Archived Opinion

The mill’s legacy looms large over Haywood

The Pactiv-Evergreen paper mill in Canton has announced that it will close in the second quarter of this year, a move that will eliminate about 1,000 full-time jobs and affect untold hundreds of part-time and contract workers. Max Cooper photo The Pactiv-Evergreen paper mill in Canton has announced that it will close in the second quarter of this year, a move that will eliminate about 1,000 full-time jobs and affect untold hundreds of part-time and contract workers. Max Cooper photo

“The mill.” In Canton, as in hundreds of other towns across America, that was the only description needed to describe the factory that drove a small town’s economy, which generations depended on for their livelihood and some for their very identity. 

But when the phrase is extended into the dreaded “the mill is closing,” then the world goes topsy-turvy for the workers and an entire town, leaving people off balance and looking for a handhold, bringing forth prayers, curses and everything in between. 

For folks in Canton and Haywood County, Champion-Blue Ridge Paper-Pactiv Evergreen has been a mainstay for three or four generations, since it opened in 1908. Yesterday, company officials announced that the paper producing behemoth that dominates the skyline of Canton will close by sometime in early summer. Approximately 1,000 workers in Canton will be displaced, perhaps more over the next few months at the coating facility in Waynesville. 

The closure and its shakeout will shock this region, but most observers are likely not that surprised. Despite upgrades and renovations, even the untrained eye can see that the Canton mill is past its prime. Continued costly renovations don’t sit well in this age of corporate consolidation where those sitting in board rooms see little value in being a part of a community where a dedicated workforce is something worthwhile in and of itself. That’s a stinging indictment on corporate culture but does little for those in Canton now dealing with this new reality. 

The world changes. The market for paper is shrinking. Making it is more costly than ever. People are searching for and finding alternatives. But this mill closure is about so much more than a shrinking paper market. A way of life is fading, and that is always accompanied by upheaval. 

“So sad!!! Not only does it affect those souls at the mill, us who work at school and the whole Haywood County… I pray for what comes next! My family has worked at the mill for generations, I live in my family home that mill money built in the 1960s,” so read a post on our Facebook page after news broke of the impending closure. 

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Canton paper mill workers for generations have turned in a good day’s work and made good money, feeding families, building houses (as the quote above pointed out), sending children to college. For many it was the first and only decent-paying job they ever had as that kind of factory work was almost unheard of in this region. 

Instead of having to leave for textile or manufacturing jobs in other Southern cities, these families got to stay in these mountains that so many of us love. That good Champion paycheck bought boats that populate our mountain lakes, it helped keep alive a horseback riding culture as many mill workers spent their off time in Cataloochee or the Big Creek areas of the park, allowed for hunting trips to bag white tail deer, paid for fishing trips to Montana and other areas out West. That money kept many part-time farms going, family acreage still used for cattle and other uses that might not turn enough profit to make a living but kept people connected to the land and the hardscrabble way of life that so many embrace so dearly. 

I can’t help but think of the paper mill’s close ties to the musical traditions of Haywood County and this region. Back when I was editor at The Mountaineer in the 1990s, we did a series called “The Legends of Mountain Music,” which included a piece on brothers Luke and Harold Smathers of Canton. They were carpenters who built many of those unique craftsman style homes in the Canton area, but they and their circle of musicians also credited the presence of the paper mill with attracting so many talented players. Steady work in one place meant musicians could gather in their off time and play without worrying about how to make a living from their music. Canton was rightfully known as a spawning ground for traditional musicians. 

What happens when the shock wears off and people begin to pick themselves up and make plans for the future? Hard to say, but I’m optimistic. Canton is and always has been a beautiful town with a distinctive blue-collar mentality that won’t disappear with the mill. In fact, many worry that all-too-soon it will become a gentrified far west West Asheville. 

“That is exactly why we love living here so much. I always thought the mill kept us safe from becoming a mini Asheville,” said another person on our Facebook page last night. 

From a historical perspective, I think back to when Dayco closed its doors in 1996. The rubber hose manufacturer sat where Waynesville’s Walmart is now located, and when it closed more than 600 jobs were lost. Just like now, the shockwaves reverberated around Haywood County and the region, and the community — individuals, families, churches, nonprofits, Haywood Community College and local governments — all swept in to make this seemingly doomsday event as easy on the displaced workers as they could. Lives were upended, as has happened right now in Canton, but it all worked out in the end because so many worked long and hard to ameliorate the negative consequences. 

We can spin this every which way and look for the good — which there will be — but here’s the truth: a huge mill that employed up to 2,000 people in its heyday and operated for more than 100 years in a tiny mountain community in Western North Carolina is shutting down. With that closing, a way of life that was uniquely intertwined with this particular mill and this mountain community will be lost forever. We must turn the page, but let’s do so with a nod to the importance of this chapter in the history of Canton and Haywood County. 

(Scott Mcleod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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