EVANSVILLE — When he was a boy in the 1940s and early 1950s, growing up on a West Side hill near Barker Avenue and Delaware Street, Bob Fetscher could see Downtown Evansville and the Riverfront, where a World War II shipyard glowed at night and where, after the war, Chrysler loaded its Evansville-made Plymouths on barges.
He could hear the roar of thousands of fans at nearby Reitz Bowl every December from 1948 to 1956, when college football teams came to compete in the Refrigerator Bowl.
He would laugh when his father arrived home from Seeger's refrigerator factory at Morgan Avenue and Read Street with an improbable story:
Guys in the plant had their radios tuned to an Evansville Braves minor-league baseball game when someone hollered, "What's the count?"
"Three and two," came the reply.
"Three balls and two strikes!"
"Strike? You damn right we'll strike. Let's go."
Such was life in Evansville when it was nicknamed "The Refrigerator Capital of the World" — when Seeger, Servel and International Harvester made refrigerators here, providing jobs for more than 10,000 employees.
This was before Whirlpool Corp. arrived in 1955 to merge with Seeger and then buy Servel and International Harvester facilities as they closed.
Today, trees and a Mead Johnson office building hinder his view, but Fetscher, as much as anyone, feels the pangs of Whirlpool's decision to close its Evansville manufacturing plant in June, leaving 1,200 without jobs and transferring refrigerator production to Monterrey, Mexico.
Easing the pain
The city and Airport Authority offered enough incentives to keep Whirlpool's product design center here, employing 300 in well-paid, engineering-type jobs. If all goes as hoped, much of the mammoth plant will be razed and turned into a 105-acre "tech park" that might attract other firms interested in research and development.
Fetscher was both an hourly and salaried employee at Whirlpool, returning in 1969 after being wounded in the Air Force in Vietnam and studying to become an industrial engineer.
"My dad, me, my cousin, my brother, my stepbrother and other family members enjoyed nearly 250 years of accumulated employment with Whirlpool and its predecessors," said Fetscher.
"My dad started at Sunbeam (later Seeger) in 1935, two years before I was born.
"I'm sad and disgusted. It's the passing of an era."
When Whirlpool announced its intentions last August to go where labor is far cheaper, the industry giant — which 50 years ago helped stabilize the city's flagging economy — said it wasn't the fault of a "quality" work force (average age 52) and that the city couldn't have prevented it.
The company said it was being squeezed by global market forces and dwindling sales for the top mounts (freezer on top) made in Evansville. Others familiar with the situation mentioned a loss of business in recent years when Sears began buying top mounts from Frigidaire or the acquisition of rival Maytag with an Iowa plant already making popular bottom mounts (freezer on bottom) which were part of Evansville's future.
Remember The 50,000
Whirlpool's footprint on the region is large. Several years ago the company estimated it had employed more than 50,000 Tri-Staters between 1956 and 2006.
Throughout the 1960s, '70s and early '80s, it was the Tri-State's largest employer, peaking at just under 10,000 workers in 1973 at three plants. The smaller plants on Franklin Street (evaporator coils, condensers) and Morgan Avenue (air conditioners, dehumidifiers, compressors) closed in 1975 and 1984, leaving the sprawling, 1.7 million-square-foot U.S. 41 plant.
'We Grew Up There'
Carl Askins, 80, was a rural boy who moved to Evansville from Ohio County, Ky., and went to work at Seeger for $1.04 an hour in 1950. When the Korean conflict flared, Seeger won a contract to build tail sections for F-86 Sabre jets.
"They called a bunch of us young guys back (from layoff) and trained us to build tails and shoot rivets," Askins fondly recalled.
"It was a fun place. What we couldn't do couldn't be thought of. I never worked at another plant as unique. We grew up together ... now, when we see each other, it's at funeral homes."
Askins became a union steward under Charles Johnson, "one of the greatest presidents we ever had at 808," a reference to Local 808 of the International Union of Electrical Workers, which has represented Whirlpool's hourly workers since the beginning.
Johnson headed the union from 1968 to 1980, leading workers through the two longest strikes — 110 days in 1971, 122 in 1974 — seeking better pay and benefits.
