On the last day of work at the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill, downtown Canton was quiet. No rail cars rumbled on the Blue Ridge Southern track, no smoke puffed from the factory’s iconic stacks, no whistles blew. For the first time in 115 years, the sweet-sour stench of wood cooking into pulp was gone.

A small crowd gathered on a grassy hillside outside the “chute,” a tunnel workers use to exit the mill. On June 8, they left for the last time. Two fire trucks extended their ladders to hang an enormous American flag. Some people wore T-shirts declaring “Mill Town Strong,” while families with small children carried homemade signs that said, “Thank you.” As each group emerged from the tunnel into the June sunshine, the crowd broke into applause. “We’re praying for you,” they shouted.

This was little comfort to Darla Brown, whose husband worked at the mill for 17 years. He seemed in good spirits, smiling as he bestowed his green hard hat on his 4-year-old grandson. But Brown was in tears. Her husband had found a new job within Haywood County, “but he’s making significantly less money,” she explained. 

“It’s hard to start over at 54,” she said. “We just don’t know how the numbers are going to work.”

Since the March announcement that the mill would close, nearly everyone in Canton has faced some version of this math problem. Roughly 1,050 laid-off employees were scrambling to move or find jobs that might not pay anything near to what they earned at the paper mill. (By comparison, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Tyson Foods, and Goodyear Tire each employ about 2,500 people). 

The tiny western North Carolina town was facing a budget shortfall of at least $2 million in lost taxes and utility revenue from the mill. The plant had been the largest employer in the county and the lifeblood of a place known to many as “Papertown.” 

Champion Fibre Company opened the mill in 1908, and over generations company leaders built Canton’s YMCA and public library. In the early 1990s, the factory produced coated paper for Life magazine. And it provided the kind of jobs other towns covet: reasonable hours, good pay, pride in your work. Employees could afford a boat, a nice truck, enough to support their families. 

The Champion days still seem to inspire the “Mill Town Strong” slogans, but they were already fading well before the March announcement. In 1999, the United Steelworkers union bought the mill from Champion and formed Blue Ridge Paper. After hemorrhaging money for several years, the employees sold to a New Zealand company owned by billionaire Graeme Hart, who renamed it Evergreen Packaging. The company merged with Pactiv in 2020. 

Since Evergreen took over, employees say they’ve endured prolonged labor disputes, deadly accidents, and allegations of racism and favoritism. The coal- and natural-gas-powered factory added some pollution controls in recent years, but still emitted foul chemicals into the local air and water. And while mill jobs were still coveted, the town’s dependence on its dominant industry came at a price.

The way the company handled the closure—giving employees just three months notice to replace jobs many had held their entire adult lives—has further threatened to unravel what legacy remains. 

“We never saw it coming,” said Gail Mull, union secretary for the United Steelworkers Smoky Mountain Local 507, who is also the town’s mayor pro tem. “We just assumed it would go on forever.” 

Decades Of Downhill Momentum

Edward Moore started working at the mill in 1980 and retired this month as a senior electrician. 

For the most part, he enjoyed his job and his co-workers, but says the management declined after Hart’s company bought it in 2007. “People have felt they were going to run that mill until they run it into the ground,” he said.

During every labor contract dispute, Evergreen would threaten to shut down the mill, says former employee Mandy West. Things became especially heated late last year when the union refused the company’s contract offer twice, demanding higher wages to match an increased cost of living. “The company needs to acknowledge that inflation is real and also acknowledge the contributions of these employees, who got them through the COVID crisis,” then-union president Troy Dills told the Smoky Mountain News in February

That month, the company said it would idle one of its massive paper-making machines. Moore says the union vetoed the contract a third time, and then, on March 6, the company announced it would close the mill. “I guess this was Evergreen’s answer to us turning it down,” he said. 

A company press release about the closure boasted that Pactiv Evergreen was still profitable— its revenues increased 14 percent from 2021 to 2022. But it also highlighted a need to “streamline” operations. CEO Michael King cited troubles in the market for beverage materials, such as the paper cups made by the Canton mill. 

“As we continue to confront a challenging market environment for our Beverage Merchandising business, we are faced with these difficult decisions that directly impact our employees,” King said. “We assess all changes to the business with considerable thought for our employees, customers, shareholders, and communities, and do not take these decisions lightly.” 

Bryon Racki, president of beverage merchandising for the company, told salaried employees in a private meeting that the closure was “almost exclusively a reflection of the market conditions, along with the capital costs that would be needed to upgrade the Canton facility,” according to the Smoky Mountain News

Despite this attention to its bottom line, court files and records from North Carolina’s Occupational Safety and Health division indicate that safety concerns at the mill had increased in recent years. From 1999 through 2006, when the union owned the mill, there were two reported accidents—including one death—and two complaints to NC OSHA. By contrast, from 2015 through 2022, there were two accidents—including two deaths—three complaints, and three referrals to NC OSHA. (And those records are still incomplete. In 2021, two employees were severely injured in a fire at the mill, but NC OSHA has not yet released any information on that incident.)

