New book details history of manufacturing in Jackson
When Jason Gregory presented his new book on the history of manufacturing in Sylva at the Jackson County Public Library in August, the room was filled with residents who have a deeply personal connection to the stories Gregory wrote.
Many of them were current employees at Jackson Paper or worked for one of the several manufacturing companies that at one time occupied the site before Jackson Paper. Still others had family who worked for these companies and had heard stories passed down through generations.
Gregory’s new book, “The History of the C.J. Harris Tannery, Sylva Paperboard Company, Mead Corporation and Jackson Paper Manufacturing Company at Sylva,” spans 121 years of Jackson County history, beginning with the earliest timber companies in the area, moving through the first major manufacturing industry with the C.J. Harris Tannery and following each new company that came in to occupy the site over the century. That includes its current occupant and Gregory’s employer, Jackson Paper.
“I want to thank my employer, I want to thank Jackson Paper,” Gregory said at the packed Aug. 10 event in the Community Room at the Jackson County Library. “I’ve been an employee for almost 12 years there, I’m a machinist. We’re just one big family there and I can say hands down that is the best group that I have ever worked for.”
The paper company gave Gregory access to rare archival records in the engineering department. Gregory’s book draws on photos, documents like union contracts and land transactions, the Mead Corporation’s publication “The Sylvan,” as well as personal stories from employees and their families to create a picture of the history of industry in Jackson County.
Gregory’s own history with manufacturing in Jackson County extends beyond his current employment. His great-great-grandparents, great uncle, grandfather and father all worked in manufacturing in Jackson County at different times.
“My great-great-grandparents, Will and Mary Gregory, were like many people in Jackson County, they made their living selling pulpwood or cord wood as my grandmother called it,” said Gregory. “And there were just as many people in the county that made their living selling acid wood or pulpwood to the Mead Corporation, if not more, than there were people that actually worked at the mill.”
“Mead has been part of my family’s lives throughout the years.”
Gregory first became interested in the idea of writing a book about Jackson’s manufacturing history when he saw Carrol Jones’ book about the history of the paper mill in Canton, which recently closed after over 100 years in operation.
“I saw that and I thought I ought to do a book on this mill because I don’t think anybody’s gonna do it,” said Gregory.
Then Covid came. Then Gregory and his wife had twins, and he decided that would be the perfect time to “do something worthwhile.”
With so many of the buildings from the tannery still standing when he started research for his book, Gregory knew that he wanted to explore the full history of manufacturing in Jackson County, which started with the C.J. Harris Tannery.
Prior to that, the first major timber company to come out of Jackson County was Blue Ridge Lumber Company. It left the county in about 1895, and though there were several timber companies that came in its wake, they were all short-lived and ran into one common problem.
Jason Gregory blows the Mead Corporation whistle. Jason Gregory photo
“They didn’t have the rail lines to get the timber out,” said Gregory.
The first section of the book delves into the life of the man who brought industry to the county, and namely to Sylva, C.J. Harris, the namesake of the tanning company. Gregory outlines his philanthropy, donating money for the first library in Jackson County, his involvement in building the county’s first hospital, and his role in moving the county courthouse from Webster to Sylva in 1913.
“Those are all commonly known things that he’s famous for,” said Gregory. “But doing this research I discovered that there’s a greater legacy that’s not commonly known that C.J. Harris ought to be remembered for. C.J. Harris transformed a mountain village into a town. In my book is a photo of the oldest known image of Sylva in 1892. It was a struggling mountain village. But C.J. Harris, he brought industry here.”
Born in 1853, C.J. Harris made his fortune after investing in irrigation ditches in Colorado. After losing both of his children to diphtheria, his marriage fell apart and Harris moved to Dillsboro in 1889. He quickly got involved in industry in the county and tried to build his tannery near where Poteet Park sits today. However, flooding from Scotts Creek made building difficult. Eventually he shifted his plan and built the company where Jackson Paper exists today.
Gregory’s fascination for history was palpable during his presentation, which involved the display of countless photographs and artifacts. He has even taken it upon himself to digitize many of the resources he found while researching the book.
The C.J. Harris Tannery represents a turning point in Jackson County history — Gregory attributes its founding with the first widespread availability of wage labor. Prior to the company’s founding in 1902, few people in the county worked jobs for a wage. Most people operated under a trade and barter system exchanging goods that were farmed, grown or created locally. But those people still had to pay taxes on their land.
“Harris provided a path for reliable yearly income that citizens could pay their taxes and keep their farms and their homes, and that’s part of his greatest legacy that I don’t want to be lost,” Gregory said. “He provided a source of income that was not available for citizens of Jackson County.”
In 1915, C.J. Harris sold his interest to the Arbor Leather Company, instigating an expansion that about doubled the tannery’s capacity. Prior to that time the tannery only offered bark sales, but with increased capacity the company began buying wood in 1916. Residents could sell pulpwood at the tannery that was shipped all over Western North Carolina along Southern Railway.
While the C.J. Harris Tannery and the founder himself provide an obvious fascination for Gregory, they represent only the beginning of a long history of manufacturing in the county. Throughout the book Gregory delves into not just the technicalities of manufacturing, but its broader economic, environmental and cultural impact.
At the library event hosted by the Jackson County Genealogical Society, Gregory presented an exciting display of one of those historical, cultural touchstones. The old tannery whistle was not only on display for people to see, but Gregory had taken things a bit further.
“I have something fascinating to share,” Gregory said. “I came up with the idea, I told the owner of the whistle, I said why don’t we blow this under steam if I can convince the management, this is such an important piece of Jackson County history.”
Gregory worked with management at Jackson Paper to find a secure line on which to blow the whistle under steam. They filmed the event and played it for the audience at the library Aug. 10.
“That was the first time the whistle was blown since the tannery closed in 1957,” said Gregory. “It gives me cold chills.”
Following Gregory’s presentation, some members of the audience shared their own family stories about working at Mead Corporation. Sheila Frizzell, whose mother was interviewed for the book as one of the Mead Corporation’s oldest living employees, described how her mother made about $1 an hour working for the company. In the interview with Frizzell’s mother, she told Gregory that she saved her wages to buy a piano, the same piano that Frizzell says she and her sister grew up playing.
With over 100 years of employing Jackson County residents, personal stories like Frizzell’s abound, and many of them helped inform Gregory’s almost 700-page book. Despite the mammoth undertaking this project was, Gregory is still invested.
“There’s still so much to learn,” he said. “I’ll never stop trying to learn. It’s fascinating, I learn something new every day.”