"Charlie was strong, but diligent and a straight shooter," said Askins, who was making $12 an hour by the time he retired in 1990.
Askins offers some praise for Whirlpool's local management, too: "Anything I have is because of Whirlpool. They were a good employer, as long as you kept it out of the corporate office hands (Benton Harbor, Mich.). Some of the finest people I ever worked with were supervisors."
Among them were "Miss Tate" in the personnel office, who remembered everyone's name and clock number, and Marvin Pitt in labor relations.
Askins: "You could trust anything Marvin said. One time a guy got fired, and Marvin told me not to file a grievance 'because I'm going to get him his job back.' When you filed a grievance, it went to Benton Harbor. Marvin told me, 'This guy's wife is a basket case, and they have an afflicted son.' The guy was back at work in less than two months."
Back to the '50s
Old-timers and local historians such as Darrel Bigham speak of how Evansville was on its knees economically during the era of Elvis and Sputnik.
Between 1950 and 1957, 10 companies (even the big Cook's Brewery) either closed or moved from the city. By 1957, Evansville had lost two of its big four industries and a third was going.
Servel, which once employed 7,000, went belly-up as all-electric kitchens took their toll on its gas refrigerator product. International Harvester vacated the vast U.S. 41 plant built in 1942 so Republic Aviation could produce P-47 fighter planes. Then Chrysler announced it would leave in 1958, consolidating car production at a new plant in suburban St. Louis.
Only Whirlpool remained of the companies that gave Evansville claim to being the refrigerator capital. Unemployment jumped to more than 13 percent.
In 1957 the Fantus Factory Locating Service of Chicago was hired by the community (even taxi drivers chipped in $128 toward the $25,000 cost) to study Evansville, with explosive results.
The exhaustive report said in part: "Evansville is racked by pessimism, gloom, inability to work in a unified fashion; one group stymies another simply because of personal differences between members. The city as a whole is unable to accomplish anything."
The report, both praised and condemned locally, did spur action.
A city planner named Rudolph Frankel of Miami University in Ohio was hired, and civic leaders and others swung into action, creating Evansville's Future to develop factory sites and raise investment capital.
Zoning codes, reassessment practices, labor-management relations and other problems were addressed, to the point that in 1963, Fantus declared that a city which in 1958 had an "impossible" atmosphere now could be recommended to companies looking for sites.
By the early '60s, Alcoa's new plant near Yankeetown, Ind., was providing much-needed jobs, and in 1963, Evansville was taken off the federal government's distressed cities list.
Bigham, a retired University of Southern Indiana history professor, notes communities change, and Evansville's economy no longer rises or falls with one industry.
"But Whirlpool's still a significant footprint for no other reason than it's a huge facility, a historic facility, quite visible. And (unlike the days when Chrysler was an American company moving to another American city) we now deal with companies that transcend national boundaries."
A perfect storm
Greg Wathen, president and CEO of the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana, believes the problems of the '50s were a bigger challenge for Evansville, although what's happening now to Whirlpool workers "is devastating to them."
"I think we're better prepared today to weather the storm ... to absorb the shock," he said, noting the city is home to Indiana's largest bank and utility and there's an "additional revenue stream" from Casino Aztar. He's careful not to point fingers.
"I don't think it's either company greed or workers being overpaid. It's a combination of economic factors that took place and became the perfect storm."
He said both workers and management deserve credit for keeping the aging plant open for as long as it was.
Wathen's first day on the job in 2007 started with an 8 a.m. meeting between Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, state officials and Whirlpool brass to talk about reining in costs and how to get new products into the highway plant. At one time, it appeared the popular bottom mounts would be made here, but Whirlpool's acquisition of rival Maytag included an Iowa plant already making them.
Wathen said the dialogue continued for two years, until Whirlpool officials notified the city on a Thursday night that the plant would close in a year. Workers learned the next morning.
"No one likes to see these things happen," Wathen said. "When you're in my position (economic development), it's sort of your worst nightmare ... but the reality is our economy is going to continue to churn and change and you have to be as flexible as possible. When a decision is made, you have to think: What can be salvaged?"
And so discussions began immediately — that weekend — on a plan to keep the design center here.