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Listen to the final whistle of the Canton paper mill

More than 100 community members turned out to hear the last whistle at the Pactiv Evergreen Papermill.
Lilly Knoepp
More than 100 community members turned out to hear the last whistle at the Pactiv Evergreen Papermill.

At noon Wednesday, a whistle rang out over the town of Canton as it has daily for decades, but the sound this day was more like a death knell for the Pactiv Evergreen papermill which is scheduled to close entirely in early June.

For Canton resident Sharon Roberts, the sound marked the end of an era.

“My dad, my brother, my husband have all retired from here, and it’s just really sad that our little town is losing this," Roberts said. "I’m 76 years old, and I’ve been hearing that whistle for 76 years."

Roberts joined more than 100 Canton residents and neighbors who gathered across the street from the mill to listen to the final whistle. Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers described the closure as a death.

“This is a funeral. It feels like I’m getting ready to go into a place to say goodbye, and I think that’s exactly what we are getting ready to do. It is truly emotional," Smathers said just before the whistle.

Dennis Reed—known locally as Smoky Mountain Santa—is a third generation mill worker.

"When I got out of the military, I knew that I had somewhere to work until I retired. And you know that's coming to a sad end now," Reed said. "And these new generations, that's going to be a terrible upset to them but we have got to look to the future. We've got to see what the world has in store for us."

Reed retired, and he hopes the community will continue to support each other.
Former mill employees like Zachery Shoaf reflected on the importance of the mill to the financial security of many in the town.

“I spent 42 years over there. You was lucky if you got a job here. There’s no industry that pays what they did,” Shoaf said.

Mike Donaldson said he worked with Shoaf at the mill for more than 37 years. He said he knows lots of people who have lost their jobs.

"I don't know if the reality of it has set in with most of them yet. I've heard of a few that have gotten jobs on the coast," Donaldson said.

Shoaf said while workers may find other jobs, the work and pay for those losing their jobs do not compare to employment at the mill.

 “A lot them places in Asheville are hiring but the thing about it is, you’re the top man over here," Shoaf said. "You’ve been here 30-some years and then you go to the bottom over there on graveyard – start all over. That’s devastating to you to do that.”

As workers search for new opportunities, residents like Jessica Kierce took a moment at the gathering to express their pain.

“You cannot live in this community and hear that whistle and know that it’s the last time and not have some emotions on it," Kierce said. "It’s heartbreaking,"

While the closure strikes a blow to the community, loyalty to the town remains.

Hubert Thomas didn't work at the mill but he joined the event, noting that many of his family and friends worked there. He will always support Canton, he said.

"Just like it has always been," he said. "I'm going to support Canton no matter what it is doing."

The mill is expected to officially close on June 9.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.