(*title borrowed from a chapter of a “Miss Minerva & William Green Hill” a dear old Southland book my mother once read aloud to me–seems like only yesterday…)
Sat straight up in bed…me, the eternal free-lancing archivist…and woke up my slumbering cat friends…hobbled downstairs garbed neither in kerchief nor stocking cap but definitely clad in my flannel nightshirt…because there arose such a clatter in my cluttered mind that I rushed to the computer to see what was the matter…and I actually witnessed a right jolly old elf…my dad the late Roy Duncan, Blue Bell plant manager for nearly half a century! Where was he hiding? Within my filing cabinets and an old oak trunk, not to mention alllll over this house (now my responsibility!) which he bought in 1944. He is everywhere at all times, not a ghost but an absolute presence. I just wish he could improve with guiding me in locating all of my resource materials which our family has garnered from our Blue Bell Wrangler involvement since the early 1900s…I have yet to rediscover my vintage photograph of my mother’s “daddy” visiting the “sewing room” at Blue Bell’s national headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina, where Grandpa was a head designer for the company which later became billed as “the world’s largest producer of work and play clothes”! The original Southern textile factory located above a fire station, or so the legend goes, became the genesis for the eventual “BLUE BELL” designation — wafting denim dust particles coated the huge brass bell on ground level. Tracking all of the long-lived massive industry’s series of name-merg(er)ed changes alone merits a huge paycheck, but as the oldest-Living-NOT-Confederate–Widow-but-instead-denim-saturated-human-being-alive it seems at this point, I have become the go-to spinner of tales regarding the advent of blue jeans, dungarees and bib overalls? And all for free…my entire life. Momentum going strong…Mojo working…no staff…doorbell rings…dryer buzzes…dogs gotta tinkle…lunchtime…amass photos…research articles…type…assemble…re-assemble…interview folks…proof-read…prepare for non-acknowledgement…and do it all over again…occasionally a reward here or there. And I have been quizzed frequently as to WHATever do I do all day?????
If you’ve followed my writings since 1986, you know that I have been a very good little girl and have chronicled to the best of my capability all the facts, figures, statistics, human beings, chairmen of the boards, seamstresses, locations, product mentions, tie-ins to Hollywood and governmental entities and even the “wild West”, and “people, places, and events” that I could personally recall or somehow document through photographs and articles and anecdotes. Two years ago, just like Mitt Romney famously speaking of his “binders full of women“, I shared my cornucopia of reminiscences with Terry Tatum (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) to aid in obtaining a grant for a miraculous concept which has now transitioned within record time into the repurposing of the intriguing 1930s Art Deco style brick factory building into the Blue Bell Lofts Apartments. Observing that impressive restoration feat from afar thrills my very soul. I look forward to grabbing a hard hat and touring the completed facility sooner rather than later. I have driven by the Whitley Street location multiple times. The lump in my throat and the beating of my heart transform into a beaming smile on my old wrinkled, liver-spotted face. Blue Bell, Incorporated has been my life since birth! Happy to have been a part of this metamorphosis!
