They come in threes; Ashbeck family has generational presence at Biron mill
By Olivia De Valk
BIRON – For 71 years and three generations, the Ashbeck family has served the Biron mill; their legacy in paper begins in 1949 with James Ashbeck I, an electrician who worked at the mill for 40 years before retiring in 1989.
He is the first of three men named James Ashbeck to work as an electrician in the Biron mill.
James I was succeeded by his son, James II, and his grandson, James III.
“I don’t think there’s a mill in this world that’s got three people in the same department named the same name,” James II said.
When James II started as an electrician, his supervisors were concerned he wouldn’t get along with his father, but working together strengthened their relationship.
“I got along with him better than I ever did,” James II reflected. “A lot of people don’t get to see their dad every day.”
James II, along with his brother, Chris Ashbeck, mill wright, make up the second generation of Ashbecks in the Biron mill. The third generation consists of James II’s son, James III, and Erik Kelnhofer and Joan Kelnhofer, nephew and niece of James II and Chris.
Erik, an apprentice mill wright, works closely with Chris learning to repair factory equipment and other industrial machinery. Erik said Chris “makes a crummy day not so crummy.”
Crummy days aren’t unfamiliar for the Ashbecks, and most mill workers. The days are hot and long and so are the nights.
Joan said the Ashbecks usually work Christmas.
The days and weekends build a comradery between employees.
“I think we all understand what it’s like to work a lot of hours, to get called in at the last minute,” Joan said.
Despite the hard work, the promise of good pay and benefits is what attracted James, Erik, Chris, and Joan to the Biron mill.
“It’s a great living. I’ve done a lot because of it,” Chris said, adding that he was able to visit Hungary twice with his family. “I never thought I’d (go) overseas,” he stated.
The mill has been providing a comfortable living for people in the Biron area since it was established in 1896 by the Grand Rapids Pulp and Paper Company. It was owned by the Consolidated Water Power and Paper Company 1911 – 2000.
Currently, the mill is owned by ND Paper and remains an integral part of the Biron community, employing around 350 people.
If it weren’t for the mill, you wouldn’t have the community here,” James II said.
For a community so rooted in the industry of paper making, there is a degree of uncertainty around the future of paper.
James II remembers a meeting early on in his career where a man held up a VHS tape as an example of the technology that was going to eliminate the need for paper.
And while the VHS tape wasn’t the technology to usurp paper, the idea of a paperless future persists.
Joan is confident in the future of the Biron mill. Of the two paper machines in operation at the Biron mill, one produces cardboard. She believes the machine will help meet the demands of companies like Amazon who rely heavily on cardboard boxes for shipments.
Whatever the future of paper looks like, the Ashbecks and families like them will be around to help create it.