THE CURTIS PAPER MILL by Øyvind Haugen
1789 - 1997 - Updated September 15, 2001
Click here to go directly to the October 10, 2007 update of this story.
This article published by The Paper Industry Web
At the time of shut-down Curtis was the oldest paper mill in operation in America.
For well over 200 years the Curtis Paper Mill was famous for it's high-grade book- and printing-papers. Through the years such grades as Curtis Text, Curtis Flannel, Curtis Tweedwave as well as numerous special grades in many colors came out of the little mill just outside Newark, Delaware. The products found many uses. Books, annual reports and advertising. In short - anything intended to impress the reader was printed on Curtis papers. For many years paper for the UNICEF Christmas cards came from Curtis. Founded by Thomas Meeteer in 1789, the Crown Vantage Corporation/Curtis Paper Division was shut down in 1997. Here is a shallow glance into the history:
It is not known exactly when Thomas Meeteer established the paper mill which later became known as the Curtis Paper Mill. The late Norman B. Wilkinson dates it as early as 1789 and most other sources tend to agree. Two years earlier Joshua Gilpin and Miers Fisher had established the first paper mill in Delaware on the Brandywine River at a place known today as Kentmere in Wilmington. The Gilpin Mill was the first one in America to make paper by machine. Joshua Gilpin built his own paper-machine which was started at his mill - The Brandywine Paper Mills - in August 1817 was based on the design by Englishman John Dickinson. The Gilpin machine utilized a cylinder rather than the endless wire of the Nicholas-Louis Robert patent that later became popular and involved St Ledger Didot and Fourdrinier Brothers.
The Meeteer Mill was built at a place called Tyson's Ford on the White Clay Creek, near the village of Newark, Delaware. While the Gilpin Mill faced towards Philadelphia to market it's products, the Meeteer Mill - also known as the Millford Paper Mill - looked towards Baltimore, Maryland. In Baltimore, the Meeteer family owned a store and a warehouse. Situated on land owned by Thomas Meeteer, the mill was run by Meeteer and his sons William and Samuel until the 1840's. In her work "History of the Curtis Paper Company" (Bachelor of Art thesis, University of Delaware, 1951) Patricia Martha Brown states that a Gilpin machine was in operation at the Meeteer Mill from around 1820, but she does not document it. While it is known that Joshua Gilpin built a few machines for other mills, it is not known for a fact that the Meeteer Mill operated a Gilpin machine, although one might have been in use there.
In 1838 Samuel Meeteer died and Mr. Joseph Chamberlain was made administrator of the Meeteer estate. The mill was in operation until 1841 when Meeteer's heirs decided to sell out. The entire property was sold in 1843 to Joseph E. Perry of Mill Creek Hundred. Not much is known about the Perry ownership and it remains unknown whether he operated the paper mill or not. But whatever he was doing, he did not succeed. And the year 1847 saw him in deep debt.
On January 14, 1848 new ownership came to the mill. George Berkley Curtis and his brother Solomon Minot Curtis came from a family of papermakers in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts. Their father Solomon Curtis - and later their brothers Allen and William - operated a paper mill on the Charles River. The Curtis brothers were trained papermakers when they bought the run-down and abandoned Meeteer Mill together with 21 acres of land for 4.600 dollars at a public auction held by sheriff George Platt.
The brothers found the mill in such a state of disrepair that they had to rebuild it almost from the ground. In order to do so, they borrowed 7.500 dollars from investors in the Newark area. New machinery was installed - including a Fourdrinier-machine of unknown make. When the mill went into operation, the brothers were deeply in debt, but they knew the paper business and were not afraid of work. The official name of the company was Curtis & Brother, but the brothers named the mill itself the Nonantum Paper Mill. Nonantum is an old Indian name for Newton Lower Falls - the birth-place of the Curtis brothers.
