News sweeps through county

Published 8:47 am Friday, October 23, 2009

SEDLEY—Word of International Paper Co.’s announcement that the Franklin Mill will close permanently spread like wildfire throughout Southampton County early Thursday morning.

Employees briefed of the news during an 8 a.m. meeting called spouses and relatives soon afterward. Hours before the official public announcement at 11 a.m., the word was on the street.

“A local businessperson called me about 10 a.m., worried about the impact of the closing on their product,” said Bobby Branche of Hunterdale. Branche retired after 33 years of service at the mill on Nov. 24, 1998 — the exact day Union Camp announced the mill had been sold to IP.

“I drove to downtown Franklin and met with some people who confirmed the news. I couldn’t believe it. ‘Hellfire,’ I thought to myself. I just thought it was going to be there forever.”

Branche was among a group of men having lunch at The Sedley Store. It’s a popular spot for workers and retirees, who are often found under the metal canopy outside the store. Branche’s brother, Gilbert, worked for nearly 40 years at the mill. That’s not uncommon in the Franklin area, where generations of families have made their livings producing paper and lumber beside the Blackwater River.

“I thought about my friends and family, who are 10 years into 20-year mortgages,” said Branche. “I thought about how this could affect my retirement.”

Edward Simms shared a picnic table with Branche and Irving Malcolm of Sedley.

“My first thought, was ‘How sad this is,” said Simms, who retired last January after 40 years at the mill. “A lot of our friends, people all over this community, are losing their jobs. This is going to have a ripple effect throughout the whole area.”

“The mill played the biggest part in the growth of this community,” said Branche, who grew up in this small community about eight miles outside Franklin.

Said Simms, “It used to be that farming was good, the mill was good, and St. Regis and the particleboard plant were good. Things have changed. With the mill closing, it makes you think, ‘What’s left?’”

Concerned residents pack Courtland restaurant

“I heard about it from my first lunch customer of the day,” said Peter Pearson, owner of For Pete’s Sake in Courtland. “When he dropped the bombshell, my first thought was, ‘Is this for real?’

“The mood today during lunch was disbelief. I had a customer who worked the 3-to-11 shift last night. He went home thinking everything was OK. Then this hit him this morning. The restaurant was full today, and everyone was talking about the mill.”

Pearson grew up in Franklin, working at the mill during summer breaks from college. “I couldn’t help but think this morning, ‘Will I survive this?’ he said. “During the first shutdown this spring, business picked up. It was as if people took a little vacation and tried to make the best of it. But when the second shutdown happened, we didn’t see those people again. It was different. Now this.”

For years, residents of the Franklin area have worried about a possible mill closing. When Union Camp sold the facility to International Paper, there were about 2,600 employees. Today, about 1,100 remain on the job. As a local businessman, Pearson paid attention to friends and customers who worked at the mill. It helped him gauge the future, he said, and plan for his own business.

“Lately I had heard that orders were up, that business was better,” he said. “Families were optimistic. And with this news, all I can think about is how it will affect these people. I can’t put myself in their shoes.

As the mill downsized over the past decade, Franklin-area business owners like Pearson have had to adapt. Fewer employees working less hours and implementing creative ways to bring in additional customers have been parts of Pearson’s survival strategy.

“We made the change from downtown Franklin to Courtland after the flood,” he said. “That was partly related to changes I saw at the mill. Now we’ll have to adapt again.

“All day long people come in asking if we have job openings. That’s going to triple now.”

In Capron, families worry

David Banty has worked at the J.T. Barham and in Capron for the past 51 years. Now 74, he was on the job when his son called with the news about the Franklin mill.

“He called early this morning,” said Banty. “He works in the woodyard. I guess he’s been there close to 20 years.

“He said, ‘Daddy, they’re closing the mill,’ but I don’t think he was all that surprised. I think a lot of us felt like it was coming. It’s going to be bad, regardless. Thankfully his wife has a good job and they’ll make it. But he’s my son, and I worry.”

Emmanuel Carlos of Newsoms has been working at the Barham store for about a month.

“There are already so many people unemployed, people losing their homes,” he said. “Now this happens, right around the holidays. How will these people survive now?”

“This will affect everybody in the county,” said Banty. “It’s going to affect the Capron community. I got a feeling the whole Franklin area is going to have a hard time.

“People have been coming in here all day, asking, ‘Have you heard the news?’”