Mohawk mill closes, ends chapter in history

The plant is second of three plants to close its doors in the area.

The last day for most employees at Mohawk Fine Papers’ Beckett Mill was Friday, closing another chapter in Butler County’s oldest industry.

The original Beckett Paper Co. mill on Dayton Street in Hamilton opened in 1848. Beckett invented the first cover papers, a heavier and stronger fiber paper that can be folded and embossed for use in brochures, menus and covers of annual reports, said former Beckett Co. president and chairman Dave Belew.

“The paper business has changed so much in recent years, primarily because of technology and lesser use of paper,” Belew said.

“It’s a very sad chapter for Hamilton because it was the oldest industry in Hamilton, and over 163 years, thousands and thousands of people made their livelihoods at that mill.”

The paper company is the second of three plants expected to close in Butler and Warren counties. The closing of Franklin Boxboard, Mohawk and SMART Papers will leave more than 400 people without jobs.

The last parent roll of paper at Mohawk came off the #2 paper machine about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, said Tom O’Connor Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Cohoes, New York-based Mohawk.

The paper roll was black and weighed about 3,000 pounds.

Before electronic readers, online corporate reports and digital photos decreased the demand for the fine papers made by Mohawk, the Hamilton mill produced 200 tons of paper a day on three paper machines, said Quality Manager Art Sparks. Mohawk specializes in fine papers in dark, white, red, blue and green colors for stationary, presentations, resumes and annual reports, Sparks said.

Most of the 137 employees at the Beckett Mill will be done working at the end of the hird shift today at 7 a.m., O’Connor said.

“It’s not a very good thing to have to do,” O’Connor said.

The employees have shown outstanding quality, efficiency and safety performance all the way to the end, O’Connor said.

“They went beyond what they had to do,” he said. “Which, of course, makes me feel worse.”

Workers at the plant on Friday were cleaning and shipping the last of the paper. With no paper machines running, they described the plant as a “ghost town.”

Shelton Couch was a machine tender at the Beckett Mill. He worked there 33 years.

“Don’t know what New York’s thinking, but they’re shutting down a good mill,” Couch said.

Employees displayed signs in a window of the plant’s maintenance building on Dayton Street that said “For rent” and “Mill not for sale. We’d rather put 150 people out of work. Thank you, Mohawk.”

Employees felt the company never tried to sell the mill, said Frank Howard, 50 of Hamilton.

A back tender on a paper machine, he said he won’t be able to get another job making $21 an hour.

“A lot of us will have a hard time getting a job,” he said.

The water supply and the geographic location of Butler County helped attract as many as 23 paper companies at one time from Dayton to Cincinnati, said Belew, who worked at the mill 32 years until his retirement in 1992 as chairman. Belew’s wife is the great-granddaughter of founder William Beckett.

Beckett Paper merged in 1959 with Hammermill, a public company, to obtain the capital it needed to expand, he said. International Paper purchased the mill in 1986. At a peak, Mohawk had 550 employees, he said.

Mohawk bought the mill in 2005.

O’Connor said the paper industry has gradually declined for the past 10 years. After business went downhill the last six months of 2011, a decision was made late last year to close.

The two Mohawk mills in New York and the Hamilton mill were all on the chopping block, O’Connor said.

“For many reasons, it’s a higher cost facility to operate than the ones in New York,” he said.

The costs weren’t higher because of productivity, but for costs beyond employee control, such as water and wastewater treatment, O’Connor said. The next steps will be to try to sell the property and equipment and mothball the buildings.

Mark Hinkle, 57, of Oxford, will move for a new job in Harrodsburg, Ky., at Wausau Paper’s plant there. Wausau makes towel and tissue paper, a growing industry segment.

Hinkle said he’s worked at Mohawk more than a year. Before that, he had been laid off from SMART after more than 30 years.