Hugo Neuman (1847-1906), an engineer from Oulu, founded the first groundwood mill at Verla in 1872. The first Verla groundwood mill was forced to close down in 1874 and was destroyed by fire. An Austrian-born papermakermaster, Gottlieb Kreidl (1850-1908) working at the Kuusankoski Mill founded a new groundwood mill with a board mill in 1882. Maria Mattsson was a model worker in her day. She spent 51,5 years - from 1884 to 1936 – working as a board grader at the Verla Mill.
Short first period in the history of Verla
The founder of the first groundwood mill at Verla in 1872 was an engineer from Oulu called Hugo Neuman (1847-1906), but he remained its director for only a short time.
Inspired by revolutionary invention
Neuman presumably came across the revolutionary machine, the grinder, for making wood pulp while studying engineering in Zurich. On completing his studies and returning to Finland, he took a job working on the Riihimäki—St Petersburg railway. How he ended up on the remote little Verla rapids will never be known as none of his business documents have been preserved. He is, however, known to have been offered a chance to purchase a small mill supplying four farms on the western bank of the Verla rapids and a share in the rapids themselves.
Borrowing the capital needed to build his mill from a well-to-do student friend Alexander Lagerborg, and hiring as his accountant another student friend, Waldemar Conradi, he moved to Verla in autumn 1871, when he was still only 24, with his 17-year-old bride Johanna Rahn.
Groundwood mill and machines in the old flour mill
Neuman extended the old flour mill to accommodate a grinder and bought a 110 hp water turbine, a 50 hp grinder and various auxiliary machines. He then converted an old barn transported from a nearby village into a drying loft for his board.
The groundwood mill started up in 1872 and provided jobs for 10—12 persons. Getting the ready pulp to the railway line was a feat, the nearest station being nearly 40 kilometres away. In summer the bales of pulp could be taken in long, specially built boats to a site near the station, but in winter they had to be pulled by horses.
Financial failure and fire
By spring 1874, only two years later, Neuman was forced to face defeat: small output, problems of transport, and finally the slump in the price of pulp in Russia made it impossible for him to continue. His accountant, Conradi, stayed on to tie up the business when Neuman returned to his job on the railways. Then a fire broke out and the buildings burnt to the ground. The first Verla groundwood mill came to a silent halt. Not a single drawing or photograph has remained of Neuman's mill.
Under new management
For a few years Verla lay dormant, until the arrival of an Austrian paper maker, Gottlieb Kreidl (1850—1908) from the Kuusankoski mill not far away.
In 1881 Kreidl purchased from Neuman the land on which the mill had stood, its share of the rapids and the machinery damaged in the fire. A month later, by what was to prove a lucky stroke for Kreidl, there was a fire at the Kuusankoski mill that put him out of a job but that gave him time to think about building his new company. In addition to the groundwood mill he had visions of a board mill, both of which were completed in October 1882.
That same autumn an unlimited partnership by the name (in Swedish, the dominant language in Finland at the time) of Verla Groundwood and Board Mill was founded in Vyborg by Kreidl, a consul Wilhelm Dippell from Vyborg, and a German engineer, Louis Hänel. The initial capital was divided equally between the three.
Fine new residence
The provincial governor for Uusimaa granted the Verla groundwood and board mill a business licence in February 1883. Kreidl was appointed director and moved with his wife to the little mill village. Their first home there was humble in the extreme: a small house with five rooms, one of which was needed as the mill office. The rest of the house they shared with the master grinder, Kronholm. This house was destroyed by fire in 1884. The following year a fine residence for the owner-director was built in its place and can still be admired.
Patron and a father figure
Gottlieb Kreidl, who served the mill for a good quarter of a century, gave Verla a strong patriarchal spirit, ruling both mill and village with a firm but fatherly hand. His word was law, but he was very concerned to improve his workers' health care and social conditions. As early as the 1880s workers at the mill received medical treatment and medicines at the mill's expense. A sickness and burial fund was set up in 1892 and a pension fund the following year. By the early 20th century the mill also had its own nurse.
Kreidl was also eager to educate the people of Verla. The mill founded an elementary school for the children in 1890 and maintained it until 1922, when it was taken over by the local council. Kreidl supervised the school in person and the children were expected to be polite and deferential. A young lady teacher who had difficulty with an unruly lad only had to call in the boss and order would immediately be restored. But at Christmas each child would receive a bag of sweets from Kreidl, and he would sometimes bring his gramophone to the school and play the children some records.
Kreidl died of a serious illness in 1908, a few years after the Mill became a limited company. Since he died without issue, his property went to the Austrian state.
Maria Mattsson was a model worker in her day. She first went into service in St. Petersburg but was to spend most of her working life – 51,5 years from 1884 to 1936 – as a board grader at the Verla Mill. No wonder, therefore, that the story of Verla Maria is told during the tours of the Museum.
Maria's lasting footprints
The number of years spent by Maria at the Mill is not in fact so unusual in the history of Verla as the job she did. For over half a century Maria stood in exactly the same place as she sorted the finished boards. A few steps to the left to pick up a board from the pile from the drying loft and, having weighed it, a few steps to the right to place it in the appropriate pile. You can even see the footprints worn by her on the sturdy wooden floor after years of standing on the same spot.
Over the years, Maria developed such a good eye that, even when her eyesight began to fail, she could grade the sheets just by looking at them, without her scales. For she was so used to handling them that she could tell the weight, down to a few grams, from the thickness of the board.
Retirement at the age of 77
Maria was extremely reluctant to leave her post in the sorting shed. She had such a strong sense of responsibility that she only agreed to retire, at the age of 77, after the foreman had promised he would send for her in the case of any rush jobs or problems.
In 1995 a documentary film was made of Maria Mattsson showing enacted scenes from her life under two mill owners. Visitors today can relive her story by visiting the Verla Mill Museum, where her memory lives on in the footprints on the floor.