By the early 1850's, business was good. The mill employed 9 men and 6 women and was powered by water and steam. Annual production was 430.000 pounds of book paper at a value of 60.000 dollars. Creditors were repaid by the late 1850's. By 1860 production had increased to 500.000 pounds of paper per year. The mill now employed 10 men and 4 women at monthly wages of 28 dollars for men and 15 dollars for women. During the Civil War, the Curtis brothers supported the Union, despite considerable incentive to do otherwise - the Newark area had strong Southern sympathies.
Solomon M. Curtis continued to manage the mill until he retired in 1887. On May 25th 1887 the property was taken over by a partnership formed by sons and nephews of Solomon M. Curtis. The company continued under the same name - Curtis & Brother. Walter C. Curtis was appointed manager. Like the first generation of Curtises, the new owners started with modernization. Much of the mill was rebuilt and new and modern machinery was installed. The new machinery included a Fourdrinier paper-machine delivered by The Pusey & Jones Company of Wilmington. According to the Pusey & Jones Company records, the machine was no. 55 built by that company. It was 83 inches wire, had 11 dryers of 36 inches diameter and a price-tag of 12.800 dollars. The rebuilt mill had a projected production capacity of 8.000 pounds of paper per day and went into operation on February 8th, 1888. In 1896 a second paper-machine was installed. Like the no. 1, the no. 2 was also built by The Pusey & Jones Company. As the story goes, the no. 2 was bought from The American Wood Paper Company in Spring City, PA who had bought it new, but never used it. If that is true, it is quite possible that the Curtis no. 2 was machine no. 65 built by The Pusey & Jones Company, because that was the only machine they delivered to The American Wood Paper Co. prior to 1896.
Alfred A. Curtis - the last of the Curtises to manage the mill - retired in 1926. He was born in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts and came to Newark, Delaware as a child. After retiring, he lived for many years and became known as "the grand old man of Newark." Alfred A. Curtis died on January 15th, 1945. In early June 1926 the Curtis family sold the company to a group of investors headed by Mr. Herbert W. Mason who had spent his early career with two paper companies - S. D. Warren in Maine and Dill & Collins of Philadelphia. Depression hit hard and by early 1931 the mill was in receivership. It was reorganized in summer of 1932 reemerging as The Curtis Paper Company. Although no longer in receivership, the times ahead would prove difficult. During the tough period of the 1930's Curtis Paper Mill developed a special paper for Fortune magazine. This started out as a rag-paper, later changing to wood-pulp. Fortune would later adjust it's requirements so that their paper could be made by less expensive mills. After 20 years of struggle the company was sold to another group of investors from New-York City and Philadelphia with Allen F. Horton as president. Mr. Horton retired in July 1970 and was succeeded as president by Samuel S. M. DuBois, who had recently come to Curtis form the Paper Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia.
By the mid 1970's, the company had to think seriously about it's future. The mill was profitable, but being a small company the years ahead could prove difficult. After considering a number of alternatives - including the possibility of growing larger through acquisitions - the stockholders decided to sell out. The James River Corporation of Richmond, Virginia was the most attractive buyer, and on January 1st, 1977 The Curtis Paper Company became a part of James River. In 1983 Alfred Saindon, who had joined Curtis as a chemist in 1949 and later risen to vice president became resident manager. Saindon was succeeded in 1989 by James T. "Jay" Fuess. On our first trip to Wilmington, Delaware - in April 1994 - we were fortunate enough to be invited by Mr. Fuess to visit the Curtis Paper Mill in nearby Newark. On this occasion we had the opportunity to examine both paper-machines. Cast into the ends of all original dryers was found the numbers 10-87. The numbers obviously indicated the dryers were cast in October 1887. Pusey & Jones machine no. 176, which is still in operation at the Union Geithus Mill (Drammenselvens Papirfabrikker) in Norway, carries no such marks. That machine was shipped from Wilmington in December 1896 and started at Drammenselvens Papirfabrikker on May 24th 1897. We also observed that the press-sections on both machines at Curtis were replaced by presses of the same design found on the Union Geithus machine. The press-sections mentioned carries patent-dates February 25th, 1889. Furthermore we found that the machines over the years have had more dryers added for more drying capacity. Dryers and framework from such companies as Bagley & Sewall Co. of Watertown, NY, Sandy Hill of Hudson Falls, NY and Moore & White of Philadelphia were found. Mr. Fuess told us that at the time of our visit the mill did not operate at full capacity, but was profitable.
