Sappi paper mill celebrates 125 years, credits longevity to adapting, evolving to market
Public tours to mark the occasion are expected later this summer.
CLOQUET — As other paper mills in the region shuttered, the Cloquet Mill has remained open, even thriving.
Owned by South Africa-based Sappi since 2002, the mill is celebrating its 125th anniversary this summer.
Tom Radovich, managing director of the Cloquet Mill, credits its longevity to adapting products to new demands as its legacy customers, namely advertisers, dry up.
“If you look at the production of coated graphic papers, coated mechanical papers, the volume from 2005 until now has been cut in half, and so you've got to change completely,” Radovich said. “A lot of mill closures occurred from this point forward and so we had to adapt to that … we've been able to survive.”
Advertisers have moved to the internet and away from print, reducing demand for coated papers.
But the Cloquet Mill has found new markets: custom photo albums that users can order online, store displays and gift cards. And later this year, the mill expects to produce a release liner for labels and tags.
Similarly, the pulp side of things has also evolved.
Its pulp mill used to make pulp that would then be made into paper, but in 2012, a $175 million conversion now allows for the production of dissolving pulp, or chemical cellulose. That type of cellulose is then shipped to Austria, China, Indonesia and India, where it’s processed into clothes, wipes, pharmaceuticals and food additives, among other products.
“If we made the same pulp, we’d probably be out of business,” said Keith Halvorson, the mill’s pulp dryer superintendent.
The paper and pulp made along the St. Louis River today are far different from 125 years ago.
The Duluth News Tribune reported Aug. 4, 1898, that the contracts were awarded to build the Northwest Paper Co.’s paper and pulp plant in Cloquet.
“Dirt — or perhaps, more properly speaking, rock — will fly next Monday when the first work will be performed on what many consider the first real development of the water power of the St. Louis river,” the paper reported.
After eight months of construction, the first pulp was ground, and a week later, the first newsprint rolled off its new machine. At first, the mill could produce 20 tons of paper per day. Today, it produces more than 900 metric tons of paper per day and another 1,000 metric tons of dissolving pulp per day.
In 1918, when wildfires spread across the Northland and destroyed much of Cloquet, the mill was unscathed.
While 350 of the mill employees were evacuated by train to Carlton and Duluth, some stayed back to protect the mill and the 100 fire refugees that sought shelter there.
“William Crotty and a few firemen remained to protect the building and care for refugees fleeing from the country around Cloquet,” the News-Tribune reported Oct. 16, 1918, four days after the fires. Papermaking was expected to resume the next day, the story noted, and barracks under construction for workers who lost their homes in the blaze.
In its early years, the mill focused on newsprint, but by 1920, it moved into uncoated papers, Radovich said.
Later, the Northwest Paper Co. began using paintings of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or mounties, in its iconic advertisements.
In 1964, Potlatch acquired Northwest Paper Co. and transitioned the Cloquet Mill from making uncoated to coated papers.
“They saw an opportunity for coated papers, and the technology had evolved by then,” Radovich said. “And it still is today. A lot of the equipment that we have is still focused on coated products.”
In 2002, Sappi bought Potlatch’s pulp and paper division. The sale didn’t include its sister mill in Brainerd, which then closed, and the approximately 1,000 workers in Cloquet were still left in a state of uncertainty.
On May 10, 2002, workers leaving the mill were handed packets that said whether they would still have a job the next week when Sappi took over, the News Tribune reported at the time. Several hundred positions were cut.
But since then, employment has hovered around 700 at the Cloquet Mill, Radovich said, even as paper mills throughout the country close.
In 2000, the number of employees in paper manufacturing totaled more than 600,000, but it’s fallen to just over 350,000 in early 2023, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Radovich credited the mill’s ability to survive the last 125 years to adaptation and evolution, which will also sustain its future.
What the mill makes is “moving away from coated graphics to become more of a diversified wood-fiber product,” Radovich said. “Really, how can you do things with a tree?”