Savannah Paper Mill’s oldest workers reminisce about 85 years of history

For the past 85-plus years, tens of thousands of Savannahians have worked at the “Paper Mill,” located along the Savannah River north of downtown.

At its peak in the 1950s, the factory employed over 5,000 people. Modernization has reduced this workforce over the decades, and today around 650 workers operate the mill which is now owned by International Paper. Some of them come from a generation of papermakers who were there from the start.

In the audio story, we hear from two of them: Mike Collins and Karen Lowe, who have each been at it for about four decades. They tell us what they loved, what they endured and what their memories ultimately bring back to them when they think back to the mill.

For 85 years, “stationery” has been an industrial part of Savannah. It is a visual cue and, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, olfactory as well. Today, it produces around one million tons of paper products every year, which end up being turned into cardboard boxes.

Since the establishment of the factory in 1936, the industry has only grown. The Savannah plant quickly became the company’s largest plant in Georgia due to its proximity to an abundant southern pine preserve. The Savannah mill produced 1.25 million tons of kraft paper and box liner annually in those early years.

Karen Lowe worked at the Savannah Paper Mill for about 38 years before retiring earlier this year.  She oversaw paper production in one of the plant's largest paper machines.  (International notebook 85th anniversary 2021).
Mike Collins has worked at the Savannah Mill for 42 years. He comes from a generation of factory workers. Karen Lowe has worked at the Savannah Paper Mill for approximately 38 years. She currently oversees paper production in one of the plant’s largest paper machines.
Mike Collins has worked at the Savannah Mill for 42 years. He comes from a generation of factory workers. Karen Lowe has worked at the Savannah Paper Mill for approximately 38 years. She currently oversees paper production in one of the plant’s largest paper machines.
Mike Collins has worked at the Savannah Mill for 42 years. He comes from a generation of factory workers. Karen Lowe has worked at the Savannah Paper Mill for approximately 38 years. She currently oversees paper production in one of the plant’s largest paper machines.
Nancy Guan / Savannah Morning News

In the 1950s, about 5,000 workers ran its operations under the Union Bag and Paper Corp., also known as Union Camp. The factory was its own community – it had an athletics league, carpenters, gardeners and even its own magazine, “The Digester”.

During these first decades, the mill and its workers experienced major historical events. During World War II, the Savannah plant produced paper packaging, which was essential war material. During this time, women began to work at the mill to replace the men who had gone to war.

The mill was also a large local landowner and harvested the trees from these properties to make products. In 1969 Union Camp acquired Branigar Corporation and approximately 1.6 million acres of land in Georgia and surrounding states. One of Braniger’s possessions was Skidaway Island, and one of their projects was the development of The Landings.

The mill is gradually modernizing its operations and reducing the number of paper machines from eight to three. Automation and efficiency have changed the nature of paper production.

International Paper, the world’s largest pulp and paper company, purchased Union Camp and the Savannah mill in 1999.

The mill celebrated its 85th anniversary on October 1, 2021, and the people of Savannah continue to celebrate its legacy. Long before the Georgia Ports Authority, Gulfstream, and the tourism industry became major economic engines in Savannah, the paper mill was a mainstay of the local economy.

Many Savannah families who have called it home for generations have ties to the mill, and many of today’s business leaders trace their beginnings to what they still call “the paper mill” or Union Camp.

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