History of the Curtis Paper Mill
In northern Newark, Delaware, off Paper Mill Road, a nondescript city park was once the site of a thriving mill with a history lasting for over two centuries. Harnessing the power of the creek, a Pennsylvanian named Thomas Meeteer (or Mateer, Meter, or Meteer…it seems people were not at all consistent about such things centuries ago) opened a saw mill and a paper mill at the site in 1789. Constance J. Cooper writes in her book The Curtis Paper Company: “The mill itself was known also as the Milford Paper Mill or the Milford Mill for the local landmark of Milford Crossroads.” (Interestingly, Scott Palmer at the Mill Creek Hundred History Blog speculates that the reverse is true, that Milford Crossroads—located just uphill from the mill—was named after the mill!) After Thomas Meeteer died in 1812, his son Samuel operated the mill, which remained in the family until 1843 when it was sold to Joseph E. Perry. It is unclear if the mill operated at all from 1841 to 1848.
1848 is when the mill’s real story begins. Massachusetts native George B. Curtis specialized in starting up new mills and learned that Meeteer’s old mill was for sale. George and his brother Solomon M. Curtis purchased the mill and after considerable renovations, began manufacturing paper there once again. The extent to which the Meeteer mill survived under the Curtis brothers is unclear. All sources agree that the Meeteers (or Perry) had let the mill fall into a wretched state by the time the Curtis brothers acquired it. Cooper writes that the mill “needed extensive repairs and capital investment before it could make either paper or profits.” On the other hand, a 1976 document by Raymond W. Smith for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) of the National Park Service describes the process:
“When the Curtis brothers purchased the former Millford mill property in 1848, the need for rebuilding and refitting the dilapidated structure was obvious. The funds borrowed from Newark businessmen were applied to this purpose, and a new paper mill was erected on the site.”
Indeed, an 1880 document included in the HAER survey states: “The Mill is about 32 years old, of ordinary light construction; is very fair repair, and neat condition.” Palmer writes that the Curtis brothers had to “almost completely rebuild” the factory since “[t]he only salvageable pieces were the waterwheel and the papermaking machine.”
Regardless of the extent to which the Meeteer mill survived under the Curtis brothers, it took less than a year to get the new mill up and running. Constance J. Cooper writes that “The official name of the firm was Curtis and Brother, and the mill was called the Nonantum Mill, for the Indian name of Newton Lower Falls.” (Wikipedia says that the name is “from a Native American Algonquian word meaning ‘blessing or prayer'” and refers to one of the villages of Newton, Massachusetts.) Today, the only nod to that name is a housing subdivision located off Old Paper Mill Road named “Nonantum Mills”. In Newark, the mill was more commonly known (at least by the close of the 20th century) as the Curtis Paper Mill. George left the firm in 1850. His brother Frederick A. Curtis joined the company and operated the mill with Solomon until Frederick died in 1884.
Four of Frederick and Solomon’s sons took over the business when Solomon retired in 1887. That year they demolished the old mill and built a new plant at the site. In 1896 the new Curtis brothers expanded the factory including the brick smokestack that, painted with the Curtis name, became a symbol of the plant. From 1848 until 1911—when Curtis and Brother became Curtis and Brother, Incorporated—the factory was owned exclusively by members of the Curtis family. Members of the Curtis family still owned half the company in 1926 when they finally sold their interests.
Cooper writes that Curtis paper was of exceptional quality, but constantly struggled against “larger mills that operated at lower cost”. Curtis papers were used in Fortune magazine during the 1930s. The firm (renamed the Curtis Paper Company in 1932 after it survived falling into receivership) barely survived the Great Depression and was drowning in debt by 1941. World War II may have saved the firm; the US government purchased vast quantities of paper from Curtis. Cooper writes that a lot of this paper was shipped overseas to US allies through the Lend-Lease program (which I’d thought only involved weapons, vehicles, and other materiel!).
Curtis paper had a little known role in the end of the war as well. Cooper writes:
“Perhaps the proudest moment in Curtis’s long history came towards the end of 1946 when it was selected to make the paper for peace treaties between the Allies and Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Finland. The job had to be done quickly and secretly. Although management knew the purpose of this special order, the selected employees who worked overtime and weekends did not know until later. The task was even more urgent because Secretary of State James Byrnes, who planned to resign in early 1947, wanted to sign the treaties for the United States. The rag vellum made by Curtis was used for the official signed treaties and other copies in a smaller format.”
Curiously, Deborah P. Haskell writes in her article “The Curtis Paper Mill” in Histories of Newark 1758-2008 that “Curtis paper was used for the documents signed by General Douglas MacArthur and the Japanese at a surrender ceremony that marked the end of World War II on September 2, 1945.” Palmer repeats the claim. If true, of course, that would be a much bigger claim to fame than the treaties for Italy and other minor European Axis powers. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that both are correct, although it would be a curious omission on the part of the otherwise thorough Cooper. Cooper cites the Curtis Gazette (the Curtis Paper Mill’s internal newsletter) and the Journal-Every Evening (a Wilmington newspaper) for her statement. Haskell does not cite any sources for her claim, so I’d take it with a grain of salt.
