“If the walls could talk”......History of an old building
Many in the area, like me, have wondered about the history of the three-story building at DuBois and Hwy 79 that was demolished this past week. Depending on who you talk to there have been many names for that building over the years, but since 1991 it has been known as the Gladney Building when Robert and Linda Gladney purchased the building from the City of Elsberry and renovated it into apartments. Recently, the building was purchased from the Gladney’s by area businessman and developer, Jim Heitman who jumped through the hoops to get the permits to have the old building torn down after over 91 years in existence.
Let’s back up though and look at when and how the building was even constructed. I am sure the names you will read are ones that you have heard around Elsberry, especially names of streets.
In the early 1920’s the Mayor of Elsberry, J.B. Ellis, was doing many great things for the town, (that I will write more about at a later time). One of his visions though was bringing an industry to the town that would help the economy. (Sound like anything we say now that we need?) He had contacts with a shoe company in Washington, MO and he thought if he could get a site and monetary backing the company would come to Elsberry.
A committee was formed with the following people: W.B. Ellis, C. L. Bushman, J.C. Welch, W.S. Reid, and J.R. Palmer. Eight different sites were looked at, but the final site at Dubois and Hwy. 79 was purchased from G.A. Black for $1800.
Many of the wealthier people gave to try and make this a reality. When more money for this adventure was still needed the committee members went to the community and asked for them to pledge some money to help fund this, of course, promoting what a great economic benefit this would be for Elsberry. Families went down to the local bank and filled out a pledge paper giving what they could, five or ten dollars, knowing what great things this company could do for the community.
Lastly, with money in hand, a building being constructed and the land purchased, three of the men, Welch, Palmer and Ellis were elected by secret ballot to put their name on the papers as the trustees of everything.
Finally everything had come together and the community was very excited as the W.H. Lampe Shoe Co Factory #2 opened its doors on Jan. 15, 1925. As luck would have it though after all that work to get the company to Elsberry, the factory would remain open only three years before shutting the doors. Mayor Ellis pledged to get another industry in the building, that he did.
In late 1928 the Wells-Lamont Glove factory began production in the building. It is said that at the height of production over 300 people were employed at the factory.
This company was a mainstay in the community for over thirty years and brought much growth to the area, not only employment, but financial benefits to all the businesses in Elsberry. The employees were devastated on Feb. 9, 1960, 32 years after opening, when they all received a letter from the Board of Directors telling them the company would be closing. At this time there were approximately 140 people working.
Like with all the excuses used today by businesses it was stated that the building was not cost effective anymore. The letter also stated how the people of Elsberry had been great workers and were praised for producing a quality product. They hated what it would do to the community, but from a business standpoint it was what had to be done.
Over the next six months workers were slowly let go as the plant closed its doors for good. (I did read that the officials took into account if couples worked there, they tried to let one go at a different time than the other.)
There are several people that still live in Elsberry who worked at the factory. I am sure there are many stories about the impact of the glove factory and I was able to talk to a couple people to get their firsthand knowledge.
I spent some time with soon to be 90 years old, Ernest Calvin. Some may know Calvin better as the first town mail carrier for Elsberry. He spent 32 years walking the streets of Elsberry for the United States Post Office.
Calvin gave me a firsthand description of how the factory ran, and I am sure if the walls could talk there would be lots of stories as so many men and women worked next to each other day in and day out.
The first floor was known as the “cutters”. This is where the men took the goods, such as leather, and cut out the product. On the second floor the women were known as the “sewers”. Also on this floor the gloves were pressed in the “hot hands room”.
Finally, up on the third floor was one man who got the gloves boxed up and ready for shipment. A shoot was located here and the man would send the boxes down to the first floor to be loaded on the trucks for delivery. Calvin made a whopping $20 a week for working five (8 hours) days a week and four hours on Saturday morning. He stayed at the factory for approximately two years and decided to go to St. Louis and work at the Ford Plant to make more money.
He stated, “I absolutely hated it!” So he returned to Elsberry to work a couple more years before he started with the USPS. I thought it interesting about racial divide at this time. Only white people were employed at the company, while local black people worked at the quarry south of town.
I received the same sentiment from someone, many would call a local historian, Louise Harding Dameron. During her school years she would work at the glove factory on Saturdays. After graduation you were expected to go away and get a job. Dameron traveled north to Hannibal to work for the phone company for a while, but soon returned back to Elsberry for a job at the glove factory. Her four hour a job on Saturday mornings netted her a paycheck of $1.49! Dameron also mentioned that when the glove factory was in production Elsberry had it greatest growth. Streets were paved, businesses thrived, and many homes were built.
The walls weren’t silent for long when the glove factory finally closed in July of 1960. Six months later on January 3, 1961 the building was leased by Automotive Group from Missouri Research and they opened a business called Parts Exchange.
Here employees rebuilt auto parts, especially voltage regulators, starter solenoids and truck clutch disks. Harold Butts was the first factory manager and when the plant closed in May of 1976 Gene Lonsberry was listed as the foreman. According to Betty Davis Cohoon there was just a skeleton crew in the plan and herself in the office at the time of closing.
According to plant employee, Dean Tapley, the women worked in the office and the men worked in the plant. Working here is also where he met the love of his life, his wife Rita, who will mark their 50th wedding anniversary this year. I would venture to say there are probably a lot of love stories that came from the businesses that existed over the years.
After being out of commission again for a short while the buildings (and its walls) were once again inhabited. Waters Furniture Store out of Vandalia opened another location in Elsberry employing several and housing floors of traditional furniture to be purchased by local residents.
Many can recall Jeanne Howard and Marilyn Tillotson working at the establishment among others. When the furniture store went out of business in the 80’s the building sat vacant, but was still owned by the City of Elsberry after all those years.
Gladney saw the building as an investment in the community to give people a place to live at an affordable rate. The building was transformed into 10 to12 units for people to reside. After 25 years of the building being apartment, it was starting to show its age and too much renovation was needed to be cost-effective. Because the building was not structurally sound anymore the building was labeled condemned in December of 2016. Once again the building sat vacant until the Gladney’s were approached with the recent offer from Heitman.
Heitman is not sure yet what the next step is for six city lots that hold so much of Elsberry’s history. One thing is for sure, whatever it is, it will write a history of its own.