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Brunswick’s fall

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Remembering ‘the goods’ of the sports factory

By Christopher Brooke

 

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Like a set of tenpins on league night, the Brunswick factory has taken a fall.

The oldest factory in Eminence came down as part after being purchased by new owner Born Investments, but two former workers for the U.S. sporting goods manufacturer said the company uplifted the community while it produced its bowling and golf bags.

Alice and Tom Ferguson, known as the owners of the Chat-N-Nibble, managed human resources and Tom started as an engineer and then moved on to quality control and designing golf bags.

At its peak, the manufacturer employed between 400 and 500 people from the region, running two shifts.

The company started out small in the upstairs of the Old Deposit Bank until the opening of the plant in 1961, built on the county fairgrounds.

Once the 167,000-square-foot plant got up and running, it produced many product for MacGregor sporting goods and stores like J.C. Penney, Western Auto, Kmart and Otasco.

“The maximum we were making was about 200,000 bowling bags a year and a little over 100,000 golf bags a year,” Tom said.

The company also produced a radar camouflage for the defense department and made panels for the mobile military hospitals, commonly known as MASH units.

Brunswick also made wiring harnesses for the automatic pin setters at the end of bowling alleys.

“When you’re on this end of the line and you throw the ball, and it comes back to you there’s a lot more to it than you realize,” Alice noted.

The national company actually got started making hunting clothes, vests, gun covers, hunting jackets, sleeping bags and more. That evolved into equipment for many different sports.

A task Tom never got around to completing involved making a magnesium tennis racket, for its lightness. “As hard as we tried, we could never get one to hold a finish.”

Notable athletes of the day signed up to promote sporting good labels, and golf great Jack Nicklaus hefted around examples of the work done in Eminence. Because of that, Tom got to meet the pro at the MacGregor headquarters in Cincinnati.

Brunswick would custom make the equipment for the star athletes.

“That’s one of my memories — we had to do all kind of special things for his golf bags,” Tom said. “He didn’t want his cashmere sweaters to get wet, so we made an inside pocket — it was waterproof so if his bag was in a downpour his sweaters didn’t get wet.

“We made him at least one and sometimes as many as three each year… leather, high end, monogrammed.”

Both Alice and Tom remembered Brunswick as a good place to work.

One thing the company did to build camaraderie involved creating a “men’s club,” for the salaried personnel to go out and have a “golf tournament” on a weekly basis after the work day.

“Probably what I would say that the men’s club did was the cohesiveness of the group, they could work together and play together and pull together as a group and it helped the whole working environment,” Alice said.

A women’s club existed, too.

Most of the employment in the facility actually went to women, Alice said.

As the first factory in Eminence, the place had a big impact on the economics of the community.

“It was a major source of employment for a poor county I think and it was predominantly women that worked there because of the sewing jobs back in the early ‘60s, sewing was a woman’s job.”

Men also held some sewing jobs, Tom quickly added. Those arose from the need to sew thick plastic parts on the top or the bottom of a golf bag, for example.

By the mid-80s, Brunswick struggled, and the Fergusons left the company.

Working there also had impacts on Alice’s personal life, too.

“I guess probably the most special thing about it is that’s where I met Tom and look what happened,” she said, smiling while motioning to Tom sitting beside her at the diner.

Employment at Brunswick became a family affair for her back in 1961 when her mother worked at the recently finished plant.

“It certainly provided a lot better life for the people, a lot of women, who worked there,” Alice said. “Their husbands were farmers and that gave them a regular paycheck

It probably changed many lives.”

The workplace became a family to Alice, who could interact with others more closely in the human resources office.

“I was from Shelby County originally and I got to meet a lot of super individuals,” she said.

Brunswick couldn’t fight the trend that many domestic textile-related companies have faced and went out in the 1990s.

“Probably the biggest think was overseas competition,” Alice said. “It’s cheaper to make it overseas than it was here, cheaper labor.”

The building saw some reuses over the years — Louisville Saydah, which made home goods like towels, placemats, cushions; a custom motorcycle shop; an auction house — but nothing stuck.

The company designed the factory for light industry only, and it didn’t have the high ceilings and the thick floors needed to do metal work or other heavy manufacturing.

On Wednesday, contractors Everman and Everman from Winchester had used an excavator to knock down much of the factory, so only the front brick part remained at lunchtime.

Great piles of rubble lay scattered over the parking lot and would soon be the only remnants of the building.

The Fergusons hated to see it go.

“The Brunswick plant has been a great boon both for Eminence and Henry County,” Tom said. “I’m sorry its not there any more – some things have to go by the wayside if you want them to or not.”

With the factory torn down, many people wonder what comes next for the property.

From what the new owners told Eminence Mayor Drane Stephens, they are simply clearing the property to make it more attractive to a manufacturing firm or build to spec, if an interested party comes along.

“The building was not repairable,” the mayor said. “The roof was in such bad shape, it would have cost more than the building was worth.”

No plans of what to do with the property beyond getting it ready for the next occupant have been shared at this point, Stephens said.