Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 1995, Anne Mackinnon wrote about her once-thriving hometown, Au Sable Forks, which continues to struggle, decades after the demise of its major employer.
Standing on Main Street of Au Sable Forks today it is almost impossible to imagine the town as it looked and was lived in forty years ago, near the end of the reign of the Rogers family. The local equivalent of royalty, the Rogerses came to Au Sable Forks in the 1830s, built not one but two major industries there (the first in iron, the second in paper), sold out in the 1950s and finally left in the 1970s, when the last of their mills closed for good. In between, they made a great many things happen in the town, took credit for even more and were blamed for everything else.
Growing up there, as I did, during the slow death of the J. & J. Rogers Company—after the family had lost control but before the final locking of the doors—one could feel a sense of loss everywhere but could hardly make out what exactly was being lost. Jobs, of course, but more than that. Every once in a while you’d hear a sweet and nostalgic story about a long-ago Rogers social event, or a flash of anger at a costly and, in retrospect, pivotal mistake at the mill, ordered by a Rogers son who “didn’t know paper”—the ultimate insult.
In those days the company no longer paid its employees in scrip or owned half the houses in town, but Au
Sable Forks was still in most ways a classic company town, as complex as a family, with all the affection and ambivalence and accumulated hard feelings, and all the unwillingness to talk.
The stories of the company and the town are hopelessly intertwined; together they are much too long and complicated to be presented here. The story of the company—and an abbreviated one at that—will have to suffice, with apologies to the thousands of people who worked for the Rogers Company over the years, or who lived in the villages where it did business.
At the center of the earliest cast of characters is James Rogers, born in 1804, and so a man in his middle twenties as the story begins. Originally from the town of Moreau, near Saratoga Springs, Rogers came north, first to the village of Keeseville, in the late 1820s. There he opened a mercantile store, where he distinguished himself as a keen and aggressive businessman. His advertising in the Keeseville Herald, closely followed by historian Philip Hardy in his study of the Rogers iron industry, shows that he carried on a brisk trade with New York City, bringing the latest novelty items to impress and tempt his local customers. Rogers also bought many items locally—butter, for instance, or meat or produce—one week advertising his eagerness to pay cash for the desired commodity, the next week selling it at a price that undercut his competition.
Visitors to the Adirondacks in those days often noted the prevalence of small forges, cottage businesses
operating on the fringes of the larger iron industry, built and fired by farmers on their own property for extra cash. By the early 1830s, many farmers were selling both ore and ingots through James Rogers, who used his store as a kind of depot for iron products on their way to Lake Champlain. When James and his brother, Thomas, opened stores in Clintonville and Black Brook in the early 1830s, those enterprises brought them even closer to the center of iron production, focused around the ore beds on Arnold and Palmer hills.
As unlikely as it seems today, iron manufacturing in the Ausable Valley was for most of the nineteenth century an industry of national significance. In the 1830s that industry was still growing—more than that, it was consolidating. The Peru Iron Company, organized in 1824 in nearby Clintonville and the largest concern of its kind in the area, was undoubtedly a beacon to Rogers: its mines, separators, charcoal kilns and timberlands, forge fires, stores and means of transportation, all were owned and integrated within a single operation. James Rogers knew firsthand that profits multiplied as a company grew, that goods and labor could be purchased cheaply from farmers who needed spare cash, that the real money was in the national economy, and that the way into the national economy was through iron, not local dry-goods stores.
But to return to our cast of characters: James and Thomas had an uncle, a prominent judge in the Saratoga area named Halsey Rogers, who, like his nephews, was attracted to the opportunities of the Adirondack region. Around 1830 Halsey purchased a large parcel of land in Black Brook and became part owner there of a sawmill and forge. He made his home in the village of Au Sable Forks, a few miles away.
