Hundreds of workers attended Monday’s historic dedication ceremonies that were held as a tribute to them and to the Cleveland and Bradley County community that has served as home to appliance manufacturing for 133 years.
The cooking tradition began in 1879 with the startup of Hardwick Stove Company and expanded in 1917 with the launch of Dixie Foundry, a company that over the years evolved into Dixie Products, Magic Chef Company, Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products and now Whirlpool Cleveland Division.
Yet another stove manufacturer still thrives in Cleveland also. It is Brown Stove. All helped to grow the legend of cooking appliance production in Cleveland.
It’s a story about old times and former days — all spent in aging factories that still house more than 1,500 Whirlpool employees. And that’s why most — at least those interviewed at Monday’s plant dedication — are ready to say goodbye to the old work place.
“You can feel the excitement about the new plant,” according to longtime worker Gary Roberts. “You can also feel a little depression about leaving. Some who have worked at the [old] plant a long time are feeling a little sad.”
But not Roberts. For him, getting a look at the cavernous plant Monday makes him even more ready for the move.
“It being a new plant will make it like a new home,” he said.
Co-worker Herb Schmitt feels the same.
“It’ll be even more like a home to us,” he offered. “We’ll be more like a community ... and everything is clean.”
It’s not easy keeping a century-old stove factory sparkling clean, but the fact that the Benton Pike facility is new will give employees even more impetus to keep it shining, Schmitt cited.
Another longtime employee is Ray Aubrey, who — like his good friend, Schmitt — is a regular volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, a respected organization with whom Whirlpool has partnered for more than a decade.
“It’ll be a change,” Aubrey said. “But change is not always just physical. [This new plant] is about process change and culture change.”
Dennis Opp admitted, while looking around the giant open space prior to the start of dedication ceremonies, “I’m just in awe. It’s a nice place. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Opp said most employees with whom he talks are “excited” about their chance to move over from the King Edward Avenue work site. The transition is under way now and will continue through mid-2013 at which time the old factory buildings should be empty and the new one filled.
Employee Chris Hewitt said he too is excited, but he also took his emotions to another level.
“I’m just glad Whirlpool was willing to spend the money on this ... and to give us such a nice, clean place,” Hewitt said. One of his biggest thrills will be the chance to “walk flat now.” His reference was to the multiple levels on which the current manufacturing campus now sits.
Richard Arnold, a 29-year employee whose tenure dates back to the days of Magic Chef and who serves as a supervisor in East Fabrication (press room), said he is excited but most of his excitement is for other employees.
“We’ve been working for so long with an old factory with all the multiple levels,” Arnold said. “We’ve seen so many changes from Magic Chef to Maytag and now to Whirlpool.”
Arnold said longtime employees have earned the right to work in a newer, cleaner environment. He also patted the Whirlpool Corporation on the back by pointing out in his opinion the company has shown itself to be more employee-friendly than its predecessors.
A former employee who worked at the factory in a variety of roles for almost 44 years is Cleveland Vice Mayor Avery Johnson.
“This is just beautiful,” the Whirlpool retiree said while looking around the new plant prior to the dedication. “I just wish they had this 20 years ago.”
Johnson added, “We are so fortunate in Cleveland. This [new plant] is just out of sight. This is a beautiful facility and it will do a lot for the people of Cleveland.”
Furthermore, he believes other companies are paying attention to what Whirlpool is doing in Bradley County. The plant opening could lead to even more businesses moving into the area, he said.
Three local legislators — state Reps. Kevin Brooks and Eric Watson, and state Sen. Mike Bell — aren’t former employees, but they attended Monday’s dedication and expressed their pride in the new facility.
“It’s just amazing,” Bell said. “This is such a great day, not just for Bradley County but for all of Southeast Tennessee.” He praised Whirlpool for seeking the LEED certification because of its value to the environment.
Brooks said he sees the new plant as a gift created by employees’ worth ethic.
“I have been thanking every employee I see today,” Brooks stressed. “Whirlpool keeps telling us it was the work ethic” that helped the company to decide to stay in Cleveland and to rebuild.
He added, “A lot of us here are getting recognition without deserving it. It’s the employees who deserve the recognition, not us.”
Watson, whose 22nd Legislative District shares part of the new Whirlpool manufacturing and distribution complex with Brooks’ 24th Legislative District, said he is especially proud of two groups — the Whirlpool employees and the Whirlpool Corporation for making the decision to “Invest in America” and in Cleveland and Bradley County.
“I could not be happier for Whirlpool and their large workforce, both of whom are integral parts of our community,” Watson said. “And likewise, I’m so very happy for the people of Cleveland and Bradley County, and for all of Southeast Tennessee. This is another landmark day for our community. We are genuinely blessed.”
Another retiree who feels the same is Don Lorton who first spent 22 years with Whirlpool and then moved on to Maytag where he worked in a series of leadership positions for the next 20 years prior to retirement — including in the Cleveland plant.
“When I see this [new plant], the first thing I think of is the employees ... and all they’ve been through,” he said.
Lorton pointed to an era when Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products workers were constantly hearing rumors of the local plant closing and being moved to Mexico.
“The employees are the most important thing,” he said. “That’s what so great about this today.”