Date of Visit: March 31, 2012
The company was founded at the turn of the 20th century. They manufactured a wide variety of products – from spices to baby powder, from health tonics to gravy mixes, from ink to salves. Like many companies of its era, they had mail order catalogs and door-to-door salesman. Their founder worked onsite – in an “office” out on the production floor so that he could personally ensure that things were being manufactured to his strict quality standards. They prospered in a 400,000 square foot 5-building factory in the American Midwest for over 80 years – then they vanished, leaving behind only colorful peeling paint and delicious aromas of cinnamon and powders that still permeate the factory walls over 30 years after workers last clocked out.
We were given a 4-hour tour of the enormous facilities by Roy, the reluctant caretaker of the site. He stumbled upon this role not by desire, but by obligation: his grandfather and father had both been loyal workers at the factory for many years. Roy himself used to play on the factory grounds as a child and has a vivid memory of the company’s legendary owner once greeting him inside the factory doors when he was sent by his mother to deliver his father’s lunch. He looked up at the tall, imposing man who asked him who he was looking for, Elroy (his grandfather) or Leroy (his father)? “Ummmm… my Dad…” replied the petrified boy. The tall man took him by the hand and walked him into the engine room, where his father lay working underneath some machinery. He kicked his father’s leg and said, “Leroy! Get out here and take your kid’s lunch!” Leroy angrily pushed out from under the machinery – thinking it was a co-worker – before laying eyes on The Man himself. The three of them had lunch together – a treasured moment for the boy. When he was handed the keys to the abandoned factory and asked to keep them all those years later, how could he say no? Who else would care so much about this building, or know so much about it, than the boy who had grown up there?
Roy told us many stories as we wandered through the huge complex. He knew every room – what had been manufactured there, how they color-coded the uniforms and walls of each area so that quality could be assured (since you wouldn’t want someone from the medicinal area, potentially contaminated with toxins, to wander into the cake mix area, would you?), the purpose of the various spiral slides and conveyor belts, the type of machinery that was used. He showed us his father’s locker and the sign-in sheet still emblazened. He explained that some of the buildings were so dark inside because they had clad them in steel to reduce heading costs – sacrificing the beauty and energy efficiency of the original glass-walled design. He told us of the strike that the company workers had engaged in out of solidarity with the workers of another factory nearby, and how this betrayal was a knife in the heart to the company founder who had gone out of his way to provide his employees with some of the best working conditions of his day, and how the relationship between the founder and the employees was never the same afterwards. He talked about the sadness of seeing the building decay over the last 30 years – having seen it when it was immaculate testimony to the ambitions of one man, and the pride of his employees.
Roy had incredibly patience for the three photographers who set-up their tripods to photograph seemingly mundane details such as peeling paint, cement staircases, chimney towers, and watchclock station boxes. He took us back to areas we’d already gone through so we could get another photo. He allowed us to forage through boxes and boxes of old product labels and bottles, and was amused at our excitement with the old label designs and the realization that this company made such an enormous range of products. He took us to the roof (after calling the police to let them know we were supposed to be there) and answered all our questions about the history of the surrounding buildings (including where the house he grew up in stood). He even got me a plastic bag when we stumbled across a mummified cat and I stated I’d like to take it home with me. He might have thought I was a total weirdo – I wouldn’t blame him – but he didn’t let on as he grabbed the cat and carefully placed it into the bag for me. Now, that’s what I call an amazing host!
As we left, we were committed to protecting this building from vandals and taggers by not revealing its location or name – as much for Roy as for the building itself. It was an affront to human decency to stand in the old records room atop hundreds of documents – cancelled checks, invoices, employment records – that had been tossed aside by vandals. Beneath us lay an entire company’s history: a history of countless men and women who spent 8-hours or more a day for many decades within these brick walls, including our host’s own father and grandfather – and someone had the gall to just toss it all aside, as if it was completely meaningless.
In the end, maybe the history of buildings such as this is largely meaningless. Companies come and go, most of the people who worked here are probably deceased now, and those who are still alive may not hold the same attachment to the buildings that a man with fond childhood memories might have. In the end, perhaps the legacy of the building might die with Roy. As with most dying industrial cities in America, reuse initiatives have so far met with failure, and the prospects for the factory seem bleak. However, for four hours three photographers were able to revisit and document this vibrant piece of Americana. And for that we are incredibly grateful.