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'It didn't have to be this way': Former paper mill employees observe last whistle blow

The Canton paper mill blew its final whistle on May 24. The Canton paper mill blew its final whistle on May 24. Garret K. Woodward photo.

It’s 11:57 a.m. Wednesday in downtown Canton. Daniel Gregg is standing on the Park Street bridge overlooking the Pigeon River. Leaning against the bridge, Gregg kept gazing up at the tall smoke stacks of the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill. 

“I really hate to see things the way they are,” Gregg said through solemn eyes. “I enjoyed what I learned [in that mill] and the people I worked with. It could’ve been better — it didn’t have to be this way.”

Next to Gregg is his family. Wife. Daughter. Grandkids. Three minutes later, they all looked toward the stacks and stood in silence while the mill blew its final noonday whistle — an ominous sound signaling the end of production at the mill, ultimately bookending a 115-year chapter of the small town’s existence. 

“I still hope and pray something would continue. And it still might, but I doubt it,” Gregg said. “What I’m looking at right now is the preservation of the heritage here, all of the mill history and the people who dedicated their lives to working there — it gives me chills knowing I’ll never hear that whistle again.”

At 67, Gregg worked at the paper mill for 47 years. He was just 20 when he first stepped foot in the mill as a wet-behind-the-ears employee. He’s also a proud fourth-generation mill employee, with his great-grandfather on his mother’s side bringing some of the first wood to the mill when it opened in 1908. 

When asked about the future of not only Canton and its former mill employees, but also that of uncertain times and choppy waters to navigate in this current American economic landscape, Gregg is steadfast in his response. 

“There’s hardly a middle-class anymore. We’re just fading away. I’ve worked hard all my life to have what little I do,” Gregg said. “Middle-class people need to continue doing what we’ve done for so long — stand up and be Americans helping one another to sustain our jobs. I can’t see an ultra-rich and ultra-poor society — we cannot tolerate that.”

With a slight sigh, Gregg takes one last look at the mill in all its glory of production, progress and prosperity. His entire adult life has been spent within the walls of a soon-to-be-dormant factory. 

“Not being able to hand [the jobs and work] to the next generation — that’s the saddest part,” Gregg said. “Probably the best people in the industry worldwide have been right here, the generations before me and including mine. I’ve given 100% every time I went in — this shouldn’t be the end.”

Within earshot of the Park Street bridge is BearWaters Brewing Riverside. Even though it was midday and midweek, dozens of patrons packed the taproom and outdoor patio area on the banks of the Pigeon to hear the whistle one last time. 

In solidarity, the brewery crowd held up small glasses of the “Papertown Pilsner” to salute the moment — “to the next chapter” being the mantra of choice. Across the river, hundreds of figures huddled in Sorrells Park, with countless others filling the downtown sidewalks. 

At exactly noon, the mill whistle echoed for five minutes throughout the town and into the ancient mountains cradling the community. While the Canton and greater Western North Carolina soaked in the somber spectacle, freight trains and tractor-trailers filled with product from the mill were still chugging along the tracks and through the streets. 

Thereafter, church bells were faintly heard the distance, ringing once for every year the mill was open. Soon, the multitudes dispersed, the town again quiet and empty. Back at BearWaters, young folks and old-timers traded tall tales and honest truths of the mill — a storied past, a dismal present, an unknown future. 

“I made a lot of friends there. You don’t realize it until you get in there, but it’s a brotherhood,” said Matthew Stephenson, sitting on the BearWaters patio. 

Stephenson had worked at the mill for the last five years. At 50 years old, the mill has always been in background of Canton native’s life. He remembers sitting in the classroom as a teenager and hearing the mill whistle sound off at lunchtime. 

“When I graduated from [Pisgah] High School, I always thought I’d like to work there. But, it was a hard ticket to get — you had to know somebody to get in,” Stephenson noted. “And when I finally got the opportunity to work there, I wish I’d had come straight here out of high school — it was a great job.”

For Stephenson — and for innumerable area families going back over a century — the mill closure is truly an end of an era. Though only employed at the mill for half a decade, Stephenson said he planned to make a career out of his position, and to eventually retire from the mill at some point down the line. Now? He recently took on a gig at UPM Raflatac in Mills River. 

“You think about the men and women that worked there, and how they took care of each other inside [of the mill],” Stephenson said. “And they also take care of each other outside here, too — we take of each other in this town, and that won’t change.”

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