About a week ago, news dropped that Champion paper mill is closing in Canton, North Carolina. The news hit me hard. I cried all morning.
On social media, I’ve seen many cheer. Most of them are newcomers to the area or outsiders. Still, seeing those responses was heartbreaking for me.
When passersby drive through the heart of Canton, they roll their windows up and complain among themselves about the smell. I’ve never done that. My windows stay down. I look to my right and take in Champion, the company that has kept my hometown alive for over 100 years.
I wonder if those who celebrate the fall of the paper giant of Haywood County have given any thought to the citizens who will suffer if it shuts its doors forever.
Most websites I found while researching this post focused on the negatives that Champion brought to Western North Carolina. None of them had much to say about the vast improvements it made.
I’m guessing none of those articles were written by Canton residents who realize their town wouldn’t exist without the paper mill. So, I’ve decided today’s post will be dedicated to telling the story of Champion from my perspective:
The History of Champion
In 1893 Peter Thompson started the Champion Coated Paper Company in Hamilton, Ohio. During a visit to Asheville, he noticed the region was loaded with the two things needed to fuel a successful paper mill: water and trees.
Peter sent his son-in-law, Reuben Robertson, to Haywood County to start a new mill in 1906. The area was chosen for its abundant supply of spruce – and because the local political and economic climate was ripe for industrialization in Western North Carolina. Two years later, Champion Fibre Company opened its doors.
The arrival of Champion was the force that facilitated Canton’s growth after the turn of the century. According to the US Census, Canton only had 231 residents before the arrival of Champion. That number drastically jumped in the following census to 1393.
The rapid increase in residents was due to the steady work Champion provided the impoverished area. The population boom was aided by the plant’s construction of homes in Fibreville to house employees.
As Fibreville grew, the demand for services did too. Businesses opened in Canton to meet the rising needs of Champion employees. The mom-and-pops that sprung up in Canton depended on the revenue of the Champion workforce to provide their own incomes. It was in this way that my hometown was born.
The Great Depression
By 1930 Canton swelled into a town of over 6000 residents. Those residents’ survival during the great depression was aided by the company that built the community from the ground up.
In 1931 through the sale of 90000 acres to the federal government for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Champion was able to update its facilities and maintain profitable operations during the worst economic crisis the country had ever seen.
It wasn’t Canton alone that benefited from the money Champion brought into the area. Other logging communities sprang up in Haywood and surrounding counties to supply Champion with raw timber.
Papaw Cochran worked in several of these logging communities before purchasing a farm in Dutch Cove to raise black Angus cattle.
Sunburst was one of them. At one point, it boasted 1500 residents. It employed 100 blacks, had two schools, and was home to the first forestry school. Of course, that all ended in 1932 when Champion dammed part of the Pigeon River and flooded the logging camp.
The flooded area is now known as Lake Logan and is one of the most captivating places in Haywood County. Champion realized the vast beauty of the lake they had created and built facilities around it to accommodate various company functions.
The corporate retreat became famous after the Lake Logan Hunting and Fishing Club was incorporated and began advertising for the area. The lake’s more notable visitors included Rev. Billy Graham, President Nixon, and President Bush.
I visit the lake often. Daddy took me there when I was growing up, and I take the girls there to bond with them in a place that holds some significant sentimental value to our family.
Many families feel just as strongly about Lake Logan. In fact, it is so beloved by Haywood County residents that in 1990, there was a “Save Lake Logan” campaign to prevent the area from being subdivided and sold for private use after Champion announced its plans to sell.
With the help of Jim Hunt, Jesse Helms, and John Edwards, who joined the campaign’s efforts, Haywood County was able to come up with enough money through various sources to protect Lake Logan. Today 4500 acres are set aside at Lake Logan for recreation, conservation, and environmental studies.
Champion Changes Hands
Champion’s announcement of its intention to sell not only spurred the community into action to save Lake Logan, but it also raised concerns over what would happen to the residents of Haywood County if the mill shut down.
That fear led employees to purchase 45% of the company’s stock through a union-led buy-out. The company then became known as the Blue Ridge Paper Company.
A few years later, the company was sold again, and today it is known as Evergreen Packaging.
Though the name has changed, much remains the same. The local economy is still heavily dependent upon the paper mill. Of the roughly 4000 residents of Canton, a quarter of them work at the plant.
Evergreen now wants to close its doors.
I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. Champion is the lifeblood of Canton, North Carolina; I pray it keeps flowing.
i have not even read this article prior to my comment (but am getting ready to), but thank you for this article. While I never officially lived in Canton, I spent so much time there with my grandparents and extended relatives, it will always be home to me. My grandfather worked at Champion for over 45 years until a health condition forced his retirement in 1971. Even though I live over 300 miles away, I was so sad to hear this news a couple of weeks ago.
Half of my family is from Canton. This news was devastating to me, and some of the responses to it was even more heartbreaking. Not many understand how important the mill is to the livelihood of the entire town. I pray a miracle comes along to save Champion – and Canton.