When Champion "stood as shock troops" in Depression
Champion "has maintained an unbroken payroll, for there never has been a period in Champion's history when men and women were not receiving their pay checks when due," boasted a 1935 editorial in Champion Activities, an employee publication.
"And never during that long period has there been a depression which has closed the mill. There have been slack times, of course; there have been times when management was forced to curtail production and Champion men and women were idle for a few days at a time. Times when management ran up thousands of tons of stock, taking the chance of selling at a loss rather than curtail payrolls. But Champion has the proud record of being one of the few great industries in America which stood as shock troops in a battle against the Depression," the editorial said in describing the company's position during that terrible period.
When the Great Depression started -- usually dated "Black Thursday," Oct. 24, 1929, when panic started on Wall Street, or "Black Tuesday," Oct. 29, the stock market's worst day -- the average annual wage in U. S. industry was about $1,550. That figure dropped a third by 1933.
The U. S. Department of Labor in 1929 reported 1.5 million people unemployed, 3.1 percent of the labor force. Three years later, 12 million (24 percent) were out of work. "There were conflicting estimates of the number of unemployed, but it is safe to assume that between one-quarter and one-third of the work force was without any work," noted historian Harvey Green in The Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915-1945. "Another one-quarter to one-third were part-time workers who wanted full-time work, or were employed at jobs below their skill levels at which they had formerly worked."
The slowdown didn't hit Champion for about two years, said Ed Bauer, who started on the calenders in 1928 and retired in 1971 as foreman on the rewinders.
"Things slowed down in the mill about 1931, mostly in the better grades of paper," Bauer recalled. "At that time, the stores and other customers wanted the better grades for calendars, books and so forth. We had a plain mill -- the riverside mill -- and on the other side was the coated mill, where the better grades of paper were made. It hit the expensive grades first. They slacked down to sometimes five days a week, even as far as four days a week," Bauer explained.
"During the Depression, there were 18 coaters and only six were running most of the time, sometimes as many as 10," said Noel Samuels, who also started at the mill in 1928. "I had to report to the mill to see if I was working every day. It depended on the number of coaters operating that day," Samuels said.
"But in the plain mill where I was working," Bauer said, "there was a demand for lower grade paper. So we were working seven days a week, and on days when the shift changed, sometimes 12 hours on Sundays, in order to keep up with the demand. That continued for possibly a year," said Bauer, who had been working seven days a week before the Depression.
"Even when it went down to six days," Bauer said, "if a person wanted another day's pay, he could go into the machine room and help them do their cleanup" because "it was Peter G. Thomson's idea to keep people working. Even if a machine was down six to eight hours, he believed in giving the people something else to do."
Frank Burns, a 48-year mill employee who started in 1914, was a salaried foreman on the cutters when the Depression started.
"I got paid every payday just the same," he recalled. "I had to go in about every day. We didn't have enough paper to run. They'd start up the machines and run them for a couple of days, and then shut them down. If they'd get enough orders built up, they'd call the guys back and run four or five days." Burns said there was "never a week when they didn't make paper. There was always something running at the mill."
Pay cuts helped Champion maintain its work-for-all policy. "When I started, the pay was 44 cents an hour. As I moved up, it was 48 cents, then 54 cents," said Bauer, "but when the Depression hit, I went back to 48 cents an hour."
He said workers also assisted those who didn't have enough money to pay bills. "There were people out of work, and the mill conceived the idea that maybe the employees would like to contribute one or two cents an hour to a fund that would help people," Bauer said. "And, I think, that was about 100 percent participation."
Bob Schaney said his father "was one of the few people in our neighborhood -- Armondale -- who had a job" during the Depression. His father, Christ Schaney, a 47-year Champion employee, had started Dec. 31, 1914, in the beater room and was in shipping during the Depression. "He worked steady, and sometimes 14 to 16 hours a day. You didn't work eight hours then. You came home when the boss said the job was done," Schaney said of his father’s situation. "I turned down the GI bill, and going to college, because of the job security my dad had there," said Bob Schaney, a Champion from 1944 to 1977.
Jim Hoerner came to the mill in September 1931 as a mechanical engineering co-op student from the University of Cincinnati. He had expected to be working across the river at the General Machinery Corporation, but his co-op job there was a victim of the Depression.
"I hauled broke on the sorting line in the No. 2 mill. That's about as low as you could get. Then we got laid off at Christmas time in 1931. They had to cut back," he explained. He went back to farm work while completing his schooling at UC. "Things started to get better about the time I was graduating from UC in 1936, and I started to work in the machine shop," said Hoerner, who retired in 1974.
