Verso Paper Sartell Mill

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By: Bill Morgan

At 11:17 a.m. on Memorial Day 2012 noise from a huge explosion, followed by the sight of a tall black plume, startled citizens of Sartell, Minnesota, a town of 16,000 that straddles the Mississippi River northwest of St. Cloud. Townspeople soon learned that the Verso Paper Sartell Mill, a modern industry with roots in the early 19th century, had sustained heavy damage from an accident that killed one worker, injured four, and eventually led to permanent job loss for 260 others.

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Today, the paper mill’s modern mammoth blue-hued metal siding is in the process of being stripped away, revealing three yellow-brick buildings and a tall smokestack that were erected between 1906 and 1910.

The cluster of buildings consists of the smokestack; a yellow-brick powerhouse; a yellow-brick machine room; and a three-story finishing room that sports a castellated , umber-colored brick cornice, and walls embellished with bands of dark red brick and inlaid phoenix shapes and crosses.

If one building could be saved, the finishing room would be my choice. One early newspaper source noted that an (unnamed) architect designed the structure whose features mirror Victorian Gothic mills and breweries.

After these buildings are razed, only the 1914 steel truss bridge and the (reconstructed) 1907 dam will remain to showcase the mill’s material history. In a city with a relatively long history—from mid-19th century sawmill to modern suburb—it is unfortunate that few vestiges of its architectural past remain.

Although seen only from a distance,1 I’d guess the yellow bricks came from a local yard. Between 1857 and 1936, St. Cloud boasted a flourishing brick industry, one that would have pressured builders to use local materials. The chimneystack alone contains more than 400,000 bricks.

Yellow brick represents a unique architectural genre in St. Cloud, Stearns County, and Central Minnesota. Between 1884 and 1928, 271 yellow-brick (sometimes called cream or Milwaukee brick) houses were built within a one-mile radius of the Stearns County Courthouse. Today, about 169 still stand.

Originally called Watab Pulp and Paper Mill, the business was purchased by St. Regis Paper in 1946. In 1984, St. Regis joined hands with International Paper. Verso Paper acquired the company in 2006.

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Today, a group of former mill employees have tagged materials from the mill site that will be used to commemorate the mill’s history. Sometime in the future, the group will be placing benches molded from the mill’s blue siding in six local parks. Other artifacts will also be utilized to create monumental pieces to remind citizens of Sartell’s industrial history.

1 Because of the hazards of demolition, access to the mill grounds is prohibited. Photographs were taken from the west bank of the Mississippi.

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