Friday, May 20, 2011

Vanished Rochester: Rochester Paper Mill

On the banks of the Clinton River, at the southern edge of the emerging village of Rochester, Colonel Stephen Mack built a flouring mill in 1824.  The settlement of Rochester was only seven years old at the time. Mack, a native of Connecticut and veteran of the Revolutionary war, had migrated to the territory of Michigan in 1810 and lived in Detroit for a time before leading a group of investors who purchased land to plat the future city of Pontiac.  After making his permanent home in Pontiac, he established the aforementioned flouring mill in Rochester.

In 1857, Mack's old mill was converted to paper making,  and seven years after that it was purchased by William H. Barnes. Barnes had been born in Connecticut and had worked in paper mills across New England and the mid-Atlantic before coming to Michigan in 1863. With his brothers, Cyrus and Charles, he operated a paper wholesale business in Detroit. In 1864, William H. Barnes moved to Rochester to operate the paper mill on behalf of the Barnes Brothers firm. The Barnes mill was very successful and was an important employer in Rochester for more than a century.  The company took a hit in 1875, however, when a local woman named Ann Strong who had a grudge against William Barnes set fire to the mill early on a Sunday morning.  The building burned to the ground and Barnes suffered a loss of approximately $32,000. He immediately rebuilt upon the old foundation a mill of brick and slate, and it is this building that is shown in the accompanying photograph.

After the death of William Barnes in 1903, the paper mill operated under several different names and owners.  It was for a time known as the Peninsular Paper Company, the Rochester Paper Company, and the James River Company. The paper mill is remembered as the only Rochester industry to operate continuously throughout the years of the Great Depression, offering much-needed jobs for local residents when other factories were shuttered.

In April 2002, the paper company ceased operations, ending a 127-year run of paper making at the site. The property was sold for redevelopment, and in 2005 the old mill was razed; 161 years after Stephen Mack established the first mill at that location, the paper mill passed into the pages of Vanished Rochester.

This postcard view from the collection of the Rochester Hills Public Library shows the paper mill as it looked about 1907.


  1. Where exactly was the mill located? There are 2 nearby vacant lots. Do you know if it was site A or B on the following map link:


  2. The mill was located at site B on your map.

  3. It's hard to believe the Mill closed up shop nearly 10 years ago. Certainly not the most aesthetic of Rochester's historical buildings, but one's livelihood takes the place of physical appearance: a couple of friends, one with over 25 years of service at the mill, lost their jobs when it shut down. It was a tough thing to swallow.

    I recall being over at some friends of mine back in the summer of 1972, when their father packed us all into the van to see a fire that was in progress at the paper mill (they were a family of ambulance-chasers, as I recall, and I unfortunately got caught in the crossfire on more than one occassion). No idea why I remember this particular episode - from my understanding, there were a number of fires at the old mill.

    John Mohr

  4. Best Job Ever.

    Worked here the last couple years it was open. To make note as history went, The mill, was producing paper for aircraft fuel and oil filters for our military, along with many other types of paper, in the closing years.
    They were bought out by a German company, Fibermark, and told its all good, your jobs are safe. Then six months later, they annouced that production would be moving to Germany.
    The Mill was east of the bridge, behind/east of where the new Condo's are at, where the river bends to the north.
    I have several hours of the mill while still in production, filmed in the last year it was open. Also caught a good resin fire to, which was semi frequent when you had highly flamable liquids passing within inches of the high heat oven.
    The best times were spent sitting on the roof, upon the smoke stack, looking at the citys veiw in the wee hours of the morning, with the wind cutting in.
    The Guys and gals there were the best! Management - Richard, Rick, Paul, Tom / Backtenders - Ray, Chriss, Chriss, / (motor cycle madman) Goordy / Boilerman - Dennis,
    mainy people, 1sthand threw sparehands - Dave H., Roy, Chriss, Martin, Randy, Mike, Darrel, Dave in Lab, and many many more. Only way to remember them all is to watch the movies. One day.
    It was one hard job, but one that did become a family, even if at times, it was a stressful enviroment to work in.
    Was it any wonder Daimler did the same thing to Chyrsler a couple year later? Nope! Now a decade later, you can see that was the plan. Buy up the patent rights to the products we produce, and move production away. Any wonder why German economy is number one in the world right now?
    Not hating, still just bitter some of the good times are now gone.
    Miss you all, Miss you Mill!

  5. Worked here 1975-1976 and hard work it was. Hated it was mandatory you had to stay over 4-hours if your replacement did not show. Always seemd my didn't need the money because he would miss at least 1-2 shifts per week. Lunch or breaks were whenever you could get one long as the paper didn't break going thru the rollers!