“The mill’s safety record is abysmal,” Dills told The Mountaineer newspaper in January 2022. That month, he contacted the N.C. Department of Labor and arranged for safety classes to be held outside the mill, because he said Pactiv Evergreen was not doing enough to respond to recent accidents.

In 2014, a worker who isn’t named in public records was injured at the Waynesville branch when his legs got caught in a machine. The state OSHA office issued multiple citations and a $10,750 fine.

In 2020, contractors Brett Burgueno and Curtis Butler were killed during an early morning fire at the mill. They were part of a crew brought in to perform maintenance while most of the factory was shut down. According to a U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board investigation, the fire began when workers in a nearby tower accidentally dropped an electric heat gun into a flammable bucket of resin. The board cited both the contractors and Evergreen for safety lapses, and urged Evergreen to create a “simultaneous operations” plan to prevent similar accidents. According to the board’s report, Evergreen has never responded to that recommendation. NC OSHA fined the contractors nearly $118,000, but Evergreen was not penalized. 

Another NC OSHA complaint arose this spring, after Pactiv Evergreen brought in subcontractors to replace the union members who quit once they learned the mill was shutting down. The anonymous complaint alleged that employees and subcontractors were working on “unfamiliar” tasks for which they were not trained. It also said workers were becoming “light-headed and nauseated,” with “tongue itching or irritation,” and worried they were being exposed to harmful gas. NC OSHA issued four citations, giving the company May deadlines to address the issues, but did not levy any fines. 

The Assembly contacted 15 employees for this article. Most did not respond. Those who did said they were afraid to speak out, lest Pactiv Evergreen find a way to fire them before the mill closed and deny them severance pay. Union leaders—generally the company’s most outspoken critics—didn’t want to talk, either. The international steelworkers union took over the local shop when they learned the mill was closing, so the local union reps no longer had much power or protection.

A fear of retaliation remained palpable even on the last day of work. One salaried employee, who had secured a new job out of state and was leaving the mill for the last time, didn’t want to be quoted because he feared backlash from the company’s higher-ups. Moore said that a toxic culture had been building for decades.

Moore, who is Black, says he repeatedly applied for promotions and was denied. In the late 1990s, a superior told him this refusal was actually in his best interest—to protect him from colleagues who wouldn’t take kindly to a Black manager. “It’s a very racist organization,” Moore says. “It’s not the people that work there, it’s management. It’s like they’ve got a directive to keep women and minorities down.” 

Pactiv Evergreen did not respond to these allegations. In response to interview requests for this article, senior communications director Beth Kelly emailed a statement. “We remain committed to treating all employees impacted by the closure of our Canton mill with fairness and respect,” she wrote. “We also are committed to maintaining a safe working environment and orderly wind-down of the mill.”

Although Moore never lodged a formal complaint against the company, another electrical engineer did. In 2021, Amr Elaguizy filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging he was fired for repeatedly complaining about “serious safety violations going unaddressed” at the mill. 

In his three years as a salaried employee, he reported unsafe conditions to upper management and human resources, “exposing a culture of noncompliance,” his complaint alleges. Pactiv Evergreen denied all the allegations, arguing that Elaguizy was fired because he committed his own “deliberant, blatant, and intentional safety violation.” 

Eight months after the suit was filed, the company and Elaguizy reached an undisclosed settlement.

‘They’ve Taken It Twice’

Mandy West spent 15 years at the mill, cooking wood on the loading floor and driving the trucks that transported wood chips.

“I worked my way up in that mill,” said West. Even during 4 a.m. shifts, she was “proud of being part of Canton’s history.” 

“They took that,” she said of Pactiv Evergreen. “They’ve taken it twice.”

It was a month after the closure was announced, and West was sitting at a table at Southern Porch Kitchen & Drink in downtown Canton. She’s 43, solidly built with steady blue eyes, but her strength faltered when she read the menu. What could she safely chew now that her jaw refused to widen? She ordered a bottle of Bud Light and picked at a plate of French fries.

It’s been nearly two years since she’s been able to eat normally—not since the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred ripped through Canton in August 2021, flooding downtown Canton and killing six people in nearby Cruso. Much of the mill was shut down. Some longtime employees knew they were in danger because there had been an explosion at the plant after a flood in 2004. But no one warned West. 

She was working as a raw material coordinator, conducting inventory on giant piles of wood chips and coordinating deliveries at the railroad attached to the mill. “I loved my job,” she said. “I loved my people down there.” The work helped support the three teenage children she co-parents with her ex-girlfriend and her elderly mother, who has pulmonary disease and lives on oxygen. 

