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Sunday, March 29, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Funeral Bells Toll For Mill Town Everett -- Weyerhaeuser's Last Site Closes After 90 Years

EVERETT - It's hard to pinpoint just when this city stopped being a mill town.

Was it in 1969 when The Boeing Co. opened its 747 plant at Paine Field and immediately dominated employment and the economy? Was it during the 1960s and '70s when many of the old traditional mills stopped sawing logs and making red cedar shingles, and those mills that remained produced pulp for such things as teabags and toilet paper?

Or will it be tonight when, after 90 years, the Weyerhaeuser Co. shuts down the last of the six mills it has operated in this city and employees pack up their things, punch the timeclock and go home?

Gone will be the grayish plume of smoke and stench that most days drifted east over the boggy lowlands and across Interstate 5, reminding motorists of Everett's origins.

Gone will be 285 jobs and the $13 million annual payroll the pulp mill brought to Snohomish County. And though some workers will continue to go to work at the mill for the next few months, the task now is to clean up the place so it can be closed.

Forever.

"There's a funeral-type of feeling for a lot of folks," said the mill's manager, Weyerhaeuser vice president Bill Miller. "There's a lot to shutting down a facility like this safely. But a day will come soon when the gates are shut and there's nobody here but guards."

The story of Weyerhaeuser's exit is as old as Everett itself. This city has seen a lot of mill closures since its incorporation in 1893. In just under 100 years the timber industry has come and pretty much gone. In that time, dozens of mills have opened and closed, or been burned to the ground for the insurance, as fortunes changed with the price of timber and the availability of pulp.

The irony is this: Over the years, no company has lasted longer, provided more stable employment, paid better or meant more to Everett than Weyerhaeuser.

Yet beyond the nostalgia some longtime residents feel for losing a piece of the city's past, tonight's closure means little to a community where the timber industry has diminished to the point where it now accounts for only 3 percent of the jobs.

"I don't think it's fair to say we'll be glad to see it gone," said Everett Area Chamber of Commerce President Tom Burns, whose office is in a fine refurbished house that used to be Weyerhaeuser's headquarters.

"Any time 280-something employees find themselves looking for work it isn't cause for celebration. But when you pull yourself out of the emotional side and historical perspective, 285 jobs aren't that many."

Weyerhaeuser won't entirely disappear from Everett. On the Snohomish River, just east of old Highway 99, its name still dominates the side of a sawmill that's been closed since 1979. Nearby, on Smith Island, the company will continue to operate a log yard that sorts some of the Northwest's finest timber for shipment overseas and to other mills in this country.

But as a prominent part of this city, Weyerhaeuser will disappear - its kraft pulp mill a victim of limited capacity, the spotted owl, a $40 million price tag to solve pollution problems and a glut of cheap pulp that made operating here too expensive.

"A lot of paychecks were picked up at Weyerhaeuser," said Everett historian David Dilgard. "A lot of lives revolved around shift changes at the mills. But as an economic presence, its time has passed. The era just gradually disappeared, like things left by the side of the road."

Everett was never intended to be just a mill town. Shipbuilding, a large iron-works, a nail factory and a smelter were all included in the city's early plan.

But a mill town is what Everett became after the silver panic and depression of 1893. James Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railroad, and Frederick Weyerhaeuser were neighbors back in St. Paul, Minn. When Everett's economy went belly-up for the first time in the late 1800s, causing John D. Rockefeller to bail out of his investments here, Hill stepped in and bought the region for a song. In one of the great cheap land deals of all time, he sold the Weyerhaeusers 900,000 acres of prime timber. The price was $6 an acre, and the understanding was that lumber and cedar shingles would fill Great Northern freight trains heading east and south.

The Weyerhaeuser Timber Co.'s first mill - the largest in the world at the time - opened in Everett in 1902. Within a few years, dozens of small mills followed. In the early 1900s, the city benefited by supplying the materials needed to rebuild San Francisco and Tokyo, which had been destroyed by earthquakes and fires. During the first third of the century, Everett's timber industry thrived and then evolved into what historian Dilgard calls a "nightmarish example of unbridled, devastating free enterprise."

"When shingles were worth anything at all, anybody with a little money fired up a mill and furiously produced until the market was glutted so badly everybody had to shut down for weeks," said Dilgard. "Everett was constantly going through little boom-and-bust cycles. People would go from working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, to not working at all for several months."

Everett's economic diversification in recent years has helped change that pattern. The early lumber mills were replaced by pulp mills that required more investment; thus more of a financial commitment to the community.

The late 1960s brought Boeing and 24,000 jobs. The '70s saw a number of mill closures and the '80s brought John Fluke, Hewlett-Packard and a half-dozen other electronics firms that put Everett in the middle of the high-tech corridor. And by the end of the 1980s, the federal government was turning a huge section of the city's waterfront into a home port for Navy ships.

"So many things have happened in the last 30 years," said native Bill Rucker, whose ancestors played a prominent role in the development of Everett. "There's been enough new industry that the closures have been cushioned. The mills have sort of gradually slipped away."

Chuck Twining, a historian who's written a book about Weyerhaeuser's early history, says this about the timber industry in Everett: "It used to be the dog and now it's the tail."

Yet for all its economic diversification, pockets of Everett still feel very much like the smoky mill town of the past. While the south end of the city has redeveloped and prospered, the dilapidated downtown area remains locked in what could be described as a permanent bust cycle.

At the north end of the city, where the Snohomish River empties into Port Gardner Bay, logs are still gathered for shipment to West Coast mills and to countries in the Pacific Rim.

On Smith Island, the Buse Timber Co. still saws raw logs, as do a few small mills in and around Everett. Scott Paper operates a pulp mill on Everett's waterfront, and Weyerhaeuser buildings still dominate the 360 acres of prime, riverfront industrial land that will soon be vacant.

The mills have left their mark on people, too. Though the Chamber of Commerce doesn't like to admit it, parts of Everett and Marysville remain very much blue-collar, lunch-bucket towns where the smell and soot weren't a problem and lives are scheduled around shift changes.

For those people, Weyerhaeuser represented what was best about the timber industry. The pay was good; the benefits, great, and the employment stable.

"Until these rumors started flying, once you went to work for Weyerhaeuser you were set for life," said Dan Husby, whose father retired from the company three years ago. "Everett's always been a Weyerhaeuser town. It's provided me a good living for 20 years. I was hoping for another 20 but it didn't work out."

Anticipating this closure, Husby retrained as a dump-truck driver and has a new job waiting when his shift ends.

There is a final irony in this closure. Weyerhaeuser is going back in the direction from whence Frederick Weyerhaeuser came. Nearly 100 years ago he expanded his logging operations from the Mississippi River valley to the Northwest. The attraction, then, was cheap labor, friendlier politicians and a seemingly endless supply of trees.

None of that exists here any longer. So recently, Weyerhaeuser opened a huge new mill in Columbus, Miss. The attraction? Cheaper labor, no owls, trees that grow in half the time it takes to grow trees here and a population - hungry for work - that doesn't think of the forest in such majestic terms.

"It was a wonderful life that some of 'em thought would never end," said Husby. "A lot of 'em said it would never happen but their eyes are open now."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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