Photo and story by Kyle Bruggeman
June 19th, 2009 DeWitt Neb: Alan Epp, 76, on his farm land between Dewitt and Steele City, Nebraska checking his corn stocks for hail damage. Epp remembers the hard times he and other farmers had in the 1980's but says as of right now he's "able to make due."
Epp uses pesticide but does not irrigate his crops, which include corn and soy. The crops are sold to the nearest co-op and distributed for a multitude of purposes. Many farms around the area have had to re-plant due to weather damage. Epp was able to avoid such a situation, though a small amount of damage could be seen.
Photo and story by Clay Lomneth
June 19th, 2009, DeWitt, Neb: First there were 600 employees, and then there was one. Ron Hinzman is the last worker at the DeWitt Vise-Grip factory.
The Vice-Grip factory was the city's pride and joy. Perhaps the word "is" may still be appropriate in the previous sentence, as a sign welcoming you to DeWitt also proudly proclaims "Home of Vise-Grip".
And there's good reason. Have you ever used a Vice-Grip? Or, to be more specific, have you ever used the old kind of Vise-Grip, the kind they made before the factory moved to China? Bruce said his Vise-Grip was like his right hand. I had the pleasure to try and use one of the newer grips, made in Taiwan. The jaws didn't line up correctly and I think I broke it when I tried to open it.
The Vise-Grip factory was built in 1937, started by the Peterson family. At its peak, the factory was producing about 40,000 wrenches a day. The Petersons made millions those years in DeWitt making a quality product almost everyone had in their toolbox.
Then in 2002, Newell Rubbermaid bought the plant and the Vise-Grip name. Ron spotted trouble from the beginning. "I knew what would happen once they got it," he said. "It was going to China no matter what."
For a few years, Newell Rubbermaid still made the Vise-Grip wrenches with the same quality. They began making cutbacks and layoffs, and the company went from 600 employees to roughly 200. Still, they averaged 40,000 wrenches a day.
Rubbermaid made their millions quickly and then shut the factory down on November 30, 2008. They moved production to China, and produce only 13,000 wrenches a day. Wrenches that aren't the top-quality product one would find in DeWitt. Instead of a right hand, they're more like a weak pinky and a broken thumb.
Ron is the sole worker at the factory now. He walks the 376,000 square foot factory alone almost every weekday, making sure everything is still in place, checking up on leaks and doing some general maintenance now and again. After a sweep of the building, Ron goes back to his office at the corner of the building (he can look out his window and see his house) and checks his e-mail and waits for calls from people interested in buying some of the wrench-making tools. "They're just paying me to be here," he said.
The equipment that built the famous wrench is still there, and there's always something buzzing or whirring in a dark corner of the building. One gets the feeling all the workers are gone for the weekend, that they could just start making wrenches again tomorrow. I tell this to Ron, my guess isn't too far off. "You'd have to get some tooling people in here a month ahead," he said. "But they could be making wrenches in a month."
Some of Ron's friends at the plant were not as lucky as he was to have a fallback plan like him. A year after Newell Rubbermaid bought the plant, Ron and his wife Suzanne bought a bar across the street. "I guess if there were lucky ones, it was the ones that could retire," he said. "But we had a lot of them that were 55."
As he showed me around the factory, in addition to telling me what every piece of machinery did, he showed me what in the factory meant the most to him. There were still Halloween decorations left up, evidence that there were, in fact, humans in this ghost town of a factory. All adding to the feeling that come Monday morning, the machines would be up and running again. "I go by offices yet and I just expect people to be in there," he said. "You do something like that for that many years...everybody I knew in here like family.
"I go around here and see stuff like that, and I know the people that worked there. That gets you. Seeing some of that personal stuff...that's probably harder than anything."