‘We’re still here’: Canton businesses, residents react to mill closure
It’s 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Southern Porch restaurant in the heart of downtown Canton. Less than 24 hours ago, the mountain community received word that its century-old paper mill would close this summer.
“Our lunch is primarily mill workers, folks coming from the mill to eat, where the place is just packed,” said Michaela Lowe, co-owner of Southern Porch. “And we’ve had quite a few show up today, but everyone is really quiet. It’s sad, no one knows what to even say.”
Alongside her husband, Nathan, the couple has weathered many storms while at the helm of the Southern Porch, located just a stone’s throw from the mill itself. There was the 2020 Pandemic and ongoing labor shortage, then the massive flood of 2021 rolling through the town, and now the mill going dark, and with over 1,000 workers out of a job — the future uncertain for our beloved “Papertown.”
“The entire town, the majority of businesses and residents alike, feel like one of those clown punching bags with sand at the bottom of it — you get punched, you fall back, and just flip right back up again,” Michaela said. “And I feel like that’s been our business the entire seven years we’ve been here — I’m sure that plenty of businesses who were here long before us feel the same way.”
SEE ALSO: Canton mill’s closing means uncertainty for county, region
Just a few blocks down from Southern Porch, on the banks of the Pigeon River and with the mill overtaking most of the horizon looking west, is BearWaters Brewing.
“Obviously, it’s a lot to process. And I think everybody’s kind of feeling a sense of shock about the announcement, the sudden nature of how it was closed,” said Kevin Sandefur, co-owner of BearWaters. “[The mill] is an iconic fixture in the community. It’s the backdrop to our business. We even had a Great American Beer Festival award-winning beer called ‘Smells Like Money’ (a common refrain from locals when talking about the mill’s distinct smell) — [the mill] is such a big part of our culture.”
And, like many Canton business owners and residents, Sandefur is well-versed in how to respond to yet again another crisis in the community — with a steadfast vision and resolve to trudge ahead.
“I’ve seen the best of this community in the worst of times, especially with the flood,” Sandefur said. “I believe in my heart that the people here are going to find a way through this. It’s hard and painful right now, but we have the resilience to figure this out — leadership is going to be critical throughout this process.”
A Canton native and bassist for marquee Haywood County bluegrass ensemble Balsam Range, Tim Surrett is a ball of emotions in the day following the mill announcement. He meanders from sadness to pride and back again, but also with cherished memories of a community and its economic driver for over a century.
“Growing up here, I can remember practicing football on the little field at the old YMCA right in the shadow of the mill,” Surrett said. “Everybody’s dad worked there or did in some related activity that revolved around the mill. My dad worked on the railroad at the mill, my grandparents ran the little country store on Old Asheville Highway that cashed the loggers’ [checks].”
Surrett noted that his brother-in-law works at the mill and will probably now have to look for further employment, with the family recently inhabiting a new home after their old house was destroyed by the 2021 flood.
“But, there’s a sense of faith here that’s stronger than fear, and that’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked,” Surrett said. “There’s pride here in this hardworking blue-collar town, and that won’t go away with the mill — we’re a community and we’re a family”
In a somber voice, one of mental exhaustion, financial stress, and concern for her community, Michaela Lowe soon switches to a tone of persistence and determination — this signature kneejerk reaction by the fine people of Canton, North Carolina, once again in the face of an unknown tomorrow.
“We don’t know what our future looks like, and yet, somehow, we’re still here,” Michaela said. “And we look around at our friends, families, and surrounding areas. I think of my mom who worked at Dayco [in Waynesville] when they closed [in 1996]. Other towns have gone through this, have felt like we do right now, and are thriving today — that gives us hope.”
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I am so sorry for this loss to your community. Shame on the corporate vultures. May everyone find wonderful new beginnings.