Blue Bell Factory Revisited

Published by the Whitley County Historical Society – Columbia City, Indiana

Vol. 25, No. 1 – February 1987

BLUE BELL BUILDING: Important to Area’s Economy – Work Clothing Produced There

Many People Remember Blue Bell

The daughter of the man some people refer to as “Mr. Blue Bell” in Columbia City has chosen to write the following article for our publication. One of the largest employers for over 40 years in the community, the Blue Bell factory touched many lives in more ways than a place to work and to earn a living. To many individuals, it was like a family with hard work and fun times to remember.

Blue Bell Factory Revisited

By Susie Duncan Sexton

FOR OVER FOUR DECADES the impressions one observed after mounting the nine concrete steps to the main entrance of Columbia City’s Blue Bell factory included the following: glistening highly-polished hard­wood floors of native elm from Whitley County, sweeping blades of nearly 200 ceiling fans, pungent smells of massive bolts of blue denim meta­morphosing into rugged garments for work and play, rivets, lot numbers, inventories, the thudding and subsequent steaming and hissing of per­manent press machines, thread cones, cost improvement, fatigue factors, tapered legs, flare legs, hem stitchers, button inspectors, white pockets, inseams, piece goods, bins of finished garments categorized by size, style, and dye lot, lines of whirring sewing machines, elongated cutting tables, dollies loaded with bundles, salt pills, water coolers, Dictaphones, swivel office chairs at massive desks and busy switchboards. These were all ingredients of a handsome brick building at 307 South Whitley Street that was very much alive and teaming with industrious, loyal workers dedi­cated to performing their tasks with a constant eye toward a quality Wrangler product.

The many visitors became part of the building’s history. These in­cluded touring classes of school children, senators, congressmen, repre­sentatives from foreign countries who were interested in duplicating the plant’s operations, and officials from Blue Bell’s national headquarters at Greensboro, North Carolina. Others were from some of the nation’s largest industries which were Blue Bell’s important suppliers, such as Universal Button Company, Scovill Manufacturing Company and Coats and Clark.

A huge sign above the factory’s entrance read: “World’s Largest Producer of Work and Play Clothes.” A lesser known slogan, but one very familiar among Blue Bell personnel was “The Big Company that pays attention to little things.”

Of topmost concern to the Blue Bell company was the welfare and contentment of its employees. Quoted from the August 1944 issue of The Southern Garment Manufacturers’ Magazine, ‘ ‘It is worthwhile to note that seldom have Blue Bell’s key people left to join other organizations. For one thing the Blue Bell family relationships are based on mutual goodwill and respect. Furthermore, it is a Blue Bell policy that if the company does well, everyone from top to bottom will share in its success.”

THE BLUE BELL “FAMILY” posed on the front steps of the entrance to the building for a group photograph in 1946. Several of the women employees have a bandanna covering their hair in a fashion of the 40s. No coats were needed on what appears to be a summer day. Roy Duncan, manager, is kneeling in the front row on the far left. Others identified but not located are Wilbur Cooperrider, Bob Wolfe, Harry Staley, Ray Ummel, John Moyer, Merle Armold, Wendall Blaine, Lawrence Wolfe, Phil Frick, Velma Jean Keifer, Marjorie Cullenmore and Phyllis Os-born. [Photo courtesy of Susie Sexton.]

Brief History of Building

Work clothes were manufactured by the Superior Garment Company in Columbia City in 1907. The building was on East Ellsworth Street be­hind the bowling alley. This firm merged with Globe Manufacturing Company of Abingdon, Illinois, in 1926 and was known as Globe Superior. In January 1932 the Blue Bell building at 307 South Whitley Street was open­ed. It was described as “the most modern overall factory in the United States” according to the January 4, 1934 Columbia City Post.

Products manufactured at the plant at that time were overalls, jack­ets, blanket lined coats, and waistband overalls, all made of chiefly blue denim material.

The town’s citizens were proud of this new architectural addition to the southeast end of Columbia City, due partly to the fact that business people of the community had contributed $15,000 toward the building’s construction. However, the completion of construction was marred by tragedy when Kenneth Magley’s light plane buzzed so low over the building site that it caught on a telephone wire and crashed into a car, killing Mel Miller, owner of the local Ford Agency, and Willis Leininger, who was sitting on the car’s running board. Magley’s uncle, Virgil Brumbaugh, a passenger in the plane, was also killed. Mr. Magley, who had been operating a steam shovel at the construction site, was hospitalized for several weeks. The accident occurred October 4, 1931.

