In the still of a hot August night in 2018, the Soundview Paper plant in downtown Putney hums with activity.
Jeff Potter/Commons file photo
In the still of a hot August night in 2018, the Soundview Paper plant in downtown Putney hums with activity.

Putney paper mill shuts down, eliminating jobs for 127 workers

Soundview Vermont cites energy costs as the impetus for closing its paper manufacturing this week with no warning; converting operations will shut down by April

A paper mill has operated next to Sacketts Brook in downtown Putney for more than 150 years - a tradition that has come to an abrupt end on Jan. 16 with the sudden closure of Putney Paper Mill by its current owner, New Jersey–based Soundview Vermont Holdings LLC.

According to the Vermont Department of Labor, 127 employees are affected.

Workers expecting to report for duty on Tuesday were notified of the closure when they were directed to stay home. Some employees later reported to the mill to discuss severance pay and other details.

According to a news release from Soundview, the decision "to shut down its papermaking operations, effective immediately, and to wind down its converting operations by the end of the first quarter of 2024" was based on high energy costs.

As of 2017, 50 people worked in the Mill Street facility manufacturing paper, and another 80 people worked a mile away, in Soundview's Kathan Meadow Road converting facility to "turn parent rolls into finished goods," according to testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife by then–General Manager Brian Gauthier.

"The high cost of energy in the region has made it unaffordable to keep our doors open," said Rob Baron, the company's president and chief executive officer in the news release. "Our top priority moving forward will be supporting our incredible employees and their families throughout this difficult transition."

According to an industry directory, the company manufactured paper and paper products for packaging and for household use.

The products included "primarily the toiletries and cleaning supplies carrying the Marcal brand," according to a 2017 recruitment video posted on Soundview's behalf by Keene, New Hampshire–based TPI Staffing Group.

In the news release, Baron said that "over the past decade, the company invested tens of millions of dollars to strengthen the mill, but the rising energy costs were too insurmountable to sustain operations. The decision to close the mill comes after careful consideration and a recognition that there was not a viable path forward."

The recruitment video described Soundview as "a key member of the local economy for generations," and said that "many employees are following in their parents', or even their grandparents', footsteps."

Soundview purchased the Putney Paper Mill in 2012. According to the town's 2023 Grand List, the mill is assessed at $1.12 million. Other parcels add $128,000 to the town's property tax base.

Rapid response from state DOL

State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, called the closure "terrible news" for the employees and their families.

In an email to The Commons on Tuesday morning, he also expressed concern "that the company is not compliant with the federal [Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification] Act and the Vermont Notice of Potential Layoffs Act."

Jay Ramsey, the Vermont Department of Labor's workforce development director, confirmed that it received notification from Soundview on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 16.

He said that while Soundview might technically be in violation of the WARN Act - which requires a major employer to provide a 60-day warning of a mass layoff or closure under most circumstances - a company can offset that violation by providing severance pay and benefits.

This scenario is common enough that it is discussed in detail on a page of frequently asked questions on the Federal Department of Labor's website.

The DOL will be "reaching out directly to the impacted workers to make sure they're aware of resources that are available to help them land softly, said Ramsey, who noted that Soundview has started to work with the state to provide a "rapid response."

"The workforce development team comes in to provide information to the impacted workers about how to file for unemployment, where they can access other state services like health insurance, and to learn how the Workforce Development Division can help them find a new job or access supports for training, if that's what they decide they want to do."

Personnel from the Brattleboro and Springfield offices, and DOL managers from Montpelier have begun to work on site to counsel employees through the transition.

Ramsey expected that by Jan. 17, the Department of Labor would be coordinating with the New Hampshire Employment Services Division's office in Cheshire, New Hampshire.

"We can coordinate across the state lines to have people go to whatever office makes the most sense," he said. "Each state receives this kind of federal financial support to help people who have been dislocated through no fault of their own."

Federal funds are available to help employees with "retraining or even upskilling, if people want to do that," Ramsey said.

The DOL also maintains a job board that, as of Tuesday, reflected 8,833 positions available in the state, he added.

"Not to take the shock away from the impacted employees or the community there, but I think the prospects are good for those impacted to find a new job relatively quickly," Ramsey said, citing a "very tight labor market" for Vermont employers are challenged to fill available positions.

He anticipates that other employers might reach out to the Department of Labor and seek connections to Soundview workers.

"Not that that's a consolation to anyone," Ramsey said.

Multiple generations, multiple businesses

The history of New England is filled with the mills along its many waterways that powered the U.S. Industrial Revolution, but by the mid-1900s, a majority of the paper mills still operating moved their businesses overseas or to the South, where labor and energy costs were far cheaper.

Out of the thousands of paper mills once located in New England, only 128 remain in the entire United States, according to IBIS World, a worldwide industry analysis company.

Throughout its history, the paper mill in Putney has served as the center of operations for a number of businesses and some manufacturing breakthroughs.

A mill built in 1818 was destroyed when Sacketts Brook flooded 10 years later. The current mill building - the Eagle Mill - was built in 1869.

In 1938, a Polish immigrant, Wojciech Kamierczak, would purchase the paper mill, held in trust by the town, after a bankruptcy and fire left the business empty at the beginning of the 1930s.

The Kazmierczak family included Wojciech's wife, Sambraska, and his two daughters, Shirley and Gertrude.

According to the Putney Historical Society's book Putney: World's Best Known Small Town, Kazmierczak, who used the name "John Smith," "had spent the 20 years since his arrival at Ellis Island from Poland working and learning in the mills of New England, staked all that he had into the burned-out mill."

He borrowed against his life insurance policy and asked his son-in-law Frank Potash to move to Putney to assist him.

For 46 years, the family ran the Putney Paper Mill. While the business "progressed through many phases of growth and expansion," according to the 2011 obituary for Shirley Kazmierczak Stockwell, who married Earl Stockwell, also of Putney, in 1945.

Putney Paper would remain in the family until 1984, at which point Shirley and her husband, Earl Stockwell, sold it to Ashuelot Paper of New Hampshire.

The plant underwent serious issues through the years, especially during the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, including the pollution of the Sacketts Brook, chemical spills, an unsavory order in the 1980s which permeated the center of town, along with a significant oil spill.

Newspaper archives through the years describe the back-and-forth of regulatory battles and bitter skirmishes with neighbors in the thickly settled village over such environmental concerns as the sludge that was a byproduct of the paper manufacturing process. Photos of firefighters battling blazes in the plant appeared regularly.

By 2012, when Soundview purchased the plant, it was a subsidiary of Claremont, New Hampshire–based APC Paper Group.

In his 2017 testimony, Gauthier touted the company's environmental stewardship, noting that Soundview's output was created from more than 40,000 tons of waste paper each year and changes to machinery that substantially reduced water consumption and carbon emissions.

"The result is reduced landfill waste, improved water and air quality, and the preservation of the environment for future generations," Gauthier told lawmakers.

His bold testimony offers not even a slight hint of the shuttering of the plant that would take place this week in 2024, less than seven years later.

"Amid the very sad closing of multiple paper mills across the Northeast in recent years and a challenging marketplace - and after years of uncertainty surrounding our historic and vital business in Putney - we have not only stabilized but grown our business," Gauthier said.

This News item by Jeff Potter and Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

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