Jennifer Romano of TALK OF THE TOWN suggested that I write nostalgia pieces (since 2009), and I happily accepted that challenge. (I would have preferred political punditry, but in a conservative community, liberal progressives are not in great demand, so her wisdom prevailed.) Accounts of Blue Bell and its employees have dominated my reveries, and my little home where my parents brought me a few days after my birth is bursting at the seams with my constant ongoing run-about quest to re-quilt remnants of the past into stories that resonate in the present. Been there. Done that. I am in fact so hunched over from searching for memorabilia and then hovering over my computer that my once adequate posture can only be recaptured in Kodak photos from many years ago. If I smoked cigars and lived in a tree with my typewriter poised precariously on a leafless limb, nobody could distinguish me from SHOE of comic strip fame. (Photographs provided!) But, the journey has all been worth it…and I can hardly wait to climb those front stair steps immediately outside what used to be my dad’s office containing its army green metal two door cabinet full of royal blue bound STITCH ‘N TIMES volumes and his oversized pearlized sinfully comfortable grey leather chair and that inimitable photographic gallery of Blue Bell top executives surrounding a commissioned blown-up technicolor portrait of his first grandson wearing bib overalls and a white straw cowboy hat while leaning on a fence (another photograph provided!) to see the results of innovative creativity by those wonderful folks who so capably preserve the past with an eye toward the future. Thanks for contacting me, Terry Tatum! Wonder what I’ll look like in a hard hat rather than a Carl Sandburg visor? Take the tour on your monitor with me now, readers…and YOU can wear your pajamas this go ’round. Two assignments for readers follow! Enjoy the cheerful, collected, affirmative quotations from folks you may well know. And, just click onto the links…and, as Jackie Gleason often exclaimed, “Away–eeee we go!
- ONE SEASON FOLLOWING ANOTHER, LADEN WITH HAPPINESS — AND TEARS (a lyric from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF)
- Little House … On the Back Lot!
- Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again
- This Happily Haunted House
- Filing Folders Full of … Friends!
- Fur-Ever Friends
- Junk Food Addictions – and Gourmet Pretensions
- Blue Christmas Without You
- Ronald Reagan’s Jelly Beans – and My Favorite Dental Appointment Ever
- May the true ‘Salty Dog’ win the 2012 race
- Blue Bell ‘Choraliers’ lead me to reveries of Jones Bakery
- The Secret of Change
- Goodbye, goodbye, Mister Massey
“I remember Blue Bell and Roy Duncan and the pride he took in the plant and people when I came here in 1966. He was a great guy who did much for the community. We should have more people like him today, and the country would be a greater place to live.” ~Ralph Bailey
“Oh, the memories of Blue Bell when I worked there so many years ago. Thank you for reminding us of years gone past. Life was so very different back then. We not only showed up in those days, but also on time by the time clock we punched in each and every day…and we did not miss a stitch. If only we could go back when day to day living seemed simpler.” ~Laurie LaRue Bills with her mother Betty
“I wish I had seen Blue Bell back in its day when it was a working factory. I do remember Mom working there and picking her up after work with Dad…Most of all, I remember Mr. and Mrs. Duncan always willing to spend some time with my brothers and me.” ~Jerrie Hammond-Begue
“My grandmother worked there, too! She used to tell us that she sewed with her machine which whirred to beat the band…buildings like this, so rich in the fabric of our histories are all over this country.” ~Julie Shawver Sisco
“I remember so well going to the Blue Bell plant when we came to Columbia City visiting from South Carolina when I was just a child. Your dad took us on a tour of the plant and gave us ice cream. I think that I recall that his grave site is almost in the shadow of the plant where he spent so many years. The people who worked for him were fortunate, and I suspect they realized it.” ~Carole Duncan Craft
“My grandma worked there…Flossie Lee Heupel. I remember her telling me stories of sewing on pockets!” ~ Niki Buse AND “My grandmother worked there during W.W. II.” ~Chad Langohr
“Mr. Duncan had no way of knowing this, but I created some of the best Quality and most efficient plants in Blue Bell when I was in charge of Wrangler Kids’ Manufacturing. I was reflecting on this and came to the conclusion that much of the reason for that success was because I applied many of the principles that I observed Roy using when I worked in the Columbia City plant. (I worked in several divisions before obtaining responsibility for my own operations, but my foremost examples came from Columbia City.) Mr. Duncan worked hard and played hard, enjoying every part of his life, including his family…I don’t think Roy got full credit in his community or at Blue Bell for his real value to either.” ~Bob Kellogg
“I remember Grandpa Roy at the Standard station in Columbia City when he saw that I was wearing Wrangler Jeans. He said jokingly that he might have run me over if I was wearing another brand. He was so community minded.” –Bill Wilder (NOTE: My dad certainly had fun….and he would have never run over Mr. Wilder because they were great friends…plus Bill wore Wranglers always – I am sure! Just to be safe?)
