End of a way of life: Grover closes after 120 years in Lynn

Published 2:49 pm Monday, December 22, 2008

In 2002, U.S. consumers&squo; foreign-made furniture purchases mushroomed, driving the U.S. trade deficit for residential furniture to $11.4 billion, an increase of nearly $9 billion from the previous year. Sixteen North Carolina furniture factories closed in 2003 alone.

The main Grover Industries yarn plant in Grover, N.C., near Kings Mountain, once employed 250. It closed in 2001, the first year of the recession, a year which saw a large number of textile plant closings.

Grover&squo;s Lynn plant, despite cost cutting, whittling its staff down from 125 to 30, finally succumbed to the down trend last October.

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With Grover&squo;s closing, the Lynn community saw the end of a manufacturing way of life that began in the 1890s when Lemuel Wilcox built a hosiery mill there to be powered by a dam on the Pacolet River.

&dquo;It&squo;s a death. It feels like a death,&dquo; said Gary Semmel, manager of Grover&squo;s Lynn plant for the past 25 years.

Semmel is still working to close down the business, showing up in the 55,000-square-foot plant every day with just his dogs and two maintenance employees.

Those employees, Andy Raines and Gabriel Casas, are busy ripping out, for scrap, 1930s and 1940s vintage machinery. Over the past 70 to 80 years, thousands of hands used those machines to process millions of pounds of cottons, wools, polyesters and acrylics.

For Semmel, every empty room, every quiet machine still echoes all the co-workers and all the activity, the steam rising and watercolors draining off newly dyed stacks of yarn ready for the 220-degree drying machines.

The plant for a time ran 24 hours a day, as it took 4-8 hours to dye yarn, and another 4-8 hours to dry it. The operation regularly filled three warehouses, stacked floor to ceiling.

Standing outside the employee entrance where, just a few years ago, dozens in the Grover family showed up to work each shift, six days a week, Semmel was wistful.

&dquo;People fell in love here, got divorced here, lived,&dquo; he said.

It was Lemuel Wilcox&squo;s son, Frank, who started the dying business in Lynn. Frank Wilcox patented a process for &dquo;space dying&dquo; yarn, a technique used to give yarn a unique, multi-colored effect.

While a typical skein of yarn is the same color throughout, a skein of space dyed yarn is two or more different colors that typically repeat themselves throughout the length of the yarn.

Wilcox started his space dying business in the basement of his home on Howard Gap Road.

After Wilcox&squo;s death in 1941, R.A. Spooner took over, named the business Tryon Processing and moved it into the hosiery mill built by the Wilcox family 50 years earlier.

The Harry family, owners of Grover, bought the business some years later.

Bill McKaig&squo;s father James B. McKaig was &dquo;a knitting man,&dquo; and served as superintendent of textiles at the Lynn plant.

Bill recalled those early days, when workers ‐ and their cows ‐ could walk to work in Lynn.

&dquo;The land next to the plant, now for sale, was a pasture,&dquo; McKaig recalled. &dquo;If you worked in the mill, you could bring your cows there during the day. We lived nearby in Ioka Hills, and you would just open your gates and the cows would go to that pasture.&dquo;

At the end of the day, McKaig said it was one of his after-school chores to see that his family&squo;s cows made their way home. Sometimes, the cattle had been let out of the Grover pasture already and he would get home to find the cows just waiting at the McKaig family gate.

&dquo;On weekends, the plant would open the valve in the dam and then, on Sunday afternoons around 5 p.m., they would close it again. There would be big fish down below flapping around. People would just pick them up and get dinner,&dquo; McKaig recalled.

Management allowed employees to slaughter and field dress their hogs at the plant, using the hot water there, McKaig recalled.

For a while, a man whose name McKaig recalled as McMillian lived in a house in back of the mill. His job was to tend the coal-fired boilers 24 hours a day.

Public Service Natural Gas took care of that in recent years. When it closed this fall, the Grover plant was using $30,000 a month of natural gas, and kept #6 oil on hand as a back-up fuel.

Grover also employed operators for its wastewater treatment plant, a much harder operation to run than a municipal wastewater plant. Semmel said the bugs that ate the dyes and chemicals in Grover&squo;s wastewater lived off salt and required a tender&squo;s skilled care to ensure they healthily ate their way through 450,000 gallons a day.

There were a lot of good people who made it all come together. Larry Conner went to work at Grover&squo;s Lynn plant 32 years ago, right after his junior year of high school.

Grover has been a family affair for Conner. His parents retired from Grover, his brother worked there until six months ago, his wife started there as Semmel&squo;s administrative assistant in 2001 and his son got on a couple of years ago.

Over his 32-year tenure, Conner rose to become supervisor of the dye house.

Grover ran eight dying machines, ranging from a 2,000-lb. to a 100-lb machine. Conner said the company was good at turning around custom orders quickly.

