1920s com­pany town still go­ing

2 firms built it amid trees to guar­an­tee pa­per sup­ply

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - DAVID W. DUN­LAP

In­stead of tak­ing the trees to town, The New York Times Co. and the Kim­berly-Clark Corp. took a town to the trees.

In the 1920s, to en­sure a steady sup­ply of newsprint for The New York Times and busi­ness for Kim­berly-Clark — mak­ers of Kleenex — the com­pa­nies dammed the Mattagami River at Smoky Falls, amid north­ern On­tario’s bound­less ocean of black spruce, po­plar, tama­rack and birch trees. The com­pa­nies har­nessed the river’s power through four tur­bines, in­stalled a 50-mile rail­road track, con­structed a mill and leased the cut­ting rights to 4,300 square miles of for­est — an area twice the size of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

Their $30 mil­lion in­vest­ment, or about $400 mil­lion to­day, did not stop there.

They de­vel­oped the tiny set­tle­ment of Ka­puskas­ing into a full-fledged com­pany town along the ra­di­ant con­cen­tric lines of a gar­den city. It had a hos­pi­tal and a com­mu­nity club­house, river­front park­land, curl­ing and skat­ing rinks, a pub­lic school for 400 stu­dents, apart­ment build­ings and hun­dreds of new houses, and paved streets. It also had power, wa­ter and sewer sys­tems, and a ho­tel wor­thy of a princess and her prince — El­iz­a­beth and Philip, to be ex­act.

“A city dropped into the midst of Canada’s north woods,” Times cor­re­spon­dent Rus­sell Owen mar­veled in 1931. Owen had trav­eled across Antarc­tica and wasn’t eas­ily im­pressed.

Thou­sands of tons of newsprint left Ka­puskas­ing each year, much of it bound for the clam­orous load­ing docks of The New York Times’ head­quar­ters off Times Square in New York City. Each roll was capped by a la­bel with the sil­hou­ette of a spruce branch and the name of the joint ven­ture, Spruce Falls Power and Pa­per Co.

The peo­ple of Ka­puskas­ing had a dif­fer­ent name for the com­pany: Un­cle Spruce.

“Ev­ery­body was very happy work­ing for Spruce Falls,” Olivier Ver­mette re­called. Now 83, Ver­mette spent al­most half his life with the com­pany. He still lives in town with his wife, Suzanne.

But 1991 was not a happy year for Ver­mette, who lost his job, or for the town, which faced an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis when The New York Times and Kim­berly-Clark pulled out, un­will­ing to in­vest the money to get the ag­ing, stand­alone plant up to par. It looked as if the mill might close.

Then, against daunt­ing odds, em­ploy­ees and towns­peo­ple took own­er­ship of the plant. With an in­fu­sion of cap­i­tal from the Tem­bec pa­per com­pany of Mon­treal, they saved the mill and many jobs.

“There was tremen­dous pride in the com­mu­nity,” said Julie La­timer, the cu­ra­tor of the Ron Morel Me­mo­rial Mu­seum and the his­to­rian of Ka­puskas­ing. “They were proud of pre­vent­ing the clo­sure, proud of or­ga­niz­ing the work needed to save and pur­chase the mill, proud of run­ning it

them­selves and proud of be­ing suc­cess­ful all th­ese years.”


Ka­puskas­ing was not born of high-minded prin­ci­ple, though. Orig­i­nally a speck of a stop called MacPher­son on the Na­tional Transcon­ti­nen­tal Rail­way, the set­tle­ment was re­mote enough to have served from 1914-20 as an in­tern­ment camp, first for im­mi­grants from the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire, who were pre­sumed to be hos­tile in the midst of World War I, then for po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cals.

The news­pa­pers’ ap­petite for newsprint was grow­ing rav­en­ous. And as its con­sump­tion in­creased, so did its vul­ner­a­bil­ity to price in­creases im­posed by pa­per­mak­ers.

When Kim­berly-Clark raised the prospect of a part­ner­ship in its On­tario op­er­a­tion, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, a vice pres­i­dent of The New

York Times, was re­cep­tive. In 1924, he and James C. Kim­berly ca­noed to­gether down the Ka­puskas­ing and Mattagami rivers, all the way to Moose Fac­tory on James Bay.

They bonded. So did their com­pa­nies.

Their plans fit splen­didly with those of Ge­orge Howard Fer­gu­son, the premier of On­tario at the time, who en­vi­sioned the north­ern part of the prov­ince as a cra­dle of in­dus­try and em­ploy­ment.

Spruce Falls was to build a mill ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing 550 tons of newsprint daily. As the ma­jor­ity part­ner, Kim­ber­lyClark named one of its top ex­ec­u­tives, Frank J. Sensen­bren­ner, as the pres­i­dent of the joint ven­ture. (In one of his­tory’s fine twists, his great­grand­son, F. James Sensen­bren­ner Jr., is a long­time Repub­li­can rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Wis­con­sin with whom The

Times’ editorial board has fre­quently quar­reled.)

Joint ven­tures were usu­ally anath­ema to Adolph S. Ochs, who was then the pub­lisher of

The New York Times. Spruce Falls, how­ever, of­fered a use­ful hedge. When newsprint was abun­dant and cheap, the news­pa­per would profit. When newsprint was scarce and ex­pen­sive, Spruce Falls would profit.