The morning after the storm, West walked into her office and flipped on a light switch. Maybe the mobile printer activated when she walked by—she can’t say for sure. “I’ve got the trauma brain going on.” All she knows is that one minute she was chatting with a coworker and the next the room exploded. 

West and her colleague, Brandon Carter, ran out of the building. She swung at him wildly, trying to smother the flames that engulfed him. The skin melted off her face and hands, the hair burned off her head. Two other workers, driving back from the mill’s wastewater treatment plant, tried to help. “Get down, roll!” they shouted to Carter. They extinguished the flames and stayed with West and Carter until the paramedics arrived.

West was transferred to an intensive care burn unit in Augusta, Georgia, where she went into a coma. Doctors put her odds of survival at 30 percent. She stayed in the unit for 30 days. During that time, she says Pactiv Evergreen officials called her mother once to offer their condolences. They also sent a van to transport her mother to Augusta, but West didn’t want her to see how injured she was. Union reps convinced the company to give West $10,000 in pre-settlement funding so she wouldn’t have to drain her savings account while she was recovering. 

West was treated for third degree burns over much of her body, and still struggles with the mobility in her hands and jaw. She’s undergone at least 18 surgeries, still commutes to Augusta for treatments, and is in therapy for trauma. She has not been able to return to work.

She has three lawyers, yet her case has not gone to trial or been settled. (According to North Carolina workers’ compensation attorney Kevin Bunn, some injured workers wait to settle their cases until they reach “maximum medical improvement”—when their condition is stable and it’s clear how it will impact their ability to work.) 

The North Carolina Department of Labor investigated the fire, but West says her lawyers still haven’t seen the official report on the accident. The Assembly submitted a public records request in April to obtain the investigative report, but was told the file won’t be made available until the end of July. The Mountaineer reported that the explosion was caused by a buildup of methane gas. West believes the mill managers’ negligence put her in danger. The morning after the flood, why didn’t they warn her to stay away? “I’m angry,” she said. “You almost cost me my life.”

Workers compensation has been paying her 67 percent of her wages, or about $670 a week. But she’s still paying $88 a week for health insurance, and what remains is not enough to keep her family afloat. She worries about how she and other workers will cope when their employer-sponsored health coverage ends on July 31. 

“Not all of us can afford COBRA or have insured spouses to depend on for coverage,” she said. “Some of our partners and children depend on our coverage as well.”

Recently, Pactiv Evergreen hired a vocational rehab specialist to help West find “suitable” work. This is a routine part of the workers compensation process, aimed at helping injured workers find jobs that match their skills. Since the mill was closing, the specialist told West, “we have to see what else you can do.” 

But her fingers are still contracted and she has red scars all over her face and body. “Where are you going to send me looking like this?” West asked.

A New Demand

Drive north toward Canton through Pisgah National Forest, and the temperature drops as the road narrows and the elevation climbs. Craftsman style homes dot the hills around Pisgah High School, representing some of the last affordable housing in the region. 

Canton’s quaint architecture and proximity to hiking and biking trails are appealing. It’s just 20 minutes from Asheville and doesn’t require a commute on Interstate 26. Home prices have stayed low, primarily due to the stench from the paper mill, which used to waft through downtown on a windy day. 

Now that the odor has disappeared, real estate investors are descending. 

“I’ve had more realtors reach out to me in the last seven days than in the last seven years,” Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers told me in mid-March. By April, he and other residents had received calls, texts and letters from real estate agents offering to buy their homes at rock-bottom prices. And they weren’t thrilled. 

“If we have a great migration out of the county we will only escalate the problems,” Smathers said.

Smathers’ family has lived in the area for generations, and his father, Pat, was mayor before him. He was devastated when he learned the mill would close. “I worry about suicides,” Smathers said. 

Since he first ran for the town council a decade ago, downtown has undergone a kind of renaissance. Papertown Coffee opened in 2019, while J-RO’s moved from Waynesville in 2017 to serve burgers and subs to mill workers. There’s an independent bookstore and a yoga studio, and BearWaters Brewing Company overlooks the Pigeon River across from the mill. 

Mayor Zeb Smathers talks to residents.

While some residents wonder how these businesses will survive without the mill, Smathers hopes the factory’s closure can be a “moonshot” opportunity for the town. “We’re entitled to have a conversation on how we want to grow,” he said.

When he was young, pollution from the mill coated the Pigeon River in black foam. Although the water is cleaner now, it’s still brown and full of toxic chemicals. He and others hope that once the water clears up and the wildlife recovers, ecotourism will boost the economy. That’s what happened in Brevard—a mountain town about an hour south of Canton—after the Ecusta paper mill closed in 2002. Transylvania County, which promotes itself as the “Land of Waterfalls,” leaned heavily on the wealth of retirees and mountain-biking tourists. It now has some of the highest home prices in the region. 

