and Paramount included film coverage in their newsreels that played in local movie theaters. Florida Governor Fred Cone, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Daniel Roper, and U.S. Senator Claude Pepper were in attendance. More than 6,000 people attended the dedication and more than 5,000 meals were served. Even the University of Florida band performed!
Because of the need for additional housing, the mill build its own compound of 25, 2-3 bedroom houses, called Kraft Village, to house some of the more than 200 new workers and their families. This development was dismantled in the 1960’s, and people were allowed to take the houses at no charge to new locations. The original mill office serves as a home today on North 14th Street.
World War II brought about a significant shift from wood packaging to paper packaging. Paper was lighter than wood, and the development of special coatings strengthened the paper. Paepcke secured government contracts to provide packaging for the military, including kits that were dropped into enemy camps for interned American POWs.
Today WestRock is the second largest paper making company worldwide. The Fernandina Beach plant occupies 216 acres and its 480 employees produce 900,000 tons of paper (8 percent of WestRock’s total production) each year. About 30 percent of that paper is exported, primarily to the Caribbean. But domestic clients include pizza companies and Anheuser Busch as well. All raw material is certified renewable.
Campbell presented slides showing the economic impact of the local mill today.
Audience members peppered Campbell with questions during his talk. He said that there has not been a new mill built in the United States in decades owing to market conditions and the costs of environmental regulations. He added that many of the older mills have become unprofitable.
In response to concerns raised about island truck traffic, Campbell said that a recent study reported that only six percent of total island traffic is related to the mills and the port. With respect to alternative means of transporting logs, he said that if another means (e.g., water, rail) were financially feasible, it would have been done already.
Unlike Rayonier, WestRock does not own timberlands that supply the mills with raw materials, relying instead on independent growers and operators. Because the mill also uses the bark in its industrial process, wood chips are no substitute for the raw timber.
He explained the way to differentiate which log trucks are destined for WestRock and which are headed to Rayonier. Because of different processes used, WestRock’s logs are cut in shorter lengths, generally arriving in two groups on a truck. Rayonier can take the longer timber.
Campbell noted that WestRock’s forestry research group checks the safety of the log trucks, which are owned and operated independently.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.