Audrey Nolan has spent a century looking to the steam stacks of this town’s paper mill to tell her what the weather will be.
If the steam dances up the Potomac River toward the mountain, rain is coming. But should the clouds of pillow-white vapor skip down river, it’s going to be a nice day.
“It’s part of my life,” said the 106-year-old woman, whose house is just 50 yards from the belching blue behemoth. “And part of my living days.”
On Friday at 11:59 p.m., the churning pulp and paper machines of Luke Mill went silent. The towers will release steam no more.
The last holdout of an industrial era that made Western Maryland and eastern West Virginia prosperous for generations of papermakers is succumbing to what the owners call global economic forces, upending the lives of townspeople whose identity is intertwined with the mill.
For generations, entire families worked there, bringing home “butt rolls,” or leftover paper, to give children a canvas for their crayons. Felt used on paper machines was sewn into blankets. Odd smells signaled coming storms.
The closure eliminates 675 jobs and will affect nearly 2,000 others employed by other businesses here in Luke and in the sister towns of Westernport, Md., and Piedmont, W.Va., according to state estimates and union officials.
Taxes from the mill fund most of the town budget, paying for essentials such as streetlights and trash collection. Filtered drinking water for Luke’s 150 residents comes from an expensive water-treatment facility that depends on mill water to keep functioning.
Ohio-based Verso Corporation, which acquired the mill in 2015, blamed the closure on falling demand for Luke’s high-quality coated paper — think Campbell’s Soup labels and National Geographic magazine pages — competition from imports and tougher air quality standards.
The mill, officials said, simply cost too much to operate.
Elected officials are trying to blunt the impact with job fairs and money for workforce training. The other day, mill workers learned they would have immediate access to unemployment benefits along with their separation payments. A search for a new buyer is underway.
But finding someone to take on the mill is difficult in this corner of Appalachia, long abandoned by large manufacturers. And new jobs won’t come easy to workers whose average age is over 50. Comparable middle-class wages will be hard to find.
“When the steam goes out, it’s the end of the end,” said self-described “mill brat” Jody Wildman, 45. Her parents and late husband were papermakers, and she works in the local union office.
Founded by a Scottish papermaking family in 1888, the Piedmont Pulp and Paper Company recruited immigrants from Ellis Island to the base of a West Virginia mountain. Their business grew from a tiny sawmill on the banks of a crystalline river to a 228-acre operation that straddles two states and three counties.
William G. Luke and his sons helped pioneer a North American process for making paper from pine and oak. At its peak, the mill employed more than 2,000, including Henry Louis Gates Sr., father of well-known Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Nolan, the centenarian, was a toddler when her family emigrated from Spain to live in a row of company-built homes, alongside Hungarian, Italian and Polish neighbors. The mill provided steam heat and built a school.
“We belonged to the mill,” Nolan said, recalling how her mother would send her to the administrative offices to complain about rent as a child. She later worked 31 years as a secretary in the pulpwood office, keeping track of inventory. “This was family.”
Luke’s workers stood behind their product as “the best d--- paper in the world.”
But Verso said Luke was also the “highest cost mill” in its portfolio, at a time when digital technology is puncturing demand and overseas paper is cheaper. As recently as 2010, 28 U.S. mills made coated paper products, said Donna Harman, president of the American Forest & Paper Association. Fifteen remain.
The mountain behind the Mill was once nicknamed Old Baldy because pollution from the processing killed off vegetation and left a bare rock face. But the mill — once Maryland’s biggest air polluter — has cleaned up its act, improving systems and planting trees. Today, bald eagles nest nearby, and black bears climb trees and munch berries on the peak that now lives up to its true name: Green Mountain.
Still, new air quality standards would have required Verso to take additional, more costly steps this year. The Maryland Department of the Environment proposed options to bring the mill into compliance, but Verso was done.
As recently as December, Adam St. John, senior vice president of manufacturing, reassured employees in a year-end address, according to a letter documenting the meeting and sent to membership by the local chapter of United Steelworkers.
