By SYLVIA BENAVIDEZ
Albion-The Victory Park picnic shelter looked like it was filled with ordinary people enjoying a meal with family and friends on a sunny Thursday afternoon on September 19, 2019. Really though, the gathering of mostly men and a few women consisted of individuals who played a vital role in Albion’s industrial past.
Bob Butler and Jesse Whetstone arranged the picnic for past employees of Harvard Industry and its previous variations. The two men watched while the company they worked for changed hands and names over the years. Albion Malleable Iron Company was founded in 1888, then it became Hayes Albion in the late 1960s with the corporate offices moving to Jackson, and finally, by the time it shut down in 2002, a division of Harvard Industry. The shutdown; however, did not break the ties between the men and women, who in some cases, worked their entire lives there. This connection brought everyone together this year to again swap stories of the past, enjoy food together, and catch up with each other.
“You can see how much fun they are having,” said Butler about the picnic. He then recalled times with his fellow employees at Malleable. “We had ball teams and bowling teams. We would play cards at break. It was a great place to work, and it was steady. A good paycheck every week.” Then Butler glanced around the picnic area at the men and women in attendance and stated, “It’s a great day to be alive.”
Whetstone commented that he began his 34 or so years with Malleable at an early age and this spurred a funny memory. The late Baby Lou as he remembers the nickname was unknown to Whetstone at the time a distant relative. “He used to give me a hard time as a young man in the shop to make sure I do my job correctly. And the supervisor won’t check on me. He (Baby Lou) would check on me.” Whetstone laughed and said I found out later he was just another employee, but “I didn’t know any different.”
Gary Tompkins Senior, father to Gary Tompkins, Calhoun County Commissioner 7th District also spoke fondly of his years as a journeyman millwright at the factory.
“It was 3000 degrees up there in the melt, and the molten iron had to stay that way. We had a terrible time up there to keep ourselves cool.”
Attesting to the intensity of the heat, Oscar Johnson who also helped make calls for the picnic, shared that the last 18 years of his work with Malleable/Hayes Albion was on the other side of the street working with train parts. Regarding how he felt leaving the intense heat, he stated, “I got lucky.”
Although the work was challenging, Tompkins Sr. would lighten up the mood with practical jokes. One day he placed garden variety snakes in his supervisor’s desk. Asked why he did it, Tompkins Sr. smiled mischievously replied, “It was fun!” But don’t let his lighthearted manner fool you as to how proud he is of the work he did for not just Albion, but the country during the company was in operation. “If you take the body off of a car, the rest of it was Hayes Albion.” The workers molded brakes, rotators, calipers, wheel hubs, driveshafts, and so much more. Butler summed it up perfectly, “We are proud of the work we did.”
Commissioner Tompkins shared that his grandfather, Leslie, also worked for Malleable for 33 years, so his ties to the company run for more than a generation. “As a child of somebody who worked there, I feel like a part of that family,” reported Tompkins. “I miss those days of driving by and seeing that building. I spend so much time there seeing it and for it not to be there anymore is tough.” He feels we all should applaud and honor the employees for the work that they did, which carried us through wars and the success of a growing car industry. Reflecting out loud Tompkins stated, “It’s sad to see that it is gone, but they will forever live in the memory of Albion because they are part of what made Albion great, and still what makes Albion great today.”
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