Paper mill marks 50 years of growth in world market

It was the only job Ray Floyd has ever had.

He grew up "near the river swamps" a mile away from the sprawling factory where he "could roll down the hill and be at work in no time," he said.

He knew the International Paper Augusta Mill before it was the powerhouse it is today, producing enough board every year to circle the Earth 17 times.

He knew it 50 years ago, when it was still a cattle farm with a three-story barn.

Since he took his job in 1960, he has seen the mill grow from a one-line assembly to a three-paper-machine operation.

On Saturday, he helped celebrate the mill's 50- year anniversary and was honored as one of three of the mill's longest-serving employees.

"This place has been really good to me," Floyd said. "With paper machines, it could be a great day or it could be a disastrous day. I've had a lot of good days."

The mill brought nearly 2,000 of its past and present employees and their families for a carnival held on the slope below the mill.

The mill has more than 700 employees and produces paper board that ends up in DVD cases, paper plates and lottery tickets all over the world, said mill manager Chris Mallon.

The mill uses timber from a 100-mile radius around Augusta, meeting 80 percent of its fuel needs from by-products of the harvested trees, Mallon said. On average, the plant produces 1,900 tons of paper a day.

Ralph Dillman stepped on the mill site 50 years ago, when he was 18, and helped build the factory where he has worked ever since.

"I remember walking right down here with a bag of peanuts on my shoulders heading to the job site," Dillman said.

Between laying pipes in construction, Dillman would sell bags of peanuts for 15 cents each to the 3,000 construction workers, where Dudley Wheeler was also working.

Wheeler, who also was honored Saturday for his 50 years of service, began in the mill as a stock operator and moved to a finished products operator, where he works today at 80 years old.

"I've had a good life here," Wheeler said.

The celebration Saturday was also a reunion for most employees.

It was the first time in decades some had seen friends that they once worked beside for years.

When Ike Benefield, a 42-year mill employee, spotted Wheeler in the crowd he joked about when his friend would finally join him in retirement.

"Maybe another 10 years," Wheeler said.

Timeline in Augusta

International Paper's Augusta Mill started in 1960 as Continental Can Co.'s forest products division. They developed the 3,000-acre site on Mike Padgett Highway. Additional production capacity was installed in 1965 and 1977.

The plant was acquired in 1985 by Federal Paper Board Co. The facility underwent a $1 billion expansion between 1986 and 1992.

In 1996, Federal was acquired by International Paper for $3.5 billion.

International Paper's Augusta Mill employs nearly 720 employees. More than 260 of those employees have worked there for more than 25 years.