Closing of the Shoe Factory leaves economic, emotional gap here

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There are dates the live in the memories of world and national history.

  There are others that few outside of a certain area even take notice of; while members of a particular community will never forget it.

  For many in the Switzerland County community, one of those dates is December 14th, 1999.

  That’s the day, after more than 50 years of serving this community, that Vevay’s U.S. Shoe Corporation — the ‘Shoe Factory’ — ceased operations here, 20 years ago. When the plant closed for good that December day, 242 current employees lost their jobs, and hundreds of others who had worked there in the past lost a piece of their history.

  And — pun noted — the county lost its sole.

  Two longtime employees of the Shoe Factory, Glenda Sullivan and Patty Chase, took some time recently to reflect on the vital role that the factory played in the lives of Switzerland County residents.

   “It was such an important part of this community,” Sullivan said. “I lacked a week or two of being there 42 years, and I was about the last one that walked out the door, because I worked in the office. So I had to throw all the files away and stuff — and that was hard, because you knew that you were throwing stuff away that was never going to be remembered again.”

  Sullivan said that when the Shoe Factory closed its doors that day, everyone knew that it wasn’t like some other factories, simply closing for the holidays and then re-opening for everyone to have their jobs back.

  “I just remember all the good times,” she said. “We were a family, we really were. If something happened, they’d pass a box around and it would go all over the factory and collect money, whether it was sympathy or sickness or whatever it happened to be.”

  “And when somebody was sick, they’d say, ‘her mother died’, and somebody would jump up and say ‘I’m going’,” Chase said. “They didn’t stay there and work, they’d get up and leave and go with that person, whoever it happened to.”

  Chase worked at the Shoe Factory for 44 years before she retired just six months before the plant closed.

  “If I’d have known that they were going to close it just six months later, I would have stayed,” Chase said. “I was just tired and wanted to get out, so I just went ahead and retired six months before I’d been there 45 years.”

  The Shoe Factory was a major part of the Switzerland County community, with many of those who lost their jobs that December day being husbands and wives. Soldiers would return from military service and start a career working at the Shoe Factory.

  “As soon as they got back home, on a furlough, they’d be right back in the Shoe Factory visiting people,” Chase said of local soldiers home on leave.

  “Some of these kids who worked there, they’d go off to the service maybe, and then they’d come back and walk up to the window and say, ‘you still here?’,” Sullivan remembers with a laugh. “They had served their time, and when they got back, they’d be surprised that I was still sitting there at the window in the office.”

  At the time of the closing, 242 people lost their jobs; but Sullivan said that the factory saw even bigger days than that.

  “I think at one time, we got up close to 400 people working,” she said. “We had three shifts a going there at one time. That was a big amount. Then when they put the modulars and stuff in, that reduced it (the workforce). At one time, the fitting room alone had about 200 people, that’s where all the sewing machines were at. Then they got them coming in with most of them already stitched.”

  When Sullivan and Chase started, the local Shoe Factory was a “start to finish” process, with every element of the shoe being assembled in Vevay.

  “When we first started, it was cut, and fitted and the bottoms put on it and packed and everything,” Sullivan said. “It just went right on around the room; but there at the last, when they went to Easy Spirits, then the uppers came in already formed, so all they had to do was put the bottoms on.”

  “The fitting room did a few things,” Chase said, “But the fitting room went from about 200 people down to about 20.”

  Chase said over her nearly 45 years in the factory, she did just about everything.

  “I sewed for awhile. Did handwork for awhile. Just about everything,” Chase said. “Wherever they needed me.”

  “I went right in the office right out of high school,” Sullivan said. “I kind of messed around for a little bit, about a half a year, and mom said, ‘Why don’t you go down there and at least put your application in?’ I said, ‘Mom I don’t want to go to the shoe factory and sew shoes. Well, I walked in and Hazel Ellison was in there, and she grabbed me and said, ‘We need you here in the office’. I probably couldn’t have stood it 42 years out there in the plant standing on these legs.”

  There were a lot of names that went through the Shoe Factory that had not only a profound impact on the employees, but also on the community.

  “Tom Crabtree and Kelly Kemper and all of them,” Sullivan said. “Those were big names here in the community.”

  Over the past few years, attempts have been made to hold a Shoe Factory reunion each year, but as former employees get older and fewer alumni want to help with the planning, it’s been harder and harder to pull it off. Sullivan and Chase tried for several years, and then got some help from Nathan and Donna Hughes, but as time passes former employees have moved on to other careers and in some cases other communities. Sullivan and Chase said that the first reunions many former employees thought would be like the old company picnics.

  “We used to have big picnics each year, and we’d have it different places,” Sullivan said. “We’d have nice prizes to give away that the Shoe Factory paid for; and they bought all the food. We had bingo for the kids. We made a big deal out of it.”

  And the Shoe Factory was not only a staple here in Switzerland County. Madison and Osgood also had Shoe Factories in their towns, and Sullivan said that she thought that at one time, there were 12 or 14 Shoe Factories.

