The "model plant of the world of its kind"
Peter G. Thomson -- in addition to gaining patent rights and financial backing from the Champion Card and Paper Company in Massachusetts -- also asked its president, Charles H. Gage, to send experienced workers to help start the Hamilton coating mill. "I was chosen - one of the three to come along," said Charlie Soule, who was accompanied by Jerry Flinn, a color man, and Tom McDonald, a coater.
Soule's first job, at age 16, had been at the Pepperell Card and Paper Company in Pepperell, Mass. "They made coated paper," said the native of Maine. "I worked for them about one year and then went to Champion Card and Paper Company," which was about a quarter mile from the competing Pepperell mill. During two and half years there, Soule worked on the firm's two single coaters and two double-coating machines.
His experience included the problem of objects sticking to the paper during the coating process. "We had a series of round brushes back of the coater toward the reels," Soule recalled, "and under those brushes was a man who stayed all the time, a young man or boy . . . with a curry comb like you curry your horses. He was currying those round brushes to take out the lumps," said Soule, who found the same system in Hamilton.
"The second day of April, I arrived at Hamilton" at 6 a.m., said Soule, who was in his 65th year with Champion when he died at age 84 Dec. 3, 1959. The 19-year-old started to work the next morning as the reel man. He found the new mill "built for six coaters," and "almost a duplicate of the Champion Card and Paper Company in Pepperell." There was no electricity in the plant. On dark days, flickering gas lamps spread some light.
Soule said "our first paper came from the Fordham Mill across the river," a 25-inch, 300-pound roll. "We started with one (double) coater," and "I carried that paper over the hot line that first day." He was among the 10 people who started Champion operations April 15, 1894. Joining Peter G. Thomson in the office were James Metcalf, secretary-treasurer; and Miss Kitty Kinzer, Thomson's secretary-stenographer.
Superintendent Frank Williams headed mill operations. Jerry Flinn arrived early to mix the color. Tom McDonald, the experienced coater man, was assisted by Cliff Pattison. The others -- with top pay $1 for a 10-hour day -- were Soule, running the reels; Arthur Jackson, operating the Hamilton-built Corliss engine that furnished power to the mill; and Jim Lyons, who fired the boiler.
Joining them the second day were Bill Kuth, calender man, and William Weiser, helper. Within three weeks, there were 25 employees, including James C. Giffen, shipping clerk; Harry Sheley, finisher; William T. Shank, calender man; Jacob Zeller, calender helper; Harry Despond, cutter; Elizabeth Doellman, cutter; Mary Lobar, cutter; Rose Spindeler and Bertie Tabler, sorting; Jim Knox, color room helper; Jim Ford, coater helper; Milton Hill, coater helper; and Richard Kelch, box factory.
English clay, used to make color, arrived in casks. The color solution was hand-strained -- pushed through a strainer with paint brushes -- and carried to the coater room, where it was dipped into the pan by hand. The smelly animal glue -- later replaced by casein -- was cooked in 10-gallon pots over an open fire.
"This mill was equipped with the same things as we had at Champion Card and Paper Company, and that went on for probably, I would estimate, about three years," said Soule. "Of course, we improved the paper by forcing more air up to relieve the tension on the rolls. Then we found out that somebody -- as I understood it, some gentleman asked them why they didn't float the paper. That was done at Champion Card and Paper Company. So then we began to experiment on our float line from that time on after we heard that, and in various ways we got it floating after a period of probably years. I would say that the double coater wasn't a success until about two or three years after we started the mill here in Hamilton in that respect," said Soule, who would eventually become general superintendent of the mill.
"On the first day of May, we started two more coaters, two more double coaters," all wood framed, recalled Soule. "Then, about a month later, we started one single coater and that carried on about a year when we put two more single coaters and added one double coater where that former single coater was."
Soule said the original mill had four calenders, or, at least, "they looked like calenders, but very much different. It was all done by hand, everything. The sheets were put on by hand." There was a "steam engine to run the main shaft, and from that it was belted down to the calender. Everything was manhandled. The rolls were lifted on by hand," explained Soule.
James C. Giffen -- who had helped build the interior of the mill and stayed to become a shipping clerk -- said the first order came from the Chatfield and Wood Company of Cincinnati. It was shipped May 4, 1894.
