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Canton paper mill bell sounds for final time, signaling an end after 115 years

CANTON, N.C. (From news reports) -- After over a century of service providing the town with thousands of jobs, the Canton paper mill sounded its final bell May 24, signaling the permanent closure of the iconic site.

"It's a sad day -- they're gonna lose homes, they're losing their insurance. They're losing everything," Canton resident Keitha Oldham said of the mill workers.

Pactiv Evergreen, the packaging company that owns the Canton mill, announced the closure on March 6 with under 90 days of notice for Canton citizens. The residents of Canton are already mourning the shocking loss of the iconic building not only for the sake of nostalgia, but for the many livelihoods the mill created. Layoffs due to the mill's closure number over 1,000. For many Canton citizens, this is a frightening prospect.

Longtime friends and former coworkers, Butch Medford, left, and Thomas Bryant, hold their hats as they listen to the final shift whistle across from Evergreen Packaging May 24, 2023. "It's a sad day," said Bryant, who worked at the mill for 33 years, where Medford also worked for 24 years.

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said after learning of the planned summer shutdown of the paper mill he contacted North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Rep. Chuck Edwards to ask for assistance. Cooper went on to write an open letter to the CEO of Pactiv Evergreen suggesting they reconsider the closure or search for a buyer for the mill, stating that their announcement was a clear violation of a 2015 contract between Pactiv Evergreen and the North Carolina Department of Commerce. According to Cooper, the contract provided Pactiv Evergreen with $12 million in grant money in exchange for retaining at least 800 full-time employees until Dec. 31, 2024.

Josh Scott, a fourth generation mill worker, is held by his wife, Brooke, as they listen to the final shift bell across from Evergreen Packaging at Sorells Park May 24, 2023. "I feel like my granddaddy's dying all over again," said Scott, who likened the final shift whistle to the plant "flatlining."

The final ring of the bell occurred at noon May 24, and many Canton residents came together on the lawn of Sorrells Street Park directly across from the mill to see it off. Emotions were high in residents of all ages but perhaps most of all in Canton's senior citizens, many of whom had worked at the mill for their entire lives.

Oldham held back tears as she explained her own family's relationship to the mill.

"This is history, this is their life. This is all they know. This is what Canton is," Oldham said. "My Papaw helped build this, and most of my family works in there, and did work there, and retired from there."

Like so many in Canton, Oldham's response to the mill's closure went deeper than her own family connection, extending into worry over the entire population of the town.

"My heart goes out to them," she said. "I don't think it's right, the way they done, and I hope something good will come out of all of this."

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