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TILTON — Nearly a quarter-century later, the only sign that a bustling, 16-acre General Motors foundry was once here is a patch of old concrete.

Standing near a pile of twisted iron, GM retiree Jim Silvestro points to where the offices used to be located, in the front of the massive plant that, for a while, employed more people than Tilton, the town of 2,700 where it was based.

"The main foundry is all gone," Silvestro said. "Only thing left is the truck shop."

This is the first trip back to the foundry since its 1995 shuttering for Silvestro, a 76-year-old Catlin resident who reported to work here for more than 25 years. It was hard to say goodbye to a plant that provided a comfortable way of life for hundreds of families, offering competitive wages and generous benefits alike.

It's the same anxiety residents of other Midwest cities are experiencing this holiday season, two-plus decades later.

As part of a sweeping cost-cutting plan, GM announced late last month that it would end production by the close of 2019 at five plants, including one in northeast Ohio and two in southeast Michigan. The closings will bring to a halt long manufacturing traditions in Lordstown, Ohio, and suburban Detroit, just as they did when Vermilion County lost what Silvestro called "a nice place to work" and the local economy took a turn for the worse.

The foundry that once thrived here was launched after World War II, when GM bought a facility it had built and operated for the Defense Plant Corp., churning out axles for military vehicles. In the early 1940s, the slogan "Victory Is Our Business" was stamped across the front of the building, located just off Interstate 74.

After a massive plant expansion and retooling of military axles weighing up to 360 pounds to lighter commercial-use axles of no more than 50 pounds, the GM foundry operated around the clock for the next five decades, continually pouring iron into molds and creating metal castings that became engines, transmissions, axles and other parts, mostly for trucks and cars in the No. 1 automaker's line, but also for competitors like Ford, Dodge and American Motors.

"They hired every day for years," Silvestro said.

 

'Very traumatic'

By the 1980s, high oil prices and increasing competition from foreign automakers was dramatically changing the U.S. auto industry.

"When the '70s rolled around, you started getting into the gasoline mileage issue, and then all of a sudden weight became an issue, and a lot of parts were converted from cast iron," said GM retiree Ron Candido, a metallurgist at the Tilton foundry.

Much has changed since those days — particularly, the impact of Japanese automakers on American soil, Candido said — but losing a GM plant then versus now can be similarly devastating.

Lordstown is about the same size as Tilton. Idling that facility will mean the loss of more than 1,500 jobs and $250 million in wages.

It's an economic blow that many in Vermilion County remember well. All these years later, Candido still can't even bring himself to drive by the former Central Foundry site.

"Because it was the only job I ever had in my life," said the University of Missouri metallurgical engineering graduate, who interviewed with GM on campus in the summer of 1965 and was referred to Tilton. He was hired as an industrial engineer and spent 31 years there before transferring to the Defiance, Ohio, plant four years before retirement.

One of the last members of the small crew that stayed on to shutter the facility after the last iron was poured on Sept. 29, 1995, Candido was made site manager, overseeing the sell-off of equipment and the facility. He's the one who signed the documents when GM sold the site to a company that dismantled most of it for scrap metal, leaving only the 126,000-square-foot truck area as a lease property due to its 30-foot ceilings.

"The closing of the plant was very traumatic to the city of Danville, from an economic standpoint and to people," said Candido, who remembers the two-year grind before the closing, when hundreds of workers accepted transfers to GM sites all over the country.

Others retired, were laid off or settled for whatever jobs they could find locally, not wanting to start over in another state.

"That's what I went through for quite some time ... watching that happen," he said. "To be honest with you, to this day, I do not drive by the plant."

 

'Big wages back then'

The departure of GM was the loss that grabbed the biggest headlines, but it wasn't the only one of that era in this area. In the 1980s and '90s, Vermilion County saw jobs go away when General Electric and Hyster left Danville and Pillsbury/Joan of Arc closed its operations in Hoopeston.