Although Halsey Rogers remained in the town for only a few years, his influence—not to mention the capital he brought to the purchase of property and stock—was essential to the growth of his nephews’ businesses. Almost immediately after Halsey’s arrival in the area, James and Thomas consolidated family holdings in Black Brook by purchasing land at the center of the village and constructing not only an additional forge and a branch of their store, but a boardinghouse and workers’ homes. In what turned out to be a move of tremendous significance, Halsey then brought a young man named John Weed (later John Rogers) from New York City to run the Black Brook operation. Weed was officially adopted by the judge in 1844, but he seems always to have been treated as a member of the family; it is, in fact, fairly certain that he was Halsey Rogers’s illegitimate son, and may well have been known for all but the most official purposes a John Rogers from the time of his arrival in the area. Although he was less than twenty years old when he arrived in Clinton County, he swiftly became a full partner to James.
James Rogers and John Weed first became involved in business in Au Sable Forks in 1834. In that year George Burt and Isaac Vanderwarker, the original developers of smelting operations in the village, sold their four-fire forge to a stock company organized under the name of Sable Iron Works. James and John were two of several partners in that short-lived but ambitious enterprise. Within a year the company had constructed both a rolling mill and a nail factory adjacent to the forge, thus establishing the capacity to manufacture consumer goods from the iron being mined and processed locally. Before another year had passed, however, the company had fallen victim to the volatility of the national market for iron. As the gloom gathered in the year before the Panic of 1837, mining and forging came to a halt, and Sable Iron Works ceased operation.
But for James and John, the Panic of 1837 was a golden opportunity. That year, they bought up the entire stock of the Sable Iron Works, merged its holding with their Black Brook properties and reopened the forges, rolling mill and nail factory. (The Panic also turned out to be an opportunity for brother Thomas, who reputedly sold out his share for fifteen hundred dollars and a suit of clothes before heading west.) James took charge of the Au Sable Forks side of the business, while John remained in Black Brook. Th national financial collapse must not have scared the partners excessively, since by the end of 1837 James had sold his store in Keeseville and moved to Au Sable Forks in order to dedicate himself fully to his growing interest in the manufacture and sale of iron.
Making money in the iron business was a complicated matter, especially in the Adirondacks, far from easy transportation and markets. With their base of operations secure, Rogers and Weed began to diversify, adding components—a blacksmith shop, a foundry—that made the company more self-sufficient and cut down on their need for cash. Almost immediately they began selling stock in their reorganized company, a move that simultaneously capitalized a burst of expansion and cemented alliances with other leading citizens of
the area. In 1837 the entire company was in the hands of James and John; in 1838 it was necessary to hold a stockholders meeting, at which John Southmayd, an early settler of Jay and part owner of the Arnold Hill ore bed, was elected president.
From the 1830s through the 1880s the Rogers company never improved much on the basic Catalan-forge method of producing iron. Ore was brought from the mines to open roasting kilns, where hundreds of tons of raw ore would be piled atop dozens of cords of wood and heated until the ore began to separate from the slag. Once it cooled, the material would then be transported to the separators, where the ore was shaken and hammered and flushed with water until the heavy ore fell to the bottom and the slag was washed away. Then the separated ore went to the Catalan forges. Open hearths fired by charcoal, the forges were located inside brick buildings with high stacks to carry away gases and bellows to pump oxygen into the fire. When the ore was hot enough, the carbon monoxide produced by the burning charcoal removed the oxygen from the ore, yielding pure iron and carbon dioxide. (The insatiable need for charcoal explains the deforested state of Rogers company land as shown on maps from the late nineteenth century: forty thousand cords of wood—a thousand acres’ worth—had to be cut each year to produce 4.5 million bushels of charcoal.)
Tending the forges were highly skilled workers known as bloomers, whose job it was to judge the precise moment to remove the mass of iron from the hearth and place it on the anvil for hammering. The hammersmiths then shaped the iron into blooms, using triphammers so heavy they had to be driven by waterwheels. The iron blooms would then be sold or processed further at other Rogers facilities. The rolling mill produced boiler plate, widely used in those days for making stoves and other iron products. Nails from the nail factory were packed in kegs made in the company’s carpenter shop.
