Paper mill closing ends long local history
Last updated 10/24/2023 at 4:32pm
Paper manufacturing is a local industry older than the petrochemical plants and the closing of the last paper mill in Orange is an end to a long history tied to the lumber industry.
The first paper mill in Orange, known to the current generations as Equitable Bag, lasted 100 years.
Last week, International Paper announced it will be closing its containerboard pulp plant north of Orange off State Highway 87. The plant was built in 1967.
International Paper also reported it will close part of production at mills in North Carolina and Florida. All three closings will eliminate a total of 900 jobs, though no number was given for the separate sites.
The mill which eventually became owned by International Paper was built by Owens-Illinois with the first production in 1967, according to Ken Steppe, a longtime resident of Orange who served as an engineer designing the mill and later became the plant manager.
Steppe spent his working career with paper mills across the U.S. and has done extensive research into the histories of the two big pulp mills in Orange.
He said Owens-Illinois was the largest U.S. manufacturer of glass containers in 1956, making it the largest user of corrugated cardboard shipping containers. Company officials decided to buy the National Container Company, which included mills at Tomahawk, Wisconsin; Big Island, Virginia; Jacksonville, Florida, and Valdosta, Georgia.
In 1965, Owens-Illinois hired Rust Engineering in Birmingham, Alabama, for studies on a new mill, with Orange and Lake Charles chosen as the best two possible sites. and site selection inquiries for a new linerboard mill.
"The project was announced on January 8, 1966, and on January 13 of that year, O-I officials broke ground and began clearing the heavily wooded mill site located about seven miles north of Orange on Highway 87 at the Sabine River Authority canal on the Sabine River. The O-I investment exceeded $100 million, the largest single investment in the 65-year history of Owens-Illinois Inc.," Steppe said.
The original mill site was 1,200 acres, and the investment included 280,000 acres of forest lands in Texas and Louisiana. The deal also included the Sabine River &Northern Railroad, a short-line railroad with 32 miles of tracks.
Steppe was first at the Orange mill from the beginning of its construction in 1966 through 1968. He recalls a number of the original workers transferred here from the Valdosta, Georgia, mill and settle here to raise their families.
Local physician Dr. Mike Amsden moved here with her father before she became a doctor. "There's a lot of kids who grew up here because their parents drug them here from Valdosta," Steppe said.
Steppe recalls the first paper made at the new plant came off the line about 4:30 a.m. November 25, 1967.
The mill originally planned to produce 600 tons of Kraft linerboard per day, but made an arrangement with to reset the tonnage up to 900 tons a day. The first shipment of 2,200 tons was shipped from the Port of Orange in early April, 1968, according to Steppe.
The new O-I plant held an official dedication on Friday, October 18, 1968. Texas Lieutenant Governor Preston Smith, who later became governor, attended the dedication. Orange Mayor Robert N. Whitehead Jr., issued a proclamation declaring the date "Owens-Illinois Day." More than 300 leaders from governments, industries, businesses, and labor attended.
The mill was so successful Owens-Illinois in early 1974 announced a $20 million expansion. More expansions came, including one in 1982 that allowed the mill to used recycled cardboard.
Steppe became plant manager in Orange for Owens-Illinois in 1980 until the mill sold to Temple-Inland in 1986. He remained in the paper mill business with Inland and went to one of the company's mills in Kentucky for a short time. He also worked at the Evadale plant as he remained living in Orange.
When Temple-Inland bought the mill, the name changed to Inland-Orange.
Steppe's history of the original Owens-Illinois mill reports that in "November 2007, Temple-Inland announced that it would separate itself into three standalone public companies and sell its timberlands by the end of 2007. The new companies were:Temple-Inland Inc., Guaranty Financial Group Inc., and Forestar Real Estate Group Inc.
"In 2012, International paper, through the merger of its wholly owned subsidiary Metal Acquisition Inc. with and into Temple-Inland, acquired Temple-Inland in a deal valued at $4.5 billion. Temple-Inland's corrugated packaging operation consisted of 7 mills and 59 converting facilities as well as the building products operation. The 7 mills were: Orange, Texas linerboard; Rome, Georgia linerboard; Bogalusa, Louisiana linerboard; Maysville, Kentucky recycle containerboard; Newport, Indiana recycle containerboard; New Johnsonville, Tennessee corrugating medium, sold by IP to Hood Container in July 2012; and Ontario, California recycle containerboard, sold by IP to New-Indy Containerboard LLC in 2012.
Last week, International Paper announced it was closing the Orange mill.
Steppe said the mill holds a lot of history of employees and their families. A number of employees served as civic leaders and more volunteered for non-profit groups. The plant made large donations to groups throughout the community.
Orange's first paper mill opened in 1903 with local investors including William H. Stark, Dr. Edgar Brown, Leopold Miller, J.W. Link, F.H. Farwell, and others. Many of them owned lumber mills and the Yellow Pine Paper Mill was designed to use the leftover materials from the sawmills for paper manufacturing.
The sawmills became Orange County's first industry.
That mill was one of the finest in the South and was a thriving business for 100 years. It was long called Equitable Bag and was along Adams Bayou on the Orange side. It burned in 2003.