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Wednesday, 22 July 2009 18:48

Loss of Hazelwood manufacturer marks the end of an era

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When Mary Ann Enloe was growing up in the blue-collar hub of Hazelwood, she didn’t know anyone with an alarm clock. The town woke to the sound of the factory whistle and followed its cues all day long.

“Everybody here had jobs,” said Enloe. “Industry is what made Hazelwood what it was.”

The town’s stationary and the badges of police officers even bore the town’s motto: “A Center of Diversified Industry.”

Tight-knit neighborhoods proliferated around several factories, especially after WWII. A quintessential mill town, everyone walked to work carrying their lunch pails. Credit flowed from merchants, be it the local grocer, the drug store or dress shop.

“I could go down there and get what I wanted and it would be written up on mother’s bill,” recalled Enloe, who was the last mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville. Enloe’s father was also mayor of the former town.

But one by one, the factories have closed shop: a leather tannery, a textile mill, a furniture plant, a rubber factory. There was just one holdout from a bygone era— until now. Wellco shoe plant announced last week that it will cease operations in Waynesville in September, taking with it 80 jobs and yet another piece of Hazelwood’s former heart and soul.

Wellco shoe plant opened in Waynesville in 1941. Enloe remembers Wellco’s early days, when you could walk through town and see women on their porches stitching boots under contract for Wellco.

“They have been extremely important to Hazelwood,” Enloe said of Wellco. “This is a sad day for Hazelwood.”

Wellco was taken over by new owners in 2007. The owners issued a press release announcing the closure last week, but declined to elaborate beyond calling the plant “no longer economically feasible.”

Wellco had long been battling the pressures of cheaper imports, said Rolf Kaufman, president of the company for 30 years and vice chairman up until 2007.

In Wellco’s early days, it made shoes of all sorts and even slippers, but the market “became so dominated by imports from China we could not longer compete,” Kaufman said.

Over the years, Wellco had shifted more and more of its production to Puerto Rico where wages and overhead were cheaper. By the mid-1990s, nearly all production was done in Puerto Rico to remain viable, but it was an uphill battle to compete against plants in Mexico, China and India.

Wellco ultimately survived as long as it did by catering to a single but powerful customer: the U.S. military.

“The military must purchase garments, including footwear, from U.S. sources whenever available,” Kaufman said. “That protection did save us.”

Wellco began courting military orders in the 1960s, when the company’s innovative technology for attaching soles to boots proved invaluable.

“They had so much trouble in Vietnam in the jungle with soles not staying attached,” Kaufman said.

Military contracts became a larger and larger portion of Wellco’s production line, eventually dominating it operations.

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