Although the method of making iron changed little itself, the company found other ways to promote efficiency. In 1848 it purchased its first interest in the Palmer Hill ore beds, thus entering the mining business as well. Rogers family historian Elsa Voelker, quoting her grandfather Henry Geer Rogers, explained that by 1861 the company owned five-eighths of Palmer Hill and all the mines on the west side of it. At that point it had almost no choice but to buy up as much land as it could pay for, so great was its need for charcoal for smelting lumber for construction, and farms to feed a veritable army of horses and oxen (371 and 553, respectively, in 1860). With so much ore, it could confidently buy additional forges. And it did: with the purchase of the G. A. Purmont forges in Jay in 1864, the Rogers enterprise became one of the largest iron companies in the country and established a base for further expansion along the East Branch of the Ausable River.
Transportation was another area where innovation could cut costs and increase profits. According to an estimate by James’s grandson Henry Rogers, the company owned (and collected tolls on) some thirty miles of plank roads. Plank roads carried much heavier loads—as much as six thousand pounds, compared with less than three thousand pounds on a dirt road—thus cutting transportation costs in half. Iron and iron products heading to downstate markets were hauled to Lake Champlain, where they were loaded on barges and floated to the railroad at Whitehall. James’s daughter Abby, in a letter to her granddaughter in 1925, recalled the “icebound” little town in winter and the long trip to the lake, where the iron would be “all piled up at the Port Kent Dock until spring brought us at last in communication with the world.”
The stacks of iron may have symbolized isolation to the child; to her father and uncle they demonstrated a vexing logistical problem. John Rogers lobbied persistently for decades for a better rail link between the Adirondacks and New York City. The goal was finally achieved in 1875, after John had twice been elected to Congress, when the Delaware & Hudson Railroad opened a route between Montreal and New York City along the western shore of Lake Champlain. A special spur ran southwest from Plattsburgh to Rogers Station, three miles north of Au Sable Forks.
The company store was also an essential tool in keeping costs low. Philip Hardy demonstrates that Rogers workers received wages well within regional norms, but he also points out that, because they were paid in scrip, the company could effectively reduce the value of those wages simply by raising prices in the store—the only place the scrip could be used. Workers resented this form of economic captivity, so much so that when the bloomers formed a union and went on strike in the 1880s their single, adamant demand was to be paid in cash.
In 1870 James and John Rogers incorporated their holdings as the J. & J. Rogers Iron Company, making James president and John vice-president, and their two eldest sons—Halsey and Thomas, respectively—trustees. Within two years of the incorporation however the hopes of the fathers were dashed upon the deaths of both young men. (Halsey, a popular local figure, is fabled to have hitched up his team when he learned he had cancer and driven around the countryside saying good-bye to his friends.) James Rogers retired as president in 1877, leaving John to serve until his death, in 1879. James died the following year, in 1880.
This left the leadership of the company open to James’s two sons-in-law, Henry Graves and George Chahoon, who had been appointed as trustees after the deaths of Halsey and Thomas. Henry, never very popular with the Rogers family, had married James’s oldest daughter, Kate, after being refused the hand of Mary, her younger sister. Henry nevertheless became president of the company in 1880, with George Chahoon, married to the apparently more desirable Mary, serving as vice-president. Meanwhile, young James Jr., who had left Cornell in 1873 to become superintendent of the ironworks, never got a chance to lead the company in the production of iron. By the time he was elected president of the J. &. J. Rogers Company in 1895 it was producing pulp, not iron, and its second incarnation had begun.
In the 1870s the Rogers iron operation was at its peak in every way, thriving and prominent, with employees in Au Sable Forks, Black Brook and Jay numbering two thousand. Hardy’s study shows that annual iron production stood at approximately seventy-five hundred tons. About three-quarters of that amount was shipped as billets to Pittsburgh, where it was made into steel; the rest went to the company’s own facilities, where eighty thousand kegs of nails were produced for sale each year. In 1876, at the great Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the J. & J. Rogers Iron Company received a medal for the excellence of its product. At that same exhibition, George Chahoon met Thomas Edison and purchased a telephone to link the central office in Au Sable Forks with the Palmer Hill mines and the works in Black Brook. Installed the next spring, it is said to have been one of the two or three earliest commercial telephone systems in the world. Upon becoming president of the company in 1879, Henry Graves built himself an opulent mansion in the village of Au Sable Forks. By 1880 Au Sable Forks boasted churches, schools, a hotel, a modem fire department, a Western Union office and other civil institutions. The town was marred only by a reputation for hard drinking and the truly slumlike conditions of workers’ housing in Black Brook and Palmer Hill.