"I was lucky to get a few hours in each week," said Mary Louise Zettler, whose first job in 1934 was on the cutters at 32 cents an hour. "I came just as the Depression was letting up" and remained until 1974, she recalled. "One two-week pay was just $7," but "it seems like I got some work each week," said Zettler, who spent most of her nearly 40 years as a sorter.
"I was a typical victim of the Great Depression," said Wes Cobb, who in 1929 came from Lockport, N.Y., to earn a degree in nearby Oxford, Ohio. "Although I had been trained as a journalist at Miami University, I found the job market to be a hopeless sea of unemployment lines. Everywhere one turned, the response was the same: 'We have people with years of experience sitting out there on the curbstones, waiting to be rehired,' " said Cobb, who "became a Champion Sept. 6, 1934." The 34-year mill employee said "at 25, strangely enough, it was my first full-time job, and destined to be my last."
Cobb said in 1934 "Champion was hiring again. Not wholesale, only a select group. Not just anybody -- for traditionally, with this family-oriented company, someone had to 'speak' the word in order to open the door," he explained. "My benefactor was Jim Simpson, supervisor in No. 1 machine room, and also an outstanding amateur golfer. After I caddied for him in the finals of the Elks Country Club championship, he asked me if I would like to work at Champion."
Cobb was hired by Kenneth Faist, head of the employment department, and "was assigned to the coaters as broke hauler -- pushing crates of plain and coated waste out to the baler room, and pushing the empty crates back again. My beginning pay was 42 cents an hour, $3.36 a day. I worked for 28 consecutive days, took a day off, and came back as a helper on 13 and 14 coaters, working with coater runner Dick Halcomb," said Cobb.
Ed Bauer said when (Franklin D.) Roosevelt went into office" in March 1933, "people got confident, and the better grades of paper picked up" and, for the Hamilton mill, the worst of the Depression was over.
The National Industrial Recovery Act boosted the morale of Champions, Bauer observed, "and Champion's participation set an example for others."
The act, signed by the president June 16, 1933, was part of FDR's program to end the Great Depression. Described as "the National Recovery Crusade mobilizing leadership and cooperation in a war on Depression, "it was popularly called "the NRA" and featured a Blue Eagle insignia. Employers and employees were to draft codes of self-regulation. The codes included provisions on fair competition, minimum wages (between $12 and $15 weekly), maximum hours, elimination of child labor and a guarantee of collective bargaining. Eventually, codes were written for about 540 types of businesses employing more than 22 million people.
Within three weeks of enactment -- with Champion leading the way -- the Blue Eagle was posted at 969 area firms with 4,175 employees, and Hamilton claimed to be the first Ohio city to embrace the program.
NRA pariticipants displayed Blue Eagle emblems and posters in offices, stores and shops, and, as Wes Cobb recalled, "the NRA flag, with its motto 'We Do Our Part,' waved gallantly in the breeze from the top of Champion's main office building."
Champion also played a part in extending NRA across the nation. "When the president of the United States sent throughout the length and breadth of the land, his blanket codes for all business, when he directed stirring epistles to the people, calling for a patriotic enthusiasm to aid the idle, his messages undoubtedly were written on paper made at Champion," stated a mill publication.
The NRA code had its complications, too, according to Champion Activities. It noted that "this NRA time-keeping job has got a lot of people all over the country dizzy." The article said "the maximum number of hours allowed per week is 40. This may be averaged over a period of 13 consecutive weeks. For emergency purposes, it is permissible to work a greater number of hours in one week, but the excess hours not permitted under the code must be lost during the next 12 weeks." The writer said "it's one of those things which is required and which Champion, one of the first of big industries to go under a code, attempts to keep."
Mill employees dominated the major Hamilton event associated with the recovery program. The combined NRA-Armistice Day parade Saturday afternoon, Nov. 11, 1933, included 10,000 participants and took two hours and 10 minutes to pass a given point.
Between 50,000 and 60,000 people watched the procession, which the Journal-News called "by far the most comprehensive and spectacular public demonstration in the city's history. Never before within these corporate limits had as many people taken part in any public demonstration."
