CAMDEN, Ark. — For 73 years, the stacks at International Paper Co.'s mill belched gray, sour steam day and night over the piney woods of south Arkansas.

On summer afternoons, the plumes sullied laundry hanging outside. On winter mornings, they guided deer hunters downwind of their quarry. In any season, townspeople knew the answer to the question, "Paper or plastic?"

But IP closed the paper-bag plant in January, leaving 580 workers without a way to support families long dependent on company paychecks. The employee union urged IP to sell to another papermaker, but the company refused to put it into a competitor's hands while the market is down.

Now, with the hulking plant sitting silent, this town of 15,000 is dealing with its pain and trying to figure out how to remake itself economically.

"You cannot make any money in this town anymore, but at least you (can) breathe," said unemployed mill worker Larry Williams.

"When I go to the grocery store now, I ask for plastic," added colleague Steve Firth, his friends from the plant nodding in agreement.

Officials at International Paper say a recession in the paper industry cut company profits from $227 million in the fourth quarter of 1999 to $145 million a year later. In October, it said it would cut 2,500 jobs at Camden and plants in Lock Haven, Pa., and Mobile, Ala.

The Camden shutdown was the first of three sizable plant closures announced for rural Arkansas in recent weeks. Burlington Industries will close two rug plants in nearby Monticello, at a cost of 750 jobs, and Fruit of the Loom will lay off nearly 800 textile workers at Osceola, on the Mississippi River.

The IP layoffs have created one of the region's worst economic downturns, says William Jordan, a longtime real estate agent and insurance salesman.

Eight years ago, Hughes Missile Systems gradually shut down a weapons plant that had employed 1,700 people. In some ways the IP closing is a harder hit because the weapons plant laid off its workers over a five-year period, he said.

"Our total economy isn't doing too good," Jordan said, flipping through photographs of homes he has listed. Most of the homes belong to IP executives who have relocated to other plants.

Jordan predicts the town won't feel the full impact of the IP closing for at least a year, when severance pay and unemployment benefits end. That's when he predicts laid-off workers could begin putting their homes on the market.

"People who don't want to leave Camden will have to start making up their minds," he said.

At the Cardinal Cafe near the mill, waitress Macy Williams served the daily special — a $3 hamburger plate with french fries — and talked about the plant closing.

"In the mornings, the guys coming off the graveyard shift used to come in here and have coffee," she said. "Usually 15 to 20 tables would be full."

Nowadays, the unemployed workers come in during the afternoons to drink coffee, smoke and enjoy an occasional piece of pie. Williams greets them with a smile and word of encouragement.

"We try to be upbeat about it around here," she said.

Ricky Santifer, 20 years a paper machine operator, comes to the cafe to catch up with the regulars. In April, he plans to start taking welding classes at a technical school.

"I'm 42, I'm unskilled, and my priorities now are finding a new skill to re-enter the workforce," he said.

Like Santifer, many of the former mill workers are going back to school. Continuing education is a requirement of unemployment benefits.

Roger Worsley, chancellor of the Southern Arkansas Technical Institute in Camden, said 112 former IP employees — one in five of the plant's former workforce — are enrolled at the school.

"A lot are finding college-level work to be kind of a shock," he said. "Their basic computer skills are not what they probably ought to be."

Most of the workers are taking electronics and computer networking classes, skills in demand in other parts of the state.

"The jobs are not in Camden, but they are crying for these type of workers in other places," Worsley said.

Billy Autrey, 36, was making $43,000 a year — about twice the county average — as a paper machine operator when he lost his IP job. He said the hardest part about being laid off was telling his wife the news.

"I had a lump in my throat," said Autrey, who also served as president of the local paper worker's union.

Now the lifelong Camden area resident is taking industrial technology classes. The state is covering his tuition costs and he hopes to find other work in the paper industry, even though it will mean moving.

"At least for now we have severance pay and unemployment," he said. Autrey collected $15,000 in severance pay for 12 1/2 years with IP, and the $321 a week he receives in unemployment benefits expires July 5.

He said his biggest concern is health insurance for his three children, ages 10, 4 and 2.

"The insurance ended at the beginning of the year and we haven't been able to keep it up," he said.

Michael Strotheide, the head of the Ouachita Partnership for Economic Development, a county-wide taskforce, said IP's plant closing will force the area to branch out of defense and timber.

"We are in for a period of regrouping," he said. "We are going to have to build the economy back up and diversify."

With IP gone, weapons makers Raytheon Co., Lockheed-Martin Corp. and General Dynamics Corp. are now the area's largest employers.

Using $500,000 in state money, Camden city leaders lured Molex Inc., a computer cable manufacturer based in Lisle, Ill., to the city in December. The company plans to hire up to 200 workers. But the Molex jobs, with wages of between $7 and $11 an hour, pay far less than the lucrative union-backed positions at IP.

Finding other seed capital could prove more of a challenge. In January, Ouachita County voters handily rejected a temporary 1-percent sales tax increase that would have generated an estimated $4 million for economic development.

Firth and other laid-off workers say seeing the old mill depresses them.

"Now the plant is nothing but a big monument to unemployment," he said.