The Curtis Paper Company reached its peak in the early- to mid-1960s and was in decline by the 1970s. According to Smith, as of 1975 the plant still used a pair of Fourdrinier papermaking machines Curtis acquired in 1887 and 1896 respectively. The James River Corporation acquired the Curtis Paper Company in 1977. Although the Curtis Paper Company retained its name, it had lost control of its own fate. In 1995 control passed to Crown Vantage, a new spin-off of James River; Crown finally closed down the company and the mill in 1997, ending almost 150 years of continuous operation. A website on the history of Crown explains:
“The middle to late 1990s continued to be a very rocky time for the North American paper industry as a whole. In 1995, sales were strong across the board, and Crown Vantage, one of the industry leaders, achieved revenues in excess of $1 billion. However, beginning in 1996 and continuing through 1998, the industry’s fortunes declined steeply. This decline was the result of the Asian economic crisis that sent paper imports into the United States to record-level highs and deflated paper prices across the board. Despite these weak market conditions, Crown Vantage achieved and maintained a sold-out position on coated publication papers from 1996 to 1998; yet the company’s sales base was far from certain, and management felt it necessary to implement strategic, cost-cutting moves.
In mid-1997, the company decided to close its smallest mill in Newark, Delaware. The two-machine, non-integrated operation had the capacity to make 10,000 tons per year of uncoated premium printing papers, but since January 1997, it had produced only very short runs of specialty grade papers with the yearly total stopping short of 2,000 tons.”
The City of Newark already operated a water treatment plant (built using land acquired in 1991 when the settling ponds that Curtis once used to treat wastewater became obsolete) adjacent to the mill site. Indeed, the mill race from White Clay Creek that once served the mill now supplies the treatment plant. The City of Newark purchased the rest of the mill site in 1999 and performed a partial demolition of the factory in 2002. The community then debated what to do with the rest of the mill. Many residents considered the remainder of the graffiti-tagged, crumbling factory an eyesore.
In 2006, I lived a short distance from the paper mill. Unlike my neighbors, I did not consider the plant an eyesore. In fact, I rather liked the bright, rusting metal beams, the old bricks and stone, the proud chimney. The partial demolition in 2002 actually exposed some of the inner details of the plant that would have otherwise have been hidden behind boarded up windows and doors. I knew its days were probably numbered, so I made a point of photographing the factory extensively during 2006 and 2007. I’d like to think that my work proves the old cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The Site Today
The factory was demolished in the fall of 2007, leaving only the smokestack and some sort of storage tank on the north side of the site remaining. Although there had been some hope of leaving the iconic stack when the property was redeveloped, it would have been prohibitively expensive to stabilize and restore it. (The figure was around $200,000 to restore it, but maintenance would undoubtedly have driven the costs higher, as mentioned in the Newark Post article referenced below.)
In 2013 the smokestack too was demolished. After demolition was completed, the City of Newark opened Curtis Mill Park at the site. There is little sign of the mill left at the park. Two small pillars of reclaimed bricks from the mill display plaques with the Little Joe Curtis emblem. There is an informational sign about the mill (repeating the claim about the Japanese instrument of surrender). Its parking lot is useful for accessing the nearby Pomeroy Trail.
In addition to the dam at White Clay Creek and mill race, there is only one structure surviving from either the Meeteer or Curtis mills. Interestingly, it is a storehouse from the older mill and sits on private property at 325 Paper Mill Road just north of the main factory site. The roof and garage doors are modern, but the stone walls mark it as unmistakably older than the main house on the property. The old storehouse is on the National Register of Historic Places. The application submitted to the National Park Service nominating it to the register in 1983 describes it:
“The Meteer Storehouse is a stone, one-and-a-half-story, gable-roofed building set into the side of a slight hill. Its walls are constructed of uncoursed rubble fieldstone with emphasized structural quoining. A stone marker inscribed ‘T.M. 1808’ is set into the north gable.”
It is remarkable that this one building outlasted not only the Milford Paper Mill, but its successor as well. In addition, houses the company built (in 1892 according to Cooper and Smith, circa 1888 according to Wikipedia, and definitely by 1893 according to the nomination form submitted to the NRHP) to house some of the mill workers still stand today on Curtis Lane, across Paper Mill Road from the factory site. They are private residences today. Like the storehouse, they are also on the National Register of Historic Places, with the divisions reflecting each owner’s individual tastes rather than presenting a uniform appearance.
- The Curtis Paper Company by Constance J. Cooper, 1991. The definitive history of the subject, and the main source I used writing this article. It was published just prior to the factory’s closing. The book itself is now something of a historic artifact given that its limited runs were “printed on special-made 100# Curtis Text, felt finish” paper made by the very factory described in the book!
- The Curtis Paper Mill by Oyvind Haugen, 1999 (updated 2001). Website with a good overall history of the plant for those without access to Cooper’s book (and continues where her story ends). Includes a gallery of photos from the 1990s. Haugen writes: “At the time of shut-down Curtis was the oldest paper mill in operation in America.” It is unclear if this takes into account the possible hiatus in operation from 1841-1848 or the fact that the factory was rebuilt in 1887.
- Curtis Paper Mill article on Wikipedia. I actually started this article in 2006 during a brief stint in which I contributed to Wikipedia. It’s been edited by other contributors in the years since. I was surprised to learn recently that someone even translated the article into French!
- “Construction to begin on Curtis Mill Park” by Karie Simmons for the Newark Post, 2013. Covers the challenges of redeveloping the site into a city park.
- “The Curtis Paper Mill”, an article by Deborah P. Haskell in Histories of Newark 1758-2008, 2007. I contributed two articles (neither about the Curtis Paper Mill) to this remarkable tome containing stories of a wide variety of topics about Newark’s first 250 years. Haskell’s article is a good summery and draws heavily on Cooper’s work, with one discrepancy noted above.
- Historic American Engineering Record photographs/diagrams and report by Raymond W. Smith, 1976.
- The Curtis Paper Mill — The Meeteer Years and The Curtis Paper Mill — The Curtis Years by Scott Palmer on the Mill Creek Hundred History Blog