Fortuitously, I recently retraced the life-affirming, sensible, re-assuring, hand-written message of my brilliant paternal grandmother’s “once-upon-a-time” Sunday School lesson, entitled “The First Christmas Gifts“. She filled her 1942 narrative with accessible facts of history, geography, science, Mid-Eastern culture, archaeology and astronomy. I share this for the second time with my readers!
“We are accustomed at Christmastime to talk about the season from the divine side. Let us investigate the other side. It is a sublime picture. Wise scholars of the East following the skies’ signals, then bowing down at the feet of a little child, so poor that its cradle was a manger, while offering the wealth of the world in gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is not what we Get in this world, but what we GIVE which measures and develops character and marks the grade of humanity to which we belong.” Upon explanation of the actually “practical” significance of each of those material gifts, Grandmother wrote that she believed that “Greatness in character is graded by gifts of service. How many people can I nurture, burdens can I carry, opportunities can I extend, hearts can I cheer, tears can I banish? How much joy can I bring to the world? ” Gifts proffered by the Magi, to honor a new life, began a tradition — gifts from the rich to the poor, the haves to the have-nots, sharing wealth so that others might thrive, flourish and contribute their talents to a harmonious and an inclusive society.
So, when I happily observe this Blue Bell building’s restructuring process, I focus upon its revival and renewed value to our town and to our community. I no longer view the factory as simply an artifact of a more prosperous time when local industries once kept our nation humming, providing fruitful lives for countless generations of families. Cheers to those who once populated this Blue Bell story, a history which so many of us still treasure — to the employees, their children and their children’s children, and to all those customers who have enjoyed their durable Wrangler jeans and still do. The saga continues thanks to the talents and industriousness and intuitive creativity of a new generation to whom we owe a multitude of thank yous for recognizing the import of a historic, sentimental landmark and for infusing the Blue Bell factory with new life, a second life sheltering its future special new group of residents within a comfortable, updated, cozy environment. Another Blue Bell LOFTS family soon moves to the 307 South Whitley address in Columbia City, Indiana. Blue Bell — gifted to our residents twice….once in January of 1932…and again during this oncoming winter of 2017… “Christmas Gift! Christmas Gift!” Thing One and Thing Two! A familiar slogan known among the tight-knit Blue Bell personnel “The Big Company that pays attention to little things” might now be transposed to “Somebody up there likes us!” Let the celebration begin with words submitted by employee Myrtle Wooten in a 1950s Stitch ‘N Times–the official and popular newsletter of our noteworthy Blue Bell Factory.
“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, employees and families…We have reached the happy season…When we let our worries drop…When we cease to think of orders…And refrain from ‘talking shop’… But excuse us for a moment…While we write a line or two…For we still must speak of friendship….And that means to talk to you…You have helped to keep wheels turning…As they have day by day…And this message is to thank you…Very much in every way…”
POSTSCRIPT: (And thanks to my own Maxwell Perkins aka Roy Sexton, whose assistance is always mighty fine and who proved that one can “go home again!” Also, much appreciation to the late Louise Easterday for her welcome cheerleading throughout my days of attempting to recapture local history…her phone calls provided the tonic needed to explore as well as to weave together our collective local past, present and future. I miss her so! (And I revisit her messages still on my answering service — her final encouraging words also wishing me “Merry Christmas 2013”!) By now, I could have written a book about Blue Bell Incorporated…Well, Actually a couple! And I have! A regular localized Leo Tolstoy who has been through the “wars” and is currently seeking a little “peace”! Now after gathering all of these materials and writing all of this stuff, I just wish for one more thing? Please, somebody help me find my damned glasses…they have simply got to be somewhere in this upside down house….oh, one more link…Burgess Meredith in my favorite episode of “Twilight Zone”… that IS me! (In all my faded glory…)