MEMORABILIA INCLUDES an old logo from 1936 when the company became known as Blue Bell-Globe. The organi­zation was said to “practically corres­pond to the United States Steel Com­pany of the work clothes business.” In October 1936 the largest payroll in its history was distributed to workers in Columbia City. The total was $24,000 for one week.

Nationally, Blue Bell, Inc. was founded by Charles Hudson in Greensboro, North Carolina, while R. W. Baker originated a company known as Big Ben. Big Ben and Blue Bell merged January 1, 1926. The name of the company was changed in August of 1930 to Blue Bell Overall Com­pany. In 1936 the company became known as Blue Bell-Globe. Blue Bell bought out Globe Superior in that same year and changed the name to Blue Bell-Globe Manufacturing Company. J. C. Fox became president and directing head of operations for the new company, the result of the merger between the world’s two largest garment manufacturers. Accord­ing to Blue Bell: Its History, the resulting organization “practically corresponds to the United States Steel Company of the work clothes business.” Blue Bell-Globe grew extensively as it merged with other companies and became nationally known through progressive advertising cam­paigns. The name of the local plant became simply Blue Bell, Inc. in 1943. Blue Bell’s first large acquisition after its name change was the Casey Jones Company in 1944. The plants in Blue Bell in 1936 were located in Greens­boro, N.C. and Middleboro, Kentucky. Globe Superior plants were located in Abingdon and Canton, Illinois, Commerce, Georgia, and Columbia City. The products included bib overalls and dungarees.

THE TOP FLOOR of Blue Bell is shown here in full production about 1940 at the time of peak employment, approximately 800 workers. The line system was used at this time before it was changed over to piece work. Fifteen lines started at the south side (right in picture) of the building. Bundles would go through the line to the north (left) side of the building. There they were completed in pairs of overalls and inspected by girls standing by the windows. Then the garments were folded for shipping. |Photo courtesy of Betty Lawrence.]

Physical Aspects of Structure

The three-story brick building in Columbia City contained 25,000 square feet per floor. Though market demands dictated changes from time to time, the basement area was the location for the cutting department. In this location 50 thicknesses of material were stenciled and cut with a six-inch blade cutting machine which moved up and down with such rapidity that workers had to be highly skilled in its operation. This opera­tion was masterfully handled so that there was minimal wasted cloth.

The main floor housed the offices and the shipping department, the loading docks being located at the north and east sides of the building. The receiving room was consistently full of bolts of denim shipped to Col­umbia City from Alabama and Mississippi. The baling operation also occurred at this level as boxes were banded after applying air pressure which compressed shipping cartons into firm containers. The centrally located giant scale, built into the hardwood floor, was the next destination of these cartons. The boxes were weighed, marked, and delivered to the trucks waiting at the loading docks.

The top floor, perhaps the liveliest floor, where surging (individual pattern pieces being joined in a continuous chain), ticket making (sewing a leather ticket on the “W” trademark hip pocket), joining (joining left and right front of the garment), felling (joining the front and back half together), zipper tacking and waistbanding, all of these steps kept busy feminine fingers flying in the sewing department. Prior to and during World War II, sewing machines occupied nearly the entire floor. After the war, the number of machines was reduced. The demand for combat pants, jungle suits, regulation khaki dress pants and shirts, and fatigue clothing had ceased. Government workers returned to their home offices. Blue Bell resumed the manufacture of work clothes and also diversified into children’s play clothes and casual apparel for women. The initial use of the stopwatch and slide rule had led to assembly-line production of the first order.

Duncan Becomes Local Manager

Roy E. Duncan became the local division manager in February 1942, supervising plants in Columbia City, Nappanee, Warsaw and North Webster. The manager preceding him was Albert L. Lomax. To quote the Whitley County Observer, February 23, 1967, “… it (is) apparent that the success and growth of the company is due to its very capable management team and their attention to even the smallest detail in the operation.” Manager Duncan was well aware that Blue Bell’s loyal and dedicated employees, who became a “family,” had contributed mightily to these successful and productive years.

