This old plant

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation

Pull into the parking lot of the office building where I’ve set up shop and one thought will cross your mind: When is the wrecking ball getting here?

710 Oak Street in Fort Atkinson, Wis., isn’t a pretty place to headquarter the one-man editorial operations for Reliable Plant magazine. The exterior of this 250,000-square-foot building is a bomb-shelter-inspired blend of cinder block, weathered brick and painted-over windows. The interior mainly consists of warehouses with cement floors, I-beam columns and a corrugated steel ceiling. Move a ceiling tile in my 12-foot by 12-foot office for an up-close look at the piping and girders.

710 Oak Street is not Trump Tower, but there may not be a better place to inspire a guy writing about the manufacturing industry.

This complex was erected in 1938 as the headquarters and main factory for Moe Brothers, a manufacturer of residential lighting products. During World War II, the plant converted its stamping presses and other production machinery to make Navy projectile cones, bomb fins and crates, chemical hand grenades and bazooka rockets. During the Korean War, it won large government contracts to make 20-millimeter and 30-millimeter brass shell casings. In peacetime, the plant also manufactured household pressure cookers for Sears (until product defects nixed the contract) and barbecue grills. In its heyday, the place employed more than 500 workers.

Through acquisitions, the company changed its name in 1953 to Thomas Industries. The Oak Street site served as corporate headquarters until 1955 (when it moved to Louisville, Ky.) and as its primary lighting products plant until operations were shifted to Kentucky and Tennessee in 1985. A total of 137 people, including my future mother-in-law, industrial engineer Cheryl Klemme, were employed here at the time of the closure. Cheryl’s mother, Bernice, was a drill press operator and paint line worker from the 1950s until 1984.

The building still holds some clues to its manufacturing past. An old multipress and a riveting machine are out in one warehouse, as are some rusting TI desk lamps. One steel column still bears a sticker reading “In ’77, Performance and Pride Keep Us Alive.” A slight depression on the floor of a men’s bathroom shows where a large industrial hand-washing station once stood.

Besides its relic status, the place serves as an embodiment of industrial America . . . circa 1985, when (thanks to Japan) we began to realize that our manufacturing model was outdated and inefficient, and circa 2005, when (thanks to China, Korea, India, et al) we acknowledge our continued fragile state. For irony and timeliness, I point out one of the main tenants of 710 Oak Street is Oriental Merchandise Supply, an importer of sports equipment made in China and Taiwan. Cardboard boxes filled with skateboards, foam sports balls and boogie boards are stacked floor to ceiling in one warehouse. Large shipments regularly come into and out of the dock.

Inspiration and education come in all shapes and sizes. For me, it comes inside of an old, 250,000-square- foot box.

Paul V. Arnold, your editor

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