Georgia-Pacific mill celebrates 125th anniversary
Georgia-Pacific’s Big Island mill in Bedford County is marking a major milestone this year.
The mill, which makes containerboard, has been operating for 125 years. Like many manufacturing sites, it employs fewer people than it used to because of recent technological advancements. Its workforce today numbers 330 workers, down from 450 in the mid-1990s.
Nonetheless, it remains the second-largest private employer in Bedford County.
“We have not had … any layoffs and have been able to deal with this through attrition as employees retired,” says Zoe S. Myers, the mill’s public affairs manager. She recently wrote a book for the anniversary, titled “A Mill and its People: 125 Years of Papermaking.”
The book outlines the mill’s history. Built on the banks of the James River over a former lock in a 19th-century canal system, the mill produced its first roll of paper in 1891. Since then, it has faced several challenges, some of which threatened its existence.
The mill, for example, was rebuilt after it burned to the ground in 1914. Also, employees and the Big Island community rallied to reopen the mill in 1985 when flooding from Hurricane Juan caused a temporary shutdown.
“That’s a key event because it would have been so easy to say, ‘There’s no way we’re going to get this mill up and running again,’” Myers says.
The mill also has been through many ownership changes in 125 years. Since 1990 it has been owned by Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific Corp., which was acquired by Koch Industries more than a decade ago.
In addition to the publication of Myers’ book, Georgia-Pacific is celebrating the mill’s anniversary through a series of events throughout the year, culminating with “Fine & Dandy Day” on Oct. 8. The event will feature antique automobiles and machinery plus live music, food trucks, children’s activities and a beer garden.
Although Georgia-Pacific is celebrating the mill’s history, it’s also looking ahead. Last year the company completed a $50 million expansion of its pulp mill, the oldest part of the plant. Myers couldn’t share specifics about the project but says the goal was to improve reliability and upgrade technology.
The Big Island mill also celebrated another milestone last year. It hired its first fifth-generation employee, Hunter Tolley, whose father, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather worked at the mill.
“We are always looking for ways to innovate … so we can stay competitive and continue to employ the good people that work here,” Myers says.