Working at the Mill


As I’ve talked about before, my first few months out of college were a bit of a struggle for me, as they are for most people. The transition from the unstructured, chaotic life of a college student, to the long boring expanse of the workday is never an easy one. Adding to my misery was the cultural upheaval of being assigned to a district office in Birmingham, Alabama.  The Southeast district was full of middle age engineers who had no interest in training, or helping out some kid from New York, and my days in the deep South were lonely. I struggled with the Southern culture, and never really felt at ease out on my own in the Deep South. I just stuck out too much. I used to just dread hearing someone say in that slow drawl “You ain’t from around here, are ya boy?” while in the distance a banjo played.

So when I was sitting in the district office in the Autumn, and the Area Manager came up to me and asked if I would be willing to head up to the Chicago district to help staff an outage inspection I responded “I can be packed noon.” By nightfall I had crossed the river into Illinois, and I felt like getting out of the car and kissing the ground. The Chicago district manager had a young female engineer that he correctly had deduced wasn’t long for the lifestyle of a field service engineer, and had talked the Birmingham office into a swap. I was the player to be named later. They took me sight unseen, willing to take a chance on me only because I was a guy. The Y-chromosome has more privileges than just being able to pee standing up.

The Chicago district was a big change from Birmingham. The field service staff was larger, and split almost equally between veterans, and young engineers in their first few years of work. After a few short weeks in Central Illinois, they sent me up to Wisconsin to be the 5th person on a startup. The project was the construction of a new recovery boiler in Nekoosa, at the Georgia Pacific paper mill. GP had just recently taken over the 100 year old Nekoosa mill, in a hostile takeover that was all too common at the time. The Paper business was struggling through the recession, and the bigger fish were out gobbling up the little Mom and Pop mills all over. This was my first project at the Paper Mill, and the difference between it and working at a coal plant was striking.

Nekoosa Mill - photo copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

The mill was close to 100 years old, and had been added onto over the years, giving it a real cobbled together look. Nekoosa was a small mill town, with only about 2,500 residents. The as you can see in the postcard above, the city consisted of a Paper Mill on one side of main street, and a row of businesses on the other side. The paper mill expansion was a huge boom time for the town. There were several hundred Union laborers working on the project, and the city was always swarming with guys in Carharts coming and going in their pickups.

I showed up at the plant, and began asking around for our construction trailer. It was across the street from the plant, in a parking lot across from the Jack ‘n Jill supermarket. I had not been on a start-up project yet, just outage work, and the buzz of activity going on around the place was a bit disorienting. Walking into the trailer I was surprised to see that the field service crew was as young as I was. There were four of them on the project, and during the next 6 months, I would come and go as the workload ebbed and flowed, helping out as the 5th guy whenever things got busy. The project lead was a quiet bearded guy, who seldom spoke more than 2 words. He was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and had been working startups in the Paper Valley of central Wisconsin for about 5 years. The rest of the crew consisted of Mike, a 3rd year field guy from Massachusetts, Cathy, a 2nd year engineer from Worschester, Mass, and Joe, another 2nd year guy from Aurora, Illinois. We also shared out trailer with the team from ABB Impel, who were the control system contractors, and had 3-4 young 20-something electrical engineers on the project.

Nekoosa Mill - Photo copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

It did not take long to fit into the crew. Mike and Cathy were classic extroverted Easterner’s, quick to laugh, or swear like sailors. Joe, or “Jumpin’ Joe” as we called him, was a quiet Midwestern guy that made Eeyore seem like an optimist. As for the boss, the “Quiet Man” tried to fade into the background, and pretty much left Mike to communicate with us kids and give us our daily assignments. Being older, he had a wife and kids, and had been in Central Wisconsin long enough to buy a house and settle down. A rarity in our line of work. The rest of us had overrun the Chalet Motel in Wisconsin Rapids, a town of about 10,000, about 15 miles up river.

It was late Autumn when I arrived on the project, and deer hunting season in Wisconsin was another new cultural experience. In Packerland just about everybody hunts, and if the talk isn’t about the Packers, it’s about hunting. For a bunch of college kids from towns and cities, the Up North accent, and blaze orange cammo’ amused us to no end. I discovered that folks in Wisconsin are some of the friendliest, and most welcoming people you will ever meet. It wasn’t long before I knew the names of all the old Ladies working the front desk at the motel, or in the deli at the Jack and Jill.

Winter came quickly, and the weather reminded me of my days in Potsdam. But unlike school, I was now working outside in it. I was not set up for working in the cold, and I soon had to get to the Shopko, and Fleet Farm to get outfitted in Carhardt, wool socks, and long johns. Dad also helped out when I was home for Thanksgiving, by setting me up with some helmet liners for my hardhat. Those “Rocky the Squirrel” liners looked absolutely ridiculous, but were a life saver. I doubt I’d have made it through the winter without them.

The hours were long, and often required us to pull night shifts, or weekend shifts to keep the project on track. I had no idea what to do, but Cathy and Joe were great about taking me under their wing, and helping show me the ropes. Most of our work at the point in time was checking out the electrical system, and doing wire tests with multimeters to make sure things were wired properly before we fired them up. A recovery boiler is smaller than a large coal fired boiler. The boiler building was only about 8 stories tall, and much tighter inside due to the amount of process piping involved. A recovery boiler provides steam to run the paper machines, and co-generate some electricity through a small steam turbine. The fuel is actually a byproduct of the paper making process.

