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Photo exhibit preserves history of Parsons Paper

Date: 12/3/2008

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

HOLYOKE For generations of Holyokers, the Parsons Paper Company provided jobs and helped build the community's reputation nationally as "The Paper City."

While the building was destroyed by a fire this summer, the buildings and the machines that made a variety of paper goods have been preserved through a series of photographs taken by "industrial archeologist" Sandy Noyes of Chatam, NY.

Noyes' photos will be the subjects of an exhibit, "Parson Paper in Historical Perspectives 1858-2008" at the Holyoke Public Library from Dec. 13 through Jan. 16, 2009.

Curated by Penni Martorell, the new archivist for the library's historical collection, the black and white photos will be accompanied by artifacts from Parsons Paper. Among them is the company's nurse's logbook from the late 1930s to the mid 1940. Each page detailed the various ailments she had to treat and there were many notations of paper cuts next to an employee's name.

Martorell said that Noyes was "embedded" at the plant from 1999 and 2004 taking a large number of black and white photos that showed the huge complex and the immense papermaking machines it contained.

She said that she met Noyes this summer a day after a fire destroyed the plant and was the person who broke the news to him that the mill was gone. She said he "took a step back" in shock.

"To have that link to the past gone is significant to Holyoke," she said.

By using black and white and concentrating on the machines and buildings, Noyes' photos have a time defying quality.

There will be an opening reception for the exhibit from 1 to 4 p.m. on Dec. 13 with a conversation between Noyes and Martorell at 1 p.m. and a lecture by paper historian Sid Berger on the early development in papermaking at 3 p.m. at the library's community room.

Mitchell Moskal, now an assistant to Mayor Michael Sullivan, worked at Parsons Paper for 32 years and was the plant's last general manager, said Parsons had been the first paper mill in the city.

Established in 1853 by J.C. Parsons, a pharmacist who wanted to get into the paper business. He was at first denied building on the canals because it was thought the vibrations from the papermaking machines would shake apart a brick building. Parsons bought a gristmill on the river and started a campaign to be allowed to build on the canal, which he eventually did. The building that stood for over a century was never affected by the movement of the machines.

Moskal has lent the library a promotional video used by Parsons Paper in its last years that shows some of the papermaking machines in action, Martorell said.

She said the success of Parsons Paper created spin-off companies that helped the city develop.

"The industrial history is really fascinating," she said. "It [industry] grew so quickly and created the city."