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Cheyenne McNeill: I’m 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 that was the center of town for over a century. True to our foundation, we went to the schools to understand the impact of this closing.
In our last episode, we talked to a father and daughter, Danny Miller and Lori Fox. Both are lifelong Haywood residents and career educators. They spoke to the community legacy of Canton, and like everyone we talked with for this series, have hope for the future. You can find that story in this feed or at EdNC.org.
For our final episode of the Power of Papertown, we visit Pisgah High School in Canton. There, we attended a very special class.
The Canton mill operated for over 115 years. It was so ingrained in the fabric of the community that this local high school began offering a pulp and paper class.
The ecosystem of Canton revolved around the mill, so the school system, with the help of the community college, created a class preparing students for the workforce in town. Well-paying jobs existed less than a mile away from Pisgah High School, so the class created a true pipeline from education to industry.
WC Godfrey: So what we teach here at Pisgah High School, is we have three major classes of pulp and paper.
Cheyenne McNeill: This is WC Godfrey, the pulp and paper technology teacher at Pisgah High School. This class’s popularity can be almost fully attributed to him. We heard it not only from his students, but from other educators we interviewed during our time in Canton.
WC Godfrey: We have an entry level class and that’s more concepts. Then the second level class is this class, we’re preparing the stock to be able to make paper, or we will actually do different projects or like the paper that they will eventually be making. There’s a third level class and it’s welding operations. All of these classes are kind of mirrored at NC State and other paper science and engineering programs.
Cheyenne McNeill: Godfrey studied chemical engineering at Clemson University. Prior to working in the school system, he worked in the paper industry. Once he started consulting, he took an adjunct professor position at Haywood Community College as the pulp and paper instructor. The class soon after moved to the high school, and has been a hit ever since.
This is Carson Price, a freshman at Pisgah High School in Godfrey’s Paper and Pulp II class.
Carson Price: This is probably my favorite class out of all of them. You just have the most fun with Mr. Godfrey, and honestly, I learned more in here than I do any math or anything.
Cheyenne McNeill: Students take Godfrey’s class to learn more about paper and pulp sciences and because the class is just fun. Godfrey sparks curiosity in the field.
This is Riley Allen, a junior at Pisgah High School taking Godfrey’s Pulp and Paper II class. We asked her why she signed up for this class.
Riley Allen: So I have a stepdad, he works in the mill. And he tells me all the cool things he gets to do. And I just wanted to like experience part of my hometown, like, what built the town. So I wanted to kind of come in here and learn what they do here, stuff like that.
Cheyenne McNeill: She echos the sentiment everyone has about Godfrey.
Riley Allen: He’s just like, such a hands on teacher. And he helps everybody in any way he can and he makes it fun. And it’s a morning class, so when I come in here I’m tired or whatever and I see Godfrey, and he’s laughing and joking already at 7:30 in the morning.
Cheyenne McNeill: In Godfrey’s classroom, you won’t find students in desks or taking extensive notes. Instead, students are gathered in a makeshift paper mill. On the day we visit, the class is using different mixtures of pulp to make lollipop sticks. Price explains the process to us.
Carson Price: I have several different kinds. I’ve got recycled, I’ve got Northwood, and those are my two for right now. And then I’ve got chemicals of – a bunch of different kinds of chemicals. And then this worked the last time, and I’ll see if it works again. Yeah, it just depends. So you start with less and then you can add more as you go, and then I’ll put it on the dryer and roll it out and try to flatten it more than get it rolled out and try to get the kinks out of it.
Cheyenne McNeill: Allen is working on her second round of lollipop sticks. She was in charge of creating some of the batches of pulp that students are using for the project.
Riley Allen: I’m making my second lollipop stick. The first one, I used three different pulps, I used the leaf and Phoenix mix, which is like a mix of a hardwood and a softwood. And then I use the sand grove softwood, and then I use the unknown hardwood, I actually made a unknown hardware pulp.
Cheyenne McNeill: In many ways, Godfrey’s classes are all about preparing students for roles in the paper mill. This includes management roles, which is why he has a student teacher who is in Pulp and Paper advanced studies. The student is helping run the project with Godfrey – providing tips for students as they work.
Beyond that, Godfrey says the class is about teaching life lessons, too.
WC Godfrey: So we try to teach not only the skills for students to go into manufacturing, but we also try to teach some management level stuff, some life lessons in there. So, the life lessons we teach help toward their overall educational goals.
Cheyenne McNeill: Godfrey understands the challenges ahead with the mill closure, and the impact it will have on his class and students.
WC Godfrey: I hurt inside for the families. There were students that were basically counting on working in the mill.
Cheyenne McNeill: But Godfrey’s already reaching out to mills and industry in places outside of Canton, fostering relationships so his students who want to work in the industry still have an opportunity to do so.
WC Godfrey: So, the mill over the years, has always supported the pulp and paper program. With the mill closing, then we’re trying to build upon the network we have with chemical suppliers.
Cheyenne McNeill: Godfrey is proud of how the local officials, state, and community college have worked together since the announcement. The transition will be difficult, but as someone who has been through mill closures before, he sees the light.
WC Godfrey: The loss of the mill is devastating in the short term. Long term, I see some hope.
Cheyenne McNeill: Resiliencey and hope. We heard that from nearly everyone we spoke to in Canton. We saw it in classrooms and in coffee shops, painted on the sides of buildings downtown, in church lightboxes, and on every corner that has a sign saying “Mill Town Strong.” Canton may be losing its mill, but the people seem to be carrying on the legacy of what it means to be from Papertown.
This is the final episode of a series of stories called The Power of Papertown, where we highlight what’s happening in Canton. You can find the entire series at EdNC.org.
In Canton, the paper mill is such a big part of town that Pisgah High School offers pulp and paper classes to its students. Some students had planned to work in the paper mill, others plan to attend North Carolina State University and study paper science and engineering, and some simply take the class for fun.
WC Godfrey is the pulp and paper teacher at Pisgah High School, and overall, the success of the class can be credited to him.
Before coming to Pisgah, Godfrey had around 20 years of experience in the paper industry. He brings that wealth of knowledge to his classroom. And, beyond teaching students about the industry, Godfrey is teaching life lessons, too.
When we visited Godfrey’s classroom, students were working on a project creating lollipop sticks. Students have to select the correct measurements to make their own “batch” of pulp and then create 10 lollipop sticks.
This mill closure isn’t Godfrey’s first — but he’s optimistic about the town’s future.
This is the last episode in a series of audio stories called “The Power of Papertown.”
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.
In this episode, you heard from WC Godfrey, the pulp and paper teacher at Pisgah High School, and two of his students, Carson Price and Riley Allen.
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.