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An introduction to “The Power of Papertown”

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“I said it the other day, I said Job doesn’t have anything on these guys anymore.” David Francis, Haywood County economic development director, is referring to the biblical story of Job, and the “guys” he is referring to are the community members of Haywood County.

In the last decade, the town 30 minutes west of Asheville has persevered through a cyber attack, multiple flooding events, landslides, and a global pandemic. The world is literally shaking beneath them, as a 2.4 magnitude earthquake was recorded northwest of Canton on May 23.

And on Wednesday, May 24, another hit came.

Families came together at Sorrells Street Park and employees gathered on bridges overlooking the workplace that is part of the fabric of their town, listening as the mill whistle blew one last time.

The closing of the Canton mill, having employed over a century of community residents, is devastating, and no one would say otherwise. Through the floods, they were #HaywoodStrong, and with the announcement of the closing, they became Mill Town Strong.

The mill is the centerpiece of town, sitting on 200 acres along the Pigeon River, always steadfast, operating 24 hours a day, and in the background of every event. The steam rises from the stacks. The whistle blows three times a day and at the start of Pisgah High School football games. The mill’s previous name “Champion” adorns businesses and banks throughout town.

And on main street, there is a mural with the words “PAPERTOWN” painted 10 feet high.

The mill is part of Canton’s origin story. And though this may be the closing of a chapter, it is surely not the end of the book.

EducationNC traveled to Canton after the March 6 announcement of the mill’s closure to speak with community members, leaders, and, of course, educators.

We visited classrooms, talked with students and their veteran paper teacher, and watched them work with pulp. We interviewed the superintendent, a principal, and a lead teacher learning of their fears and hopes.

Mural in downtown Canton, North Carolina. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

We drove around with an early college principal who showed us communities devastated by mudslides and flooding. We saw washed out bridges and how rain can change the way a river flows. We spoke with the mayor, county officials, local reporters, and many more.

This is a story that doesn’t start with a paper mill closure, and it won’t end with one either. It is about the people that make up a place known as Papertown.

Thank you to everyone who spoke with us.

The Power of Papertown episodes

Behind the Story

The Power of Papertown is a series of audio stories highlighting the closure of the paper mill in Canton, North Carolina. We will update this article with links to the audio pieces as they come out.

Cheyenne McNeill and Caroline Parker did the reporting for this story. Cheyenne produced and narrated the audio story.

The artwork for this series was created by Lanie Sorrow.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.

Cheyenne McNeill

Cheyenne McNeill is a communications strategist for EdNC.