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If these walls could talk: McGills, Walker, and Elkay

June 24, 2013

We're nearing our journey to "uptown" in this series of "virtual" walks through the spaces and places of Culver's past, but first we need to stop off in an area which became something of Culver's de facto "industrial park" (though that's a bit of a stretch) fairly recently in the big scheme of all things historical.

I'm speaking of West Mill Street near its intersection with State Road 17, which first came onto the scene as a manufacturing site in Sept., 1965, when it was announced negotiations were being made for Valparaiso-based Mc Gills Manufacturing Inc., makers of precision ball and roller bearings, to come to Culver. The now-defunct Jaycees headed up arrangements for the company's move, which included purchase of 58 acres previously owned by Mr. and Mrs. George Franz. The late George, a contractor, had purchased the farm of 187 acres in 1957 when he moved to Culver from Crown Point.

Ground was broken for the one-story, 60,000 foot plant that November. The property, of course, had been rezoned for heavy manufacturing, and Culver's winning of the fierce competition from neighboring towns to be the McGills site was the result of community partnerships with municipal entities, the Chamber of Commerce, and others.

James McGill had moved his Crescent Company from Chicago to Valparaiso in 1905, changing its name to his own in 1910 and developing a number of products in the decades which followed. Culver joined other Indiana communities (Valparaiso, Malden, and Monticello) as well as plants in El Paso, TX and Taiwan hosting McGills plants.

Harold Fritz was named the first plant manager at the Culver facility (in 1968, he was replaced by Donald Hamilton). The initial employment of 25 was expected to expand to 60 in 1966.

In 1973, the McGills company doubled the plant's size as production increased -- as did employment, of course, which swelled to 300.
Into the 1980s, McGills would be a robust source of employment for residents of Culver and beyond. Contrary to the challenging housing market of today, Culver during this period could accommodate a number of McGills-employed families whose members helped make up the active leadership and participation in the community's service clubs, scout groups, churches, and various organizations.

But by March, 1985, a union strike -- primarily over seniority rights -- had begun at the plant, and at times things got ugly.

In June, the International Association of Machininists and Aerospace workers met with representatives of the McGill Manufacturing Comompany and reached an agreement on a new contract after the company announced plans to close the plant. In the ensuing weeks, only about 60 of the 275 salaried workers were back on the job, and McGills anounced the plant would close no later than July 31, changing the makeup of the community forever.

That same year, McGills representatives began discussions with the Walker Muffler company in Racine, Wisconsin, in hopes of selling the building to them, a sale which finally took place in 1991. Walker-Tennaco, "the world's leading producer and marketer of ride control and exhaust products and systems," would occupy the building for nine years, though it's apparent from an article on the company's website that an earlier closing would have been preferred.

Instead, the Culver plant shut its doors July 14, 2000, leaving it vacant for the next few years, though several individuals and entities in Culver worked vigorously to facilitate a new tennant occupying the space.

Illinois-based Elkay, in business for 93 years, began in stainless steel sinks and about 20 years ago expanded into the cabinetry business. The company had purchased Minnesota-based Medallion back in 1993. In 2005, the company finally started cabinet production (under the Medallion banner) in Culver, and last year undertook major renovations of the plant and its equipment, with plans announced to continue expanding production to meet sales in national-level chains.

Currently, Elkay in Culver employs around 260, though unfortunately few are residents of Culver as in the days of McGills, a situation many here hope to rectify as discussions towards Culver's comprehensive plan have demonstrated. Discussion has also centered in Culver on the possibility of partnering to bring compatible companies to the acerage adjacent to the actual Elkay plant, which the company owns.

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