Norwood "Woody" Adler recalls the time when Evansville used to be known as the Plastics Hub of the Nation.
And like any hub, there were spokes going out all over the world.
"The major part of the plastics being built were built here in Evansville," said Adler, who worked at Hoosier Cardinal, Kent Plastics and later helped found Windsor Plastics. "It seemed like everybody who got started in that business came out of Evansville."
Times have changed, but plastics continues to be an important industry for Evansville. According to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, the four-county area around Evansville has about 5,900 plastics-related jobs. That accounts for about 21 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the area.
And Evansville was there from the start. The city can lay claim to the place where the modern plastics industry began in the U.S.
Jan Theurbach, who once compiled a history of plastics in this area, puts it this way: "California has its Silicon Valley. We should have our Plastics Valley."
Don Hodge is the unofficial historian for the Evansville chapter of the Society of Plastics Engineers. He became interested in the history of the local plastics industry years ago when he was a salesman to various local plastics companies. "Everywhere I went, I heard that someone started this company and started that company." He has traced the history of local plastics to its beginnings.
Plastics in the U.S. actually dates back to 1850, Hodge said. At that time, billiard balls were made from elephant tusk ivory and people feared the demand for billiard balls would endanger the elephant. So they found a way of making a hard substitute out of thermo-set plastics. Use of this type of plastic, however, was limited.
The modern plastics industry dates back to 1935 to a businessman named Thomas Morton, Jr., who owned Hoosier Cardinal, a stamping company that made metal refrigerator parts, including ice cube trays. One day Morton was introduced to a man named Jack Bauer, whose father owned a machine company in Springfield, Ohio. Bauer had the idea of making a better ice-cube tray out of plastic. It could be done with a new injection-molded plastics method developed in Germany.
Morton liked the idea and sent Bauer to Germany to learn more about the process. Soon Morton bought a German-built Isoma plastics injection molding machine.
The first thing he made was plastic refrigerator shelf studs on which refrigerator shelves rested. Sears Roebuck and Co. became the first customer. So successful was the process that Morton bought two more Isomas in 1936.
Bauer kept coming up with good ideas for Morton. One day he showed Morton a plastics General Electric medallion. The corporate symbol was in three dimensions and three colors. Hoosier Cardinal named the process "See-Deep." Rather than put the paint coatings on the plastic - a very tricky process in itself - Hoosier Cardinal turned the job over to another local company, Red Spot Paint and Varnish, which was run by Milton Thorson.
The first See-Deep products were made for Nash Motors, an automobile company.
From this first Evansville plastics company, a host of other companies sprang up. Morton bought a Warsaw, Ind. company called Fiberfil and moved it to Evansville where it became the ancestor of Evansville companies that today are known as DSM Engineering Plastics and Matrixx. Moll Tool grew out of Hoosier as did DEHM, which was the parent company of Kent Plastics, out of which such companies as Windsor Plastics (today's Guardian Automotive) were formed.
Another important Evansville company was Sunbeam Plastics, founded in 1952 by Ellis Carson and Pete Gatch. Sunbeam eventually became Rexam Closures and Containers, which still operates in Evansville today. Another spin-off was Berry Plastics.
Henderson, Ky. also played an important role in the development of the local plastics industry. Tri-State Plastics, founded by Bob Gibbs, Pat Buckley and Joe Mis in the late 1940s, was the first Henderson plastic company. Spin-offs from this company include today's Teknor Color Company, Gamco Products and Atlantis Plastics.
Tri-State Plastics was soon joined by other Henderson companies, including Kusan, which was founded by Easterners Earl Horton and Bill McClain, who had served in the Army together at Fort Breckenridge during World War II. They went into business, starting a company that made plastic toys. Spinoffs from Kusan include Service Tool and Die and Morris Tool and Die.
John H. Schroeder, chairman of Crescent and Wabash Plastics and Cresline Plastic Pipe Co., describes what it was like in those days. "To start a plastics company, you needed someone in the business to have the skill, and it wasn't impossible to acquire. You could work at... (another plastics company)... a few years and you could do it," he said.
A fairly large capital outlay was also needed. Hodge estimated that equipment needed to make plastics cost about $100,000 - a lot of money in the early days.
But there were other ways to start a company. John C. Schroeder, president of Crescent Plastics, said that tool-and-die makers, of which there were many in Evansville, were soon making molds to be used in injection plastics. But in order to test the mold to make sure it would make the part right, tool-and-die makers needed to buy a plastic injection machine. Then, once the mold was tested, these machines would sit idle unless they were put to good use. What better use than making some more plastics parts? Thus, tool-and-die companies entered the plastics business.
GE Plastics, another huge player in plastics today, came to the Tri-State another way. In 1953, Daniel Fox discovered a hardened plastic that had formed in a beaker overnight. He dubbed the plastic Lexan and it became a blockbuster for GE.
In the late 1950s, GE began looking for a plant to produce its new product, Hodge said. "They started search for a location... that would have access to river transport, be flood safe and be suitable for manufacturing on a large scale," he said. They found their site in Mount Vernon, Ind.
Workers at GE Plastics later created their own start-up companies. They include B & M Plastics of Evansville and Kasha Industries of Grayville, Ill.
The pioneer employees in the plastics business jumped from business to business and often started off on their own, according to Adler. "People took advantage of the opportunities.
For example, Adler, who graduated from high school at 17 in 1943, went to work for Hoosier Cardinal. Except for a couple of years in the Air Force, he stayed there until 1952. Then, he decided to go to Kent Plastics, a more recent and more modern company.
In 1964, Adler and seven others at Kent decided to launch their own company, Windsor Plastics. "We felt like there was room for another plastics company, and we had new ideas we never had a chance to explore where we were," Adler explained.
Work was hard in those early days. Everything, including spraying on the paint, was done by hand, Adler said. Workers put in long hours and continued to try to come up with new products. "It was just moving so fast, you had to move fast, too. This came at the demand of the potential customer. They said, 'This is what we want, but we don't know where to buy it,'" Adler recalled. So companies would find out how to make the sought-for part.
Plastics companies stayed ahead of the competition in those days by continually coming up with new products, Adler said. Those products could command higher margins. "You could get the money out of your product until someone else came along and said they could do it and build it cheaper," Adler said. Then you lost a customer and had to find another idea. "Lots of companies fell by the wayside," he said.
But the business as a whole continued to expand - from the inside to the outside of cars, from refrigerators to toys, from televisions to copying machines to nearly everything, Adler said.
The expansion has spread so far that, today, Evansville no longer holds its position as hub in the plastics world. Plastics manufacture has spread not just throughout the country, but the world.
Foreign competition is making it harder for local companies and, work that used to be done by laborers by hand is now done by machine, restricting plastics employment.
WIth increased domestic competition, pricing pressures in the industry continue. Many companies have fallen by the wayside, though others have risen or grown to take their place.
Despite the changes, Evansville can still take pride in its prominent place in plastics history, according to local historians.
"It all started here," Theurbach said.