The local Blue Bell operation was truly appreciative of its work force during its years of expansion, accommodating the part-time schedules of the busy housewives whose sewing proficiency was vital to the indus­try. Interior renovations to update the surroundings and make the work place pleasing to the eye, conversion of the Vandalia Depot on the north side of the building to a lush, tree lined park, and replacement of a coal yard with an employee parking lot were all improvements. The Blue Bell Cafeteria, for approximately 12 years one of Whitley County’s finest eat­ing establishments, had as its specialty Lucille Scott’s meatloaf. Lucille worked at the Blue Bell 46 years and had worked 10 years prior to that in the garment industry for a total of 56 years. She was the manager of the cafeteria.

Other innovations were the conversion of a cloak room into a Canteen with vending machines, and a company store with an extensive inventory of Wrangler clothing manufactured by Blue Bell factories across the nation. These alterations and additions were designed to improve and enhance the working atmosphere for the industrious employees whose combined efforts produced approximately 250,000 dozen garments each year.

INDIAN GUESTS TOURED Blue Bell with Roy Duncan, manager, serving as their guide. Thirteen members of the Indian delegation of the Farmers and World Affairs, Inc. were present. This was part of a Farm Leader Exchange serving as a people to people exchange to promote world peace through mutual understanding. Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Harvey served as local hosts for the 1966 visit. [Photo courtesy of Susie Sexton.]

Reminiscences of Longtime Employees

A great portion of the joy of piecing together this Blue Bell article was interviewing many of those long-time employees who made up the local “Blue Bell Family.” The process reminded me of that familiar child­hood finger game: “Here is the church, and here is the steeple; open the doors, and here are the people!” You see, what makes a building come to life are the people who inhabit it, and who make it bustle and hum and produce.

Don York, who worked in many aspects of production, confirmed my memory of a “few” ceiling fans by informing me that there were indeed 200 fans and that the addition of just one more would have sent the factory blasting off into the sky faster than a 747! Don should know as he worked his way up from bundle boy to a chief mechanic during his 26 years of employment.

Gladys Albert worked on white pockets, leg hemming, pitch hitting until she became one of Blue Bell’s “best-ever” and most frequently recognized supervisors racking up 40 years with one company. In glancing over old copies of the local company’s semi-monthly newspaper, STITCH ‘N TIMES, (named by Mrs. Roy Duncan), one is impressed with a picture of Gladys being presented a dozen rose for quite simply being “a very good employee.”

AN AWARD FOR SAFETY was earned by the employees of Columbia City’s Blue Bell in May 1952. The certificate read: “Be it known to all that this testimonial has been presented to the employees of Blue Bell, Inc., Columbia City, Indiana, in recognition of their diligent efforts in successfully preventing lost time accidents during the long period of time as follows: 500,000 man hours continuous period of 15 months.” Standing left to right are Betty Bevington, industrial nurse; Roy Duncan, manager; and Marjorie Anders. [Photo courtesy Phyllis Mattix.]

“Coach Leonard Barnum, who served as a carpenter during the summers of the early 50s, assisted in designing and building the bins on the top floor, which later were to bulge with finished Wrangler products. Leonard also lent his talents to the building of the Warsaw plant and indicated that he, along with countless other teachers and col­lege students, was grateful for the opportunity for summer employment. Leonard shared the anecdote that the first day he reported to work Manager Duncan crept up behind him with a pair of scissors and began to cut the coach’s Levi jeans off, starting with the pant legs. Once the competitor’s product was removed, Mr. Duncan pre­sented Mr. Barnum with a pair of durable Wranglers which Leonard still wears to this day.

LEONARD BARNUM: A carpenter at Blue Bell during summers of the 50s. Mr. Barnum was a teacher and football coach at Columbia City High School and a former professional football player with the New York Giants. [Photo courtesy Phyllis Mattix.]

Waldo Ferris spent many years as a sewing machine mechanic. He explained the cutting room, an area which called for artis­try and a spirit of adventure. Waldo explained that the electric spreader was a machine which laid the mass­ive bolts of material on the long cut­ting tables until the thickness was 50 layers. The cutting machine, which was a motor with six inch sharp blades attached, had to be pushed through the many thicknesses while masterfully follow­ing patterns stenciled onto the blue denim. Voila! Result? Piece Goods!

