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Beaver Board: the story and former glory

A fond look back at an era when paper mills thrived in Thorold

Before the Georgia-Pacific mill was demolished in Thorold South, Kirk Ashick managed to rescue several significant artifacts of the now all-but-vanished industry.

As former plant manager, Ashick took a keen interest in its heritage, which he shared at a recent meeting of the Thorold Beaverdams and Historical Society.

“I knew there was all this history,” he told the group—some of whom had worked there, long ago—“and I thought the citizens of Thorold need to have it so I went in and cleaned it all up. I gave it all to the Museum.”

Handing out photos of ancient ads “that went in every hotel,” he said, “genuine Beaver Board is the reason we were built; the original fibre wall board.”

The wall board had “a meteoric rise” in popularity, stated Ashick, “and everybody had to have it; the immediate need for walls that would not crack.”

Business mogul “J.P. Lewis made the first sheets in his plant, and everybody loved it, so he modified his plant at Beaver Falls.”

In April, 1916, a plant opened in Buffalo, and on Dec. 24, 1911, an administrative office was established on Front Street in Thorold to oversee the mill’s construction. “In 1912, the Thorold Paper Mill started making paper and that was a year before the Ontario Paper Mill started” in Thorold South. The first paper machine started in September; the second in November, 1912.

It was the beginning of the 20th century, continued Ashick, “and hydro was just invented. Because the Falls were so close, a lot of things launched around here.”

The plant’s motors “were the world’s largest systems at the time. They only had that title for a fleeting moment;” operated by 1,200 horsepower “they brought to the head of that motor from the Falls. No one thought of safety concerns at the time, and over the years, it was improved.”

Displaying cancelled shares in the company, “They were works of art,” he said. According to Ashick, “The preferred shares paid dividends every three months, so they were doing okay.”

In 1917, five separate corporations were struck around the world, including the Beaver Board in Canada.

“They built the steam plant and the paper machine plant in Thorold and took them to Buffalo to be laminated. World War I came along and they needed heavy brown wrapping paper and boxes to send things overseas. They did very well during the war years. The Thorold plant was the largest manufacturer at the time.”

The Beaver Board began shipping globally.

H. S. Lewis, J.P.’s son, was the founding manager in Buffalo and William McGalshau became the manager at Buffalo, who then came to run the plant in Thorold.

“He lived in a very fine home in Buffalo. In Thorold, we added the laminator. The fourth Canal came behind it so they took advantage of the fact to build it on swampy farmland along Allanburg Road.”

Ashick described the process of making “Beaver Board,” which is fire-resistant due to its high water content.

“You take wood, you grind it up, and then refine it and it is 98 per cent water and two per cent fibre. Then it goes through a rolling screen that gets rid of the water, then goes through driers. The wires for the machines were made at W.S. Tyler. Now they still make wires, but for the mining industry,” he added, since the paper industry has plummeted.

“At the Ontario Paper Company, two newsprint machines ran, then three, and in 1920, newsprint was sold at $120 per ton,” whereas three years previously, its price was a mere $30 per ton.

“So the Beaver Board built a newsprint machine,” said Ashick, starting with white spruce and then bringing wood from Cochrane, Ontario.

“The Ontario Paper Company down the street had excess sulphite and ran it to the Beaver Board by pipe until 1939. One of their primary customers was the Buffalo News, which started around 1860. It was loaded on the dock and coal was brought in by rail.”

“In January, 1948, our father started there and his first job was to unload the wood car. He did it in four hours, and they said, ‘That’s a job that takes two days’.”

Beaver Board was only available in three colours—natural, pale green, and black “like blackboards.”

Oil painters loved it, said Ashick, and the famous painting, Amercian Gothic, was done on Beaver Board. The Group of 7 also painted on it, he stated.

The Beaver Board and all its subsidiaries including The Beaver Wood Fibre Company Limited ran under the ownership of the Lewis family until it ran out of money and was taken over by Certain-teed Products Company in 1928.

