The Panama City Paper Mill has provided a good life for local families

The Navy moved my family from Panama City, Panama to Panama City, Florida in 1961.

The summer after finishing Gulf Coast Community College, I managed to work two jobs, a four hour job as a “harbour sampler” for the National Marine Fisheries and in the labor pool of the paper mill. Inside the factory, the labor pool was known as the “Bull Gang”. The work pattern for the summer was eight hours in the factory, coming home and cleaning, and working four hours at county marinas.

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The summer of 1974 passed very quickly and I attended the University of Florida in the fall. One worry I didn’t have at school was money, enough earned to cover all the expenses for the next three terms of school.

I had planned to return home in the summer of 1975 and return to work at the factory. However, a bad business climate reduced hiring at the factory, and I had no job at the factory. I found a lot of work that summer, but the pay was not the equivalent of the factory. Before going back to school the following year, I married my high school sweetheart and we both moved back to Gainesville. We went through another school year until the summer of 1976.

The factory hired me that summer to work in the machine room where the rolls of paper were made. My job was to feed recycled paper from box mills into a dry pulper. The work was shift work, eight hour shifts. The best part of the job was working overtime to “double up”. This summer job increased my salary because I had a lot of 16-hour workdays.

I only had two quarters of school left with my chemical engineering degree. The next objective was to decide on a career. My wife and I visited three career opportunities: petrochemicals in Houston, textiles in Georgia, and paper in Panama City. In March 1977 we returned to Panama City to begin a career at International Paper.

In 1930, construction crews came to Bay County to build a paper mill on the site of a former sawmill in Millville. As the country suffered during the Great Depression, one of the men looking for work moved his young family from Louisiana to help build the factory. Sam Barbay was part of this construction group. After the mill began producing paper in 1931, Sam continued to work in the mill with the maintenance group. Sam retired from the factory in 1957 and my stepfather, “D” Barbay, started his career at the factory.

“D” had a successful career, retiring in 1987. I finished my career in July 2019 at just over 42. Towards the end of my career, my work included giving presentations and tours for clients, visitors and community groups.

I actually continued touring as requested after retirement. The last group I visited through the factory was Leadership Bay with the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. This group, like the many other groups that came before it, heard the story of the factory, mine, and the story of my wife’s family. I would leave a quote for the group, “everything in my life, including a wife, comes from the mill.”

Many families have prospered working at the paper mill. Many local families had ties to the paper mill. I am saddened for the families who were at the plant when it closed and who will not take full advantage of the career opportunity that my wife’s family has had for over 90 years.

Tem Fontaine has lived in Bay County for 61 years and his working career at the paper mill spanned 42 years. He is now retired, but remains active with the Bay County Historical Society and the Bay County Chamber of Commerce and its Military Affairs Committee.