Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Curtis Paper Mill -- The Curtis Years



Curtis Paper Mill, 1880
 In the last post, we took a look at the early years of the paper mill on White Clay Creek just east of Newark, and followed it from its beginnings around 1789 to the departure of the Meeteer family in 1843. However, only those well-steeped in local lore are likely to know the site as Meeteer's Mill, or the Milford Paper Mill. That's because even though the mill seems to have been all but falling down in 1848, after the brief ownership of Joseph Perry, the site was far from finished. In fact, under the name of the new owners, the Curtis family, the site would continue to manufacture high-quality paper for almost another 150 years.

It's not known what drew Solomon Minot and George B. Curtis to Delaware, but the brothers from Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts must have seen the potential in the old Meeteer mill. If anyone could, it would be them. Minot (as he was known) and George were two of nine Curtis brothers in the papermaking business, all following their father. When they arrived, the brothers borrowed $7500 from their new Newark neighbors to purchase the mill at a sheriff's sale and almost completely rebuild it. The only salvageable pieces were the waterwheel and the papermaking machine. The following year, they borrowed another $3067 from a Philadelphia firm to install a more advanced papermaking machine. The brothers obviously knew their business, because within 10 years they had repaid their entire debt, an occasion they celebrated by throwing a dinner for their former creditors at the Washington House Hotel in Newark (later the site of the Stone Balloon, where I'm sure at least a few readers have also "celebrated", and now the Washington House Condos ).

The new firm of Curtis & Bro., as it was known, also renamed their new mill, calling it the Nonantum Paper Mill. Nonantum was the Native American name for the Newton area from which the Curtises hailed. Meanwhile, in 1850, the "Brother" in the company named had changed, as George returned to Massachusetts,replaced by his brother Frederick A. Curtis. By that time, according to a history from a paper industry site, "The mill employed 9 men and 6 women and was powered by water and steam. Annual production was 430,000 pounds of book paper at a value of 60,000 dollars. [...] By 1860 production had increased to 500,000 pounds of paper per year. The mill now employed 10 men and 4 women at monthly wages of 28 dollars for men and 15 dollars for women." The lower number of employees as compared to 30 years earlier under the Meeteers almost certainly is due to a higher level of automation, as evidenced by the use of steam power in addition to the water wheel.

During the Civil War, the Curtises remained staunchly pro-Union, a stance that put them in conflict with some of their Newark neighbors. There was apparently a strong Southern sentiment in the Newark area at the time, and one group of Confederate sympathizers even threatened to burn the mill if the Stars and Stripes were raised over it. They were, but no harm was done. Possibly because of this loyalty, Curtis & Bro. was awarded many government contracts during the war and afterwards.

For the next twenty-odd years, the Nonantum Mill continued to produce high-quality paper, specializing in specialty paper like cards, envelopes,magazine and book paper. In 1884 Frederick Curtis died, and three years later Minot retired. The business was then handed over to their sons, Walter C., Alfred A., and F. William Curtis. As their father and/or Uncles did almost 40 years prior, the cousins' first order of business was to rebuild and upgrade the mill. Whereas the 1848 mill was a wood frame structure, the new mill would be made of brick. Although the floorspace of the mill was enlarged, the layout stayed almost identical to the old mill. The drawing at the top of the page -- done in 1880 by an insurance company and the only known image of the first Curtis Mill -- really doesn't look all that different from the picture included in the last post. It even looks like the stable and carriage house remained the same.

The "rag room ladies", c. late 1910's

Additions and upgrades continued over the years, including workers' houses and a superintendent's house (all still standing) across the road, newer and larger papermaking machinery, and in 1896, the iconic brick smokestack, now the only remaining structure from the mill. The mill remained in the hands of the Curtis family until Alfred A. Curtis retired in 1926. At that time, the company was sold to a group of outside investors who kept the Curtis and Bro. name. A few years later, during the height of the Depression, the company went into receivership and was reorganized as the Curtis Paper Company in 1932.

The Curtis Paper Company would be sold again in the 1950's, but remained an independent entity until 1977, when it was sold to the James River Company of Richmond, Virginia. The old Nonantum Mill changed hands one more time in 1995, before shutting down for good in December 1997. At that time, it was the oldest operating paper mill in the United States.

In 1999, the mill property was purchased by the city of Newark, and converted into Curtis Mill Park. Some of the structure was torn down in 2002, and the remainder was demolished in late 2007. The only part of the mill that was left standing was the four-sided brick smokestack with the Curtis name on it. The settling ponds (which helped to clean the mill's wastewater before returning it to White Clay Creek) and the millrace are now used by the city as part of a water treatment plant. In these ways, this property that has served its community for well over 200 years will continue to be of service for many years to come.


Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • The paper at the Milford and Nonantum Mills, like most paper until the late 1800's, was made from cotton cloth, not wood pulp as most is today. Cloth rags were used as the raw material for the paper. Workers like the "rag room ladies" in the picture above had to remove buttons and any other non-cloth materials from the rags prior to processing.
  • In the "rag room ladies" picture, the third woman from the right is Clara Wilmer Henderson, grandmother of the wife of reader (and picture contributor) Ken Copeland. Clara, it seems, was not the only one in the family making money at the mill site. Her son Oliver at some point discovered that there were large muskrats living in the settling ponds, and went about trapping them for a time until others caught on, too.
  • Paper from the Curtis Paper Company was used to make the official Instrument of Surrender signed by representatives of the Japanese government aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, officially ending World War II.
  • Some relevant links: The Curtis Paper Mill Story, Curtis Paper Mill Historic American Engineering Record

1 comment:

  1. Nice articles. I'm working on my own piece about the Curtis Paper Mill. Could you let me know what your source is for the fact you mention that Curtis paper was used for the surrender ceremony with Japan? Deborah Haskell says the same thing in her article for Histories of Newark 1758-2008, without citing a source. On the other hand, Constance Cooper wrote in The Curtis Paper Company "Perhaps the proudest moment in Curtis's long history came towards the end of 1946 when it was selected to make the paper for peace treaties between the Allies and Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Finland." She cites the Curtis company's internal newsletter and a Wilmington paper. The claims aren't mutually exclusive, of course, but I couldn't help wondering if Cooper's story is the correct one and the true story has been inflated in the retelling! Thanks.

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