What this picture leaves out, however, are the effects of the discovery in the late 1880s of vast iron deposits near Lake Superior, especially in the Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota. The ore there was of a lower quality, but it could be mined more easily and used effectively in steelmaking, thanks to the development of the new Bessemer process. The Rogers Company cut production again and again during the decade, but by 1888, according to Elsa Voelker, “the firm was losing so much money that the officers called a general meeting of all their employees to discuss the situation. It was decided that the workers would take a cut in pay from a dollar a day to ninety cents.” In 1889, to avoid bankruptcy, the company ceased operations, and Henry Graves, accused of embezzlement, was forced from the presidency.
The next four years were a time of great poverty and upheaval for most local people. The population of the town of Black Brook, encompassing the village of Black Brook and most workers’ houses in Au Sable Forks, stood at 3,365 in 1880; by 1890 it had dwindled to 2,256, and by 1900 to 1,933. Rumors about the possible future of the company abounded. The D. & H. rail spur had made Au Sable Forks a major transfer point for tourists heading to the Adirondack interior, and there was apparently some thought of capitalizing on that situation—an unlikely whim, given the denuded state of most land near the town. Many families turned to picking blueberries, which were shipped to Albany by train through an arrangement brokered by Henry Rogers and I. H. Chahoon, teenage sons of James Rogers Jr. and George Chahoon. Others chopped wood, grew potatoes or just left.
According to Rogers family sources, James Rogers Jr. realized fairly quickly that the company’s resources lent themselves well to the making of pulp: vast tracts of land covered with young spruce trees that had no value as lumber; an ideal building site on the river, which could supply both power and water for the manufacturing process; access to the railroad, with its own station a few miles from town; plenty of workers already living in company housing and eager for employment; and the good name of the Rogers Company, perhaps sufficient to raise the necessary capital. In James Jr.’s mind these added up to a promising foundation. Convincing the other stockholders was a separate matter, but by 1893 he had succeeded. With three hundred thousand dollars borrowed from a Glens Falls bank, he was ready to move forward.
In June of 1893 the official reorganization began, with all the assets of the company sold and repurchased by its original stockholders. Hiram Stetson, who had taken over after the ouster of Henry Graves, was elected the company’s first president, with Chahoon and Rogers serving as officers. By the end of the month a sulfite pulp mill was under construction, many of its million bricks recycled from the company’s dismantled forges. An impressive dam to power the complex was also being built just upriver. The company store was sold and reopened under new management as the Au Sable Supply Store, ending forever the practice of payment in scrip. Meanwhile, Chahoon and Rogers paid a visit to the managers of the D. & H. Railroad and convinced them to extend the line right to the door of the new mill.
No one in Au Sable Forks—not workers, not managers—knew the first thing about making pulp by the sulfite process, a complicated chemical method in which acid is used to break down the wood. Rogers decided to hire four experienced pulp makers to make the acid and cook the pulp, but hired the rest of the work force from among his own laid-off employees. Family lore has it that he actually wrote to workers who had moved away and invited them to come back for jobs in the new mill. His plan apparently worked. The mill opened in June 1894 and was very shortly exceeding its intended capacity—instead of the expected fifteen tons of pulp per day, it was making and selling twenty. A contract with the U.S. government to supply pulp for the making of postcards put the company on firm footing by 1895. That same year the rail line was completed, and people in Au Sable Forks got used to seeing trains coming down the middle of their main street three times a day.
The foresight and hard work of Rogers himself was soon rewarded by the company’s directors, who elected him president in 1895 after Hiram Stetson stepped down. There was apparently some feeling that this recognition had been a long time in coming. Three-quarters of a century later, Henry Rogers recalled his mother’s words as his father left for the meeting: “Come home president or don’t come home at all.”