Peter G. Thomson wrote an announcement for prospective customers which said "the new mill of the Champion Coated Paper Co. at Hamilton, Ohio, has been completed, and is now ready for business."
The letter, dated May 1, 1894, said "this company is the western branch of the Champion Card and Paper Company of East Pepperell, Mass., and is intended to supply the trade with coated papers. Its territory covers all the west and south, west of Buffalo and Pittsburgh (including the latter), and hereafter orders for enameled book, lithograph and label papers will be supplied from this mill, while the mill at East Pepperell, Mass., will confine its trade in these goods to the eastern market." The letterhead included illustrations of both the Hamilton and East Pepperell mills.
Thomson said "Hamilton, Ohio, was selected for the location of the western mill owing to the purity of its water, its proximity to numerous paper mills in the Miami Valley, its central location and nearness to the principal dealers, and the excellence of its shipping facilities. The western trade will welcome the opportunity of procuring their goods in this line nearer home, thus saving the loss of time and expense of shipping from the east." He said "the specialty of this mill will be enameled paper, the consumption of which is increasing constantly, printers having found that no other paper will give such excellent results."
During 1894 and 1895, the Hamilton mill produced from 100 to 150 tons of coated paper a week. A plant addition opened Jan. 1, 1896, doubling the original capacity. Reuben Robertson Sr., in his memoirs, said "Champion now operated 11 coaters; six double coaters in the old mill, and five double coaters in the new, to which a paster had been added for making heavier grades of stock. Another Corliss engine was installed to power the additional equipment."
Employment increased to about 35 people. "As new help was employed, each of the original workers trained his crew of apprentices, and he himself became a foreman," Robertson explained. "This was the beginning of Champion's long-established program of on-the-job training and promotion from within the organization. Willing and loyal employees and increased capacity did little, however, to reduce an ever-growing backlog of orders."
"Early in 1896, it became necessary to increase man-hours of production and Champion inaugurated its first night shift," said Robertson. "In order to supplement the fish-tail gaslights, and to provide better illumination over the coaters at night, 75 ten-candlepower incandescent lamps were installed. The current for these came from the company's first dynamo, an 18-inch high affair, which, of course, was steam driven." The electric-generating equipment was purchased from Henry Cass, who operated a nearby hardware store on Main Street. Cass hired Herman Herman to do the wiring and to install the dynamo. Herman was on call, and some nights he had to go to the mill four or five times when the system failed.
Despite the changes, Champion still struggled to fill orders because of uncertain supplies of raw paper and other ingredients. Thomson was buying paper stock on the open market -- an unreliable and often expensive source.
Meanwhile, at the Eagle Paper Mill at Franklin, Ohio -- about 20 miles north of Hamilton -- two large paper machines had been idle since 1895 when the company went bankrupt. Oct. 30, 1897, Thomson paid $14,000 to the Eagle mill receiver, C. B. Anderson, and Champion was in the business of making paper for the first time.
Less than two months later, Peter G. Thomson acquired a glue factory at St. Charles, Ill. By Jan. 1, 1898, it was producing material for the Hamilton mill. "This was abandoned very shortly," explained Dwight Thomson, "because of the introduction of the process of using casein, a milk derivative, as a bonding agent for the coating." Champion's first casein came from a Binghampton, N. Y., factory. Coincidentally, a recent college graduate, William Linus Clark, whose father operated the casein factory, applied for a job at the Hamilton mill. Clark became Champion's first chemist.
In 1898 -- when Champion was producing between 200 and 275 tons of paper a week in Hamilton -- the company opened its first sales office in Chicago.
Sales had jumped from $209,473, according to a May 1895 report, to $617,944 as the fiscal year ended April 30, 1898. A two-story, 50-by-50 foot office building was completed Oct. 1,1899, on North B Street in Hamilton. By April 1900, mill output averaged 437 tons a week, and net annual sales had increased to $1,208,842.
