The paper mill, Wilmington's longest continuous employer

Sandy Vasko

    This week we celebrated Labor Day, dedicated to the working men, women and children of our nation. The site in Wilmington that provided a place to labor for over 100 years was the now defunct paper mill.
    On Aug. 6, 1875, we read in the Wilmington Advocate, “It appears that Dr. Trott has purchased the “nut and bolt factory” property, and is casting about with a view to establishing a paper mill in that building. The doctor is in correspondence with practical men and it is to be hoped that his efforts will be successful. Now, gentlemen, is an opportunity for organizing a stock company in an enterprise that will pay.”
    But it was almost a year later that anything really was done. “Yes, Wilmington is to have a paper mill, and that within six months. The edict has gone forth and the papers are signed, sealed and delivered.”
    “On yesterday an ambassador of the Advocate gleaned the following from the best authority:  The ponderous machinery of the mill will be brought to this city as soon as navigation opens (on the I & M Canal), and it is thought will be in operation on or about Aug. 1.”  
    “It will be located at the nut and bolt factory place, and will manufacture what is known as “straw board,” for boxes, etc. As to its requirements, it will consume an average of eight tons of straw, and seven tons of coal, daily. As to the number of operatives to be employed, we are not posted.”
    “Now, a word to you grangers. This enterprise will make a market for all the straw you can raise. The market is already established for the product of the mill, and its success does not at all depend on local demand. Rye straw is preferable to oat straw, and will command $1 ($23 today) more per ton; present prices paid are $5 ($114) for rye and $4 ($91.50) for oat; inasmuch as some 3,000 tons per year are required, farmers will do well to consider this starting at once.”  
    Finally, in June of 1877, “On last Saturday the Enterprise mills turned out seven tons of lined straw board, which tallies well for the new enterprise.  The average daily product of the mills these times is about 6 tons.”
    It wasn't long before teamsters were being hired to haul straw from all over the area. In fact, they made it into a real contest, “Billy Stewart, the “boss” driver of the “boss” mule team in town, hauled the “boss” load of straw to the paper mill last Friday. The load weighed 5,200 pounds, net.
    “Billy” says the boys needn't kill their teams trying to beat that, for they can't do it, still, if anyone is foolhardy enough as to put on an extra 10 pounds, he will go out and show them what a four-ton load looks like.”
    It was a small factory, employing only about 35 workers. And the work could be dangerous, even for the owner, M. D. Keeney, Esq., proprietor of the Enterprise paper mills, sustained severe injuries last week by an accident.”
    “It appears that one of his furnace doors, of 250 pounds weight, was temporarily suspended by a rope; at an unlucky moment, while “the boss” was underneath, the rope gave way and Mr. K. received the brunt of the falling door on his head and shoulders. His escape from far more serious injury was almost miraculous.”
    Disaster struck in May of 1879, we read in the Joliet Weekly Sun, “Fire at Wilmington - Sunday morning about 7 o'clock a fire broke out in the Enterprise Paper Mill, at Wilmington, and before assistance could arrive, it was destroyed. The loss is estimated at $30,000 ($757,300), insurance $10,000 ($252,500).”
    The mill came back stronger and bigger than ever, employing more people and running around the clock. For those up the hill this was a problem.
    We read in 1880, “Steam whistles are very good things in their way, but they are sometimes very annoying, if not positive nuisances. There is one at the paper mill, and just as the slumbers of midnight come on it commences a doleful two-minute groan every night; just before twelve.  
    “Then all the babies on “quality hill” wake up and squall for all there is, for a time indefinite. Then the house is in an uproar, the women begin to scold as the matinee progresses, and the head of the house compares the scene to one entitled, “he'll be thinking of murder.”  That midnight whistle must go.”
    Next time we will move into more modern times, to see the effect the mill had, not only to the population, but also to the very river itself.