But GM was in a class of its own. Vicki Haugen, who then led the local economic development office, now called Vermilion Advantage, said the automaker's wages and benefits were so competitive that the foundry's presence intimidated other prospective employers from setting up shop in the county.

"In the early days, there were a lot of prospects we had that once they heard GM was here, weren't interested," she said. "We fell out of the mix."

Silvestro remembers applying at GM in 1965 — rather than Bohn Aluminum or Hyster, which were also hiring at the time — because of the compensation package it was offering: $3 an hour to work second shift.

"That was big wages back then," he said.

By 1992, when he retired, he was up to $20 an hour, still a good wage in Vermilion County at the time. Plus, Silvestro said, "the benefits were real good the whole time I worked there. Toward the end, we had to start paying (insurance) co-pays."

The work itself wasn't easy. Silvestro remembers the plant being hot, dusty and dirty, and many of the jobs being physically demanding.

Some people couldn't take the working conditions. While Candido remembers what seemed like a constant hiring line, there was also a smaller but steady wave of employees leaving.

"I was a guy who thoroughly enjoyed his job," said Candido, a salaried worker who stayed for 31 years.

Like Silvestro, he also took advantage of the foundry's ample overtime opportunities.

"That's how I paid for my son's college education," said Candido, adding that workers in the skilled trades positions, like electricians and millwrights, never got a day off. They pulled in $19 an hour of straight time during the week, then time-and-a-half on Saturdays, double time on Sundays and triple time on holidays, nearly $60 an hour.

During one seven-year stretch, Silvestro said he worked seven days a week, in part so he could take his wife and three boys wherever they wanted to travel in the U.S. during his two weeks of vacation.

Silvestro recalls squeezing in time with his children by going to any school activities that happened in the mornings. Then, in the evenings, his wife and the kids would bring him supper at the foundry.

"I worked a lot of hours, a lot of overtime," Silvestro said.

 

To stay or go?

Knowing the foundry's days were numbered, he decided to retire at age 50, after 26 years of service. One son had just finished college, and his house was paid off.

"When I retired, I didn't owe nobody nothing," Silvestro said.

Others weren't so fortunate. Toward the end, Thomas Nimrick remembers GM employees receiving letters offering transfers to another plant.

The only catch: They had all of two weeks to decide.

"That's not a lot of time to make up your mind and move everything," said Nimrick, now retired and living in Paris. His children were out of the house by that time, so he accepted an offer to relocate to Dayton, Ohio.

The first year, he commuted on weekends. After that, wife Julia, who grew up across the street from the Tilton foundry, joined Nimrick in Ohio, where they bought a house. But that plant eventually closed, as well, as did the one nearby that Nimrick transferred to next. Eventually, he was offered a buyout and took it, retiring in 2004.

Nimrick expects workers affected by GM's latest round of cuts to have similar opportunities.

"I'm sure they'll be offering buyouts and transfer rights," he said.

Candido also took a transfer, moving in 1995 to Defiance, Ohio, where he was the plant's chief metallurgist. Like Nimrick, he stayed in an apartment during the week and commuted back to Danville on weekends — "two hundred and fifty-two miles one way," he recalled.

Sometimes, his wife would make the drive back to Ohio with him and stay a week or so.

"Went on for four years," he said. "And then I retired. Because I could. And that was January 1, 2000."

 

The domino effect

Though it didn't employee the number of workers it did in the '60s and '70s, the Central Foundry was still a boon to the Danville-Tilton economy in the years before it closed, with an annual payroll in the $50 million range.

The foundry itself was like a small industrial city, and it needed materials and supplies.

Tilton Mayor David Phillips, a village employee in those days, recalls how busy the I-74 interchange next to the plant used to get, especially at shift changes. A gas station across the street closed almost immediately after the foundry left, recalled Phillips, who was recently talking with a friend about the latest round of GM cuts.

"They're going to lose job shops," he said, referring to all of the local businesses supported by the five GM facilities set to close.

