Edward Hasenohrl and Dick Goldamer ran the Columbian.
The paper machine was built for the World's Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World's Fair, in 1893. After the fair, it was reassembled at the Nekoosa mill and moved in 1927 to the Port Edwards mill.
Hasenohrl, 62, and Goldamer, 63, retired along with the mill last month when it was shut down by Montreal-based Domtar, eliminating 500 jobs.
The machine they toiled on for a combined 80-some years was rebuilt again and again, so in the end, it had no original parts left. A large bronze plaque noted its unique history.
But that history can have a downside in an international paper industry that is cutting workers while ramping up production on more modern, less labor-intensive machinery.
At one time, the Columbian made just 300 feet of paper per minute. After an overhaul in 1988, the speed increased to 1,600. But more modern paper machines cruise at 4,000 feet per minute.
The Port Edwards mill closure, as well as other shutdowns so far this year, are understandable because the mills are old and have not been updated, said Gerry Ring, chairman of the Department of Paper Science and Engineering at UW-Stevens Point.
"They're basically worn out," Ring said of the mills. "Rather than just simply buying a new machine, the paper companies were relying on the skills of highly skilled paper makers. The modern paper machine is really a $500 million computer that happens to make paper."
Despite significant job losses in the industry in Wisconsin, paper and paperboard production here has decreased only slightly - from 6.4 million tons in 2000 to 6.2 million in 2006.
\ 'A tough industry'
George Mead, whose grandfather started what would become Consolidated Papers in Wisconsin Rapids more than 100 years ago, said the paper industry is dealing with the same issues as the auto and steel industries: an aging work force, old equipment and above-average pay scales.
"It's been a tough industry for my whole career, but it's gotten a lot worse in the last five years (and even over the last) 10 years," said Mead, who ran Consolidated from 1966 to 1993 and was on its board of directors until it was sold to Finland-based Stora Enso Oyj in 2001.
He now runs the Mead Foundation, located in the stately brick home that he grew up in along the Wisconsin River. At the Stora Enso shareholders meeting in Helsinki, Finland, in 2001, Mead was asked why he was selling the company.
"My answer was kind of glib," Mead recalled. "There's a lot of internationalization going on and we think we have to be part of it. And yet, at the same time, we could see that we were being less and less competitive as we went along."
\ NewPage cutbacks
Now, the latest incarnation of Mead's old company is owned by NewPage Corp., based in Miamisburg, Ohio, which announced a series of reductions after recently completing the $2.1 billion purchase of Stora Enso North America from Stora Enso Oyj.
NewPage owns 12 paper mills in seven states, including mills in Wisconsin Rapids, Biron, Kimberly, Stevens Point and Whiting. In May, the company shut down a paper machine at its mill in Kimberly, cutting 125 jobs. In addition, about 200 white-collar jobs in Wisconsin Rapids are being eliminated. It also shut down a mill in Niagara, in northeastern Wisconsin, in June, laying off 319 people.
In January, NewPage officials said the moves to cut people, machines and operational costs would save the company $265 million but were intended to increase paper production this year at its North American properties by 3 percent to 8 percent. But now it's unclear if the company's production this year will increase, said spokeswoman Amber Garwood.
Rick Willett, president and chief operating officer of NewPage, cited a combination of weak demand and rising costs for energy, raw materials and transportation when explaining the cutbacks. "To be successful and viable long-term, we believe it is imperative to be flexible and responsive to these changing conditions," he said.
\ Still a key industry
Even with years of downsizing, the paper industry remains important to Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Paper Council estimates that paper making has a more than $4 billion economic impact on the state's economy.
Today, there are about 50 mills in the state, producing dozens of types of paper including that used for magazines, boxes, writing, menus, books, toilet paper, diapers and wallpaper.
For decades, most of the work has been rooted in the Fox River Valley from Green Bay to Neenah, as well as a 75-mile stretch of Wisconsin River from Merrill to Nekoosa.
The mill in Port Edwards, the third mill to start up along that stretch of river more than 100 years ago, started out making rough paper and eventually moved into making high-grade stock - like many Wisconsin mills - before shutting down. Also like many others in the state, the mill changed hands many times over the years, saw the departure of local ownership, saw job losses and made do with older equipment.
Even so, when the doors finally closed in Port Edwards, some were stunned.
Local historian Marshall Buehler, who worked in sales for 39 years at the mill before retiring in 1990, knew all that but thought the size and breadth of the mill - with its pulp mill, waste treatment plant and finishing complex - would protect it.
"I never dreamed a complex of that size could be closed down," Buehler said. "I can't explain it."