The suc­cess of the ven­ture helped ce­ment Sulzberger’s claim as Ochs’ suc­ces­sor.

Though ca­pa­ble of ruth­less­ness, Ochs prided him­self on his benev­o­lent pa­ter­nal­ism. Meyer Berger wrote in The Story of The New York Times, 1851-1951 that Ochs was spe­cially in­ter­ested in Spruce Fall’s gen­er­ous ben­e­fits pro­gram, “be­liev­ing it paid off in em­ployee loy­alty.”

In the Ka­puskas­ing his­tory mu­seum are many 25-year ser­vice watches, and 25-, 30- and 40-year ser­vice pins. They at­test to the Ochs phi­los­o­phy, La­timer said.


A hos­pi­tal was the most crit­i­cal amenity for a mill where a sin­gle mis­step could be fa­tal. The four-story Sensen­bren­ner Hos­pi­tal opened in 1929 with 40 beds, an oper­at­ing room and an X-ray de­part­ment. Its half­tim­bered fa­cade lent a pic­turesque, if in­con­gru­ous, Tu­dor touch to the util­i­tar­ian struc­ture.

Other civic build­ings de­vel­oped by Spruce Falls were in the same style. The club­house, which opened in 1929, had a 500-seat au­di­to­rium “with two modern pro­jec­tion ma­chines for mo­tion pic­tures”, a li­brary, four bowl­ing lanes, men’s and women’s lounges, a gym and a snack bar.

The 90-room Ka­puskas­ing Inn, also in vaguely Tu­dor style, opened in 1928. It was the pride of town, never more so than on Oct. 15, 1951, when Princess El­iz­a­beth and Prince Philip spent the night there, four months be­fore she be­came queen.

Ch­ester W. Boast, the chief en­gi­neer at Spruce Falls, ac­com­pa­nied Philip on his tour of the plant. The two men were so en­grossed in tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sions, his son, Keith E. Boast, later wrote, that “the princess would, on oc­ca­sion, have to call them to heel.”

That year, Ver­mette joined Spruce Falls. He started as a tal­ly­man, mak­ing $5.95 a day for tal­ly­ing the lum­ber out­put from the log­gers. Soon, he was pro­moted to log scaler, with a 10-cent raise. He as­sessed ex­actly how much lum­ber had been pro­duced by each log­ger. “Guys were get­ting paid by the cord,” Ver­mette said, “so we had to mea­sure each piece to find out how many cords they had cut.”

By 1951, the pop­u­la­tion of Ka­puskas­ing had reached 5,000. Spruce Falls em­ployed 1,500 work­ers and pro­duced 750 tons of newsprint daily, half of which was con­sumed by The New York Times, the rest sold to other con­sumers/ cos­tumers. The com­pany’s cut­ting rights had ex­panded to 6,360 square miles.

By the 1970s, as many as 12,500 peo­ple lived in Ka­puskas­ing. Ver­mette had been pro­moted to foreman of road con­struc­tion and then to a su­per­vi­sor of cut­ters, but he found that scal­ing was his first love. Not that his work was easy. A jour­ney from town to one of the re­mote cut­ting camps could some­times take most of a day.

“One could fly over the area in a he­li­copter and see noth­ing but trees,” said Stephen Golden, a for­mer pres­i­dent of The New York Times’ for­est prod­ucts group. “Most of the log­ging work was done in win­ters be­cause the ground would be hard enough to sup­port the heavy trucks and the freez­ing tem­per­a­tures would sus­tain ice bridges across the river.”

Ka­puskas­ing’s frigid win­ters at­tracted Gen­eral Mo­tors, which opened a cold weather test­ing cen­ter in 1973. Other em­ploy­ers in­clude the lo­cal gov­ern­ment and schools, the De­tour Lake gold mine, and Sensen­bren­ner Hos­pi­tal, which moved out of its orig­i­nal Tu­dor-style home in the 1980s. Jo­hanne The­berge, one of Ver­mettes’ two daugh­ters, works at the hos­pi­tal. Their son, Don, has worked at the mill for nearly as long as his fa­ther.

The old hos­pi­tal has been trans­formed into low-in­come hous­ing, un­der the name Drury Place. The com­mu­nity club­house now serves as Ka­puskas­ing’s civic cen­ter. The Kap Inn, as it was fondly known, burned down in 2007 and was de­mol­ished the next year.

The pop­u­la­tion is now about 8,000. Tem­bec an­nounced last month that it would be ac­quired by Ray­onier Ad­vanced Ma­te­ri­als of Jack­sonville, Fla. A news re­lease noted Ray­onier’s com­mit­ment to “con­tinue all Tem­bec op­er­a­tions.”

One cus­tomer, how­ever, will not be hold­ing its breath.

The last ship­ment of newsprint bound for The New York

Times left Ka­puskas­ing 14 years ago.


An em­ployee passes though the Tem­bec newsprint and sawmill re­cently in Ka­puskas­ing, On­tario. Em­ploy­ees of the pre­vi­ous own­ers and towns­peo­ple bought the prop­erty in 1991.


Traf­fic moves along a street lead­ing to the cen­ter of Ka­puskas­ing last month in On­tario, Canada. In the 1920s, two firms de­vel­oped the town deep in the Cana­dian wilder­ness and built a pa­per mill.

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