“Black Liquor” as it is called, is a byproduct slurry of wood pulp, and chemicals that comes off of the digester tanks. It is sprayed into the furnace through oscillating guns that look like fire hose nozzles, and as it burns it forms a pool in the bottom of the furnace. That pool of burning liquid, then pours out through a tap into another tank below, having now been transformed into “green liquor”, which is then fed back into the digester. This allows the mill to recover the inorganic chemicals used in the Kraft process for making paper. The Kraft process is as foul, and smelly as they come, and is responsible for much of the rotting eggs mixed with flowers smell that hovers in every Paper Mill town. The whole process is quite involved, and results in a lot of humidity being vented into the atmosphere, which in the winter time means that a paper mill is always surrounded in fog.

Nekoosa Mill copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

We’d arrive in the morning, and that smell would hit us as soon as we crossed the bridge into Nekoosa. By the time we left to go home at night, the town would glow in a yellow cloud, and the smell would have permeated our clothes. On Friday’s we’d stop for Happy Hour in one of the bars in Nekoosa before heading back to Rapids, and getting cleaned up. One Wednesday night in March, Cathy (a good Irish Catholic girl) and I were sitting at the bar feeling guilty about being out drinking on Ash Wednesday, when our guilt got the better of us and we left the bar after 2 beers to go to Mass in our work clothes and receive ashes. You aren’t truly Catholic until you have gone to mass drunk. As filthy, and smelly as we were after working in the mill all day, I think the priest’s thumb actually left a clean spot on my forehead.

Nekoosa Mill copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

As I said before, Main Street in Nekoosa consisted of a Paper Mill on one side of the street and a row of bars on the other. The bars were making a killing off of the craft laborers that year. Every night at quitting time the guys would pour across the street from the construction site to the bars. Each Union had their own bar. Being college grads, we usually drank with the Electrician’s, who are like the intelligentsia of craft laborers. Meaning they can read. Mike was the only one of us crazy enough to hit the bars next door with the Pipefitters, and Millwrights. But only on rare occasions would he go into the Boilermaker or Ironworker bars though. Those two were the places the fights broke out.

Winter in Wisconsin is a 6 month long reason to drink. Not that Wisconsinites need a reason. I remember one Saturday we all piled into the car and headed up to Rib Mountain in Wausau to go skiing. Afterwards we stopped in the lounge at the Holiday Inn to have a few drinks. There was a band playing, and things quickly got out of hand. I remember being out on the dance floor with some girls that we had met, and looking up to see Cathy on stage playing drums in the band. When the bar closed at 2 am, the waitresses came around with plastic “to go” cups for everyone to take their drinks home with them. I can remember thinking “What a country!” Wasting a drink was a bigger concern than drunk driving.

There were many nights like that during the Winter of 90-91. We’d drink on weeknights in town, and on weekends we’d sometimes road trip to Madison to drink and sleep 4 to a room in some dive hotel within walking distance of State Street. The funny part about it, is that it wasn’t that out of the norm. By Wisconsin standards we were all tea-totalers.

Winter passed slowly, and I came and went several times while the project churned slowly on. By summer 1991, most of the systems were operational, and the staff was greatly reduced. We each went our different ways. I was transferred again, this time to the Denver district office. Joe went back to Chicago, and worked the ComEd plants. Mike stayed on in the Paper Valley for awhile, before finding work back in the HQ in Connecticut. Cathy switched to the performance testing group based out of Connecticut as well. You can take the kids out of Massachusetts, but you won’t take the Massachusetts out of the kid.

Those were some great days though. I’d never have known that I would end up in Minnesota, married to a good Wisconsin girl, but it wasn’t that hard to imagine. I’ve never felt more at home, than I did working in Nekoosa that winter. We’ve all grown up now. I have lost touch with both Cathy and Joe, as they have their own families and have moved on like me. But when this gray season of overcast skies, and low hanging fog roll into the upper midwest, my mind returns to Nekoosa.

Optima dies, prima fugit.

7 thoughts on “Working at the Mill

  1. Oh, I know that area well. At the same time — the same time! — you were doing this, I was working and living in Wood County as well as a court reporter.

    I thought I’d NEVER get the lousy smell of that papermill out of my head…

    Pearl

  2. Madison rocks! Do you know if they still have the “Hash Bash” on the steps of the state capital up there yet? We used to go up there all the time when I was is South Bend.

    • According to the Interwebz, Has Bash appears to only be an Ann Arbor event these days. And in the words of my Iowa Hawkeye friends, Muck Fichigan!

      However, my instinct tells me there’s no shortage of hash in Madison.

      On a side note, I spent a month in Lawrence, Kansas in 1992, (a highly underrated place BTW) and saw a guy standing in front of City Hall with a sandwich board sign reading “Free Hemp!”. I couldn’t tell if he was making a politcal statement, or advertising. Maybe both.

  3. The beat days are the first to go/flee?
    I can feel the ruler coming down on the back of my head when I translate wrong.
    To this day, I still attend mass drunk.
    Anyway, it kills me how you can recall the most minute details from all those years ago when I need photographic proof to even begin to jar my memory.

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