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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

What does it mean to Papertown when it no longer makes paper?

The mountain town of Canton is losing a piece of its history — the paper mill that has dominated the town for more than 100 years. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, wonders what the future brings for Canton and other towns like it.

I grew up in a pulp mill town.

When the wind blew down from the mill, it smelled like rotten eggs. The folks who worked at the mill said it smelled like money. Most of the kids who didn’t go to college, and a lot of them who did, tried to get on at the mill. It was hard work but it paid enough to get a decent car and buy a little house and move up into the middle class. In a lot of towns, the mill keeps people alive.

Towns like Canton.

Canton is west of Asheville, off I-40 as you head toward Tennessee. In 1908, the Champion Fibre Company opened a paper mill there on the banks of the Pigeon River. The mill has no doubt polluted that river over the years, as well as spewing smoke and stripping the mountains of lumber. But it has also given generations of folks a place to make a living.

And now, the corporate owners of the mill have announced that they’ll be closing it down later this year.

It’s a big blow economically — at least 900 people and maybe up to 1,100 will lose their jobs. But for Canton, the bigger hurt might be psychological. The mill is right in the center of town, literally and figuratively. Canton calls itself Papertown. Balsam Range, a well-known bluegrass band from Haywood County, wrote a song by that name about what the mill meant to the people who live there:

But this ain't just another papertown on a random riverside
She was built with blood, sweat, and tears and a whole lot of pride
From the mountains and the farmlands, 'round the smokestack she has grown
This ain't just another papеrtown, it's the one that I call home

The shutdown is a familiar kind of trouble everywhere in the U.S. as our culture moves out of the business of making things. North Carolina used to count on what they called the three-legged stool — textiles, tobacco and furniture. All three of those industries are crippled or gone, at least in our state. Drive through the back roads of the Carolinas and you won’t have to go far before you find an abandoned mill or a collapsing tobacco barn.

We’re not going back to the old days. But we do need to find ways to give blue-collar workers a chance to find meaningful work that pays a living wage. It would help if the folks who ran the big conglomerates chose to act like decent people. According to news reports, executives at Pactiv Evergreen — the company that owns the Canton mill — sold more than $600,000 in company stock just a few days before they announced the closing.

Even if you have mixed feelings about something, it’s hard to lose it when your identity is so closely tied up in it. What will Canton be if it’s not Papertown anymore? That’s the kind of question a lot of old mill towns still don’t know how to answer.

Tommy Tomlinson’s "On My Mind" column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.