Construction Paper. Colored. Totally cool. One of the many delights of time spent in the art room at my elementary school were the rainbow sheets of color promising endless hours of unstructured creative bliss. Add scissors, glue and maybe some tape and colored pens or crayons and the opportunities seemed endless. When Debbie Meyer of Little Falls brought a stack of colored construction paper to the museum as a potential collections donation, memories of those days came flooding back. Even without the multiple stories associated with the paper and its manufacturer, the Hennepin Paper Company, it would have been hard not to advocate for adding the paper to the collections. I sometimes wonder how what we collect today will be viewed in the future. Will the things we choose to save be valued or will they be considered of little use? A nationally-known product from a major Morrison County industry may seem like a no-brainer but only time will tell its worth to future generations.
The Hennepin Paper Company (formerly Hennepin Paper Mills Company) was established in Little Falls in 1890 by Benjamin F. Nelson and Thomas Barlow (T. B.) Walker of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Nelson and Walker had founded the company one year earlier with the purchase of their first mill, the Minneapolis Paper Company. Little Falls was chosen as the site for a new pulp and paper mill for several reasons – cheap water power, the new dam and water power canal (built 1888), convenient railroad connections, proximity to pulp wood sources and a ready local labor supply. A plentiful source of water was necessary in paper manufacturing both for power generation and for processing wood into pulp. The site selection along the west bank of the Mississippi River proved to be a good one as the mill continued to operate for over a century. The mill quickly established a reputation for quality products. According to former MCHS archivist, Bruce Mellor, the company went from being “…the only groundwood paper mill in Minnesota during most of the 1890’s…dominating the regional newsprint paper markets at that time, to become the major manufacturer of colored construction paper in North American in 1990.” (A Century of Progress, 48)
Construction paper is made by combining wood pulp, recycled paper and dye. Wood pulp basically consists of shredded wood that is mixed with hot water until it gets mushy. Recycled paper is added to the mush along with a liquid dye and the resulting mixture is then dried by moving it on conveyer belts over heated barrels. As the pulp dries, it gradually becomes less shiny and mushy, eventually turning into construction paper (Mister Rogers‘ Neighborhood). The paper at this point is in one long sheet that is wound on big rolls. The various colors that go into the resulting packaged product – pink, red, yellow, green, blue, orange, purple, brown, tan, etc. – are put together by feeding each roll of color in layers, one on top of the other. The layers are then fed into a machine called a feeder which assembles them into stacks that are cut into big sheets. As orders come in, the stacks are cut into various smaller sizes as needed.
Debbie Meyer’s father, David Bauer, worked at the Hennepin Paper Mill in the color room as a beater engineer. One of David’s main roles was to control the beater engines and other equipment used to process the furnish for making paper. Furnish is the blend of fibers, fillers and pigments that are mixed and dried to become paper. Debbie remembers her father bringing paper home if there was an overrun on a day he was working. She also remembers him coming home the color of the paper that had been run that day. According to Mary Warner, MCHS museum manager, until the EPA required more stringent standards for water pollution, locals would know the color the mill was producing by looking at the river below the mill.
David Bauer worked at the Hennepin Paper Company mill from 1963 until he retired in 1995, just a few years before the company went out of business. Born in Buckman, Minnesota, on January 5, 1932, to Leo and Cecilia (Karash) Bauer, David married Violet Brausen on April 8, 1958. David and Violet had seven children – Darrell, Debbie, Denise, Darla, Denita, Dawn and Dean. The Bauers lived in Buckman until 1964 when they moved to Little Falls to be close to the mill.
When I was creating things with construction paper in the art room at my elementary school I had no idea that one day I would be working just down the road from the manufacturing plant where the very paper I was using was made. When the mill closed in 1999, it left a community it had been a part of for over a century. Fortunately, after the City of Little Falls was unable to find a buyer for the mill and its property, it turned the site into a park, Mill Park. Open to the public in 2005, the park provides great views of the Mississippi River and interprets the history of the paper industry through the use of salvaged elements from the former Hennepin Paper Company mill. The site continues to be part of the cultural landscape of the city and to play a major role in the history of Little Falls and Morrison County.
By Ann Marie Johnson, MCHS Curator
This article was first published in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter, Volume 28, Number 1, 2016.
Collection Connection – Preservation Perceptions; MCHS Newsletter, Vol. 26, N. 3; 2013.
Fuller, Clara K. History of Morrison and Todd Counties Minnesota. Indianapolis, Indiana: B. F. Bowen & Company, Inc., 1915. Print.
Mellor, Bruce, A Century of Progress 1890-1990: Hennepin Paper Company Little Falls, Minnesota. Little Falls, Minnesota: Hennepin Paper Company, 1990. Print.
MHS State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). (2005). Hennepin Paper Mill, Little Falls. Retrieved from http://www.mnhs.org/shpo/review/paper_mill.pdf
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: How People Make Construction Paper. PBS Kids. Web. 2 May 2015. http://pbskids.org/rogers/R_house/paperpictures.htm
PBS Kids. (2013, June 9). Mr. Rogers Shows How to Make Colored Construction Paper [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCE5iwzC4cM