Remembering when Everett really was Mill Town

It was September of 1988, six weeks before the presidential election. Candidates were crisscrossing the country. On a fall afternoon, it was Everett’s turn for a visit.

Lloyd Bentsen, vice presidential nominee and Democrat Michael Dukakis‘ running mate, was on the Everett waterfront Sept. 22, 1988 to speak with workers at Scott Paper Co.

It’s been 23 years, but I recall exactly what a Herald reporter promised when he invited me to tag along to see Bentsen: “It’s a chance to see history.”

I remember it clearly because that reporter was my husband, who died a decade later. Seeing history was always high on his list.

So there we were, outside the Scott Paper industrial buildings, listening to Bentsen give his stump speech. If the campaign stop’s purpose was an appeal to American workers, the crowd was picture-perfect.

The setting seemed almost like a movie set, and the workers like players from Central Casting. It wasn’t the first time Everett’s pulp and paper mill had been used to convey the iconic look of American industry.

The Scott Paper Co. doubled as a fictional Seattle steel mill in the 1985 movie “Twice in a Lifetime,” which starred Gene Hackman as a working-class man in the midst of a marital breakup.

That day in 1988 is still the only time I have ever been at what’s now the Kimberly-Clark Corp. mill. It was good news to learn Tuesday that the Everett mill and its 750 jobs might be saved.

The Kimberly-Clark Corp. had previously announced that unless a buyer was found, its plants would be shut down next year. The Herald reported Tuesday that the company is in talks with a potential buyer, Atlas Holdings LLC. That company has an East Coast pulp and paper mill similar to operations in Everett.

Darrell Moffatt said the possibility of a buyer is “absolutely” good news. “I want to see that place continue on,” the Camano Island man said Thursday.

Moffatt, 57, has been at the mill more than 35 years. “I’ve been a union official 24 of those years. I’m in the AWPPW Local 183, the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers. I’m one of the old school,” he said.

I found Moffatt by looking for news reports of Bentsen’s 1988 visit. He was also at Scott Paper that day, and was quoted in an Associated Press story about the event. Moffatt was quoted as saying that workers were told to take time to attend the Bentsen rally.

On Thursday, Moffatt said he couldn’t remember what Bentsen talked about in his speech. (Neither did I. So I looked it up. It was about Social Security.)

“That was too many years ago,” he said. Moffatt does recall the tailor-made scene, a crowd of workers outside the mill. In those days before email, he said managers went in person to ask workers to show up.

Moffatt recalled Bentsen standing on a platform and facing the water near the mill’s east gate. “He needed a crowd, and we were the crowd for him,” he said.

Today at Kimberly-Clark, Moffatt is a project technician in a pulp lab. He knew Everett when it truly was a mill town.

“I grew up in this town. If your old man didn’t work at the mills, you were in the food lines at the VOA,” he said. “You worked in the mills — Simpson Lee, Western Gear, Nord Door. Really, where else could a man work in this town? That was before Boeing,” he said

In an article titled “Building Up Everett: A Brief History by the Decade,” the Historic Everett preservation group said that Scott Paper Co. bought the Soundview Pulp Mill in 1951 and added a large paper-making facility. “Weyerhaeuser built a new kraft mill in 1953 and vied with Scott as the city’s largest employer, each having approximately 2,000 employees,” the article said.

Moffatt blames the loss of mill and manufacturing jobs on automation, globalization and the eroding power of labor unions. He remembers when sons followed fathers into a life’s work at the mill. He met his wife, Valencia, working at Scott Paper. He raised his children with mill-work earnings.

Moffatt’s son doesn’t work at Kimberly-Clark. “He’s a college graduate. He’s got a degree that I paid for,” he said.

Moffatt worries about the future for younger workers. “I’m one of the fortunate ones,” he said.

That day back in 1988, I did see history. I thought what I would remember most was an up-close look at a vice presidential candidate.

The most important history I really saw that day was something rarer — an up-close look at a mill town.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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