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Questions abound as demolition of old mill draws nearer in Lyons Falls


LYONS FALLS — For more than a century, the whistle at the paper mill here blew reliably at 7 a.m., noon and 4 p.m. But in 2001, the once-bustling mill — which employed 250 to 300 people each year — suddenly fell silent. With just one week’s notice, workers were sent home for good, the victims of a failed business.

Now, the crumbling mill barely stands. Chunks have fallen into the river. The facility is a constant reminder of what Lyons Falls used to be.

Some residents consider it an eyesore. Most agree it needs to go.

“I’d like to see it tore (sic) down,” said P. Donald Gydeson, who worked for Lyons Falls Pulp and Paper Inc. for 36 years.

“It’s just in shambles,” said Shirley VanNest, a member of the Lyons Falls History Association. “You get depressed going by it. When you grew up, there was steam coming out and people going in, trucks and trains. And now when you go by, it’s dead and it’s falling in.”

Discussion has been ongoing for 13 years about what to do with the facility, and how to make the 9 acres of land it sits on marketable again. At first, local residents hoped the mill would be bought by another paper company and resume operations. When that didn’t happen, the Lewis County Development Corp. purchased the property for $150,000 in 2011.

According to LCDC director Eric J. Virkler, the group has decided that most of the 25 buildings on the property need to be demolished and the land redeveloped, and a Utica company — Ritter & Paratore Contracting, Inc. — already has been selected for the demolition. Although there is no target date for that to begin, the hope is for this summer, Mr. Virkler said.

The LCDC has received two state grants, totaling $1.33 million, to help with the redevelopment. The corporation is looking at a $1.5 million project to tear down the first five or six buildings, Mr. Virkler said.

While there is no concrete plan for the land after demolition, a few ideas have been considered by a committee composed of members of the LCDC and the community. Among the ideas: a hydroponics facility and a shopping center.

In an effort to be a catalyst for change, Lyons Falls Alive — a nonprofit group that promotes tourism and an improved quality of life in the small village on the Black and Moose rivers — has developed a poster contest that asks locals to draw what they envision the site could become.

One idea pitched for the contest is an indoor water park.

“Sometimes a dream will get in somebody’s head and get reborn into something great. We’re hoping the youth will have a vision we can use,” said Naomi Kelly, the pastor of Forest Presbyterian Church, Lyons Falls, and the originator of the “What is your vision?” poster contest.

Ms. Kelly said she hopes local residents and students take an interest in what becomes of the facility. The contest originally was open only to high school and middle school students at South Lewis Central School, but recently it’s been opened to the public, with an April 30 deadline and a small amount of prize money available.

Because 13 years have passed since the mill’s closure, few South Lewis students remember what it was like when the facility was operating, or even how the village was affected by the closure.

The mill became a part of the community in 1894, when it was built by Gordius H.P. Gould and established as the Gould Paper Company. It was family-owned until 1945; after that, it changed hands several times until it was purchased in 1985 and renamed Lyons Falls Pulp and Paper Inc.

James F. Skorupa worked at the facility from August 1964 until the day it closed.

“In the early days, it was really a family-oriented mill and community all around,” he said. “A lot of people from all over the area worked there. There was always something going on. They strived for better production, better quality.”

Mr. Skorupa and Mr. Gydeson recall what the mill meant to Lyons Falls during the time they worked there.

“It was the largest employer in the county at one time,” said Mr. Gydeson, 74. “Every one of my uncles worked there at one time or another. A lot of people didn’t drive to work — they just walked.”

“The mill was called an integrated mill,” said Mr. Skorupa, 67. “It took the wood and processed it straight through, and the finished product was paper.”

Workers at the mill — which employed electricians, engineers, machinists, boilermakers and others — often followed their fathers or grandfathers into the business. Mr. Skorupa started working there just out of high school. The job paid well, offered stability and was close to home.

After their shifts, many workers visited local bars and restaurants.

Mrs. VanNest and her husband, Gerald, recalled how community businesses suffered after the mill closed.

“We always had a grocery store. Victory’s was the last one, and they didn’t last long after the mill was gone,” Mr. VanNest said.

Mill workers learned the facility was closing in February 2001.

“It was just a normal day going into work, and by the afternoon they had announced they were closing that following Saturday. It was quick,” Mr. Skorupa said. “Everybody was down. It had been a part of the community for over 100 years. A lot of people were hoping somebody else would come along and purchase it and start it back up.”

But that never happened.

Just before the mill closed, Lyons Falls had 591 residents. Ten years later, the population dropped slightly to 566. A few people, including the VanNests’ son, left the area for work, but many stayed local; Otis Technology fills some of the void when it expanded its gun-cleaning-kit facility in 2004.

With demolition of the first five or six buildings possibly beginning this summer, the old mill is one step closer to becoming something new. Further demolition and redevelopment would depend on additional funding, and the full project could take two to five years, or longer, Mr. Virkler said.

He added that a handful of buildings will be salvageable, but most will need to be demolished for new projects to take hold. What those could be is anyone’s guess, but all dreams will be considered.

“What is your vision?” poster contest for old Lyons Falls mill
• What: The “what is your vision?” poster contest for what should become of the old paper mill in Lyons Falls
• Who’s eligible: Everyone
• Entry deadline: Wednesday, April 30
• Prizes: First place, $25; second place, $15; third place, $10
nMore info: Naomi Kelly, contest originator, (315) 348-8119; Christine Chaufty, president of Lyons Falls Alive promotional group, (315) 348-2521
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