"There are in the United States but 21 paper coating mills," said The American Printer in its March 1900 edition in describing the Hamilton mill, "and of these, the Champion is the youngest and also the largest. It is twice as big as the second mill, and larger in capacity than all the others combined," said the article, which relied on material previously published in the Hamilton Republican-News. "Its daily product is 125,000 pounds of coated paper, besides a full line of cardboard and highly glazed paper for box covers. It handles, in and out, 15 cars of material and finished product daily. Every machine in the vast shop works 24 hours daily; nor has one of them rested a single hour, Sundays and Christmas excepted, since September 1897."
"The coating on surfaced paper is made from a peculiar white clay, that has been freed from all foreign matter by repeated washing," the magazine explained. "This clay resembles in its dry state a plaster of Paris, except that it has a softer and more saponaceous appearance. To make it adhere to and practically become a part of the paper, a glue is used as a base. This glue is made of the casein, or white substance of cow's milk. The paper, after being dipped in this solution and coated, is dried in mechanically made festoons in a room kept at a uniform temperature of about 160 degrees Fahrenheit. It is then compressed and polished between the rollers of enormous calenders. Here the paper is subjected to a pressure of 70 tons, and an idea of its increased density may be gathered from the fact that it comes out thinner by half than it went in. The raw paper that entered the shop emerges from the calenders a coated paper, fit for the finest printing that mechanical ingenuity has yet conceived."
The magazine said "the 24,000 pounds of China clay that are consumed daily are shipped direct from the town of Foway in Cornwall, England. Four thousand pounds of glue are needed every day to attach this clay to paper. There are three pounds of casein, of which this glue is made, in 100 pounds of milk. A moment's calculation will show that 170,000 gallons of sweet skim milk are demanded to furnish material for a single day's operation of the mill," the article explained.
Purchasing enough paper to meet coating demands remained a problem for Champion, prompting Thomson to invest in a second mill in Hamilton.
The Hamilton Republican-News, in its Dec. 4, 1900, edition, said the new facility would be "a paper mill of the most modern equipment with an individual capacity three times as great as that of all the combined mills in the city."
The newspaper also said the mill -- estimated to cost about $400,000 -- would be "the largest in the world," able to process about 100 tons of paper each day. The newspaper said the new mill would enable Champion "to produce every pound of raw paper it uses in its coating establishment, and will make the coating mill entirely independent of outside sources of supply. Heretofore, it has been compelled to rely on other mills for its stock, and inability to get sufficient stock has been practically the only limit on the wonderful expansion of the company's business."
Before the new mill was complete, fire destroyed the existing coating plant Dec. 22, 1901. Less than six months later -- without ceremony on June 7, 1902 -- two new, separate structures were opened west of North B Street.
The rebuilt coating mill -- 450 by 300 feet with 18 metal-framed coating machines and nine calenders powered by two Corliss engines -- was built to produce 100 tons a day. A key to the operation was about 6,000 feet of rope which drove the line shafts for the coaters and calenders. When the rope broke, production ceased. One break stopped coating operations for three days while the damaged rope was stretched along North B Street and spliced. A year later, a 50 by 200-foot expansion doubled the size of the finishing room. John O. Parker supervised about 350 people who worked 12-hour days in the coating mill.
The separate paper mill had six machines -- five for paper and one for cardboard -- with a daily capacity of 125 tons of paper. Frank Boggs directed about 100 employees who worked 12-hour days with Billy Shuler, day boss, and Douglas Herndon, night boss. Reuben Robertson Sr. said Thomson hired "for the management of the new paper mill a red-headed Irishman named Jim Harris, whose skill in the production of fine book papers had placed the Oxford Paper Company first in the industry. It was Harris who superintended the adjustment of the machines in No. 1 mill, and it has been recorded that there was very little evidence of 'hay,' as broke was called in those days," said Robertson. "It was not long before the mill was manufacturing -- from pulp, old paper and rags -- all of the raw stock furnished to the coaters," and the Eagle mill in Franklin "was judged an unnecessary subsidiary" and was sold in August 1902.
