“The Paper City”
The small city of Parchment has a fascinating history that is inextricably tied to the product that gave it that name. For much of the twentieth century, the town of Parchment and the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company grew and prospered together with the rest of the paper industry in the region. In recent years, however, the paper mill has closed its doors, and Parchment has had to redefine itself and its role in the larger world.
Jacob Kindleberger’s Vision
If there was ever a town with a purpose, it was Parchment. In 1909 Jacob Kindleberger set up shop in an abandoned sugar beet factory on the banks of the Kalamazoo River. His mission, like many other Kalamazoo entrepreneurs during that period, was to use the natural resources and convenient location of his factory to build a successful paper mill. However, “Uncle Jake” Kindleberger had a vision that was much greater than just paper and a factory. A Christian background and good business sense prompted Kindleberger to make every effort to ensure the success of his company by providing his employees with a place to live in addition to a place to work.
The youngest city in Kalamazoo County began its life as temporary housing for the mill workers of the KVP Company. The company’s first employees lived in tents outside the mill, while the Kindleberger family occupied the old office section of the plant. Over time the company bought most of the land that comprises the modern city of Parchment. They gradually sold pieces of property, mostly to mill workers and their families, at reasonable prices so that they could live near their work. Kindleberger himself had a hand in most of the building projects in Parchment during his lifetime. One of the greatest legacies “Uncle Jake” left was a tract of 40 acres in the middle of town. Deeded to the village in 1932, Kindleberger Park was made into a beautiful centerpiece for what Reader’s Digest called, “a neat, well-painted town.”
In 1930, when the settlement had a population of 511, the governor of Michigan approved a charter that turned part of northern Kalamazoo Township into the Village of Parchment. During the 1930s, the KVP Company continued to bear most of the expenses for the community, but as the depression dragged on and the community continued to grow, it became apparent that a new form of government was needed. In 1939 the citizens of Parchment approved a new charter and turned their town into a 5th class city. Over the next several decades the new Commission-Manager government took over various services that the mill had previously provided.
The 40s and 50s were prosperous times for the young city. KVP employed over 1700 people and was known as “the world’s model paper mill.” Other local businesses took root, including the Hercules Powder Company, which produced chemicals for the paper industry, Harding’s Friendly Market, and Bellisle’s Cut Rate Store. Services, including police and fire protection, water and sewage, and an independent educational system, were all developed and combined to make Parchment a desirable place to live. In 1960 KVP merged with the Sutherland Paper Company. In 1966 the Brown Company bought KVP-Sutherland, and in 1980 that concern was bought out by the James River Corporation. Crown-Vantage, which operated from 1995-2000, was the last company to manufacture paper in Parchment.
A New Direction
The closing of the Crown-Vantage mill was a hard blow to the city of Parchment. No longer the “Paper City,” the town that Kindleberger built has begun to find other ways to keep itself afloat. Parchment has remained relatively small in size. According to the 2000 census the population was 1,936. The cultural climate of the community has been enhanced by the annual Kindleberger Summer Festival that has taken place every year since 1981. Currently, the major debate in Parchment involves plans to redevelop the former KVP mill site. Suggestions have run the gamut from more heavy industry, to single family homes with shops, and even a golf course. The future of Parchment is up in the air. It is now up to the citizens and government to decide where their city will land.