The Mid-Century Medals of a Small Town N.C. Paper Mill
Author: Greg Capps - Monday April 17, 2017
Champion Paper, in small town Canton, has always been the heartbeat of that tight-knit Western North Carolina community. The company saw unparalleled growth from the early 1900’s well into the latter half of the twentieth century. At the helm was the founder’s son-in-law, Reuben B. Robertson.|
Robertson had been brought on to temporarily oversee operations in 1907 and ended up staying with the company for an impressive 65 years. Under his watch satellite mills were opened, innovations to manufacturing methods were developed, and overall reach was expanded internationally.
Perhaps most important, he also helped the company to repair labor relations between workers and management. It was Robertson who ushered in the company credit union (still active today) as well as industrial safeguards for employees on the job. Wage incentive plans as well as profit sharing were also soon established under his leadership.
Champion Paper employed a team of chemical engineers and in the 1920’s they pioneered a process to make fine white paper from the pine trees that were so plentiful in the forests of Western North Carolina. Within two decades nearly a third of all U.S. long-fiber pulp would come from native pine. Methods of bleaching spent wood and making high quality paper also originated with this dynamic and innovative little company.
CHAMPION GOES TO WAR
By the second World War Champion was anything but ‘little.’ Decades of growth and a newfound demand from the war effort abroad had increased production to record levels. In addition to the headquarters in Hamilton, Ohio the Paper and Fiber Company boasted mills in Canton, North Carolina as well as Houston, Texas and Sandersville, Georgia.
Without fail, however, the war called upon the able bodied men of Champion to serve. Robertson saw to it that a medal was created for each soldier called into military duty. This medal was presented to the family just before a soldier’s departure. On the obverse was the majestic Crusading Knight that had been the company’s trademark for so many years. On the reverse was found the soldier’s name below a four-leaf clover, a declaration that he was A DEFENDER OF AMERICAN LIBERTY and the text CHAMPION WISHES FOR YOU THE BEST OF LUCK AND A SAFE RETURN. Despite the wish of a safe return, there were a dozen men from the Canton division that did not return home. Those that lost their lives were:
Marvin Joe Drake
Most of these soldiers were in their twenties with the youngest being PFC Kirkpatrick, at age 19. As company Executive Vice President Reuben Robertson wrote:
We will not forget those who made the supreme sacrifice that our Nation might survive. But we should not allow ourselves to be content with merely grateful remembrance. The remembrance that counts is the one that rests on action. Action every day and in every way that leads towards the tolerance, the consideration for others and the mutual helpfulness that constitute the very life blood of our American Way of Life.
Another area in which Robertson stood out was in his strong belief in reforestation and selective cutting. In a time when many other pulp wood magnates were stripping forests without regard, Robertson chose to preserve and replenish. As early as 1920 Champion had sought the counsel of Walter J. Damtoft, who is regarded as the nation’s first industrial forester. Damtoft was well known for his conservation practices such as reforestation with nursery seedlings and an emphasis on restoring forest land to support future growth. For his dedication and accomplishment he was presented with two medals from the Champion Paper & Fiber Company for twenty-five years of service with the company.
The indelible marks left by this great company on our landscape, our families, our communities and our hearts can be traced through her brief and sporadic issuance of medals. Medals that sometimes commemorated achievement, and at other times wished for safe passage which might or might not have been realized. But like all numismatic relics they offer a non-partisan glimpse back in time.
* Thanks to the helpful staff in the Special Collections Dept. at Ramsey Library (UNCA) and the specific citations below:
John E. Jervis Labor Collection OS 77.12.3
Walter Julius Damtoft Collection OS 2011.06.10