by Kelt Wilska
The history of paper is an endlessly fascinating wormhole that can doom a short-form journalist to overstuffing. For example, “We begin in Eastern China, ad 206 . . .” Fortunately, as Berkshire residents, we guard (unknowingly to many) a small but important piece of this global papermaking story within our green forests and winding rivers.
Our story began in 1799 when Zenas Crane traveled to the Berkshires from eastern Massachusetts, whose milling market had become saturated. His ideal business location? The small town of Dalton, nestled along the (then) pristine Housatonic River. At this time, paper was made by pressing a watery pulp out of rags—that is, a blend of used textiles like cotton and linen. Mind you, this was before the advent of papermaking machines, so each piece of paper was painstakingly molded and dried by hand. Of course, Crane enjoyed bountiful success with his mill, adapting to new technologies and setting a national model for successful papermaking. In 1879, the Crane Company acquired its first contract to pro - duce U.S. currency paper. To this day, Crane Currency still produces paper for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing out of its mills in Dalton.
Shortly after Zenas’s pioneering entrepreneurship, many more aspiring Berkshire papermakers followed suit, with mills popping up all over the county, especially along the Housatonic. While Dalton can claim the first mill, it is Lee that can claim the most. With 25 mills in operation by 1857, Lee for a time produced more paper than any other town in the United States. And in Curtisville (modern-day Interlaken/Stockbridge), it was the immigrant Pagenstecher brothers who invented the first commercially successful wood pulp paper, using Berkshire poplar. Wood pulp is still the industry standard to this day.
Alas, industries wax and industries wane. Lee is now only home to one mill, and papermaking has largely fallen out of the collective conscience of Berkshire residents. While limited local wood supply and increased competition from heavily forested regions have severely shrunk the influence of Berkshire papermaking, some companies do continue to thrive in specialty paper, from Crane to Hazen (Rising Paper) in Housatonic and Onyx in Lee. They continue our county’s great heritage of literary engineering once described in local author Herman Melville’s short story “Tartarus of Maids” after a visit to a Berkshire mill, as “a miracle of inscrutable intricacy.”