  6. I lived near the paper mill. The smell especially was terrible when the wind blew from the east. I fished Paint creek and the Clinton river. Just east of the mill was a collecting basin for runoff from the mill and when it got too full they would cut through the walled basin a drainage relief ditch that would empty their toxic swill into paint creek and the trout would die and tumble like like dead leaves in currents where the two rivers met. I am glad to see that its gone.

    1. You must have lived near me. The mill stank terribly and also put strange ash into the air. The ash fell at night. My dad bought a nice new car and ash from the mill landed on it, mixing with dew and eating orange freckles into the paint. The mill owners ignored out complaints. Our dog sometime came home blue or pink -- depending on whatever color paper was being milled. The run off, as you say, was discharged into the Clinton.

      I did not see many fish in the river. The Clinton River is a long river and our was not the only place where industry made a mark. By the 50s and 60s, pollution had taken its toll, all up and down the route.

      In the last years of the our mill, on hot summer nights there was a chemical smell across the valley, something strong enough to make your eyes water. By then we had learned how to complain and to be heard, and that problem did not exist for very long.

      There are worse things than government regulation and pollution controls. It is good to know that we are once more catching trout in our streams. It is also delightful to see people using the waterways for recreation and pure enjoyment.

  7. I think Ray Arsenault managed the mill.

    1. Ray was my step father

    2. ??? I was his daughter in law, are you Gerts child, I didn't know they ever married....

  8. Just for the record, FiberMark was not a German company. FiberMark was/is based in Brattleboro Vermont. I worked at the FiberMark plant in Richmond, Va. FiberMark (then known as Speciality Coatings Group) purchased the five former James River Corp mills but then ended up closing all the mills and then going bankrupt. All the shareholders lost all their investment. Never quite figured out why all the officers of FiberMark kept their jobs when shareholders and employees lost out. I had been at the Rochester plant a number of times and knew a lot of the people there.

    1. Rochester's production of filter paper was moved to Germany. They took a handful of employee's, Rick of Management, Lloyd a backtender/rewinder, and one or two others I believe, to Germany to actually see the production there.
      Many of us were envious because Germans could drink beer at lunch, and their work days were no where as close to tedious as our own, We actually thought at first, we would benefit from the sale, so wrong we were.
      They Purchased a 2 million dollar sizing rewinder from Rochester paper Mill, just before and separate of the actual mill purchase, for a million, half off its cost. The Machine was used for maybe three months before being sold. Talk about a deal.
      When FiberMark came in 2000, it was expressed to all of us, they were a German Based Company. Kinda hard to ignore the German speaking cats that were checking every inch of the building. Though in the long run, they did split production, offered some employees work in Virginia, Vermont, and New Jersey.
      When they came to us, with their thick German accents, they did say numerous times, not to worry about your jobs, the mill would never close.
      Only took a couple years, and all the words of the past were found to be nothing but hot air.
      Within the years since its closing there has been a health settlement due to asbestos, which with dwindling health why bother.
      Noticed that all the filter paper patents they purchased, they're not even making anymore. Wonder who ended up with that deal. It was a military contract, so someone is getting paid.
      Fibermark doesn't even resemble what it did a decade ago. It seems to have went to a decoration paper, book binding shit.
      Anyways, NAFTA and all the other wonderful free trade programs is what killed the American industry.
      Take a plant that has been supporting a community for over 100 yrs, and poof it over night.
      To the above, Pink or Blue on the dog, LOL That was the worst paper, real heavy, gave everything a pink coat in the mill, and was a pain to cut. Lots of fiberglass was in that lot. Same with the blue, but to be fair, it was more of a greenish blue, that was stiff like card board and wear a brand new razor blade out in less then three or four cuts.
      The ashes were actually from a very thin sticky paper we used to make. As it went threw the over/dryer after the first layer of resin was put on, it would blow off any lose tiny particles, and burn them to ash as it was going threw the stack. Wasn't often, but if the paper broke, and had to be rerun threw the dryers, the first couple of mins would put out small cloud of ash, and if the wind was just right, sorry.
      You were south east of the plant I take it, either along snake trail, or in the sub just above it behind the dealerships right?
      For the stink, and leaks, I heard many stories of things that happened there over the years. Yeah and those are fitting. Have to wonder who in the first place would want to build a damn subdivision right next to a paper mill?
      Anyways, those were the days.
      Funny to tell people how we used to work, 21 days on, 2 to 3 days off. 8 hrs a day, unless someone called in, then 12 hrs for sure, and if one couldn't get in touch with the shift after that, it would turn into 16 hr shift.
      Compared to trying to find a job willing enough to give you more then 30 hrs a week in today's market. Not even asking for medical or dental or a 401k, just something at least full time.
      Yeah future generations are going to have it real tough.