A. O. (Big Al) Rolfe, who would become superintendent of papermaking at the mill, was a machine tender when the new machines started in 1902. According to his recollection, and other sources, Champion's pioneer papermakers included Noel Adams, Link Atchekey, George Batchelor, Glen Boggs, Clifford Bonner, Homer Chalmers, Emma Cook, George Cook, John Costigan, John Evans, Gene Farr, George Ford, Jim Ford, James C. Giffen, John Glick, John Henes, Milton Hill, Frank Jones, Ed Keppler, Otto Kinzer, Ed Kuth, Chris Lohrey, Walter McClintock, Amasa McDonald, Bill McDonald, Tom McDonald, Leo McMullen, John Maloney, Bill Mattox, Megs Maxwell, Butch Miller, John Mohler, Harry Nash, Harry Page, Bert Parrish, Cliff Patterson, Harry Ratliff, Bill Rolfe, Clara Rolfe, Joe Rolfe, George Seaman, Bill Sheley, Dan Shuler, Walter Simms, Charlie Soule, Bill Squires, Douglas Starry, Harvey Sutton, Bill Taylor, Ed Thompson, Fred Uhelenbruck, George Uhelenbruck, Jake Wagner, Harvey Walters, Harry Wilson, Neal Witters, Tommy Wren and Jacob Zeller.
A Champion stock prospectus issued in 1902 described the company as "engaged chiefly in the manufacture of coated or glazed paper, used extensively in magazine, paper book covers, etc., the plant having a capacity of 200,000 pounds per day."
The document said the Hamilton mill "is acknowledged the Model Plant of the World of its kind, covering about 14 acres of ground, and cost to build and equip over $1.3 million."
The picture soon changed. By 1905, Reuben Robertson Sr. said "it was becoming evident to Peter Thomson that, if Champion was to continue its growth and to maintain an important position in the industry, the making and marketing of a full line of uncoated papers would have to be undertaken."
In 1906 he authorized the building of a new mill to produce uncoated paper. No. 2 mill -- completed in 1907 -- extended for 900 feet between North B Street and the Great Miami River. It was built over the remains of the Rossville Hydraulic, a canal that had provided waterpower to nearby shops. The new mill included 32 beaters and four machines built by Black-Clawson -- three producing paper 150 inches wide and the other 138-inch paper. Supervising the project was Al Rolfe, then assistant superintendent. Others instrumental in starting the mill included Sam Berry, Cliff Bonner, William Coleman, Elbert Ferguson, Homer Ferguson, E. Hauck, Doug Herndon, Jack Meier, Crawley Osborn, William Phillips, George Robinson, Joe Rolfe and Neal Winters.
The uncoated mill wasn't the only addition to Champion facilities at this time. Jim Harris, superintendent of the Hamilton mills, convinced Thomson to acquire or build a pulp plant to assure existing operations of adequate supplies of quality pulp. Thomson had been buying pulp from competitors, noted the Robertson memoirs, including "the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, that had spruce holdings in West Virginia; and the New York and Penn Company, owners of large hemlock sources in Pennsylvania."
The search for a pulp source led Thomson to a familiar place. "He certainly had acquaintance with the spruce-bearing North Carolina mountains from his vacationing at Eagle's Nest near Waynesville," explained Robertson. Thomson had been invited to western part of the state by J. Q. Barker, operator of a tannin extract plant at Andrews and owner of lumber operations in Cherokee and Graham counties.
"Traveling by rail on the Asheville-Murphy branch of the Southern Railroad, by hired surrey, and on foot, Peter Thomson saw enough of the timber resources of the region to convince him that an acceptable site for pulp and extract operations could be found," said Robertson, who would be entrusted with management of the completed Canton complex. "I first came here in 1905 looking for a location for a pulp mill, and the purchase of the necessary wood lands," Thomson later told a reporter. "I went over all the possible locations, from Asheville to Andrews. When I reached Canton, I was told the population of the town proper was 200 people and all the houses and stores were grouped together on the main street."
Canton, in Haywood County, had no water or electric system, but Thomson said "I finally decided to locate the mill here, although it was opposed by the mill architect and others, some of whom preferred Clyde and others further up the Pigeon River valley." Deciding factors, besides an abundance of nearby spruce, were plentiful water from mountain streams, the availability of labor and the relatively short railroad connection to the Hamilton mill.
