Holyoke’s history entwined in paper

Published Wednesday, June 28, 2006 in the Holyoke Plus section in The Republican. Go to www.masslive.com for more interesting stories.

Parsons Paper Co. was the first paper company established in 1853. This steadfast company managed to survive for 153 years. Its founder, Joseph C. Parsons, tried to purchase power from the owners of the Hadley Falls Co., only to be told they would not sell power to him because they felt he could not succeed in the manufacturing of paper in Holyoke. Fortunately, Parsons did not take "no" for an answer, as indicated by his negotiations with a local gristmill owner who shrewdly allowed him access to the land and the power he needed.

As the Parsons Paper Co. prospered, other companies started to form, one being the Holyoke Paper Co. Established in 1857, located at the southern end of the canal system, which is now occupied by the hydroelectric plant of the Holyoke Gas and Electric Department. Whiting Paper Co. was established in 1865, soon after the Civil War. And, Crocker Burbank and Co. was established around this time by the then famous Alvah Crocker. He controlled seven mills, which produce 12 tons of paper a day.

The paper industry was its most active from 1866 to1880. The following companies were established: the Valley Paper Co., Riverside Paper Co., Franklin Paper Co., Massasoit Paper Co., Beebe and Holbrook Co., Newton Paper Co. and Hampton Paper Co.

Excelsior Paper Co. was established in 1873. In 1880, the Sym and Dudley Co. was established. Wauregan Paper Co in 1881.

Several other paper companies were established around this time, including the Nonotuck Paper Co, Albion Paper Co, Crocker Manufacturing and George R. Dickenson Paper Co. Others included Hampden Glazed Paper, Whitmore Manufacturing and Dickenson and Clark Paper Co. Finally, the Chemical Paper Co, Winona Paper, Connecticut River Paper and the Norman Paper Co. followed.

By 1890, Holyoke had about 25 paper mills, employing 3,500 persons. The total income from paper manufacturing was estimated to be 11 million, according to Wyatt Harper’s 1948 book, "The Story of Holyoke."

The union movement was strong in Holyoke because workers organized earlier than most other industrial cities. In 1884, the machine tenders and beater engineers founded the Eagle Lodge whose members sought for an eight-hour workday. They finally attained these hours along with other rights through long negotiations and strikes. The group eventually became know as the International Brotherhood of Papermakers union.

Paper conversion was started in 1890 by the following companies: Holyoke Envelope, Taylor Manufacturing, National Blank Book, and American Pad and Paper, Smith and White. and the Eureka Ruling and Binding Co.

The depression of 1873 did not adversely affect Holyoke, although some companies started to utilize less expensive paper made from wood pulp. In 1885, paper production surpassed the 200-tons per day mark. New construction became too costly in the 1890’s discouraging construction of new mills, according to Harper’s work.

In 1899, the American Writing Paper Co, was formed. It merged with the U.S. Envelope Co. and moved to Springfield. This massive company had thirty-one plants and controlled almost three-fourths of fine paper production in the United States. By the 1920’s it went into bankruptcy. Labor problems, competition and failure to update machinery all contributed to the failure.

It’s remarkable that all of these mills were able to find buyers for the tons of paper they produced. Of course, the citizens of Holyoke were some of their best customers, especially since the only way to communicate with there loved ones abroad was by writing, and write they did.

One letter that stands out in my mind is a letter a Civil War soldier wrote to his commanding officer regarding a battlefield debacle. It was an elegant and courageous letter that both appeased and assured his superior that he would never make the same mistake again. After reading his letter, I forgave him, especially since his vocabulary was so rich and his penmanship exquisitely rendered.

Writing was an art form in those days, unlike the abbreviated text we now see in e-mails. While it’s necessary to be brief at times due to our fast-paced lives, sadly our language skills have suffered. Where, oh where, are those prolific letters we once composed?

Holyoke residents should be proud of the intelligent and hard-working people who lived in the 1800s. Through their efforts, Holyoke became one of the most prestigious cities in that era.

It was a special and extraordinary moment in time-one in which water and paper defined not only the way the city was structured, but also the way a dynamic citizenship grew and thrived for generations to come.

In the next issue, read how Holyoke’s paper industry fared in times of great change and upheaval.

© 2006 The Republican. All rights reserved. Used with permission