"That's what hurt (locally) more than anything," said Phillips, who remembers a few such businesses — including Famco and Pattern Works — shutting down around the same time as the Tilton plant.

Anticipating the domino effect well before GM closed, the local economic development office in Danville — now Vermilion Advantage — surveyed 64 area businesses with ties to the foundry, like Material Services of Fairmount, where GM was buying 23,000 tons of low-fluoride limestone a year. In 1994, that was a $121,000 sale.

About 36 businesses responded to the survey, Haugen said.

Sixteen estimated an annual loss in sales up to $25,000. Seven projected a loss of up to $100,000, with another seven between $100,000 and $1 million. And two reported a total loss in annual sales exceeding $1 million.

On top of that, six of the businesses reported they'd have to lay off workers as a result of GM pulling out — a combined total of 41 employees.

One division of a local business that supplied bricks to the facility was entirely dependent on GM and closed immediately, Haugen said.

"So we had a lot of information to anticipate and focus our resources to help," she said.

 

Tilton's top tenant

Surrounding communities not only benefited from GM's massive payroll, but also from corporate giving, which made a significant mark in the local tax base.

With room to spare on its 100 acres of land, GM partnvered with Tilton to build a youth baseball complex, which it leased to the village for $1, Phillips said. GM put up all the fencing, built parts of the facility and provided electricians to handle all of the lighting.

Phillips also remembers the company furnishing the village with grit material every year for a mixture applied to the streets in winter, saving Tilton from buying salt.

And after the Tilton fire department fought a blaze at the foundry, allowing operations to continue, GM donated all new fire hoses and other equipment to the village.

"Little things like that," Phillips said of the foundry's impact.

Even the individual giving of GM employees had a great influence, officials said.

Donations from GM workers to the Danville United Way's annual campaign comprised 70 percent of total employee pledges. The year prior to the plant closing, after 600 workers had already been laid off or transferred, the foundry was still the biggest contributor in its division, according to then-United Way President Bill Brandenberger.

In the survey of local GM suppliers, one business said the loss of sales to GM would reduce its own charitable contributions by $35,000 a year.

Even the after-hours scene changed. The year the foundry closed, the United Auto Workers Local 579 had about 1,500 members, making the UAW Civic Center in Tilton a hub of activity during GM's heyday.

Tilton, which Phillips is proud to say has never levied a property tax, is still standing, defying projections the mayor remembers hearing. ("Everybody swore we were going to shrivel up and die.")

But GM's departure led to an exodus of residents, including Phillips' own next-door neighbor, who transferred to the Defiance plant.

Vermilion County's population had already taken its biggest hit in the '80s, as large industrial employers shed jobs during a global economic shift. A county of 95,222 in 1980 was down to 88,155 by 1990, five years before GM left town. But it lost another 5,000 residents by 2000.

"That's the biggest thing," Phillips said. "A lot of people moved out of town when it closed. ... And they were good about putting money back in town," to the benefit of local restaurants, bars and other businesses.

"That's what hurt more than anything. (GM) had a good pay scale, and people were spending their money."

The loss of population and spending power spread well beyond Tilton, to the entire Danville area. That gradually led to blighted neighborhoods, Haugen said, given that the area now had more housing units than the shrinking population could support.

Over the past 20 years, the city of Danville has sunk tens of thousands of dollars into the demolition of vacant, blighted properties. It still has more to go.

 

'A different time'

The departure of GM changed local lives and communities forever, but manufacturing remains as vital a part of Vermilion County now as it ever has.

On the bright side, Haugen notes, the county has its highest number of manufacturers doing business here, collectively employing about 5,300 people. What the county lacks is a single employer with an abundance of employees, particularly the middle-management and labor-intensive hourly jobs that GM employed in big numbers.

Now, Haugen said, companies require higher-skilled workers. "You can do more with less, because of technology, and that trend is not going away," she said.

The county's GM era "was just a different time," Haugen said. "That time doesn't exist today."