Nathan Ramsey, executive director of the Land of Sky Regional Council, said Canton has already started to become a bedroom community for Asheville in recent years. Without the air and water pollution caused by the mill, “the prices of those homes are going to skyrocket,” he said.

“Long term, I’m really bullish on Canton and Haywood County,” he said. He thinks the economy can recover, but it won’t necessarily be fast or beneficial for the people who worked at the plant.

When Pilliowtex shuttered its Kannapolis towel-making plant 20 years ago, 6,450 people lost their jobs in the largest single-day layoff in North Carolina history. The state partnered with David Murdock, then-owner of Dole Foods, to open a research campus on the site of the former factory, and it has received more than $300 million in state funds since 2006, according to Business North Carolina. 

Yet the scientists conducting research on health and nutrition are not the same people who were laid off by Pillowtex. “The rejuvenation of Kannapolis—those individuals didn’t quite benefit from it,” Ramsey says. 

Pactiv Evergreen has reported the average salary at the Canton mill to be $84,000 a year. That’s far higher than the Asheville region’s average, which was $52,000 a year at the end of 2021, according to the state Department of Commerce. But many people never earned close to that amount. West only made $25 an hour after 15 years at the mill, which would put her at the local average annually.

According to the labor analytics firm Lightcast, there were 1,200 manufacturing jobs advertised in the eight-county area this January and February, with a median wage of $18.52 an hour. Ramsey said workers might have to drive to Fletcher, Arden, or Marion to find those jobs, or if their skills are specific to pulp or paper-making, they may have to move. 

Moore confirms that many of the electricians and mechanics he knows found new jobs that require a 30-minute commute. A LinkedIn search indicates that several laid-off workers are now employed at Dave Steel and Glatfelter—a company that manufactures everything from tea bags to face masks—in the Asheville area. But some salaried employees are planning to move. 

After Champion opened the mill in 1908, Canton’s population exploded from 230 people in 1900 to 1,393 ten years later. Today, Census data shows the population hovers around 4,300. The town is expecting to lose $2 million, or 20 percent, of its budget from the shutdown. 

I asked Smathers how a small town government can recover from that. “You don’t,” he said.

Then there are the myriad other businesses that relied on the mill, including companies that supply wood chips, loggers, and truckers. According to Haywood County Economic Development director David Francis, the mill’s impact on the region was estimated to be $500 million a year

On April 6, one month after the mill closure was announced, Gov. Roy Cooper gave a speech at Pisgah High School pledging to hold Pactiv Evergreen accountable for the $12 million it owes the state. The General Assembly allocated funds in 2015 to upgrade the factory’s boilers to new environmental standards, but only if it continued to employ at least 800 people through 2024. “We want that money back. We want that money to go to this area to make sure that you recover,” Cooper said. 

He said he was working with state legislators to establish a recovery fund, and applying for federal grants for dislocated workers. “I’m confident that this area will bounce back,” he said, “but there’s going to be a lot of pain between now and then.”

The Send-Off

A few weeks before the mill shut down for good, the whistle blew for the last time. It was a signal that production was ending, and a chance for residents and employees to give the factory a symbolic sendoff.

A crowd gathered at the park across the street from the mill just before noon on May 24. Vanna Gibson was among them, holding her curly-haired, almost-2-year-old son. She said her husband was thrilled to get a job at the mill almost two years ago. He earned enough so Gibson could reduce her hours at Walmart and stay home with her son, who has special needs. She also has a 9-year-old daughter. 

Now the mill was closing, and Gibson wasn’t sure what the family would do. Should they move? Should she get a job that would allow her to work from home? “It’s just a major shock,” she said. “I just feel like three months is not enough time.”

The whistle sounded like a foghorn, long and low. Greg Blythe hugged his wife, Terri, as she wiped tears from her eyes. “My whole family’s worked here,” she explained afterward.

Terri’s grandfather worked at the mill, Greg was about to lose his job there after 21 years, and so was her son-in-law. Another relative in Lincolnton had just lost his job in the timber business.

The Blythes came to hear the whistle with Greg’s sister and brother-in-law, who retired from the mill 10 years ago. 

Greg Blythe wore a gray T-shirt that said “Papaw” and struggled to keep his composure. He was lucky, he said. He’d already found another job nearby working for the manufacturing company Glatfelter. But “this mill right here is five minutes from my house,” he said, and began to cry.

Like Moore and West, Blythe was mourning a loss that was tough to name. It was more than a job or a sense of pride. It was a community of workers who looked after each other through sickness, floods and fires. The mill had sustained them for more than a century, and they weren’t sure how to get by without it. 

“If it hadn’t been for this mill,” Blythe said, “Canton would not be here.”

Lisa Rab, whose work has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine and Politico Magazine, lives in western N.C. Reach her at lisarab.com.