Published 8:36 am Friday, April 3, 2009

FRANKLIN—When author Parke Rouse Jr. described the early days of the Camp Manufacturing Co. — and the town of Franklin that was growing along with it — he said the company began its life “in austerity.”

The company’s main equipment, Rouse Jr. wrote in his book “The Timber Tycoons,” was “a large circular saw, powered by steam, which filled the air with screams and sawdust as it ate into pine logs with its jagged teeth. The odor of pine hung over the plant, and the high-pitched whine of steel cutting into resinous timber created a constant bedlam. It was hard to hear anything but shouts. Franklin was a raw sawmill town.”

But no more.

Tuesday’s announcement by International Paper Co. that 154 years of sawmill history on the Blackwater River will come to an end at the end of May has deeply saddened the Western Tidewater community.

Despite that long history, the fate of the 123 employees affected by the closure were the first on everyone’s minds.

“Nobody wants to see someone lose their job,” Tony Edwards, a mechanic at IP’s adjoining paper mill for almost 34 years, said from a bar stool at Fred’s Restaurant in downtown Franklin. “That’s depressing.”

In a booth a few feet away, Bob Edwards, no relation, shook his head. He had retired from IP’s predecessor, Union Camp Corp., in 1993 after more than 42 years at the paper mill.

“It’s sad,” he said. “I hope they find some orders so they can keep working.”

According to the company, it was a lack of those orders that forced it to decide to close the sawmill by May 31.

“The closure of the Franklin Lumber Mill is directly related to the downturn in the lumber and housing markets,” IP spokesman Desmond Stills said. “After thoroughly reviewing everything that could be reviewed, the company determined that it was not economically feasible to keep the lumber mill open any longer.”

Stills said he called about 20 people, mostly community leaders, to advise them of IP’s decision to close the sawmill. One of the people he called was John M. “Jack” Camp Jr., whose grandfather, Paul D. Camp, purchased the sawmill from R.J. and William Neely back in 1886.

“I thought it only appropriate, being that lumber mill was the beginning of Union Camp, and it was the first business the Camp brothers purchased,” Stills said. “Union Camp was the cradle of this community, and that lumber mill was the beginning. They created the community that we’re still living in today.”

Stills said Camp was appreciative of the call.

“He spoke of what a great operation that was over there,” Stills said. “He was not surprised. He’s still very savvy. He understands that the market is not really good right now. And he knows that the primary customer for that mill is construction, and construction is down right now. He was not surprised, but he was saddened that a piece of history is going away.”

Wednesday was the last day logs were delivered to the sawmill.

Donald Kegley, a crane operator with English Construction Co., has had a bird’s eye view of the sawmill for several days while working on the new bridge across the Blackwater River.

“They’ve steadily been hauling those logs in like crazy,” Kegley said.

A few blocks away, Mable Parker was busy cutting hair for a customer at her Main Street barber shop.

“I really don’t think people are broke, I think people are scared,” she said. “They’re looking at ways to cut money because they don’t know what the outcome is going to be over there.”

Parker said she believes people are going longer between haircuts, cutting their own hair and cutting their children’s hair to save money. Tuesday, she said, should have been a day some sawmill workers had come in for a haircut.

“I had no customers at all,” she said Wednesday. “Usually after lunch, but always around 3:30 or 3:45, I see people from the sawmill. But that’s one thing I did not see yesterday. I think they were devastated (because) they had that meeting.”

Employees were told of the sawmill’s closure at a 2 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.

Stills said counselors from the company’s employee service center would be on-site through Friday. “We’re working very closely with the impacted employees to help them during this transition period,” he said. “The counselors will be here if employees need someone to talk to in light of the news that we gave yesterday.”

According to Stills, the next phase of the process to close the sawmill was to enter into effects bargaining with the employees’ unions. Negotiations with the unions would cover severance packages, insurance and outplacement services. Stills said the company hopes to conclude those negotiations within the next week.

Stills said he hoped the community would support the workers who would be losing their jobs at the lumber mill.

“I hope the community will first consider the fate of the employees that will be losing their jobs,” he said. “I hope the community will rally around those employees, keep them lifted up and keep their fate primary in their minds right now, as we are doing.”

Teresa Beale, executive director of the Franklin/Southampton Chamber of Commerce, said the region’s future without the sawmill was uncertain.

“Everybody is talking about it obviously,” Beale said. “We don’t know exactly what is going to happen. It’s the fear of the unknown. We feel so bad for the families who will be impacted the most. We’re all sad; We want to do something.”

Across the river in Isle of Wight County, Lisa Perry, director of the county’s Office of Economic Development, echoed those concerns.

“It’s always heartbreaking to get news like that,” Perry said. “These are the kinds of things that keep you up at night. Anytime someone is laid off from a job, it’s a big deal to us.”

But like Camp, Perry said the news wasn’t a surprise.

“IP is doing exactly what it needs to do,” Perry said. “They are making the tough decisions to remain competitive in the marketplace. We need to appreciate and support those tough decisions, even when they result in people losing their jobs.

“Our job now is to work at putting those people back to work.”

Stills said IP, which acquired Union Camp Corp. in 1999, doesn’t anticipate that closing the sawmill will have an impact on the adjacent paper mill, which employs about 1,100 people.

“The question that everybody has is, ‘what’s the future of the Franklin (paper) mill?’” Stills said. “The pulp and paper industry is a tough business to be in right now. But of the pulp and paper companies that are in the industry, International Paper is the strongest, which is a good thing. We were the strongest pulp and paper company going into the recession, and our expectation is that we will be the strongest coming out of the recession.”

Joe Stutts, who retired from Union Camp after 28 years of service and served as the company’s manager of community relations, said he was upset by the news.

“It was very distressing because it was the foundation of this company here,” Stutts said. “It operated continuously except for the War Between the States, and it produced a fine and widely recognized product.

“It’s always been there,” Stutts added. Then he chuckled, “I guess we felt the same way about Union Camp, that it would always be there, too. That’s changed dramatically.”

When asked what he thought would happen now, Stutts said “if the people that operate IP are smart, and I think they are, as soon as the housing market gets on its feet and construction starts again, that mill is going to be a very lucrative asset for somebody. I don’t know if it will be IP or some other company that bought it by then. But it was much modernized in the last decade I was there.”

Stills said no decision has been made over the sawmill site or its equipment. He added that the Franklin Lumber Mill was the last sawmill owned by IP. The rest were sold about a year ago. The company tried to sell the Franklin facility, too, but was unable to find a buyer.

Meanwhile, Parker said business owners in Franklin “have to stop and see what we can do to regroup, go with the flow and just hang in there as long as we can. That’s what I’m praying for — that I can ride the storm.”

“I guess we just take it day by day,” she said.