It was not very long before the logic of the pulp mill’s success inspired the company to move full scale into papermaking. Ground was broken for a modem paper mill in 1902, located near the pulp mill but slightly closer to the village and across the river, with a new company office alongside. At the start, the paper mill used about half the output of the pulp mill, making about forty tons of paper each day. Capacity grew even more in 1905 when J. & J. Rogers purchased the Alice Falls Pulp Company, at Ausable Chasm, which made groundwood pulp used in newsprint and other inexpensive papers. With the groundwood facility came fifty thousand more acres of woodland.
The company’s manufacturing facilities at Au Sable Forks were far more centralized than their ironworks had been: only the mines on Palmer Hill had brought such a concentration of people to a single workplace. Still, the interests of the company remained far-flung. Logs for making pulp had to be brought down from increasingly remote parts of the Rogers land, which stretched north to surround Fem Lake, Silver Lake and Taylor Pond, west across most of Whiteface Mountain, up the East Branch into Upper Jay and the Glen, and onto Jay Mountain. In 1909 a local item in the “Forestdale” section of the Adirondack Record ( which always served as a mouthpiece for the company) gives a picture of the efforts required to keep track of such an empire: “John Douglass, in the employ of the Rogers Company, arrived here Sunday afternoon with five teams. He is going to draw logs and look the locality over and to see what is being done that ought not to be and put a stop to it.”
Most wood for the pulp mill was cut during the winter from the company’s land on Whiteface and in the Glen. Lumber camps operated from October through April, the main one being the Notch House on the West Branch of the Ausable between Wilmington and Lake Placid. The loggers originally used axes and were paid according to how much they cut; later, after the introduction of crosscut saws, the company established a standard wage of between twenty-six and thirty dollars per month. Some of the better logs were hauled out during the winter, to be carried on sleds over frozen roads to the company’s sawmills. Most were piled up near enormous “slips,” wooden sluiceways that each spring carried the logs down off the side of the mountain to the edge of the river. Tanks and feeder springs along the route supplied a rush of water that sped logs down to the bottom in a matter of minutes.
The slip that ran from Jay Mountain through the Glen and to the East Branch of the river was more than eight miles long, constructed by hand of sawn boards and supported on log trestles. A similar slip, designed to carry timber from the vast woodlands on the slopes of Whiteface to the West Branch below High Falls, was shorter-two and a half miles long—but more spectacular: for much of its route the trough itself was raised between sixty and a hundred feet above the ground on tall wooden trestles, all engineered and made by Rogers Company carpenters.
Before they went into the river, each log was branded with the company mark to distinguish it from those belonging to other concerns that also used the waterway. A correspondent writing in the Record in 1914 estimated that operations during the winter of 1913-14 had yielded eleven thousand cords of wood from the East Branch, thirty thousand cords from the West Branch, plus about a thousand brought directly to the mill by independent loggers.
The log drive that followed was an intense thirteen-hour-a-day, monthlong affair. Each of the three hundred men who worked the drive was paid between a dollar and a half and two dollars a day, depending on the skill involved in his particular job. Crews followed the logs downriver to refloat any that got caught, and jam boats were ready for the dangerous task of breaking up the larger blockages. To the French-Canadian loggers who worked in the Rogers lumber camps, the excitement of the log drive was a familiar end to a winter’s work; to local residents accustomed to the routines of iron production the drive must have seemed bizarre and dangerous. One can only imagine the pride and amazement of James Rogers Jr. as he watched and photographed his company’s first major drive in the spring of 1895.
When the logs reached the collection points at Au Sable Forks, they were trapped in long floating “booms” made of logs bolted together and chained to piers in the river. Working night and day, crews sorted the logs, taking from the river only those that bore the Rogers brand and sending the others back into the stream. The men, standing up to their waists in the cold river water, then dragged the logs onto the shore and counted them before attaching them to a conveyor for loading. A story in the Record in 1909 illustrates the amazing pace of the work: “All previous records on the conveyor of the J. &. J. Rogers Co. were broken on Saturday last, when the night shift, headed by Fred Miner and Jerry Kyea, succeeded in taking from the river 19,706 pieces of pulp wood.” Not surprisingly, the pulpwood eventually ran out. The last Rogers Company log drive was held in 1923; after that most pulpwood was shipped in by train from Canada.
