Foundation documentary of Crown Zellerbach employees

Foundation documentary of Crown Zellerbach employees

A ‘rough and tumble’ place

In a newly produced documentary, former employees of the Crown Zellerbach paper mill tell of the times before equal rights and safety committees

By Nicole DeCosta

The West Linn Tidings
December 14 2006

Seated in well padded pews at West Linn Lutheran Church last month, paper mill workers stared at a screen above the alter. The first film-viewing was a blessing of sorts for a locally produced documentary on the Crown Zellerbach paper mill, which is located in the Bolton neighborhood along the Willamette River.

Produced over the past year and a half by the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation and funded by The Kinsman Foundation, the film features 17 former employees who tell their stories about working at the mill — West Linn’s only industrial business and one of the city’s major employer. The stories of the employees, who were hired between 1927 and 1972, span generations of workplace experience — including times before equal rights, safety committees and environmental protection efforts.

The movie describes how paper was made when the mill was built, and it also defines the laborers who built West Linn’s middle class after World War II. “They’re the heros of industry,” said Sandy Carter, executive director of the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation who served as producer, interviewer and off-line editor on the film, titled Grindstones, Boomsticks, Tattletales and Nips: The stories and the people of Crown Zellerbach International, West Linn, Oregon, Division 1928-1986.

“People need to know where their roots are,” Carter said. “And they need to value the hard work that created the middle class in West Linn.”  While the workers viewed the film they laughed, talked about “the good old days” and moved seats a few times to reminisce with old friends.

Rolling with the punches

Stories about the union work, near death experiences, log rolling, prank pulling and recounts of how nobody wanted to work in the grinder room are documented.  Some said that working outside cured a hangover by noon.  Many with hourly wages eventually ended up in management roles. Since there were no computers, workers used their five senses. Whistles are cues for workers to leave their machines when pulp arrived.  And everyone rolled with the punches.

“It was kind of a rough and ready place to work. There were a lot of tough guys doing that kind of work,” said Harold E. King from Oregon City, who started working at Crown Zellerbach in 1948. “Almost everything was done by (hand) labor.”  Machines were of different ages, roll length and speeds and worked best with different types of paper. Pineapple mulch from the No. 7 machine would ruin your clothes, and No. 8 was the slowest machine in the mill. Electricity from some of the machines was problematic for men who had fashionable 1960s long hair.

Within private home-interview sessions Carter became familiar with the work ethic at the mill.  “These people loved their women and loved their children. That’s why they did this difficult work,” said Carter. “I was so impressed by the whole culture.”

Working as a team

With jobs available around the clock, the mill was often busy with activity.  “The first three days I worked there I brought my lunch home. I never had time to eat it,” said George Droz, 79, now a Beavercreek resident. West Linn resident Ed Witherspoon was hired in 1943 and was paid a wage of 83 cents an hour. He said that last month’s film viewing was a nice way to reconnect with people that he worked with for more than three decades, most of that time within the maintenance department.

“The longer you (worked) over there you had more responsibility too. And that didn’t help any,” said Witherspoon, 80, who began working on the No. 6 paper machine. “The work was really hard at first until I got used to the heavy lifting.”

The Willamette Falls – located between West Linn and Oregon City and a natural energy source – created a perfect location for Willamette Pulp & Paper (later Crown Zellerbach and now the West Linn Paper Mill). It was built in 1889.  During its prime years after World War II, Crown Zellerbach employed just less than 2,000 people who coordinated loading and unloading of trains, upper river loggers, tug boats, barges, sawmills and machines to produce paper.  The company specialized in household paper – paper towels, cash register tape, Crezon backing paper for construction, newsprint and telephone directory stock.

Jobs for everyone

Some started working at the mill because of the convenience, the wages or to join other employed family members. Some also loved the paper.  “Paper history has always fascinated me. How does this all come to be? How do all these millions of variables come together to form a product,” said Henry Herwig, 69, from West Linn. “Everyone was included.”

Through strikes, floods, updating machinery and new safety measures, the Crown Zellerbach mill grew up with its employees. 
Safety became more of a focus in the 1950s and 1960s when new safety policies were mandated by management. Earplugs became a requirement as well as goggles.  “We had to start wearing hard hats. At first (we had) aluminum ones, then it switched to a yellow plastic of some kind,” said Witherspoon. “I didn’t want to part with my aluminum one so I took it and painted it yellow like the (new) ones. They finally caught on to that.”  The aluminum hats proved dangerous when Witherspoon witnessed a co-worker of his get electrocuted while up on a ladder when his aluminum hat came in contact with a light bulb.

One women interviewed in the documentary shared stories about satisfying wages and difficult work. Wearing dresses, nylons and nice flats, some women rolled up their sleeves after the Equal Opportunity Act and worked alongside men, tending to huge machinery – an act that, at first, surprised male supervisors. Another woman gave mill tours. And both women had to work strike duty.  Wives of mill workers – such as Witherspoon’s wife Margaret who also worked at the mill – said that it wasn’t unusual to have dinner without her husband.

In 1947, Crown Zellerbach pioneered the coated paper process, printing paper for Sunset Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Life Magazine. Crown Zellerbach sold to another company in 1986 and was sold again, before closing in 1996. West Linn Paper Company reopened the plant a year later without the union, said Carter.

Milling around

Even though he retired eight years ago, Herwig still visits the mill a few times a year to see friends.  “Well, I did spend half my life here,” said Herwig, who was once superintendent of coating for paper. “Now, tinkering and puttering takes up a lot of (my) day – reading, fishing, playing guitar and banjo.”  Herwig said that his time spent at Crown Zellerbach trained him for the rest of his life, teaching him organizational, problem solving and people skills.

Carter said that her time with the film project taught her a lot about the workers’ current living situations.  “I wish we had directors outtakes. We had cats jumping on the back of my jacket while I’m asking questions. We had cuckoo clocks going off in the middle of the best answer you ever heard,” said Carter. “(At one house) there were five chiming clocks set for different times and different songs.”  Because not all information could fit into the two-hour film, Carter is now fundraising to release a continuation of this film along with the 17 personal profiles in their entirety.

“It’s been a life changing experience,” said Carter. “These people are a treasure. I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people in town to get to talk to all of them.”

The mill documentary can be purchased by visiting the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation's Web site at