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Ep. 3 | The Power of Papertown: The Ties That Bind

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  • In this third episode of The Power of Papertown we sit down with two career educators, who happen to be father and daughter, to talk about Haywood in its heyday, challenges brought on by disappearing industry, & how the community continues to be resilient.
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A community worth serving

Cheyenne McNeill: I am Cheyenne, a reporter with EducationNC. Our organization was established to be an independent source of news – providing data, and analysis about education for the people of North Carolina. In short, we tell the stories happening in our state’s classrooms and involving our state’s students. 

This story starts in Western North Carolina, with the closing of a paper mill. True to our foundation, we went to the schools to understand the impact of this closing.  

In today’s episode, we talk with two career educators, who just happen to be related. Danny Miller worked in education all his life, and his daughter Lori Fox is the current principal of Haywood Early College. 

Miller and Fox are a prime example of the family and community legacies that still remain in Canton. Much like Fox, who followed in her father’s footsteps to a principalship in Haywood County Schools, generations of Canton residents have worked in the mill. 

We first met up with Fox on a rainy day in April at Haywood Early College, located on the Haywood Community College Campus. The Early College is housed  in an old sawmill building —  another reminder of how connected the paper mill is with the education system and the students it serves. 

Fox has lived in Haywood County her entire life and her students live all over, so she knows the county well. We heard about the historic flooding that has hit Haywood county the last couple of years, but we haven’t seen the communities most affected, so Fox is giving us a tour. 

As we are driving out of downtown to the most impacted areas, she starts showing us where the water came into Canton.  The feed store she is talking about is less than a quarter mile away from Canton Middle School, and steam from the paper mill is still within eyesight. 

Lori Fox: So this is where it started flooding. So from about 100 yards behind us, all of this, that ball field, everything all of these buildings, were all underwater. And when I say underwater, I mean to the top of those garage doors underwater. This feed store  was I mean water was probably halfway up the building they lost everything in the feed store. BearWaters Brewing underwater. And then it just comes this way. Our municipal building is right over there, where police department and town manager and fire department that was all flooded. 

Cheyenne McNeill: Fox is speaking to the most recent flooding event, which happened in 2021. Tropical Storm Fred pounded the region with rain, creating a landslide that devastated the communities of Bethel and Cruso in Haywood County. 

Here’s Fox again.

Lori Fox: But, I really want you to see where the most damage was done with the flooding and what these people have experienced, especially those working in the mill now as they try to build back and establish a home here again and then you lose your job. So the river’s right over there. It’s trying to get you where you can really see all of these homes are flooded. So it’s probably 300 yards from over there, here. You’ll see homes on both sides of the road that just haven’t been lived in since then. And many of them just abandoned. The debris, you know, just the trees and the limbs and the metal and the cars and the cleanup effort is still ongoing. It looked like a war zone here.

Cheyenne McNeill: Some people have left, but many have stayed. Fox says there is a  strong generational tie for families that live in these communities. 

Lori Fox: If people can live here, they’re going to live here.

Cheyenne McNeill: Like so many others we have talked to, Fox is always looking forward, always hopeful. She grew up here too, and that community resilience is in her bones. She doesn’t have to even think twice about why people would want to continue to live in Haywood county. 

Lori Fox: It’s just home. And when you leave, you still just have a yearning to be back in the mountains in this place with these people.

Cheyenne McNeill: Fox’s father, Danny Miller, worked as a coach, teacher, and administrator in both Buncombe and Haywood counties. He attended Pisgah High School and served as the principal there for the last 10 years of his career. 

Miller says the closure of the mill is another lesson in resilience for the town. And while the mill’s closure feels inconceivable, Miller knows the town is built to last. 

Danny Miller: Billy Joel, that famous 80s historian, once sang, the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems. And that seems to be the case for us right now.

Cheyenne McNeill: Miller has spent his entire life in Canton. His father worked at the mill as an electrician when it was called Champion Paper. He has fond memories of Haywood county in a different era. 

Danny Miller: The thing that made Canton special and still does today, with the exception of the industrial situation is that the relationship between local government, the school system, and Champion Paper’s at that time was just all perfect. Everything was provided for the youth, and the families. Everybody was taken care of, from the elderly, to the young. It was just a wonderful, wonderful place and that, I think, is what makes it that special place.