"We don't like to brag, but only one absolutely devoid of emotion could help but be thrilled at the Champion turnout in the Armistice Day-NRA parade," boasted Champion Activities. "To say ' thrilled' is putting it mildly, for, as far as old-timers can recollect, no one organization in Hamilton has ever put on such a demonstration of united interest, a loyalty to purpose and principle, as that of Champions in this parade. It is little wonder," the writer said, "that the multitudes which lined the sidewalks and filled balconies and windows along the line of march, exclaimed: 'The Champion stole the parade.' "
The Journal-News agreed. "There was no more inspiring sight ever seen in Hamilton than the Champion Coated Paper Company representation for the parade," the newspaper said. "Between 2,300 and 2,500 men and women employees of the company were in the line of march, each carrying a banner combining the Champion Paper Company coat of arms and the NRA insignia. Leading the Champion force was a float significant of the spirit of the NRA, decorated with red, white and blue streamers in which the Blue Eagle of the NRA predominated" and topped by a picture of President Roosevelt. Another Champion float carried a sign proclaiming that "The Champion Family of 4,500 men and women cooperating 100 percent with the NRA."
A popular feature of the Champion section was a knight, "clad in armor, bearing jousting stick, his colorful robes and other trapping, astride his white horse, bringing to life the Champion Coated Paper Company's insignia," exclaimed Champion Activities. Jimmie Schneider of the order department suggested the entry and obtained the white horse which he rode. Alexander Thomson rented the armor, and the costume was a cooperative effort of Connie Trownsell, Elsa Wehr and Tressa Slade. Other mill employees donated hundreds hours of labor. Burt Baker and Lloyd Hill in the mill painting department, for example, worked 27 straight hours on details for floats and other props for the Champion marchers.
When the U. S. Supreme Court ruled May 27, 1935, that NRA was unconstitutional, Champion promised to maintain its spirit.
"At a special meeting of the Champion Employees Council held Thursday morning, May 30, Clarke Marion, production manager of the Champion Coated Paper Company, gave a talk in which he pledged the loyalty of the management to the employees," reported Champion Activities. "Inasmuch as the NRA and its general functions have been ruled unconstitutional, the matter of minimum wages, hours and general working conditions of the employees is left entirely up to the mills. The management of this company feels, however, they are desirous of having the Council continue to function exactly as it has in the past." The report said "there will be no immediate change in wages, hours or general conditions because of the release of the NRA."
According to the Reuben B. Robertson Sr. memoirs, "Champion had run at about 95 percent capacity through the depths of the Depression, emerging with a respectable profit; and profit" to finance improvement and growth. "Since early in 1930, Champion management had been plowing money back into plant facilities and machinery with the intention of making the company as recession-proof as possible."
Robertson said "by 1932 productive capacity had been increased nearly 25 percent at a cost of $4 million in order to manufacture pulp and paper faster and at a lower cost per pound. Moreover, confronted by a palpably competitive market, the company was planning to spend another $3 million for revision of existing equipment to higher speeds in the coming year." He said "the program was a reaffirmation of Peter G. Thomson's precept: Keep production costs down and sales up."
Robertson said "in 1932, in the second year of Alexander Thomson's presidency of the company, Champion held the distinction of having the highest production in the American paper industry -- with the exception of mills manufacturing newsprint. In addition to its great volume of uncoated stock, Champion remained the largest producer of coated papers in the United States."
He said "the company was also beginning a program of diversification of products, as well as exploration of new market possibilities. Observed in a list of new products for the year are paper for cigarette and chewing gum packages, label papers for canned products, cover stock for Montgomery Ward catalogs and national magazines, stock for coffee bags, coated card for streetcar ads, and many another special type."
Champion's stability during the Depression sustained others in the community. The Hamilton mill was "a real Champion, battling for the welfare of its city," declared David M. Silver, president of the Hamilton Merchants Association and operator of the Lowenstein Furniture Company, in a letter published in February 1934 in Champion Activities. "It is impossible to say what might have happened in Hamilton if the Champion plant had shut down during the dark years and sent its more than 2,000 employees to their homes. I am certain that business failures would have been the rule here, and that the city would have suffered terribly. During the lean years the Champion has poured almost $50,000 a week into Hamilton circulation." Silver said "at times this has been almost the only lifeblood of the business community."
An indication of Champion's recovery was evident Tuesday, Nov. 17, 1936, at the Hamilton YWCA when 200 people -- including 197 hired at the mill since Jan. 1, 1936 -- were honored as the "Class of 1936." A report noted that other new workers had been eligible to participate, but didn't attend.
The most notable examples of Champion's expansion in the 1930s were two facilities with several Hamilton connections.
A Texas pulp mill was built on 162 acres near Pasadena on the Houston Ship Channel, about 12 miles from Houston. Construction started in March 1936, and the first pulp was shipped in February 1937. Within a year, it was sending 200 tons of pine pulp each day to Hamilton. By 1939 Pasadena processed a surplus of pulp, which encouraged the start of the first paper machine there in June 1940. The prime customer, Time Inc., contributed capital for the paper machine that produced paper for Life magazine.