  “In Kentucky there was Flemingsburg and Vanceburg, and then here they had a plant at Crothersville and Osgood,” Sullivan said. “Harrison had some, and Cincinnati was where the big office was. There was one in Maysville. I think Tom Crabtree was the plant manager at several of them.”

  Sullivan said that ultimately the U.S. Shoe Corporation was bought by Nine West, which has the ‘Easy Spirit’ line; and then they were bought by Jones Apparel.

  “We went back after Christmas break, and they told us that Nine West had bought us,” Sullivan said. “We probably worked for Nine West maybe about a year or better; and then they sold it out to Jones Apparel, and as soon as Jones Apparel got it, about the next thing that was announced was that we were going to be closing.”

  “They said they weren’t going to close us, but they did,” Chase said.

  “They wanted the name of ‘Easy Spirit’, the brand,” Sullivan said. “They didn’t want U.S. Shoe, and they didn’t want us. They just wanted that ‘Easy Spirit’ name.”

  Officials with U.S. Shoe Corporation broke ground on the Vevay plant in July of 1948, so it supplied jobs and paychecks to people in this community for just over 50 years when it closed.

  In the August 5th, 1999 issue of the Vevay Newspaper, the news of the December closing was broken to the employees:

  In July of 1948, the U.S. Shoe Corporation broke ground on a new production facility in Vevay. On Tuesday morning, after more than 50 years of making shoes and after undergoing two ownership changes, officials from he Nine West Group told their 260 workers that the plant is being closed.

  Larry Mahoney, Vice President of manufacturing of Nine West, made the announcement to employees at a 6 a.m. meeting. It was also announced at that time that a plant in Vanceburg, Kentucky; Hebron, Kentucky; and facility in the Dominican Republic are also being closed.

  Employees were told that last production day here is expected to be Friday, December 17th. At that time, about 260 local employees will lose their jobs.

  Attempts to contact Larry Mahoney both in person and by telephone were unsuccessful, but in a FAXed statement sent by the company, he is quoted as saying: “This painful decision was based on Nine West’s need to optimize its worldwide sourcing capabilities and reduce costs in order to remain competitive. In no way does it reflect on the competence or work ethic of our employees”.

  A spokesman for Nine West said that the company will use a global sourcing network in finding sources to make up the loss of manufacturing. When Nine West purchased U.S. Shoe Corporation, it notes that most of the company’s manufacturing facilities were in China and Brazil. The source confirmed that much of the local plant’s production will be transferred to those two countries.

*

  No doubt having some impact on the August announcement was that, in mid-July, officials broke ground on what would become Belterra Casino Resort — and the anticipation of that property opening and the jobs that it would bring to the community created some angst over competing for the workforce and the rising salaries that the competition might bring.

  Belterra would open the following year, and remains now as the leading employer in Switzerland County.

*

  The end came on Tuesday, December 14th, 1999, when the Shoe Factory closed its doors for good.

  In the December 16th issue of the Vevay Newspapers, the closing was summed up as bittersweet for the employees:

  With the closing went the jobs of the Vevay plant’s 242 employees, many of who had been at the factory for many years. A total of 78 employees had been at the plant for more than 15 years — predating the use of the modular system.

  The shoe factory has long been a part of the Switzerland County community, and several employees have a long history of service. Meredith Scudder would have seen her 50th anniversary on January 30th, 2000 — had the plant remained open. There are eight other employees at the Vevay plant who had more than 40 years of service, including Marjorie Adams, 45 years; Rosemary Vanosdol, 44 years; Vernon Peters, 43 years; Phyllis Coker, 43 years; Janice Peters, 43 years; Glenda Sullivan, 41 years; Donna Bailey, 40 years; and Martha Sloan, 40 years.

  Tuesday’s last day was an emotional time for both management and the employees. When it was announced on August 3rd that the plant would close on December 17th — tomorrow (Friday). But as the day drew closer, workers were told that they wouldn’t be producing any shoes after December 14th.

  The closing of local plant — along with plants in Vanceburg, Kentucky, and Hebron, Kentucky — means that all of the company’s shoe production will occur outside the United States.

When the plant closing were announced in this area it was also announced that Nine West would close a facility in the Dominican Republic. Most production is expected to take place in China and Brazil.

  Tuesday morning was an emotional day for the shoe factory workers. A company that at one time had eight different modular lines producing a quota of at least 634 pairs of shoes a day slowly reduced itself to just one mod in operation — Mod 3.

  About 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, the 15 team members of Mod 3 produced the last pair of shoes at the Vevay plant. The mod got the honor of producing the last pair of shoes because their machine had experienced some problems earlier that morning and was shut down for a short time. The other mods kept running, and finished their quotas, and everyone waited for Mod 3.

  Linda Leap, a 22- year employee of the shoe factory, had the honor of pulling the final pair of shoes — “Motion “ style — off the Mod. They were given to the plant manager Jack Kellet, who sent them on to the company’s headquarters.

  “I guess I was the lucky one, “Linda Leap said. “It was a very emotional day for all of us because so many of us are friends. I guess it worked out pretty well that I pulled that last pair because I’m probably the last original lead operator left in there (the plant).”