Cheyenne McNeill: In previous episodes, we heard about the way the mill workers support the community. 

Back then, Miller says the mutual respect between the community and mill was innate – because the mill’s management was made up of Canton residents. 

Danny Miller: But back in the day the plant management people all lived here. They were involved in the giving, and the getting and the doing as much as the employees were.

Cheyenne McNeill: Miller shared another significant thing that the paper mill supported when he was growing up. Something he believes set the community apart from others. 

Danny Miller: We were the only community in western North Carolina that had a YMCA that was funded by Champion Paper. Champion employees made donations out of their biweekly paychecks. And I bet 100% of the people in the mill did it, because that was just how it was. You were always supervised there, your parents could drop you off Saturday morning at nine o’clock, and pick you up Saturday evening at nine o’clock.

Cheyenne McNeill: The YMCA served as a community center, with an indoor pool, a gymnasium, pool tables and ping pong tables. It was beneficial for families, children and adults alike. 

What else made the YMCA in Canton special? The Champion fastpitch softball team. 

Danny Miller: It drew fans from all over the western North Carolina. They were a national power, I mean, every Friday and Saturday night there was 2,000 people. So people came every Friday and Saturday night and packed the place to watch these grown men play fastpitch softball. 

They practiced all the time, and back then you had wooden bats and when a bat broke, you are in a dead sprint because you shag flies in the outfield during practice if you were one of the sons, when the bat hit the ground that was broken. The fastest kid always got the best broken bats.

But it was just a fun event.

Cheyenne McNeill: It’s memories like this, and families like these, who continue to show up for their community. Danny Miller and Lori Fox know how special Haywood County is, and they have both dedicated their lives to serving the students of their region. 

Lori Fox: What they have been able to experience as teenagers with plenty of support. I think they will do well as adults, knowing we’re problem solvers, we’re looking for opportunities. Again, we can figure this out, nothing’s gonna stand in our way. I think they’re fortunate in that aspect, that they’re able to experience things with plenty of support at home and at school in  our community, and learn how to work their way through this type of situation. You know, the sun’s gonna come up tomorrow, and we’re gonna make it. 

Cheyenne McNeill: For now, folks in Canton are playing a waiting game as they learn to navigate life in the town without the mill. Miller says the town and students in Haywood County Schools will learn how to process the closure. 

Danny Miller: And you just you grew up a paper mill town, you grew up tough. And you make it work.

Cheyenne McNeill: EdNC is doing a series of stories called The Power of Papertown, where we highlight what’s happening in Canton. You can find all of our coverage at 

Lori Fox, principal of Haywood Early College, has a picture in her office of her grandfather. In this black-and-white photo stands a man in uniform, baseball uniform to be specific, with the word “Champion” written in cursive across the chest.

Her grandfather, Clyde Miller, was an electrician at Champion Paper and part of Canton’s fastpitch softball team. Comprised of mill workers, the team traveled the country playing in this highly competitive league.

Danny Miller, Fox’s father, recalls shagging balls with other boys in the outfield during practice, getting old enough to be in charge of the scoreboard, and traveling with his dad up and down the east coast for games.

Danny Miller and Lori Fox, with a picture of Clyde Miller. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

It drew fans from all over western North Carolina. They were a national power, and it was just, I mean, every Friday and Saturday night there was 2,000 people (that came to watch).

Danny Miller, retired career educator in Haywood County

Miller and Fox are family — and career educators. Miller split his time between teaching, coaching, and working in school administration in both Haywood and Buncombe counties before retiring. Fox worked at Pisgah High School before moving to take the reigns at Haywood Early College.

Their love for their community spans generations. In this episode, Fox drives us around Haywood, showing us the physical challenges the district has been dealing with due to damage brought on by massive rain and flooding.

We then sit down with the father/daughter duo to talk about Haywood in its heyday, the challenges brought on by the disappearing industry, and how the community continues to be resilient.

Miller says it best: “You grew up a paper mill town — you grew up tough — and you make it work.”

Find previous episodes of The Power of Papertown here.

Behind the Story

The Power of Papertown is a series of audio stories highlighting the closure of the paper mill in Canton, North Carolina.

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

In this episode, you heard from Lori Fox, the principal of Haywood Early College, and her father Danny Miller.

The intro and outro music was recorded from a session at the Haywood Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) after school program.

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.