ST. MATHIAS -- When the Potlatch paper mill closed its doors in May 2002, leaving more than 600 workers without jobs, many of them at the time were in shock and some were in tears, worried about the uncertain future and how they would support their families.
But when they left the mill, a place where many had worked for most of their lives, they also left behind friends and coworkers they'd seen nearly everyday for years.
Now, more than a year later, about 150 former Potlatch workers and their families gathered at St. Mathias Park Saturday and Sunday for the first-ever Potlatch reunion.
The event was a happy and spirited occasion in sharp contrast to their last day of work at the mill.
Carolyn and Roger Hyatt, both longtime Potlatch employees, helped coordinate the reunion, which included a pig roast and potluck, musical entertainment, a bonfire and a Sunday community breakfast at St. Mathias Park. About nine former Potlatch employees and their families brought campers and stayed there for the weekend-long reunion.
Lonnie Callahan, who spent 24 years in the finishing department, drove up from Osteen, Fla., to attend the reunion. Her husband had been living in Florida, waiting for her to retire with him when the mill shut down.
"When the doors closed, he said, 'Pack your bags,'" said Callahan, who is now attending school in Florida to become a law systems specialist.
She hadn't seen her former coworkers since the mill closed.
"I missed some of the people I worked with," said Callahan. "There is life after Potlatch, but you like the people you worked with. Everybody is real glad to see everybody. They've put the year behind them and moved on."
Many of the former Potlatch workers are in college, found other jobs or started their own businesses. Others returned to Missota Paper Co., which purchased the Potlatch mill and reopened in February.
Les Museus, Brainerd, who spent more than 30 years at Potlatch, returned to Missota.
"It feels like it was yesterday," said Museus, of seeing his former coworkers. "You don't always bump into them downtown. They're a good bunch of people."
Mike Williams, Pillager, who along with his wife, Isabella, started their own disk jockey company, Brother Jukebox/Sister Wine, after the mill closed, provided the music for Saturday's dance at the reunion. An electrician, Williams returned to Missota about a month ago. He had spent 30 years at Potlatch.
"They were foolish enough to let me back in the door and I was foolish enough to go back," Williams said with a laugh.
"When it closed, it was sad," said Carolyn Hyatt. "It's like a family and all of a sudden you don't have a family any more."
Hyatt decided to host a reunion shortly after the decision was announced to close the plant. Her husband and Clem DeRosier roasted the two pigs for Saturday's pig roast in two large hog roasters.
Hyatt worked for 18 years at Potlatch while her husband spent 30 years at the paper mill. Carolyn Hyatt said there were several people from each department who worked at the plant, from salaried to hourly employees. Of the 17 employees in the shipping department, nine of them showed up for the reunion, including Carol Treska, Pine City.
Treska, her former coworkers said, hated to use the computers at Potlatch. That's why it shocked Colleen Turner when she recently received an e-mail that listed Treska's home e-mail address.
"Carol Treska's got a computer?," said Turner. She couldn't believe it.
Six months after Potlatch closed, Treska said she broke down and bought a computer.
"I was bored to death and lonesome," Treska said with a smile.
While many said they have more time for their families now that they aren't doing shift work at the mill, for others, it hasn't been easy since the mill closed.
Pam Johnston worked in the finishing department for 13 years before Potlatch closed. Unable to find a full-time job that could help support her family like her job at Potlatch, she now works 14 hours a day five days a week in the St. Cloud area at two different factory jobs. Her husband, Dick, a retired railroad worker, stays home with the two youngest of their six children while Pam lives during the week with her daughter in St. Cloud.
"I'm trying to get back to Brainerd," said Johnston. "I work 14 hours a day and it still isn't coming anywhere close (to Potlatch's wages)."
Hyatt said a committee will be formed this year to plan the second Potlatch reunion next year. She is hoping that even more former Potlatch workers will come next year.
The date for the next Potlatch reunion has been set for July 31-Aug. 1, 2004, at St. Mathias Park.
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