Shirley Stockwell, in her early 20s, was the daughter of Wojciech Kazmierczak, who bought the mill in its burned-out and dormant state from the town of Putney and built the business into a major regional employer.
Courtesy of Suzy Stockwell
Shirley Stockwell, in her early 20s, was the daughter of Wojciech Kazmierczak, who bought the mill in its burned-out and dormant state from the town of Putney and built the business into a major regional employer.

Family business

As Soundview Vermont’s machines go quiet, members of the Stockwell family recall how their relatives built their lives and a community around the Putney Paper Mill — from maintaining the machinery to owning the company

Barry Stockwell remembers his father, Raymond Stockwell, returning from work in the Putney Paper Mill in the 1960s.

Each day, Raymond, a supervisor in charge of maintenance, would "grab a little whisk broom he kept on the top of the refrigerator and whisk the paper off the top of his hat. Then he'd sit down in a kitchen chair to unwind and tell us about his day," he reminisced.

Until its current owner, Soundview Vermont, closed the paper mill at the center of town abruptly on Jan. 16, leaving 127 people without work, workers made paper and paper products there for more than 150 years.

The history of the Stockwell family is intertwined with the history of the mill.

Earl Stockwell - Barry Stockwell's uncle and Raymond Stockwell's brother - married the former Shirley Kazmierczak, whose father, Wojciech Kazmierczak, ran a thriving company that he had built from what was an abandoned, burned-out mill in 1938.

Earl and Shirley Stockwell, a bookkeeper, ran the company until they sold it and retired in 1984.

Their daughter (and Barry's cousin) Suzy Stockwell agrees that the paper mill was the focus of their families' lives.

In addition to Earl and Raymond Stockwell, another brother, Bill, a mechanical engineer, also worked for the company and developed and installed the company's first pollution control system. Barry's mother, Beverly Bryant Stockwell, also worked at the mill as a bookkeeper.

"Both my parents and their extended families were committed to the paper business and to their employees," Suzy Stockwell said. "The center of our family evolved around the mill. Sunday dinners were for the family to get together as the machines were shut down Sunday mornings at 7 so that the maintenance shift could work on [them]."

Putney Paper Mill operated there for nearly five decades, the longest tenure of any of the building's owners.

Barry Stockwell remembers how the experience of working at the mill made paper makers out his father and uncles.

"Occasionally we would go to a restaurant to eat, and one of the first things my dad would do is to take apart the paper napkin and hold it up to the light to see the quality of the paper," he said. "He was a paper maker, that's for sure."

Dedication to the work ran in the family.

"My mother was dedicated to my grandfather and to the running of the mill," said Suzy Stockwell of her mother, Shirley Stockwell, and her grandfather, Wojciech Kazmierczak. "She never graduated from high school, even though she was a straight A student at Hinsdale High School, because in 1938 my grandfather needed her at the mill, so she moved to Putney instead of staying to finish her education."

Like many men his age in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Earl Stockwell didn't graduate from high school, either. Instead, he enlisted in the service and therefore couldn't graduate locally with his class. All three Stockwell brothers joined the Army Air Force during World War II.

Lessons learned from a hard life

The cousins believe that the way their family ran the mill had a lot to do with their parents' East Putney upbringing.

The three boys and four Stockwell girls lived on land purchased by their grandfather; there, they pieced together a living during the Great Depression by growing vegetables, maple sugaring, and selling a few animals here and there.

"The Stockwell kids grew up poor," Suzy Stockwell said. "My father used to talk about how all his siblings grew up on the farm. If Earl went out and shot a squirrel after school, that was meat in the vegetable pie."

For Barry's father, Raymond, that meant a childhood education in how to make things work.

"He grew up learning to fix things with whatever tools and materials they had," Barry Stockwell said. "He could fix whatever was broken, a skill he used all his life at the mill working maintenance."

For the mill owner, his brother Earl, that meant helping others find work. Earl Stockwell was known for hiring anyone who needed a job and wanted to be sure no one else experienced the hunger he experienced as a child.

"Growing up poor gave my dad a unique perspective. He knew what it was like not to know where your next meal was coming from. He hired workers for the mill based on their needs, not his," Suzy Stockwell recalled. "Things were different then, and he always found a job for anyone who asked."

She noted that the plant hired people who couldn't find a job anywhere else.

"Any kid who wanted a summer job, my dad would give them work. Some kids swept the floor, or he found places for them to help somewhere in the mill," she said.