“National Gypsum saw gypsum was the way to go, so that was born." That company also makes Gold Bond foot powder," said Ashick, adding that "1933 was a watershed year for the paper industry. Dr. Charles Holmes Herty from Savannah, Georgia invented the process of using southern (softwood) pine as pulp for newsprint. The first-ever commercial use for this new pulp was on the Beaver Board's newsprint machine in 1933. Herty sent three carloads to the Beaver Board to run this pulp on their newsprint machines. They opened up the paper industry in the south, and someone figured out how to make plywood out of southern pine 20 years later. They only took 15 years to mature,” whereas other types of trees took much longer, noted Ashick.

In 1939, many men went to the war, but the Beaver Board again flourished by selling paper wrapping and boxes. “At the end of the war, they got the paper machines fired up. They tore the sulphite line out and put a bigger steam prop in, but in the winter, they had to shut it down. In July, they bought a navy Corvette and ran a steam plant on the ship for three years, until they could get enough boiler capacity.”

Local 101 was the founding union at the Ontario Paper Company, and the paper makers organized Local 192 at the Beaver Board.

“They were an elite group, who saw themselves as artists. They were paid well for that. At that time, the unions trusted the company, and vice versa, and they made these advancements in Thorold that spread to other plants in the country. Sponsorship of hockey and baseball teams and building parks happened. There were only three strikes—in 1975, in 1986, and in 1980—for three days. They had a very strong working relationship.”

“Right across the creek, there was a village between the Beaver Board and the Fire Hall, with eight or nine houses primarily for the mechanics and machine tenders. The Ontario Paper Company had a bigger village. The plants in those days were very much a fabric of the community, and so were the unions.”

In 1954, “Certain-teed discovered gypsum in Nova Scotia. Jim Graham went prospecting and discovered it. He was 18 years old and staked the property and came back for four years and graduated university, and was given $1 million to establish a mine. He stayed there until he retired.”

In 1960, the plant’s name was changed to Beaver Wood Fibre Company, which ran until the mid-1960s, when its heyday ended. “Five hundred people were working there. Then after that, there was always a shutdown.”

“Best Wall ran until 1965, when Georgia-Pacific bought it. In 1966, Albert Marchand was hired and in 1968, he recommended a better hooded machine and they modernized the mill immensely and closed the old machines from 1912. They eliminated coal around the same time, and converted the boilers to gas and oil.”

In 1966, Georgia-Pacific, the company which had actually owned it for 30 years, rebranded it to include their name on the company.

“In 1975, all the paper mills in Canada went on strike, and in 1976, the newsprint operation was closed. In Thorold, 275 people lost their jobs. There were still about 150 employees.”

“They added a pulper and improved the cleaning and refining, and added machines. ‘Root Beer River’ was the nickname of the canal, but eventually it got cleaned up, as well as Beaver Creek. Black spruce gives off mercury naturally when it decays. “

“Al retired.” As plant manager, Ashick recalled, “I had more authority to do some projects, so we replaced some equipment and improved systems. The investments added to the longevity of the mill at the time. In 2005, Koch Industries took over the assets. They bought it on a golf course deal and on the day after Labour Day, the sale went through and Charles Koch wrote a cheque for $40 billion out of his account. All the shares were paid out and shareholders did very well.”

“There was a lot of competition from other paper makers. In 2008, they were building machines with nanotechnology and could run them with fewer people and less chemicals. The stock market crashed that year and the plant ran less; two weeks out of six, then less. In 2014, it ceased operations. In 2017, the plant was demolished.”

Abitibi Paper Mill, which was later known as Gallaher Paper Company, closed in the 1990s, and Ontario Paper Company, later called QUNO, Resolute, and Bowater—among other names, closed in 2016.

“Others closed all around. We have one paper mill left, Dunn Paper, or Interlake, in this area. We don’t make paper in North America anymore. It’s too expensive.”

On a dark note, Ashick mentioned two local men who lost their lives making paper.

“The paper industry killed people. Bill Polloway was on midnight shift and cleaning the slime off the roll and his sleeve got caught. Polloway Road is named for him. Another man was pulling a coupling in the train and got caught between the two.”