Once the logs arrived at the pulp mill, their first stop was the wood room, where the four-foot “sticks” were thrown by hand into tumblers that cleaned them and removed all bark and knots. Next to the chipper, with its long, sharp knives: there the wood was cut up into small pieces, shaken through metal screens and ground to obtain a uniform size. The chips were then carried up the entire height of the mill in buckets attached to a huge conveyor from which they were dumped into immense storage hoppers. Filling the hoppers allowed the wood-room crew to get ahead of the rest of the process: they worked a single shift of ten hours, while the rest of the pulp mill worked two shifts of eleven-hour days and thirteen-hour nights.
From the hoppers, the chips were moved as needed into the acid room for the most complicated and crucial part of the process: the removal of lignin ( which makes paper turn yellow in the light) from the wood by cooking the chips under pressure in a bath of hot acid. Chips and an acid of limewater and sulfur were combined in large digesters, then left to boil for between eight and ten hours. The acid-room crew would test for doneness by checking the color of the liquid. When the pulp had finally cooked sufficiently, it was released through a valve in the bottom of the digester into the “blow pit,” raising a cloud of steam that enveloped the mill and could be seen far and wide. Next, the pulp went to the wet room, where it was pumped over a series of screens and then into the wet machine—basically a cylinder that spun water out of the pulp before it was sent to the paper mill.
Pipes carried the pulp directly to the paper mill, where it first underwent a process of beating and bleaching. For lighter grades of paper, the slush then ran onto the screens of the huge Fourdrinier machine, where it. was pressed onto felts and dried between hot drums above and below, the pressure and tern-perature adjusted according to the thickness required. The paper then passed between fine steel rollers that gave it a distinctive finish. Heavier grades were made on cylinder machines; in this case the felt, riding above the paper, picked up layer after layer of pulp as it passed over the spinning cylinders. After being wound onto rolls, the paper was sent to the finishing room, where it was cut, counted, wrapped and boxed for shipping.
The Rogers paper mill made a variety of high-quality printing papers. Notable for its willingness to experiment with new uses for paper and unusual paper products, the company at different times turned out paper rolls for player pianos, milk-bottle caps, milk cartons, telephone-book covers and the first-ever paper hot-drink cups.
James Rogers Jr. and his wife, Katherine Moore, had three children: Henry Geer Rogers, born in 1876, and two daughters, Florence and Jeannette. Henry studied engineering for a year at Cornell, but when sister Florence developed tuberculosis he interrupted his studies to accompany her to southern California in a vain attempt at a cure. Florence died at the age of nineteen, but during her illness Henry formed a bond with Florence’s boarding-school roommate, Ada Spaulding, who had also traveled to California to nurse her friend. After Florence’s death, Henry returned to Au Sable Forks to work for the company; Ada soon followed and became his wife. Henry served a period of general managerial apprenticeship, then took over responsibility for the operation of the sulfite mill. In the 1920s two of his sons, James “Jim” Rogers II and John Roderic “Rock” Rogers, joined the company as well, Jim taking charge of the paper mill and Rock working generally as a manager and overseer.
Henry Rogers proved to be a keen innovator, known for listening to and acting upon good ideas. Following up on a suggestion by the wet-machine workers, he developed and patented a device that allowed much more water to be removed from the wood pulp, thus making it lighter and easier to ship. He also worked on a mechanism to capture and reuse sulfur gas that escaped during the acid process. This not only saved money, but eliminated the stench of burning sulfur that had regularly permeated the town.
As a young man he had encouraged his father to provide fifty thousand dollars in financial backing to a local inventor named Robeson, who developed a process for recycling the waste liquor from the pulp mill. The waste, full of noxious acids that turned the river red and purple after it was released, was transformed by Robeson’s process into a liquid that apparently had a wonderful effect (although no one can quite remember what) when sprayed on dirt roads. His plant, located in Au Sable Forks, operated for several decades.
