Neenah Paper Mill, Munising, MI

Outside a sleepy town (with a pretty good coffee shop) called Munising, MI (pop. 2,300), sits this building:

It’s a paper mill, built in 1904, home to Neenah Paper.

From a 1911 text History of the Northern Peninsula of Michigan and Its People by Alvah L. Sawyer:

“[The Munising Paper plant] is perhaps the largest plant of the kind in Michigan, and one of the most extensive in the United States. Its daily output is about 70 tons, with an ultimate capacity of 110 tons, and it has over 200 men on its payroll, amounting to $150,000 [4 million in 2020 dollars, or about 30k/person].”

Paper mills can be the focal point of entire small town economies—providing a valuable economic good but also causing significant health problems for those involved. In this case, however, Munising actually started as an ore town. Surveyor William Burt found Iorn Ore near Teal Lake in 1844, attracting a “hub of activity” in the region.

However, due to financial mismanagement, “[T]he Munising Iron Company… failed in 1877…The period of its operation was Munising's era of prosperity, the population of the place being then between five and six hundred.”

At that point, “Old Munising gradually declined until the building of the Munising railway in 1895 and the more recent establishment of the large tannery of the Munising Leather Company. These two events have caused a new town to spring up from the ruins of the old.” (source)

At one point, that leather company was one of the largest in the world, but operations ceased in 1922 due to the increasing availability of other, cheaper shoe-making materials.

So the paper mill carried the town through at that point, and manufacturing still proceeds in the plant today. Their version of that process—spanning from when they receive pulp to when they spool paper— looks like this:

“Neenah Paper…. obtains large bales of pulp from pulp suppliers…the bales are then soaked in water before use in papermaking machines…The bales are broken down in a hydro-pulper, which uses a mechanical force to separate the fibers within the bales, creating a suspension in the water… Once the pulp leaves the pulper, it enters a headbox. The headbox directs the pulp in a thin, wide uniform sheet onto a screen, which is part of the forming table. The screen allows the water to drain while retaining the paper fibers. Water drains from the paper not only due to gravity but also because the sheets are routed through rapidly rotating rolls. These rolls contact the underside of the wire screen and produce a pumping – or vacuum – action which increases the drainage of the water through the wire. Without disrupting or disturbing sheet structure, the press section allows routing of the paper; it carries the paper from the forming unit to the dryer section, where the thickness of the paper is reduced….Due to the relatively high cost of removing water by evaporation, as compared to removing it by mechanical means, the sheet must be as dry as possible when it enters the dryers. The dryer section of a conventional paper machine consists of between 40 and 70 drying cylinders – the drying cylinders at Neenah are natural gasfired and steam-heated.” (source)

A visual representation of that process:

For further reading

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains

Neenah Paper Letter to DEQ

History of Alger, County, MI