One of Blue Bell’s many success stories was that of Treva Wolfe who rose from sewing operator to training specialist in her 48 years with the company. Treva and her husband Lawrence travelled extensively, assisting in the development of new plants in Alabama, Oklahoma, Canada, and, as Blue Bell began expanding into international markets, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, and a Wrangler unit in South Africa. Lawrence spec­ialized in establishing office operations, while Treva concentrated on engineering and time studies. Treva referred to, the Blue Bell Company as a “life-line for an incredible number of people.” She remembers that in the 30s and 40s, employees wore blue uniforms. Men were required to wear blue chambray shirts and women wore blue wrap around dresses with white collars. When all of these “blue” workers had lunch-breaks,  the other citizens of Columbia City were well aware as the town was deluged in a sea of blue.

Bill Winters, presently manager of Indiana Knitwear Corporation served as a cutting room consultant during the last years he spent with Blue Bell. Mr. Winters was made acting manager of the local division in 1978 when the Greensboro office made the decision to phase out its mid­west division. He shared an anecdote which brought back vivid memories of Roy Duncan, who had retired on December 31, 1974. Upon hearing that Mr. Winters was named acting manager, Mr. Duncan, although happily retired, rushed down to the plant, climbed the front steps, and entered the front office which he had previously occupied for 42 years. Mr. Duncan congratulated Bill heartily, requested that Manager Winters sit down at the executive desk, and sized up his loyal 26 year employee. Mr. Duncan liked what he saw and gave Mr. Winters his stamp of approval with a firm handshake and a smile which signified a heart full of pride.

MEASURING THE WAIST SIZE of a pair of Blue Bell overalls is Supervisor Clela Richards. This was just one of the many steps in the inspection of each garment before it was released as a finished product. Note the Wrangler tag sewn on the side of the back pocket. Carefully monitoring the workmanship of a seamstress is Supervisor Gladys Albert in the photo on the right. [Photos courtesy Phyllis Mattix.]

Mr. Duncan Retires in 1974

At the time of Roy Duncan’s retirement in 1974, E. F. Lucas, senior vice-president in charge of marketing wrote: “Roy, all of us know and appreciate what a great job you have done for Blue Bell in every way through­out the years. You have done so many goods things for Blue Bell that I wouldn’t even try to list them here, but one thing stands out in my mind and that is your loyalty and support which has had great influence on many of our people, particularly the newer and/or younger people.” The Duncan family received a letter from Rev. Harold Oechsle, former Col­umbia City Methodist minister, following Mr. Duncan’s death in October of 1983. Rev. Oechsle concluded his message by writing: “Roy will be remembered for his warmth, charm and generosity. He had his own style toward life and was very much a Christian gentleman … I know you are filled with joy remembering who he was and continues to be in our memor­ies.” This quotation captures not only Roy Duncan’s personality but that of the Blue Bell family, those people whose perseverance and loyalty and caring for one another make Blue Bell memories very special ones indeed.

A DOLL PARTY AT CHRISTMAS time was an annual event for the children of employees of Blue Bell. Receiving a doll are (1-r) an unidentified little girl, Shirley Sullivan Gage, Susie Duncan Sexton, author of The Bulletin article; and Linda Sullivan Bayman. In the picture on the right. Sara Schwarz. a member of a dis­placed family from Austria, holds the Christmas gift doll she costumed for some lucky child of an employee. She worked at the local factory in 1952. [Photos cour­tesy of Phyllis Mattix.]

Phyllis Mattix Locks Door for Last Time

Phyllis Mattix began working for Blue Bell-Globe Manufacturing Company on April 15, 1938. She ended her employment in the spring of 1978, assisting in the termination of the local operation. Phyllis, Robert Hiss, and Ermal Day were the last three employees to leave the building. Day was largely responsible for the development and upkeep of the park-like area north of the factory. Phyllis, Blue Bell’s Gal Friday for precisely 40 years, literally locked up the building for the last time.