She noted that all the Stockwells wanted to help the families in Putney.

"Earl gave back to the community in many ways. And there are certain levels of skills in a mill," Suzy Stockwell said. "Some jobs don't require as much skill as others," she said.

One boy in town with some developmental disabilities spent his time riding around, collecting bottles. Earl was concerned that he'd get hit by a car or get hurt. Shirley, during one of the Sunday family dinners, wondered if a place could be found for him at the mill.

A job was offered to him on the third shift working on a machine. Shirley was concerned that he'd be picked on, so Earl asked some of the guys to look out for him.

"A paper mill can be a tough place," said Suzy, "and eventually one of the men who ran a machine roughed the young man up. My mother marched down from the bookkeeping office to the back of the mill. There she was, this little 5-foot-2-inch woman, standing in front of this huge man. She told him that if he ever did that again, he could pack his bags and come up to her office for a final paycheck."

And that, she said, is how things were run.

"My parents valued the people who worked for them," Suzy Stockwell said.

Noticing that some of their employees had trouble managing their personal finances, Shirley went to the Putney Credit Union and helped create programs for their workers.

"She designed Christmas and Vacation Clubs so that our employees could have money taken out of their paychecks to save for their upcoming expenses," she said.

Changing times

In 1984, Earl and Shirley Stockwell sold the mill. Because of a non-compete clause in the contract, Suzy Stockwell and her two siblings, Nancy and John - who also worked at the mill, of course - all left the business when their parents sold out.

Barry Stockwell's mother and father stayed on with the new owners.

"People in town have mixed feelings about the mill," he said. "Always have, always will."

Stockwell was referring not only to the long history of paper making on the site, but also to the inherent issues in mill work and, more recently, the number of times the paper mill has been closed due to its history of changing hands.

"A paper mill isn't a nice place to work," he said. "The noise was just deafening with all the machines running. In the days when my dad worked there, there wasn't any ear protection and no OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations."

In the summer, he said, "it was incredibly hot inside, and the floor was always wet and slippery. There were also chemicals. My dad got burned often, though thankfully never badly."

Both Stockwells note the amount of dedication their parents gave to the company - in part, because it was a family-run business, but also because historically, companies valued workers in ways that in today's market doesn't always honor. While the safety of mill work has improved greatly, benefits like retirement funds sometimes don't exist.

Raymond Stockwell worked for the mill for 37 years. With Earl, he also designed and built the lower mill, which Shirley would always call "Raymond's Mill," Barry Stockwell said.

There, Raymond was the supervisor of the building and was on call around the clock during the mill's three shifts. When a machine would go offline, he was responsible for fixing it and getting the mill back online.

"He'd go down and be gone for a few hours to fix whatever was broken, then he'd get up and do it again the next day. It was a tough job," said Barry.

Working in the mill all those years affected Raymond's health greatly, his son said.

"There was always the danger and the noise. His hearing suffered and there was a lot of stress and anxiety being responsible for so much, but he toughed it out," Barry Stockwell said.

Then, in 1985, just about a year after the sale, the mill was suddenly closed, and all the employees were laid off. After 37 years of dedication to the paper mill, they said goodbye to one another. Raymond Stockwell retired.

However, within six days, the plant resumed operations, and most, but not all, of the employees were welcomed back to work, with across-the-board 5% pay cuts. Some speculated that the new owners were motivated to close so that they could pare the employee list of those who earned higher salaries.

"To my dad, it felt like a forced retirement," Barry Stockwell said. "That was his baby down there - he built the building and maintained it for much of his life. He was bitter about that. It really hurt."

Suzy Stockwell understands.

"I think once you have an employee you have determined is dedicated to the company, it makes sense to want them to stay with you because of the amount of knowledge they have and the experience they keep," she said.

"If you let go of the people who have worked for an organization the longest, who do you have to train the new employees?" she continued. "That's how we always ran our business."

Suzi Stockwell said that she will be curious to hear more of the story behind the current closure, which company management attributed to a spike in the cost of powering the mill.

"Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my father was complaining about the energy costs," she said. "At that point, our monthly electric bill was between $100,000 and $125,000 a month. It was one of our biggest expenses. The mill is full of electric motors and is a big consumer of electricity."

She said those numbers did not include the power for the converting plant on Kathan Meadow Road.

"It costs money to make paper," she said.

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

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