Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2020. Canton’s paper mill closed in May 2023.
“We call it the Canton comeback,” Zeb Smathers says. The town’s gregarious 37-year-old mayor practices law alongside his father, a former Canton mayor, in the Main Street building that once housed his grandfather’s grocery store. Smathers Supermarket, like most shops in the central business district, shut down decades ago. The forces that killed downtowns everywhere — shopping malls, suburbanization — hit Canton hard. By the 1990s, it was a ghost town, and it would remain that way for years, long after its neighbors Waynesville and Brevard had reinvented themselves as tourist destinations.
Edie Hutchins Burnette. photograph by Charles Harris
Within the past few years, though, Canton has started to change, thanks to an ensemble cast of public-spirited citizens, forward-looking town leaders, and ambitious business owners. In downtown Canton, you can now start your day with a latte and a locally baked pastry, lunch on a burger made with Haywood County beef, and spend your evening at a craft brewery on the banks of the Pigeon River. These are amenities that attract out-of-town visitors, but locals insist that Canton is not, and never will be, a tourist town.
“The typical mountaineer attitude is: You are welcome to come, but don’t try to change our way of life,” says Canton native Edie Hutchins Burnette. It’s a noble sentiment that has the ring of famous last words, given that growth in mountain towns has a habit of careening out of control. But Canton seems to be redeveloping in its own way. The reason for that — and the reason for much of what happens here — has everything to do with the enormous paper mill that’s situated right in the center of town.
Canton takes pride in local students who excel. During the town’s Labor Day Parade of 1951, Reynolds School winners of a “Best Citizens Essay” contest got to ride in the rumble seat of Kelly Bugg’s 1930 Chrysler. photograph by Canton Area Historical Museum Collection
Peter Thomson founded the Champion Coated Paper Company in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1893. By that time, trees had grown scarce in much of the United States, so Thomson went looking for virgin timber. He found it in western North Carolina, where he bought tens of thousand of acres of forestland and built a pulp mill. Champion offered good pay, and local mountain people wanted the work. Haywood County residents descended to the mill and applied for jobs, working the land — hunting, fishing, and gathering wild greens — in their spare time.
The mill workers built good lives in Canton, judging by the jumble of records and artifacts on display at the Canton Area Historical Museum: copies of Champion’s in-house magazine (punningly titled The Log); a 1960s Miss Georgia-brand paper ice cream carton produced at the mill; publicity photos of a local novelty act called the Country Charmers; and a sign that reads, “Wrought Iron Bridge Co., Builders, Canton, Ohio,” which once adorned the town’s truss bridge. The sign is central to local lore. Not long after the bridge was built, around 1890, it inspired local leaders to change the town’s name from Pigeon River to Canton.
One morning each week, a group of locals — a sort of unofficial Friends of the Museum organization — convenes at a card table amid the artifacts to discuss Canton’s history and advocate for its future. Mostly retirees — a physics professor, a teacher, a civil engineer, and several mill workers — they speak with reverence about Peter Thomson’s son-in-law, Reuben B. Robertson, who ran Champion from 1907 through the 1950s on a paternalistic model. The mill offered scheduled raises, paid vacations, a credit union, retirement programs, and generous support for schools and the YMCA.
The 1960s opened a new era in Canton, with layoffs at the mill followed by a successful unionization drive. By the 1990s, structural changes in the global paper industry led to the first of several rounds of corporate reshuffling that have resulted, today, in control of the mill by Evergreen Packaging, which is owned by the billionaire Graeme Hart, the richest person in New Zealand. According to the company, the mill now employs more than 1,000 people, who earn salaries and benefits worth more than $100 million annually.
“‘Papertown’ was our eureka moment. We’re a paper town. We’re a blue-collar town.”
The locals sitting around the card table are grateful for the mill and the jobs it provides, but they also miss the civic spirit of earlier owners, who dedicated themselves to building up both the company and the town. Caroline Ponton, the museum’s curator, produces black-and-white photos showing the handsome, company-funded YMCA building, bustling sidewalks, huge crowds at the Labor Day parade, and gleaming tail-finned cars lining the streets. “In the ’40s and ’50s,” Hutchins Burnette says, “Canton was a very busy place — it had any kind of store you needed.” She grew up the daughter of the school superintendent and became a writer and a teacher at Pisgah High School. “It was bigger and more prosperous than Waynesville.”
Her boast hints at a friendly rivalry that Canton, from outside appearances, has lost. Its downtown is only now starting to revive, while Waynesville’s Main Street has been thriving for years. But the distinction is somewhat deceiving. One vital source of prosperity that Canton never lost is the paper mill. As western North Carolina’s textile plants and furniture factories shuttered, Canton’s paper mill kept operating, giving the town a tax base that was the envy of other communities. There was just one problem: When mill workers finished their shifts, they drove away from Canton to spend their paychecks in Waynesville or Asheville. Recently, though, civic pride has returned to Canton. People have started to buy local again.
“I give a lot of credit to Balsam Range,” Mayor Smathers says. He’s referring to the big-time bluegrass band with roots in Haywood County. In 2012, the band released Papertown, a chart-topping album whose title track was a sentimental celebration of Canton. “‘Papertown’ was our eureka moment,” Smathers says. “We’re a paper town. We’re a blue-collar town. If you’re gonna be damned, be damned for who you truly are.”