The research department in Hamilton developed Pasadena's first machine, that made paper and coated it in one operation. Hamilton workers were recruited to install and operate the machine. "The key players," according to Dwight Thomson, came "from crew off the No. 10 machine at Hamilton," including supervisors, machine tenders, back tenders and third hands. Thomson said the plan included hiring "people that didn't need much experience in Texas," while "the Hamilton division was stocking the finishing room, the calenders, the rewinders and little bit of finishing, paper sorting and packing."
A year after the Pasadena opening, Champion added a clay plant. When the 100-acre Sandersville, Ga., mining operation opened Dec. 1, 1938, it was projected to contain enough kaolin to supply the Hamilton, Pasadena and Canton mills for 100 years. As a filler for uncoated paper, clay improved ink absorbency and made paper easier to smooth and finish. In coated papers, white clay provided a smooth, ink-receptive base for high grade halftone printing.
Before the Hamilton mill had experienced the worst of the Depression, the company suffered an emotional loss.
Champion's founder and leader for 38 years, 79-year-old Peter Gibson Thomson, died July 10, 1931, of a heart attack in Christ Hospital in Cincinnati.
"The life of Peter Gibson Thomson was in fact a romance of the industrial development of the Great Miami Valley," the Journal-News declared. His life, an editorial in the newspaper said "was an open book. His friends and neighbors knew that he had enjoyed no unusual advantages and that he himself created the opportunities which crowned his life with success. And of this success Mr. Thomson was scarcely conscious, because his outstanding characteristic was modesty." The editorial said "he possessed, far more than many men, a sympathetic interest in the everyday activities and in the joys and sorrows of his fellow men. Into his every relationship in life, Mr. Thomson carried that ideal which actuated his every action -- the ideal of understanding, kindness, service, honest endeavor and deserved achievement."
Kenneth Faist, then safety director at the Hamilton mill, described Thomson's legacy in more concrete terms.
"For a third of a century the Champion Coated Paper Company has been building carefully, solidly for the future," Faist said. "Champion mills are modern. Acres of timberland with the pulp mill built in their midst. Champion operates the largest tanning extract plant in the world. Lime comes from Champion lime kiln in Tennessee. 1,150 tons of coal are required a day as well as water by the millions of gallons. Trainloads of clay, 40,000 cows producing milk for Champion casein, thousands of men, human brains," observed Faist. "All of these make a large, strong, fearless organization."
Thomson's business philosophy was summarized in a Journal-News editorial probably written by Homer Gard, the paper's owner and editor, who had been a colleague of Thomson in numerous civic projects.
"One reason for Mr. Thomson's success is that he was never satisfied with things as they were; he was never content to accept any part of his great works as having achieved final form -- when a thing was done well, he immediately set about trying to do it better," the editorial said. "The result was that time and time again, great and radical changes were made at both the Champion and Canton plants -- but these changes had been studied with such care that invariably they meant increased production at a lower cost. It takes courage to scrap a perfectly good department which apparently is doing good work, but Mr. Thomson did this again and again, and each time he succeeded literally in making two blades of grass grow where one grew before."
Alexander Thomson -- whose hands-on papermaking education began in the Hamilton mill in 1896 -- assumed Champion leadership after his father's death. He had attended public schools and the Ohio Military Institute in College Hill before
coming to the mill as a 17-year-old laborer. He worked on several machines before moving to order clerk, assistant sales manager, advertising manager, sales manager and vice president. He became president in 1931 when his father died, and four years later was elected chairman of the board.
Alexander Thomson's 42-year Champion career ended June 27, 1939, when his died at age 59 in Christ Hospital in Cincinnati. He had guided Champion through the worst of the Depression and established a stable and aggressive company by the eve of another world war.
Champion's female sentinels: The sorting line
"You stand, and turn it sheet by sheet," recalled Nancy Gover in describing the work of the sorting line, once Champion's corps of female sentinels against bad paper. "When I first started." she said, "there were sorting lines on both sides of the street. There were 200 or more girls on each side." Gover began on the coated mill sorting line "and that's where I stayed most of the time, except the last six years when I was on what they called check sort. And, I really enjoyed it," she said.
Rose Spindeler and Bertie Tabler started the sorting line in April 1894. By 1925, Champion advertising boasted that "200 competent girls inspect, count and sort 2 million sheets of coated paper daily." Another promotion pamphlet emphasized "the orderliness, the clean healthful surroundings -- and the perfect lighting" in Hamilton sorting rooms. "Every sorter is placed so that correct light is available at every hour of the day to allow for an adequate reflection on the paper without glare."
