The history of the Village of Childsdale, continued
by BETH ALTENA
Henry B. Childs ran his paper mill with great success for a time. The well-known resident of the county had a penchant for purchasing property and soon owned most if not all of Childsdale, historic accounts tell. Fire destroyed the first mill on July 28, 1868. It was rebuilt and in 1889 Henry deeded half the mill to his youngest son, Horace. Horace had a vision for the plant and introduced new machinery when he became partner. On August 22, 1898 the mill was again destroyed by fire and rebuilt.
Old newspaper accounts describe activity of the mill. “May to September the hillside north of the mill is covered with large squares of paperboard with boys running, turning them and loading them back into the plant. If you happen along when a storm is approaching you will see the greatest activity among field hands. The boards are gathered up and carried under shelter. As soon as the sun has had time to dry the grass the boards are carried out and spread in the sun once more.”
Part of the success of the company over the years was the result of innovation. The original mill made paper which was shipped to Chicago’s slaughter houses and used to wrap meat. The paper was hauled to Grand Rapids by oxen and shipped from there by train to Chicago. In 1867 the railroad from Grand Rapids to Rockford was built. Later paper prices fell and the mill began to make paperboard, mostly for folding packaging.
A claim to fame was the invention of a superior form of cardboard used for egg cartons. The mill workers used a process of combining a layer of straw paper with wood pulp and sulphite. It was far superior to the process of making crates other mills used. When the cartons were ready to hold the eggs, a 200-pound man could not crush them.
Another secret to success may have been the way the Childs family paid their employees. They didn’t. Employees could live in the two-dozen homes of the Childsdale village and shop at the company store. For pay they were given scripts with which they could pay rent or purchase food or goods at the company store. Should they choose to shop during a trip to Grand Rapids or elsewhere, they used their scripts and the store charged that amount to their Childs credit.
Horace was a prospect as a successful businessman known for his flowing hair, black fedora and Prince Albert coat. He married Frances Lockeby and the couple built a three-story, 30-room mansion overlooking the village. The couple were so proud of the ornate woodwork on their fancy domicile they refused to have the home painted.
In 1903 Horace fell in love with the postmistress, Maude Maynard. His enraged wife kicked him out and he moved into an apartment over the company store. The following decline of the Childs legacy has the hint of a morality tale to it, as financial difficulties followed. The many property holdings of Horace caught up with him as he was unable to pay taxes for his properties in Childsdale and elsewhere in Kent County. He never returned to the mansion on the hill and Francis took the children and moved to Grand Rapids. In 1934 at age 82 Horace Childs died and a month later the mansion burned to the ground.
Despite investment, paper mill fails repeatedly
The rest of the history of Childsdale lacks the excitement of the first 100 years. After Horace Childs lost his fortune following his romance of a woman not his wife, the village began to disappear. In 1933 three men from Muskegon purchased the paper mill. In 1986 the dam that existed downstream of the mill was destroyed by flood. For the first time in 100 years, salmon and steelhead could swim up to as far as Rockford where a dam blocks their upstream progress.
In 1987 the mill was sold by PRM Board and Carton Corp. to Converters Paperboard Company. At that time the plant discharged fluids not into the river, but into the sewage system, where the flow helped keep things moving. The volume was a help to the system, equipped with extra large pipes because of the mill, although Plainfield Township Manager Robert Homan characterized the discharge as “pretty strong stuff.” In 1998 the mill closed for a final time, costing 70 workers their jobs. In interviews to newspapers at the time, workers said they did not see the closure coming. The contents were auctioned in 2006 and the property remained for sale ever since. The definitive book on Rockford by Homer Burch is From Sawmill to City. For the “Childsdale” papermill, the story may well turn out to be “From sawmill to church.”