Just as the front door to the Columbia City division of Blue Bell, Incor­porated—”World’s Largest Producer of Work and Play Clothes”—was secured, at that very moment so were nearly half a century of memories. These memories included Christmas parties for employees’ children where the little girls received dolls dressed by the factory’s accomplished seamstresses, summer picnics at Center Lake in Warsaw or Camp Whit-ley grounds, special banquets followed by the Ice Capades for Columbia City’s new teachers, plant parties with entertainment provided by well-known magicians and Nancy Lee and the Hilltoppers, luncheons for the Columbia City Joint High School Athletic Department, and the women’s three-part harmony chorus billed as the Blue Bell Choraliers led by Mrs. B. V. (Flossie) Widney with Evelyn Zumbrun at the piano. Manufactured Wrangler jeans were worn by rodeo star Jim Shoulders and movie star Robert Mitchum in the motion picture entitled The Lusty Men, Roy Rogers, who wrote a personal note of thanks for his free pair of Wranglers. More memories include the popular company store called The Corral, company style shows, and visits from Dr. Roy Standahl of Blue Bell’s Psychological Services Department who brought a scientific approach to employee selection and placement. Engineers and their families were transferred to the Columbia City division, and they became an integral part of our community and were missed greatly when they moved on. Finally, additional memories are of the STITCH ‘N TIMES newspaper, Lucille’s Cafe­teria, the Canteen, Manager Roy Duncan’s faith in the potential creativity and productivity of people, and of course, all of those diligent employees who gave years and years of loyal service toward the manufacture of a quality product.

Acknowledgments

To the following individuals for their recollections: Gladys Albert, Leonard Barnum, Waldo Ferris, Phyllis Matrix, Lucille Scott, William Winters, Treva Wolfe and Don York.

Blue Bell: Its History, Greensboro, North Carolina.

The Bell Ringer, Blue Bell’s national publication.

STITCH ‘N TIMES, local Blue Bell division’s publication.

The Observer, February 23, 1967, Vol. 3, No. 6.

“The History of Blue Bell, Inc.,” from Southern Garment Manufacturer Magazine, 1944.

“Columbia City for Over 50 Years Home of an Overall Manufacturing Estab­lishment,” Columbia City Post, February 2, 1959.

“New Buildings Bring Employment Gain,” Columbia City Post, January 4, 1934.

MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT

By Randy Grimes

We look back over 1986 as a growing and changing year. We are very pleased with the renovation accomplished in 1986, and are looking forward to completing the last two rooms on the first floor of the Thomas R. Marshall Home. These are the parlor and the dining room.

We are awaiting the arrival of the final report and evaluation of the professional consultant from the American Association for State and Local History. He will be making recommendations on efficient use of museum space and use of additional buildings within Columbia City. The result of this study will be shared with anyone interested.

Plans have been made for the annual dinner April 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the El Comedor Restaurant. The Spring Lecture Series will follow during the next three Thursday evenings. Some very interesting speakers are being chosen. It has been brought to our attention that a few Historical Markers are in need of repair in our county. We are investigating the cost at this time.

The Board of Directors of the Whitley County Historical Society meets on the first Thursday of each month. I personally invite you to come and see for yourself what is happening with your Society.

THE BULLETIN

THE BULLETIN is published by the Whitley County Historical Society, Columbia City, Indiana every other month:  February, April, June, August, October and December, and is mailed to all Society members. THE BULLETIN is intended to bring to light and preserve stories, articles, anecdotes, accounts of the personalities and events, and pictures, all relating to Whitley County and its history. Readers are encouraged to contribute such material. The Society is a non-profit educational organization. New members are welcomed; types of membership are listed on the back cover. THE BULLETIN is printed by the Tribune-News Publishing Company, South Whitley, Indiana. The Society office is located in the Museum, 108 West Jefferson Street, Columbia City, IN 46725. Telephone (219) 244-6372 or 244-5931.

Note from the Editor

The pen and ink sketch of the Blue Bell building on the front cover of the February issue of The Bulletin is used courtesy of the Whitley County Art Guild. The artist is Phillis Mattix who was a long time employee at the factory. We are grateful to Susie Duncan Sexton who took such pleasure in writing the story of her father’s workplace.

3 responses to “Blue Bell Factory Revisited”

  1. […] “Blue Bell Factory Revisited” (February of 1987) still exists in the bowels of the Thomas Riley Marshall home/museum…multi-copies stacked up, staples rusting onto its “research paper” pages.  I struggled in earnest to interview former local employees via phone or face to face, to search through trunks for photographs, to check facts via yellowing annual reports compiled at the Greensboro (North Carolina) headquarters, and even corresponded with the company’s president E. A. Morris…all the while moving my lifetime of material possessions into a home already filled to the brim with my parents’ plates, silverware, furniture, golf clubs, spare light bulbs, screw drivers and hammers, etc. […]

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