Thomson acquired a mill site in Canton in September 1905, and a few days later, Oct. 14, purchased 25,000 acres of spruce, the first of timber holdings which would reach about 100,000 acres by 1917. A new firm, the Champion Fibre Company, was chartered Jan. 6, 1906, as an Ohio corporation. A month later a logging operation and saw mill started, at first producing lumber for construction of the mill.
The Canton plant was completed in January 1908 under the direction of Reuben B. Robertson, who had married Thomson's youngest daughter, Hope Lindenberger Thomson, June 7, 1905.
The Canton mill had a contract to supply the Hamilton mills with 100 tons of sulphite pulp and 100 tons of soda pulp each day. Until 1914 -- when a small cyclinder board machine was moved from the Hamilton mill to Canton -- all the North Carolina pulp was shipped to Ohio.
Thomson initiated expansions in Hamilton and Canton in 1905 when Champion was prospering. According to the Robertson memoirs, "the Hamilton mills were turning out their volume of product for an unlimited market, inventories were almost non-existent; and shareholders of common stock were receiving 10 percent a month in dividends -- in those carefree days before the promulgation of the income tax laws." But two years later the national business climate changed. The Panic of 1907 saw stock prices plunge and hundreds of banks and businesses fail. "The year 1907 found Champion greatly over-extended," Robertson observed. The Canton plant, costing $500,000, was nearing completion when the panic started in October. The No. 2 mill at Hamilton also had cost half a million dollars.
Robertson said Thomson "expected to pay for the new developments at Hamilton and Canton chiefly from corporate earnings," but "sales of paper dwindled to a mere fraction of their former volume, and profits vanished completely. The cash flow which was supposed to pay the bills wasn't there.
"To put it plainly," Robertson said, "Champion faced financial disaster" before two friends came to Thomson's rescue. They were William Cooper Procter of the Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Company and Jacob Schmidlapp, a Cincinnati banker and financier. "They came to him with offers of financial help, which, of course, were gratefully accepted," Robertson said. According to the same source, Procter said: "Here is the key to my security box. Go take what you need and let me know the amount."
Procter and Schmidlapp were repaid with preferred stock, and both became members of Champion's board of directors.
Thomson shared some of his financial trials with a Dayton newspaper reporter in 1916. "There were times when it looked dark," he said. "I had two fires and in the flood of 1913, I lost almost $4 million. But I borrowed money enough when I needed it to get through. I have paid out $2 million in interest in my business career, and in the spring of 1908, after the panic, I borrowed $4.2 million to keep my business afloat," Thomson explained.
Champion's founder Peter G. Thomson: 'Just and generous'
"As an employer, he was both just and generous," said the Hamilton Journal of Peter G. Thomson, Champion's founder. "He established a wage-scale that gave automatic increases after each five years of service," and "long before the practice was general, he inaugurated a free medical clinic for his men."
Thomson initiated the five-year increases in April 1903 to reward "continued and faithful service" and so workers would "continually have something better to look forward to."
Weekly wages were upped 5 percent for about 100 employees with at least five years of service with the nine-year-old company. Later, 5 percent raises would be effective after 10, 15 and 20 years of Champion employment.
The Journal, in reporting Thomson's death July 10, 1931, said "free life insurance is given, and a few years ago when the cost of living became a serious item, he established extensive commissaries where food and various household supplies were sold at cost. His plants are visited frequently by the representatives of other large industries who come to see how these humanitarian features work out."
Russ Ryan, who worked in the Hamilton mill for 47 years, agreed with the positive assessment of Thomson.
"He was as close to his people as time and duty permitted. I know that he came to the rescue of harassed individuals, of whom not even his own family knows. Alleviation of human misery was the essence of his penetrating nature, and he rested his case with the person he helped, and the God to whom he prayed," said Ryan in an interview in 1955 when he retired as a calender operator. "Go to him with a logical complaint; you got action. Go to him with a lame, pettish beef; you caught a tongue-lashing that blistered your ego."
Ryan, whose first 23 years at the mill were under Thomson, recalled when a veteran Champion employee "was called to the office of Peter G. and informed that the company had two lots to sell him." The worker said he had a big family -- including 10 children -- and didn't think he could afford the offer.
Ryan said "Mr. Thomson asked if he could pay 50 cents per week." When he said he could, "he was handed his deed on the spot and told to get busy on a home."
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