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.
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.
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.
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