Grover&squo;s chemical lab had 5,000 formulas on file ready to create whatever shades of color were the current fashion in furniture fabrics, Semmel said.

&dquo;I just loved it,&dquo; Conner recalled. &dquo;The atmosphere. A lot of us had been there forever. It was a really good place to work.&dquo;

It was only five years ago, Conner said, that Grover crews were all working seven days a week, &dquo;and were behind.&dquo; But in the last couple of years, the market for Grover&squo;s yarn really collapsed.

One blow was the fall of a major customer, Collins & Aikman Corp, primarily an automotive fabrics company which also wove some furniture fabrics. Before Collins & Aikman filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005, Grover&squo;s Lynn plant sold the company two million pounds of dyed yarn over a five-year period, Semmel said ‐ &dquo;a lot of sofas.&dquo;

Former Reagan budget director David Stockman, then CEO of Collins & Aikman, was facing indictment on charges of accounting fraud. Collins & Aikman was purchased by a private equity group in 2007, and just last August closed a 295,000-square-foot automotive fabric plant employing 600 in Athens, Tenn.

Another major Grover customer, Doblin, merged with Circa 1801 in 2002, and became &dquo;the high end unit of home furnishings textile producer Joan Fabrics Corp.&dquo; Big orders and big seller yarns are being dyed overseas nowadays, Semmel said, not by small shops like Grover.

&dquo;Years ago, we dyed a few colors for a company that wove them into strapping for Lands End luggage and brief cases,&dquo; Semmel said. &dquo;Lands End now sources the strapping ‐ and probably everything else ‐ from overseas.&dquo;

When Grover closed, Semmel said the plant still had lots of dye lots on order, but all 100 pound lots and 400 pound lots.

&dquo;We needed the big lot business to make money,&dquo; Semmel said. &dquo;We thought we were doing well to last this long. We thought others would go out before us and give us a spurt of business.&dquo;

There are some silver linings in the bad economy for the U.S. textile industry, said Mike Hubbard, vice president of the National Council of Textile Organizations. But for Grover, any brighter future for American textiles did not arrive soon enough.

Over time, like Grover dyes, even the memories will fade.

As for Conner, and the others now unemployed, the prospects are dim at present. Conner said he doesn&squo;t know what he is going to do next.

&dquo;I&squo;m doing a lot of hunting now,&dquo; he said. &dquo;The options are slim right now with the economy. There are no jobs. One (former employee) went to work at Carolina Yarn Processors (in Tryon). CYP picked up what little business we had left.&dquo;

Grover Industries Inc.&squo;s employees have been certified to participate in the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The act provides additional unemployment benefits, extended health insurance and assistance in retraining for &dquo;workers adversely affected by foreign trade.&dquo; Another program, the Workforce Investment Act, also pays for training for &dquo;displaced workers.&dquo;

Employees must file for benefits at the Employment Security Office in Forest City, even if they are not interested in re-training.

Conner said he has until next spring to decide if he wants to go back to school. He&squo;d rather find a job. He has a retirement savings 401(k) account, but cannot touch that without paying steep penalties until he is 59&rac12;. That&squo;s another 11 years.

&dquo;There are not many dye houses left,&dquo; Conner said. &dquo;What I&squo;ve done is a dinosaur now. There is nothing out there. Not many (Grover employees) are going to work.&dquo;

Semmel agreed. He said only a few of his laid-off employees had applied for TAA benefits.

&dquo;A lot of them are not going back to work,&dquo; Semmel said. &dquo;They can&squo;t sell themselves right now in an employer&squo;s market. They don&squo;t want to be on welfare. There are not many options.&dquo;

As for himself, Semmel said he hasn&squo;t given much thought to what&squo;s next.

Right now he is occupied with shutting down the business, selling the machinery. Most of it, like the 1941 Leesoma cone winder, the 1930s skein breaker and all the color lab devices, will go for scrap.

The building will be sold and could make a nice facility for offices, or college classrooms, Semmel said, &dquo;It is a pretty setting, right next to the river with mountain views.&dquo;

A number of salvage buyers want the building just for its old bricks, its big boards and the 1&rac14;&uot; maple flooring, but Semmel is reluctant to see the Lynn landmark torn down.

Certainly ideas are already percolating as to the future for the Grover plant.

Polk County Agriculture Economic Development Director Lynn Sprague believes the mill could be used as a local food distribution center, and perhaps a place to begin quality lumber distribution.

&dquo;Thinking out of the box,&dquo; he says, the filtration pools could be used to grow fish, and the dying machines could be used for food processing.

Polk County Economic Development Director Kipp McIntyre led a delegation of North Carolina officials on a tour of the plant in October and is working to put the Lynn plant on the state&squo;s industrial site selection network once all the old dye house equipment has been removed.&bsp;&bsp;Gary Semmel, Grovers Lynn plant manager, stands next to the dye machines which put as many as 5,000 different colors on millions of pounds of yarn. The plant closed in October. (photo by Jeff Byrd)