French family always were an intrinsic part of Niles

Published 6:55 am Saturday, August 1, 2009

Part of a continuing series on Niles’ historic Silverbrook Cemetery, provided by Friends of Silverbrook Cemetery, a group working to preserve and restore the cemetery.

By Friends of Silverbrook

If you live in Niles and you have not heard of the French Paper Mill, chances are you just moved here – yesterday.

The French family has been an intrinsic part of this community since Joseph W. French created our first industry in 1872 when “Bradner, Smith & Company, in connection with Mr. French, purchased a third interest in the water power at Niles, having previously manufactured the first wood pulp at Three Rivers. This was the first wood pulp made west of New York,” according to “The History of Berrien County.”

French was born in Oxford Township, New Haven County, Conn., June 8, 1833, the son of David and Elizabeth (Wooster) French. He was reared in Connecticut and taught school for one winter in his native town before moving to live with an uncle at Deep River, Conn. for five years.

He learned the trade of making paper boxes and then in 1854 moved to Three Rivers, Michigan where he purchased an interest in a manufacturing business that was devoted to the production of spokes and other carriage materials as well as making ax handles. Two years later he began the manufacture of wagons, carriages, omnibuses and hearses.
Julius D. Shailer of Boston was an associate in J. W. French & Company which carried on what History describes as “a very extensive manufacturing enterprise, which brought a gratifying measure of success.

“Mr. French was thus connected with trade interests until 1857, when he closed out the business and turned his attention to the manufacture of paper.”

Shailer had erected a paper mill at Three Rivers with a number of his associates having purchased the water power there along with a large amount of real estate. He appointed French his power of attorney and manager of all his interests. In 1865 French bought all of Shailer’s interests in Three Rivers and organized the J. W. French Manufacturing Company for the production of paper.

French owned one-half of all stock with the other half owned by Bradner, Smith & Company of Chicago, which had previously purchased half-interest of the Three Rivers’ operation from Shailer.

For a brief time French also had interests in flour mills in Three Rivers until they were destroyed by fire, and was also a contractor and builder of the Michigan Air Line from Jackson to South Bend by way of Niles. For the time he resided in Three Rivers, French was a director of Michigan Central Railway, which originally incorporated in 1846 to establish rail service between Detroit and St. Joseph.

After buying the water power interest in Niles, French proceeded to build the paper mill here in 1880. He bought out Bradner, Smith & Company and organized a new company according to Berrien’s recorded history, known as the Three Rivers Paper Company retaining the greater part of all the stock.

This was at conception a family business by all definitions.

J.W. was elected president of the company. Willard W, French was general superintendent. F.J. French served as treasurer. Mrs. J. W. French and a gentleman by the name of J.E. Scott were appointed as directors.

By 1895, production of the company’s specialty, paper plates, topped $6,000,000 annually according to the company timeline found at:

French was also one of the organizers of the Marinette Paper Company of Wisconsin of which he became a large stockholder. He also organized the company which established a paper mill at Tippecanoe, Ind. and was general manager of that business.

The French family patriarch organized the Manufacturers’ National Bank at Three Rivers and served as its vice president. After selling his interests there he organized the Three Rivers National Bank, acting as its president and after disposing of that stock he became vice president of the First State Bank in Three Rivers making his nephew W. J. Willits president while serving as vice president himself.

The history credits French with half a century’s worth of connection with “every enterprise that had bearing upon the business development, welfare, progress and prosperity of Three Rivers and in addition to his various corporate interests he also owns extensive coal lands in Virginia, having twenty-two hundred acres and operates coal mines and manufactures coke in the town.”

The Niles mills operated continuously until 1905 when the original charter expired. A new company was formed: The French Paper Company. French and his sons were the company’s stockholders.

This was the year the second generation took the reins of the company. J.W. French’s son, J. Edward French, became president and the business became one of the largest industries of Berrien County, employing 250 skilled workmen in a plant which operated night and day.

J.W. French died March 28, 1907. It is no surprise that The History of Berrien County recognized J. W. French’s many abilities.

“It has been said that a man who each week pays out of his coffers hundreds of employees does much more for the country than he who leads army forces into battle. This Mr. French has done and has contributed in substantial measure to the business development and prosperity of the state as well as to individual success.”

His tribute reads on like a manual on how to succeed in business:
“He has always been just in his treatment of his employees and while demanding faithful and efficient service he has in return given a good wage and has promoted those in his employ as opportunity has offered, thus recognizing able and loyal work.”

The French family has continued the legacy to this day when the fifth and sixth generations sit at the helm of the company J. W. built. They continue to do business based on the attributes attributed to their ancestor.

“Mr. French is a man of resourceful business ability, displaying ready recognition of opportunities and utilizing advantages to the best purpose.”

Stay tuned for part two of Silverbrook Legacies’ tribute to the French family and see how this company, started with the purchase of water power in Niles, has become one of Facebook’s most interesting sites.

Want to take part in preserving local history yourself? For more information on Friends of Silverbrook with regards to memberships and work days to help restore and catalog the monuments contact: Friends of Silverbrook Cemetery c/o 508 E. Main St. Niles MI 49120, Tim and Candace Skalla at 684-2455, or contact Ginny Tyler at 445-0997,