More than pulp and steam

When I was a kid, I judged Everett’s Kimberly-Clark mill by its cover: a hulking shoebox of red brick — plain and industrial-cold.

And by its smell. In the 1970s, pulp was the city’s great equalizer. It didn’t discriminate. The mill stench leached into homes and sat in kitchens, greeting fam

ilies first thing in the morning. An odor of rotten eggs cut the salt air as the North Everett elite and not-so-elite fetched The Herald off the front porch.

So when I finally visited the Kimberly-Clark mills a few years ago, I secretly expected a scene from a Walker Evans Depression-era photo. But the inside was as clean and technologically advanced as the outside seemed a relic. As The Herald wrote last week, when the company announced that it had no likely buyers and planned to close the plant next year, this is not your grandfather’s pulp mill.

Like the building, the Kimberly-Clark narrative (and before that Scott and before that Soundview and before that Puget Sound Pulp and Timber) is more complicated and rich than it first seems.

At a young age I learned that the history of the Pacific Northwest is the history of labor. Families didn’t move to Everett for water views of the serried Olympics. My grandfather, whom I never met, emigrated from Norway and took a job paving the streets of a newly platted Everett. That was back when roads were buckled ribbons of calf-deep mud. It was hard work. In fact, everything was work. Labor, much of it back-breaking and tedious, was the soul of the city.Peter Jackson married a fellow Norwegian immigrant, Marine Anderson, and built a home on Oakes. They had five children, one of whom died as a teen from Spanish flu. The youngest, my father, went on to a life of politics and never had to buckle down in the mills.

I don’t know if my grandfather made it past primary school, and he never attended college. The Kimberly-Clark mill is one of the last workplaces where someone can go straight from Cascade or Everett High School to a living-wage job. That will change, of course, if it hasn’t already.

My lasting Kimberly-Clark memory is the announcement board. Grouped between various notices were the anniversaries: head shots of workers, rows of them, celebrating 30 or 40 years of service. With the possible exception of Boeing, it’s difficult to imagine any workplace with that kind of longevity.

Today the Kimberly-Clark mill is an orphan, the last real mill on a waterfront once hemmed by mills. Everett can be an unsentimental place, and for some the impulse will be to shrug and recall various extractive industries that also suffered and faded away.

That would be an uncreative acceptance that diminishes a town elevated and bound together by working people. Give up without a farsighted, coordinated response and we not only judge the Kimberly-Clark mill by its cover, we allow, as workers said a century ago, the big-company bosses to win.

Pete Jackson, a former gubernatorial speechwriter, is an editor at Crosscut.com in Seattle.

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