Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The world keeps turning for Illinois manufacturers


     So how does a reporter keep his job during an era of newsroom downsizing? One way, I believe, is to be useful beyond your allotted tasks. Thus I had two stories on the front page of Sunday's Sun-Times, neither stemming from my actual job, that of being a daily news columnist.
     The first was the obituary of George H.W. Bush. Writing obituaries was a practice I started back when I was on the night shift, because it allowed me to a) pass the time; and b) get myself on the front page writing a story that was both important and wasn't going to be touched by anybody else. Nobody asked me to write Bush's obit, I just did it, because I knew he had a Chicago connection—I pick subjects who are national figures with Chicago roots.
     The second was this essay on Illinois manufacturing, in one of the special little magazines that the paper has been inserting in the Sunday edition. My boss asked me if I would do a general piece celebrating Illinois manufacturing, in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the state, and I said, "Sure!" I love visiting factories and poking around.  The challenge was finding a few that would let me in on short notice. I first thought I should slide over to Caterpillar or John Deere. But my window of opportunity was very narrow—the paper said, in essence, do it now—and both plants were dark for re-tooling.
     So I picked Replogle, for the simple reason they moved to Indiana and came back. Plus I had been to their old factory years ago. I selected Plochman's, because I adore mustard. And PCB because I'm a hard-ass, and thought going to a bearing plant would bring unexpected wonder, and was right.

    Lucina Miguel has a job unlike any other performed by Illinois’ 571,800 other factory workers. She glues strips of a map of the Earth onto large plastic spheres for Replogle Globes, one of 13,000 manufacturing companies in the state.
     That task once fell to founder Luther Replogle, who started making and selling handcrafted spherical creations out of his Chicago apartment in 1930. Success followed over the next several decades and Replogle eventually became one of the largest globe manufacturers in the world.

     But times change — strapped school systems just don’t buy globes in bulk like they used to — and the ailing company was purchased in 2010 by Herff Jones, and relocated to Indiana. The Indianapolis maker of yearbooks, class rings and diplomas didn’t quite know what to do with a retail supplier like Replogle and was about to shut down the business before a group of its former executives bought it back.
     And returned it to Illinois.
     That transaction is a single snapping twig in the whirlwind of acquisitions and divestitures, growth and contraction, and openings and closings that have blown across the Illinois manufacturing landscape since long before it became a state.
     In 1702, the state’s first documented manufacturer, a buffalo skin tannery started by Frenchman Charles Juchereau de St. Denys, opened. The area was hit by an epidemic almost immediately and the tannery was abandoned the next year.

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  1. Nicely done. In stark contrast to the simple minded ideology of partisans of every stripe. Quite a lot of work went into it, I'm sure.


  2. Interesting about mustard, I didn't know cooking wasn't involved. If you can "cook" fish with cold lemon juice, why can't vinegar suffice for mustard. How does its method of production affect shelf life?


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