In late 1944 and early 1945 a young army sergeant named Girard Calehuff was serving heroically with the Allied Forces in the Battle of the Bulge in France. After the war, he returned home to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, married his high school sweetheart and earned his college and graduate degrees from Penn State with distinction. His subsequent career in the world of paper manufacturing with Westvaco would lead him to several postings along the East Coast, and eventually to the Westvaco (later Verso) paper mill in Luke.
More than 70 years, this kind of move was a wise financial and career move. A job at the paper will in Luke would most assuredly mean promotions, a decent living – a great way of life in the quiet and subdued mountains of Maryland.
Tragically for many families and for the local economy, a combination of declining market for Luke-manufactured coated paper products and the high cost of additional EPA-mandated pollution controls brought about the closing of the 131-year-old factory at the end of June, 2019. The resulting decrease in sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrogen-oxides and polluting particulate matter will certainly be a boon for the nearby environment and for sufferers from asthma and other respiratory issues – but the immediate loss of jobs, the economic impact and the ripple effects of that loss will be felt in the region for years, even decades, to come.
And for those who worked there, the storied mill closing down is a blow of vast proportions. It’s devastating. The closing feels like a bomb went off, or a meteor strike.
In its heyday the factory was a foundation of the region’s economy and a good, dependable place to work for thousands of men and women – Girard Calehuff among them.
In 1970 Westvaco promoted Girard Calehuff from Superintendent of their Covington, VA mill to Assistant Mill Manager of Production at Westvaco’s Luke facility. With his wife Carol and five daughters in tow, Girard moved to Bel Aire just outside Cresaptown, designed and constructed a lovely home for his family, and settled in to work at Luke.
Now 94, Girard Calehuff remembers the culture of the mill half a century ago.
“In the 1970’s, the Luke Mill was thriving,” he says. His memories and his story are only one of many that could be recalled and told. And they all sound the same – of better days and happier times for the factory. “It was part of Westvaco’s fine paper division which manufactured paper used in various printing processes. The Luke mill even had its own guest house for visiting papermakers and Westvaco sales reps.”
The period was a boom-time for paper-making.
“In this industry,” Girard recalls, “it was a time of prosperity. Although Fine Papermaking was experiencing both overseas and domestic competition, strong demand for the product kept the mill technically up-to-date and thriving.”
A man of extensive education in engineering and great creative expertise, Girard says the Luke Mill at one time was cutting edge – employing people who were the top and the best in their field – and recruiting employees from other companies -- wooing them to Western Maryland with the promise of a career and affordable clean living.
Fluid mechanics, a facet of engineering critical to paper manufacturing, was part of Girard Calehuff’s specialization, and, as he recalls, his skill sets “dovetailed nicely with those beneficial to the paper industry.”
During his tenure at Luke, Girard earned six patents for headbox design. (According to Britannica.com: “the function of the headbox is to distribute a continuous flow of wet stock at constant velocities, both across the width of the machine and lengthwise of the sheet, as stock is deposited on the screen.”) Headboxes incorporating some of Calehuff’s patented designs were installed at the Luke Mill during this period.
Those days at the Luke Mill remain fresh in his mind. He looks back fondly at the work environment at the mill in the early ‘70s.
“The employees’ work ethic was strong,” Girard notes firmly. “Westvaco was a very responsible employer. Generations from the same families often worked side by side and took pride in their skills and occupation. Many found a home at Westvaco and stayed throughout their working life.”
The Luke paper mill officially closed on June 30 – resulting in the final casualty of 675 jobs, according to the Verso Corp. that announced the closing abruptly near the end of April, 2019. The announcement came via a post on the company’s website. Those who had worked the night shift the evening before awoke to news that in two months they would be unemployed. There were subtle signs but there was no warning.
“It is unfortunate that we had to make the decision to close the Luke Mill, but the continuing decline in demand for the grades of paper manufactured left us no choice but to close this facility that has struggled with profitability for a number of years,” Verso Interim Executive Officer Leslie T. Lederer had said.
Severance allowances were reportedly made to salaried and hourly employees according to collective bargaining agreements and Verso’s established severance policy, according to the announcement.
“The decision to close this mill that has been in operation for more than 130 years was an extremely difficult one, and is in no way a reflection on the dedicated men and women who work there,” Lederer said. “We know that this will be an extraordinarily emotional and challenging time for our Luke Mill team, and Verso is committed to treating them with fairness, respect and dignity during this difficult time. We will also do our utmost to ensure employee safety during the transition. I want to thank each and every member of the Luke team for their hard work and dedicated service to the mill, to Verso and to our customers.”
Kermit Becker, a native of the area, retired as an engineer and supervisor in 2007 after working at the paper mill for nearly 41 years.
“I came there out of college,” he said and added that at one time, the mill had roughly 2,000 employees. “It was a good place to work.”
He said the news of lost jobs is upsetting.
“It’s going to be terrible for the people who are still working there,” Kermit Becker said. “I hate to think about the people not being able to retire there. This is going to be bad for the community.”
Frances Becker, who taught biology at the former Piedmont High School, said that when she was a kid, her father worked at the paper mill.
“He walked to work and back every day,” she said.
Sara DeHaven, a server and bartender at Duckies’ Bar and Grill, said her dad also worked at the mill in the past.
“It’s a big shock to all of us … It’s going to affect the area big time,” she said. “It’s (been) the livelihood of this area. I hope this is not a ghost town after it closes.”
Shawn Raines said the mill is about the only lifeline Piedmont has left.
“We’re barely holding on now,” he said and added that some of his family members worked at the mill. “They had just hired a bunch of people.”
Between carrying items to customers outside the Pitstop drive-thru convenience store, Dolly Virts talked of “disbelief” over the Verso announcement.
“That’s so many jobs (lost) … their families are all here,” she said. “It’s a troubling shock.”
When he heard news that the mill in which he had spent so much of his time and talents was closing, Girard Calehuff, paused – as if swallowing a bitter pill from his past – as if hearing that a dear friend from his youth had passed away.
“With consolidations within the industry, with extreme competition of the digital age, automation with changing technology, the closing is not a surprise but is still very sad,” he says wistfully. “This is definitely the end of an era.”
Editor’s Note: This Allegany Magazine article contains portions of a story written by Cumberland Times-News digital editor, Teresa McMinn. The Cumberland Times-News is a sister publication to Allegany Magazine.