Ashland sees opportunity in rubble of old paper mill site

Ten years ago, Ashland was hit hard by the news that one of its biggest employers, the Fort James paper mill, was closing and 220 workers would lose their jobs.

Ten years ago, Ashland was hit hard by the news that one of its biggest employers, the Fort James paper mill, was closing and 220 workers would lose their jobs.

"Once they let the announcement out that the mill was going to be closing ... that pretty much ripped the heart and soul out of everybody that was working there," Mayor Ed Monroe said.

Former workers have moved on, and the rubble-strewn site is being eyed for development.

"It was pretty devastating up front," Monroe said. "There were people, families that had been working there anywhere from 30-some years to the new hires, and it came really out of the blue."

From the early 1900s the mill was the livelihood of generations of Ashland residents. Countless workers raised their families on the wages they earned at the mill. So when it shut its doors in 1998, Monroe said, it was a big hit to the economy.


Rollie Peterson had been working at the mill for nearly 33 years when he heard the news.

"It was about a two-minute deal," Peterson said of the company official's announcement. "He came in, he didn't beat around the bush; he looked at everybody, and he just let her fly. It took him about two minutes and that was it. He was the hatchet man, the grim reaper."

Sixty days after that announcement, the Fort James paper mill shut its doors for good.

"There is really nothing good about it," Peterson said, "but you just have to accept it and move on. That's what I did, and a lot of my friends did."

Of those who lost their jobs, he said, "some were able to retire. ... A lot of the folks ended up starting their own business, some being very successful; others had to leave town or go on the road to make a living."

Peterson joined the Millwrights Local 1348 out of Virginia. Now he's semi-retired and an Ashland city councilor.

"A lot of people made some real hard choices and really became quite successful outside what the mill would have given them," Monroe said.

Now covered with concrete and rebar, the site could hold a Honda/Toyota dealership that might relocate from Hurley, Wis., Monroe said. The dealership's owners bought half the property, and construction is slated to start this spring, he said.


"There are other plans that are not yet finalized that are looking at the rest of the property," Monroe said, "but it almost certainly will all be redeveloped just because of the prime location that it is."

Located on Chequamegon Bay on the east end of town, the other half of the property, which is up for sale, could appeal to condominium developers, Monroe said.

In its heyday, the paper mill ran around the clock in three shifts.

"They made napkins by the millions," Monroe said, "and they made them for all walks of business, all different types, printed, specialty-type napkins."

Monroe said the Fort James product was in everyone's home.

"When the mill closed, that was kind of one of the first things you'd notice," he said. "All of a sudden, people were hoarding onto that last case of napkins."

"A lot of things have changed in 10 years," Monroe said, "and I think Ashland is probably as strong or stronger since the mill closed. The city didn't roll over and die; it really just moved forward on every opportunity that was given."

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