“Luke’s future has been brighter than it has been in a number of years,” he said.
After three years without pay raises, the union signed a bargaining agreement that included everything they were seeking.
Then the closure was announced in April.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) called chief executive Leslie T. Lederer and offered to help, but the offer was “not something that was acted upon by the company,” said Kelly M. Schulz, Maryland secretary of commerce.
“It’s in Verso’s court,” said state Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett). “It’s up to them whether they want to sell it.”
Verso spokeswoman Kathi Rowzie said in an email that mill employees can apply for positions at Verso facilities elsewhere and for a relocation stipend if they move. She said the company is working with local and state government agencies, nonprofits and others “to identify needs, job opportunities and resources” for workers and would love to find someone to purchase the facility.
Several potential buyers have been identified. But Rowzie cautioned that “an expression of interest doesn’t necessarily mean that a party understands the current configuration of the facility and the requirements for converting it to other uses.”
“After preliminary discussions on these types of issues with those who’ve expressed interest in the mill, the number of qualified prospective buyers drops off significantly,” she said.
Bob Fike, 62, was finishing breakfast at Denny’s on April 30 when a buddy who is known to be a jokester said something that wasn’t funny: “The mill’s closing.”
“Now, come on, man,” Fike recalled saying.
“Bob, I swear to God,” the man replied, his face straight and serious. Fike was struck that his friend, a pious Christian, would take such an oath. His wife checked Facebook. He got a text. When the decision was confirmed, Fike — who worked 19 years in the mill and was nearing retirement — nearly heaved his pancakes and bacon.
“I didn’t feel bad for me, but for my brothers and sisters at the mill,” he said.
Across the river in Westernport, local United Steelworkers President Greg Harvey got word that Verso officials wanted to meet with him at 7:15 a.m. The entire mill learned the news 15 minutes later.
“Shock is an understatement,” said Harvey, 58, a third-generation mill worker who counts 51 relatives who worked there.
“It’s not per se a family business, but it is a family atmosphere,” Harvey said. “I’ve told companies reviewing hires that they don’t have to do a review on me. My dad would’ve kicked my butt if I didn’t do what was expected of me. And I could keep an eye on my son and my little brother. . . . We take a lot of pride in what we do here.”
Shift change later that day brought dozens of workers to Duckies’ Bar & Grill in Piedmont, W.Va., to do some “depression drinking,” said Mandi Shoemaker, who owns the place with her husband, Joe.
The Shoemakers expect to lose at least 15 percent of their business because of the close. Monthly orders have essentially halted at a hardware store, and the lines at the McDonald’s have dwindled to nearly nothing.
When the mill’s boiler shut off Wednesday, things got really quiet.
“Now what?” said Luke Mayor Ed Clemons Jr., 35, who has headed the four-person government since 2008. His office is papered in mill memorabilia: aerial shots, archival photos, commemorative centennial catalogues.
As the mill passed from one company to the next — from the Lukes to Westvaco to NewPage and Verso — Clemons said, the relationship with townspeople deteriorated. Once, residents could reach the company by picking up the phone or walking across Pratt Street to the offices. Now, the executives at Verso are out of town and unknown.
“At one time, we were a mill town,” Clemons said, days before the closure. “Now, we are a town with a mill.”
Clemons said he doesn’t know how Luke will afford potable water once the mill stops running its millions of gallons through the treatment facility. The town uses about a tenth of that amount and can’t justify managing the facility at a fraction of its capacity.
Logan Kitzmiller, 33, chose to work at the mill after college, eager to raise his children among people who know his father and grandfather, mill workers before him.
“I’m not an anomaly. There are names that are synonymous with this mill,” he said. “People worked hard to make this what it is.”
With the closure, Kitzmiller has options. He could move deeper into West Virginia to another manufacturing job or pursue his passion for labor relations.
His father, who has 31 years at the mill and was planning to work three or four more, may not have options.