Also of Henry’s generation was his cousin Isaac H. “Jonah” Chahoon, who likewise made a career with the company. After James Rogers Jr. died, in 1929, his brother-in-law George Chahoon succeeded him as head of the company. Five years later, when George Chahoon died, Jonah, by all accounts an extremely bright man and an able manager, was elected to the presidency.
Born in the early 1870s, Jonah Chahoon was around sixty years old when he finally took charge of the family business, bringing with him an impressive web of local business and political connections. Local people recall him with a mixture of amusement and distrust as “a man who would sell his own wife.” He was very different from his cousin Henry, and many people seem to have taken sides in what was probably never an overt conflict.
In retrospect Chahoon is seen as the single greatest force in the eventual demise of J. & J. Rogers. Many former workers criticize the company, and Chahoon in particular, for failing to upgrade equipment over the years. They point in particular to profitable years during World War II as an opportunity to modernize that was thrown away by a man with no compelling interest in the future. Others express continuing dismay over bright-idea “improvements” that amounted to nothing, while costing the company and hurting its reputation for turning out a good product. People more sympathetic with the family’s side of things point to the high cost of bringing the mills into compliance with new environmental regulations, the demands of the union, the demise of an almost feudal sense of mutual obligation and a proper sense of gratitude among the workers.
In 1955, against the wishes of Henry Rogers and his sons, Jonah Chahoon arranged for the sale of the majority of the company’s stock to a businessman from New York, Jacob Michael. Although Henry and Jim Rogers had seats on the board of directors, the entire management of the company turned over and the family lost control; the beginning of the end had arrived.
Company assets were quickly liquidated; huge tracts of land, including all the property surrounding Taylor Pond, were sold to the state. More than a hundred houses in the village of Au Sable Forks, formerly rented to workers for as little as two dollars per month, were sold to tenants or other buyers.
Michael reportedly spent a million dollars upgrading the pulp mill, then closed it anyway in 1957. A year later the union went out on an extended strike, the longest ever. Most devastating of all was Michael’s refusal to acknowledge a supposed agreement with Chahoon to honor the company’s pension obligations, which had been established through decades of struggle as the single most pressing demand of the union.
In 1971 the paper mill closed for good. By that time no one was surprised: the shock of the sale had settled in slowly, leaving the people of Au Sable Forks resigned to their chief employer’s inevitable fate. Two years later, Henry Rogers died at the age of ninety-seven, and so ended a hundred and forty years of paternalistic care for worker and village that was sometimes maddening, sometimes appreciated, sometimes decidedly quaint.
In 1924, when James and Katherine Rogers were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, schools closed early so local children could serenade the couple at a vast lawn party for the entire town. Henry Rogers’s daughter, Katherine Voelker, remembers during her childhood a string of first-rate company baseball teams, strategically supplemented by her father with semi-professional players. In the 1950s when local bobsledder Joe Meconi needed refinements to his sled, the work was done in the Rogers company machine shop. After a race, the local paper crowed, “Evidently the mechanics at the Rogers mill who repaired it know how a sled should be.” But then there was the other side of the equation, which included, for instance, the company’s widely reported practice of coercing votes for the Republican party.
A few short months before the sale of the company, a front-page item in the Adirondack Record was headlined “49 Persons Are Now Receiving Pensions from J. & J. Rogers Company.” The ostensible subject of the article was the retirement of two men with combined service to the company of a hundred years, but the issue of obligation loomed large: “The J. & J. Rogers Company has been fortunate in having them—and they have been equally fortunate in having been provided with work over all these years.” The article goes on to do the math to show just how much was being extracted: for every eleven employees still working, two retirees were receiving pension checks.
Perhaps Mr. Rogers and Mr. Chahoon were looking ahead. Perhaps they wanted local people to understand. If so, they missed their mark. The people of Au Sable Forks never really understood what happened to the mill that built their town. But, like the side of Jay Mountain, what the J. & J. Rogers Company left raw is now grown over, and things once again look close enough to normal.