Hilda Grimm went to work on a sorting line in 1912 and -- except for World War I when she assumed a "man's job" of hauling paper from the cutters to the sorters -- spent more than 40 years on the job, including service as forelady of the coating mill sorters.
For some women, the sorting line was a starting point before moving to other responsibilities. Blondie Caldwell, for example, began her more than 42-year career on the sorting line in 1934 before transferring to the personnel department and later industrial relations. When she retired in May 1977, she was described as "one of the most well known and certainly best liked Hamilton mill personalities." She became the mill photographer, known as "One Shot Caldwell," said CHIPS, "because she always got a good picture with only one click of the lens."
Now precision sheeting machines -- with electronic scanning equipment -- convert rolls of paper into sheets at the Hamilton mill. The only manual sorting is inspection of the paper rejected by the scanners.
It isn't the same operation fondly recalled by Nancy Gover, who started at 41 cents an hour in the coated mill in September 1941, retired in April 1986, and returned for a five-month stint in 1988.
Sorters hit a bell (or counter) as they turned the paper, explained Gover. "Your good paper went to your left, and your defects went to your right. We had two finger rubbers that you used to pick the paper up with." After every 500 sheets, "you put your name and number on a marker, a paper slip," she said. "That name slip was taken out when the paper got to the trimmers, and if they found a defect, you were responsible for it."
Gover said the marker also was part of a bonus system, which enabled some sorters to make between $100 and $200 every two weeks in extra money. "But if you let a turned corner or had things go in the paper, they charged you for that. A turned corner was forty-some cents. A splice was quite expensive. They took it off your bonus," she said.
"We had a (hydraulic) table that raised up and down, and kept the paper at the same level. And we had boxes that we stood on. And at that time we didn't wear slacks or anything like that. We dressed up," she said.
The biggest changes over her 47 years were the requirements of "safety shoes, ear plugs and safety glasses," Gover said. "When we didn't have to wear safety shoes, we'd wear high heels to work and have flats in our lockers. When we had to start wearing safety shoes, that was awful." She also recalled having music in the sorting room before ear plugs were required.
"We had air conditioning later, but not when I started. Before air conditioning, you would get static in your paper and it would be hard to turn," she explained. "You'd also get air wrinkles, so the air conditioning helped. It also got cleaner with the air conditioning." Gover said.
Starting in 1913, hydraulic sorting tables -- invented and manufactured in the mill -- improved working condition for the women charged with assuring that Champion shipped quality paper. Jack Reedy, a Champion for 35 years, developed and perfected the tables.
During the mill's first 18 years, sorters worked at standard 32x44-inch tables which handled a paper stack only about eight inches high. As the market demanded wider paper, larger tables were required. Increased volume also necessitated a search for a way to permit higher stacks as the stock came from the cutters. Reedy, who joined Champion in 1907 as a machinist and became a foreman five years later, crafted the solution.
He wasn't satisfied with his first invention in about 1912, which was an iron table raised or lowered with a hand crank. Early in 1913, Reedy experimented with a hydraulic sorting table which moved up or down by water pressure. But installation of the improved tables had to wait, thanks to the March 1913 flood and fire which wrecked the mill. Reedy -- also responsible for numerous other papermill inventions -- was busy cleaning, repairing and rebuilding machinery for several weeks after the double disaster. By the end of 1913, the work of the sorters was made faster and easier by Reedy's hydraulic tables.
"The operator does not have to stoop, reach up, lift, or apply herself in any way except to turn each sheet gently from one stack to the other, watching carefully for defects," explained a company advertisement. "As the paper is sorted, one table rises by hydraulic power while the other table lowers -- maintaining a working level at all times." The ad said each table handled a 5,000-pound stack of paper, and an accompanying photo showed a stack about three feet high.
William C. Taylor, who retired in October 1936, supervised the coating mill sorting line for nearly 30 years of his 40 years at the mill. There were 317 women on the line when he retired, but only 10 when he started, giving him time for other responsibilities.
For several years, Taylor also drove a horse (Faithful Joe) and buggy to the North Hamilton railroad station (North Fourth and Heaton streets) at 8 o'clock each morning to meet Peter G. Thomson, Champion's founder and president, who resided in College Hill.
At 4 p.m. he would take Thomson back to the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad depot. On the afternoon trip, he also took the bills to the freight office and the mail to the post office. On rainy afternoons, the small office force was driven home by Taylor, who later was general foreman over the calenders, cutters, trimmers and sorters before starting his 30-year stint as general supervisor of the sorting line.