Even when it was thriving, Phillip Winters Jr., remembers it as a dying business, a market doomed to disappear for eternity underneath six feet of dirt.Still, for years, Winters Excelsior would ship three boxcar loads of excelsior packing straw off to Florida casket manufacturers each week. There, the thinly curled wood shavings would be stuffed between two thin sheets of fabric to serve as a makeshift mattress inside the coffins of casket plants in Orlando, Miami and Quincy, Fla., thus becoming the final resting place of the dearly departed.Then, in the early 1970s, business literally bottomed out. The arrival of Pampers, Huggies and a host of other disposable diapers not only changed the way America diapered its babies, but also how it buried its dead.”Throwaway baby diapers really hurt the excelsior industry as far as caskets go,” said Winters, co-owner of the McWilliams-based manufacturing plant in Wilcox County. “They get so much waste from manufacturing baby diapers — it’s got all that light plastic and cotton in it — that they grind it up and sell it cheap to the casket companies to be used as a stuffing agent. So that’s pretty much taken the place of a lot of excelsior.”Of course, it’s hard to keep a good excelsior man down. That’s why Winters’ plant is still going strong 81 years after his grandfather, John Albert Winters, turned a dying sawmill operation into a booming excelsior business.While excelsior plants were once spread all across America throughout the 1800s and the early 1900s, Winters Excelsior is now one of only three companies left still grinding out excelsior for a variety of uses — for everything from shipping baby chickens to wrapping flowers to controlling erosion during construction projects.”It was the number one packaging and shipping material,” said Winters. “Everything that was fragile or heavy and needed a padding was packed in excelsior. Most all of your ammunition and artillery rounds during World War II were packed in excelsior. Rifles, everything. It was the only packing material we had — Styrofoam hadn’t been invented yet.”Neither had those tiny little loose-fill packing peanuts.
Or bubble wrap. Or shrink wrap.”Excelsior is a clean product, but it’s messy to use,” said Winters. “It has a lot of fallout when you’re trying to break the bales apart and fluff it up. (But) it’s the best shipping medium you can use. It’s far better than these peanuts and stuff. Peanuts took the place of a lot of excelsior packaging because they can be put on an assembly line easier. You can put them into these big hoppers over these conveyor belts and they just open the trap door and they just fall into the box whereas excelsior has to be hand-put into a box. And that slows things down.”Though it may be losing market share in some areas to these newcomers, excelsior remains the only environmentally friendly choice for many other uses.”The business has really changed over all these years,” said Winters. “Originally, of course, we manufactured excelsior, and that was really our only product until the late 1980s. That’s when we put in a machine that stitched a blanket from the wood fiber and cut it into little square pads, and we sold it to turkey and chicken hatcheries for shipping baby poults and chicks. We still do that. “We ship poultry pads as far as California to turkey hatcheries out there. We ship to Minnesota, all across Virginia and the Carolinas, into Arkansas and Texas … wherever there are turkey or chicken hatcheries.”Winters’ excelsior also has found a market in foundries where the wood fiber is spun into a rope and used as a gasket inside a mold for making cast iron pipe.”When they pour the molten iron in, the fiber will flash away but it will stay there long enough to seal the pipe,” he said. “There are only two materials they can use for that process: One is our excelsior rope, the other is made from sisal grass out of Brazil. Of course, they’d rather buy from us because we’re a lot closer.”The Clean Water Act’s stringent new environmental regulations for controlling erosion on construction sites — particularly on highway projects — generated yet another market for excelsior, driving up demand for erosion-control products made from excelsior or wheat, rye and oat straw. In fact, the company’s Hutchinson, Kan., facility has been churning out erosion-control products, such as erosion-control blankets and sediment logs, or wattles as they’re often called, since 1999. Two years ago, the company’s McWilliams plant added a stitching machine and began buying wheat, oat and rye straw from Alabama farmers to make its own blankets. Even with 30 employees, business is brisk enough that the McWilliams plant hires extra workers for the four additional 10-hour shifts it runs during the March-to-October construction season.”The blankets are simply a temporary erosion control product,” said Winters. “It’s made from agriculture straw or wood fiber which will degrade within just a few months, and the netting — the threads we use to sew it all together — is either biodegradable or photo degradable so the sunlight in the summertime will break it down. The reason for that is, you get your dirt ready, you put the seed and fertilizer in the ground, and you cover it with these blankets. The seeds will germinate and the netting will hold the soil in place when it rains, and it also holds moisture in the ground so the seeds will germinate. After the grass is high enough to mow, all this other stuff should be degraded so you don’t get it tangled in the mowers.”Then, there’s the paper business. Winters buys huge, jumbo-sized rolls of recycled paper from paper plants and rewinds it into smaller roles for resale. They also sell feeder paper and brooder paper for the poultry industry.”Our paper needs to be absorbent and the old recycled craft, medium and bogas paper have more absorption, plus they break down fast,” said Winters. “When you roll out paper in a chicken house and put feed on it, you want it to last a couple of weeks and then you want it to disintegrate because, by then, your chicks can reach the automatic feeders.”It’s the same way with the shipping pads. They’ll put the baby chicks on this piece of paper right out of the hatchery. They want something that will absorb all those droppings, and then they can just incinerate it.”Likewise, Winters has found the floral industry to be good customers for excelsior, “especially nurseries that ship rooted plants,” he said. “They wrap the plant roots with excelsior, and it’ll hold moisture. The bulb companies also use excelsior for packing the bulbs to ship long distances.”All told, Winters ships out 12 to 15 trailer loads of various excelsior and paper products from McWilliams each week. And the $5 million the company raked in last year is proof that there’s still a strong demand for excelsior.Of course, he can only count three casket companies — one in Birmingham, one in Andalusia and one in Tennessee — that use his excelsior now that recycled diapers have snatched away the rest of his casket clients. But that’s OK — it was a dying business anyway.