The song may have inspired hometown pride, but Canton’s revival owes far more to the locals who have labored to bring change to the town. In June, Canton announced that it would partner with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to create a 448-acre outdoor recreation park just east of downtown, with initial plans calling for hiking, mountain biking, and other uses compatible with preserving the wooded property as an important wildlife corridor. Three years ago, R&B singer Gladys Knight and her husband, Canton native Billy McDowell, launched an ambitious effort to create a community center in the building that once housed the segregation-era all-Black Reynolds School. Canton’s Labor Day Festival — the oldest celebration of labor in the South — has been updated with big-name acts. Downtown has been beautified, and its traffic has been calmed by curb bump-outs and newly planted trees.
Two friends get in a little swing time at Reynolds Park, next to a formerly all-Black school that’s slated to become a community center. photograph by Charles Harris
The town also offers generous economic development grants to help downtown building owners pay for renovations. And Canton leaders have relaxed liquor laws, always a fraught issue in the small-town South. One faction worried that the sight of people drinking alcohol on a restaurant patio might corrupt the town’s youth. The retirees who gather at the museum, all very much in favor of recent changes, laugh as they recall such disputes.
“By the time the brewery got here,” says Phil Paxton, a Canton native, “the people who were against alcohol had pretty much screamed and hollered themselves out.” That brewery is BearWaters Brewing, which moved to Canton from Waynesville in 2017, opened a taproom on the banks of the Pigeon River, and has enjoyed booming business ever since. Other new additions to Canton’s food and beverage scene have done well, too. JRO’s, a popular sandwich shop, also started in Waynesville but decamped for Canton in 2017. And the married couple behind Papertown Coffee moved to Canton from the foothills in 2019, offering locals a better way to start the day.
JRO’s occupies two rooms right on Main Street, its walls paneled in reclaimed wood and adorned with antique tools and gas station signs. From the start, the space seemed a bit small. “The first day we opened, it was just packed to the walls,” says Robert Kuhhirte, who, with Randy O’Quinn, owns and operates the restaurant. “Every single day for the first month, first two months, people were lined up down the sidewalk.” The locals loved the food — especially the burgers, made with beef from Canton’s Leatherwood Family Farms — and they were grateful to find the restaurant right on Main Street. O’Quinn and Kuhhirte had discovered a pent-up demand: Locals wanted to spend money in town; finally, they could.
Other business owners had the same revelation. Russ Grimmett and Liz Rhine lived in Morganton before buying a Main Street building in Canton and opening Papertown Coffee last year. They live in an apartment upstairs and welcome customers into the shop as if it were an extension of their home. A local woodshop crafted the stools along the bar, which is faced with tin ceiling tiles salvaged from the building’s renovation. “We were told, ‘You gotta have a dollar cup of coffee because that’s what people will want,’” Grimmett says. The couple found, instead, that mill workers like good coffee — and can afford it, thanks to union wages. Some stop by before a shift to fill up their thermoses.
The paper mill, of course, is the one key factor that stands in the way of Canton becoming a tourist town. Making paper has always been a dirty business. For nearly a century, the mill’s discharge pipe spewed black liquid that fouled the Pigeon River all the way into Tennessee, and the smokestacks released a sulfurous smell. In the 1980s, “when I was a kid,” Mayor Smathers says, “the river was black, there was foam, the odor was constant.” Since then, lawsuits and regulations have forced the mill to clean up its act. The river has come back to life, and the odor has diminished though not disappeared, with some days better than others.
The whole family helps out at Pigeon River Mercantile. Haleigh Thompson holds her baby as she hangs clothing, while her mom, Lisa Conrad, works the store in the background. photograph by Charles Harris
When Tammy Milner-Henry retired from nursing and decided to start a market, a friend, she says, “strongly encouraged me not to open in Canton because my items would smell.” She ignored the advice, and wisely so: Maddie’s on Main, named after her grandmother, has been successful from the start, and Milner-Henry is now the heart of the new Canton. Other business owners say she’s the spark that ignited the town’s revival. When she hears such praise, she weeps tears of joy.
Asked if she had relatives who worked at the mill, Milner-Henry ticks off a list: “My dad, my granddad, my stepdad after my dad died, my uncles, my aunt.” Mill wages purchased homes and fed families for generations. “It’s the living of a lot of people around here, and we’re thankful for it,” Milner-Henry says. When people gripe about the smell, she says, “I don’t have a clever response.”
Other businesses have embraced the clever response. BearWaters brews a Belgian-style ale called Smells Like Money. Pigeon River Mercantile, a Main Street shop that stocks clothing, gifts, and fine crafts, created a trucker cap with a smokestack design that reads, “Canton: Smells Like Home.” The cap was designed by Haleigh Thompson, who helps curate the shop with her mother, owner Lisa Conard.
For Conard, the cap speaks the literal truth. Raised in Asheville, she made frequent trips to visit her grandparents near Canton. On the drive, she says, “I would smell the smell, and I would be beside myself, bouncing off the walls in the back of our Volkswagen, because I knew I was close to my Granny and Papaw’s house.”
Liz Rhine and Russ Grimmett remember a visit they made to town before they bought the building that would become Papertown Coffee. “That particular day, the smell was pretty heavy,” Rhine says. “But we drove to BearWaters, and they had all the doors open, and it was packed, indoors and out,” she remembers. Despite the smell, locals were going about their lives, drinking beer and eating burgers in the shadow of the mill. “We thought, We’ll be fine,” she says. “It takes a certain kind of person to be OK with it.”
And those are the kind of people who belong in Canton. The town welcomes tourists, but — thanks to the paper mill payroll — it doesn’t need tourists. And that’s precisely what makes Canton such a nice place to visit.
If You Go
At BearWaters Brewing, locals can have a beer in the shadow of the smokestacks that rise from the paper mill. photograph by Charles Harris