UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Spring 2008

FEATURES
The Buck Starts Here
At Crane & Co., in Dalton, Massachusetts, making U.S. currency paper has been a source of pride since 1879.
Andrew Varnon ’96G

Photo: Stacy Madison
Donald Drosehn ’73 started working at Crane & Co. while studying chemistry at UMass Amherst. He began managing paper-making for United States currency and other security products in 1988, and as manager of manufacturing at Crane Currency, he has managed the entire facility since 2003.

The number one way to combat counterfeiting of U.S. currency, Don Drosehn says, is not through the complicated patterns of engraving, or the red and blue threads in the paper, or even the watermark of a bill.


“Nothing is as effective as the feel,” says Drosehn. He proceeds to take a bill out of his pocket, grasping it in his fingers at the edges and pulling. “They call it the snap,” he says of its distinctive sound. That’s because of the linen and cotton blend that our dollar bills are printed on. That paper is made to some of the most exacting standards in the world.

The U.S. Secret Service—the federal bureau charged with investigating counterfeiting crimes—still considers the feel of the currency paper, its snap, to be the number one way to determine if a bill is counterfeit, says Drosehn. It’s a point of pride for the manager of currency papers manufacturing for Crane & Co. in Dalton, Massachusetts. For over 125 years, this family-owned paper company hidden in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts has been the sole source of currency paper to the U.S. government.

Drosehn is a short, stocky man with dark hair. He looks like an engineer.

“UMass and Crane go back a long way,” he says. He tells me that Crane & Co. used to hire two students from Syracuse University every year. Syracuse at that time had a highly regarded program. In 1969, Drosehn’s grandmother took him to see owner Bruce Crane. Drosehn was studying chemistry at UMass Amherst.

Crane said he couldn’t put the young Drosehn in the mills because he wasn’t old enough yet, but offered to find a place for him the following summer. Drosehn worked for Crane & Co. for the next four summers to help pay his UMass Amherst bills. That’s how Drosehn became one of the first people to take one of the Syracuse University positions. He started full-time employment at Crane in January 1973.

Behind Drosehn’s desk in his corner office is a board with photos on it of each of the 121 employees at Crane’s Wahconah Mill, arranged hierarchically. Under each photo is the name and title of the employee, and their “clock number,” or the day they started at Crane. This board, for him, says Drosehn, “reflects the human side of the job.”

Crane & Co. was founded 207 years ago by Zenas Crane. Crane’s father, Stephen, had managed the first paper mill in Massachusetts and counted Paul Revere among his customers. In 1801, Crane came west to Dalton and found what he considered an ideal site along the Housatonic River, founding the first paper mill west of the Connecticut River. Crane supplied paper to the Pittsfield Sun newspaper and became known for the fine cotton bond paper he produced, used by local and regional banks for printing bank notes and bonds, and in Europe, for stationery.

In the mid-1800s, a new paper-making technique was discovered; it used wood pulp instead of cotton rags. It was a much cheaper method. While many other companies switched, Crane never did. In 1879, Crane first won the contract to print U.S. currency paper, when young Murray Crane revised his bid at the last minute to win by a half a cent per pound.

Crane is well-known for its line of stationery, but until about 10 years ago, the company kept quiet about its role as the maker of currency paper. It was sort of an open secret that the Crane family didn’t like to talk about. But in 1996, there was an effort in Congress to try to subsidize another paper company to compete with Crane.

Crane realized it needed to toot its own horn. Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy visited with Crane employees and showed their support. Drosehn had a huge American flag mounted inside the mill. Crane has successfully won every bid, and the effort to prop up a competitor failed.

The Wahconah Mill is a nondescript 1970s-era building. There’s little to suggest that it might be of national importance, except that it is surrounded by a chain-link fence and has security gates both at the entrance and the exit.

The paper in your wallet has its origins in the beater, where bales of prepared cotton and linen fibers are dropped into a soup of rag pulp called “furnish.” Inside, blades tease apart the fibers, a bit like a giant blender.

Later, paper rolls overhead between two machines in an uncut ribbon 110 inches wide, with cameras and monitors checking the formation of the paper and the position of watermarks and the security thread.

In a 24-hour period, the mill can turn out 64,000 pounds of paper, or eight or nine master rolls. Each master roll makes five skids of paper, each containing 20,000 sheets. When cut by the U. S. Mint after printing, each sheet becomes 32 bills.

In the mill’s quality-assurance room, technicians ensure the paper is meeting the government’s exacting standards. One is the fold test, performed on a 100-year-old brass double-fold tester. Newspaper will fold 10 or 15 times before fraying. Crane’s fine cotton bond stationery will fold 400 times. U.S. currency paper must fold 4,000 times before fraying.

When Drosehn started at Crane, all of the denominations of U.S. currency were printed on the same paper. Now, the $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 denominations are printed on different papers, with watermarks and a flourescent security thread to differentiate the denominations, even before they are printed.

The master rolls are cut into four, and those rolls are cut into sheets, and collated into reams of 500 sheets for inspection. Once the paper passes inspection, it is wrapped and placed on a skid. The skids are stacked in a warehouse in the mill, waiting for unmarked trucks to take them to the Bureau of Engraving, either in Fort Worth, Texas, or in Washington, D.C.

 

 

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