In 1995 Curtis was taken over by Crown Vantage Corp. of Oakland, CA and new resident manager was Mr. Chuck Bridges. By mid 1997 there were rumors in the industry that Curtis was done for. And in December the same year the machines stopped for the last time. At the time of shut-down Curtis was the oldest paper mill in operation in America. In May 1998 rumors had it that Curtis might be brought back into operation later that year. It didn't happen. In early May 1999 we visited Curtis and found the mill abandoned, just like it was in 1848 when the Curtis brothers found it. Only this time there is no hope. We were told that most of the machinery was gone - scrapped. Only the beater-room was intact. At least that was what we were told. All over the place were posters screaming out: No Trespassing - Keep Out!
On May 18, 1999 a fax-message from Ms. Katie Cutler of the Crown Vantage Corp. revealed that the company was negotiating the sale of the Curtis property to the city of Newark. Previously - in 1991 - the city had acquired an adjacent parcel of land, now the community water treatment and supply facility, from the Curtis mill.
The deal was closed on June 8, 1999. In a statement to the press Vice President David E. Swett of Crown Vantage said, " We're pleased that we could reach an agreement with the city for them to acquire the mill. This site has been integral to the heritage of the community and its people." The purchase price was not disclosed.
The purchase of the Curtis property will enable the community to extend the popular hiking trail that parallels the White Clay Creek through the mill site. The city is expected to develop the site in the future as its budget allows. When the Paper History Channel visited the site on August 10, 2001 we found the mill building still standing.
Production of the various grades of Curtis papers continues at facilities in the United States and Scotland.
If any of our readers want to visit the Curtis mill site, there are alternative routes to get there. The one described here runs mostly on smaller roads without heavy traffic.
From downtown Wilmington, take Rt. 202 north out of town. When traveling I-95 - north or south - take exit 8 onto Rt. 202 north. When you get to the intersection 202/141, take Rt. 141 south, which forks off to the left. Stay on 141 - past the Hagley Museum entrance until you reach the intersection 141/48. Take right onto Rt. 48 and stay on until you have crossed the Red Clay Creek and - shortly after - the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Landenburg Branch. After crossing the railroad, take left onto Hercules Road. On your left hand you now have the Hercules Country Club and the Hercules Research Station. You are on Hercules Road and will continue onto Mill Creek Road. On this stretch you will eventually cross Rt. 41 and McKenna Church Road. Shortly after crossing McKenna Church Road, you will have the Delcastle Recreation Center on your left and the Wilmington Junior Academy on your right. You will go downhill into a valley with a stream, and when the Mill Creek Road turns right, you turn left onto the Stoney Batter Road and continue uphill. On top of the hill, you will come to a traffic light and on your left you will have the Goldey-Beacom College. At the traffic light, turn right onto Rt. 7, which is Limestone Road. Once on Rt. 7, take left onto Rt. 72 at the second traffic light. Rt. 72 is Paper Mill Road, which will take you into Newark, DE. You will eventually come up on Millford Cross Roads where Rt. 72 forks off to the left. Paper Mill Road carries on straight ahead. Once you have passed the Millford Cross Roads you will carry on for a few more miles until you come to the Curtis mill on your right at a traffic light at the bottom of a downhill.
The Curtis Paper Mill may be gone, but it's name lives on!!
Update October 10, 2007
Curtis Paper Mill sit will be demolished. A story from the Delaware News Journal reports old Curtis Papermill site to be demolished. To read the story click here.
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This article authored by: Øyvind Haugen May 15, 1999
Updated September 15, 2001