For nearly a century, the pulp paper industry has been a significant part of Brainerd's rich heritage.
It began when Northwest Paper Co. was created in 1899 with the combined efforts of Charles A. Weyerhaeuser, Rudolph Weyerhaeuser, C.I. McNair and R.D. Musser. The men were involved in building the Northwest Paper Co. along the banks of the St. Louis River in Cloquet. Potlatch centennial editions report the Cloquet mill produced its first newsprint on April 8, 1899.
But the company, which merged with Potlatch Forests, Inc. in 1964, truly began to grow after it expanded in Brainerd in 1903 by purchasing Northern Water Power Co. on the Mississippi River and the C.F. Kindred Dam. The pulp paper company expanded to a ground wood pulp mill along the west shore of the Mississippi River in Brainerd, and produced 12 tons of ground wood pulp per day.
Brainerd, it may have seemed to these innovative industrialists, was a perfect spot to build a paper mill. The community had woods and water -- the mighty Mississippi River could provide power for a mill, and there was an abundance of forests. They also had transportation. In the 1870s, the Northern Pacific Railway brought its railway system to "The Crossing," which is now known as Brainerd. Additional railroad spurs ensured that the pulp or paper could be easily transported.
The Brainerd mill outgrew its location in 1911 and was shut down, then dismantled in 1914 and reestablished at a better location on the river's east side. Construction of the Frederick Paper Mill, named after Frederick Weyerhaeuser Sr., took two years. Operations at the new mill began April 20, 1917. The new plant produced 40 tons of pulp and newsprint daily.
The company's land holdings soared from 2,000 acres in 1920 to 156,000 acres in Minnesota by 1929. The Depression years were hard ones for papermakers in Brainerd, but the plant managed to stay open, even if it operated in the red.
In 1934 the Brainerd mill closed for nine months. When it reopened it began producing wallpaper instead of newsprint to the average amount of 65 tons per day.
The demand for paper grew sharply during the war years, which brought increased financial health to the mill.
When wallpaper markets declined in the 1950s, the company reinvented itself once again, shutting down the ground wood pulp mill and beginning production of fine grade paper in April 1956, producing about 80 tons of paper production each day. In 1959, photographs of the area along Rice Lake show the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds in the backdrop of the Potlatch Mill. In 1950, spring flood water washed out the wood, rock and steel dam. A concrete version was constructed as its replacement.
In 1964, the same year the company merged with Potlatch Forests, Inc., the production of coated paper began in Brainerd.
Ken Zelinske, Brainerd, retired last year from Potlatch after working there for 40 years. He started at the paper mill in 1961, back when women would hand fan the paper and check for defects. He worked in the coating department and has served as union president.
He has four sons and a daughter-in-law who are employed at the Brainerd mill.
"I don't think people realize how much this is going to affect the community," said Zelinske, of the Potlatch closing. "The resorts and tourists are nice, but they're not going to keep the grocery stores open here in the winter. It's going to be pretty tough. I wish they would have made this announcement before the school bond referendum issue."
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