French Paper, a sixth-generation paper mill in Michigan, endures in the digital age.

Founded by J.W. French on the banks of the St. Joseph River in southwest Michigan in 1871, French Paper is one of the last small, independent paper mills in America—and one of the few still owned and run by the same family. “When I tell people I’m a paper salesman, the first thing they say is, ‘Didn’t the internet kill that job?’” jokes Brian French, J.W.’s great-great-great grandson.

French Paper Company’s  business is much more than  white letter stock. On the factory floor, Sean Penny operates the hydropulper, a machine that  is used to make greeting cards, photo backdrops, envelopes,  retail packaging, and more.

French Paper Company’s business is much more than white letter stock. On the factory floor, Sean Penny operates the hydropulper, a machine that is used to make greeting cards, photo backdrops, envelopes, retail packaging, and more.

Photo by Jamie Chung

It’s true that digital media—as well as foreign competition—has carved a sizable chunk out of the print trade. By one accounting, 126 paper mills closed down in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015. But French Paper, last survivor in the city of Niles, which once boasted five mills, is celebrating its 147th year.

The master rolls of finished paper are 107 inches wide and weigh up to 8,000 pounds. Customers can buy the product by the roll or have it cut and stacked into cartons. This roll of

The master rolls of finished paper are 107 inches wide and weigh up to 8,000 pounds. Customers can buy the product by the roll or have it cut and stacked into cartons. This roll of “black licorice” paper represents just one of 50 shades of black that French Paper produces.

Photo by Jamie Chung

That could be because the company has always taken a slightly unconventional approach. If there is such a thing as the cutting edge of the paper business, the French family has consistently occupied it. In 1915, Brian’s great-grandfather Frank started investing in hydropower to ensure a steady source of electricity, a decision that has conserved more than a million barrels of fossil fuels over the years. (Today, excess electricity is pumped back to the city grid.) During the Great Depression, the company was early to adopt the use of recycled-fiber paper, and in 1949 it introduced the first-ever animal-free imitation parchment sheet.

Photo by Jamie Chung

See the full story on Dwell.com: Process: Watch a 147-Year-Old Paper Mill Produce a ‘Black Licorice’ Roll

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