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Spring Grove paper company got its start because of the Battle of Gettysburg

Glatfelter is a $1.3 billion global paper company headquartered in York, Pennsylvania. The company now operates paper mills and paper converting facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as in Germany, France, England, Wales, and the Philippines. The company traces it roots to the Civil War era, having been founded during the first term of President Abraham Lincoln. Today, many first edition Civil War books are printed on Glatfelter paper because of its archival qualities that fully comply with Library of Congress standards for book permanence.

I have worked for the company as the Global Director of New Product Development since the summer of 2001 when I moved to York County from Cleveland’s “Snow Belt.” I knew the Spring Grove mill had been purchased by P.H. Glatfelter in 1863 and reopened in 1864 under new management, but I was determined to learn the “actual story behind the story.”

Here is an excerpt from a book I wrote a few years ago in which I recount how Mr. Glatfelter built what became a leading international supplier of specialty papers and engineered products.

It’s all because of the Battle of Gettysburg…

An aerial view of Glatfelter’s sprawling paper and pulp mill complex in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, not far from the city of Hanover (the site of the June 30, 1863 Battle of Hanover). Confederate and Union cavalry both passed through this region after the battle, and the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry passed through the Spring Grove region (then Spring Forge) on July 4, 1863, looking for Confederate deserters who allegedly were roaming the Pigeon Hills region).

“Following the fighting at Gettysburg, a large number of looters and relic collectors swarmed onto the still festering battlefield, openly taking guns, swords, accoutrements, and other military and personal effects. According to contemporary accounts, “a number of nondescript scavengers of mixed nationalities” from the Spring Forge region of southwestern York County were persistent in traveling some 24 miles to the battlefield, collecting rags and clothing by the wagonload, and driving back caravan-style to the small hamlet. There, they sold their contraband to the Jacob Hauer paper mill, operated by a Philadelphia firm contracted by his heirs following Hauer’s death in August 1855.

Since its founding in 1852, the single-machine mill on the Codorus Creek had been supplied by these vagabond peddlers, who had provided a cheap, but legal source of cotton fiber for the 1,500 pounds of paper produced each day. However, the raw material supply had dwindled during the Civil War as fabric had been diverted to the war effort. Now, with the debris of battle not far away, the rag dealers were harvesting a windfall of discarded clothing, bandages, and slings.

The scavengers did not endear themselves to the local populace. According to one eyewitness, “They even resurrected corpses from the shallow entombment in the hope that some valuables might be found on the festering body.” Militia cavalry and infantry soon patrolled the Gettysburg area to prevent recurrences of such theft. Two weeks after the battle, a squad of 21st Pennsylvania cavalrymen accosted a trio of these rag dealers as they were departing for Spring Forge with their latest haul. They were quickly escorted back to Gettysburg, turned over to the provost marshal and summarily punished for their transgression of public orders against looting.

In particular, the thieves were ordered to dispose of the rotting remains of dead horses that still littered the battlefield. Some estimates suggest as many as 5,000 horses died during the battle, making the task of their disposal arduous and lengthy. The Confederate prisoners of war and local farmers who had been clearing the fields of these bodies were relieved to now have another source of captive labor. The prisoners were forced to unhitch their teams from the wagons. Using ropes and chains, they used their draft animals to drag the dead military horses into piles, which were then lit on fire to cremate the carcasses. The foul stench soured the air for miles. In several cases, the erstwhile peddlers also dug pits and buried the horses.

“The dose the rag gatherers received was an ample sufficiency to give them the shivers from all future life at the barest glimpse of a blue uniform,” wrote one resident. “Their plunder was confiscated, their teams and they themselves put to work. The work they did was hard work; it was menial and repulsive work; but there were glittering bayonets to enforce activity and diligence in their tasks. It was a long time before the trio ever saw Spring Forge. When they did they were sadder men; likewise wiser. They had lost all desire for battlefield plunder.’
Their supply of contraband rags now cut off by the military and with the supply of clean rags and clothing diverted to the Camp Letterman military hospital for the wounded, the paper mill sank into insolvency. On December 23, 1863, the 101-acre complex was sold for $14,000 at an Orphans’ Court sale to Philip Henry Glatfelter, a York Countian who had seven years of experience at a Maryland paper mill owned by his future brother-in-law. The greatly expanded Spring Forge (now Spring Grove) mill is still operational as a key part of the current Glatfelter paper company.”

Scott L. Mingus, Sr., Human Interest Stories of the Gettysburg Campaign (Orrtanna, Pa.: Colecraft Books, 2006). Copyrighted text used by permission.