Brown Shoe building to be demolished and with it a piece of storied UC history

Brown Shoe building to be demolished and with it a piece of storied UC history
Brown Shoe building to be demolished and with it a piece of storied UC history | Brown Shoe building to be demolished and with it a piece of storied UC history
By KEVIN BOWDEN
Staff Reporter
A significant piece of Union City history is about to be demolished.
The now vacant Brown Shoe factory located along Gibbs and Cheatham streets on the north side of town has been sold and is in the process of being scrapped.
Steve Russell confirmed to The Messenger he has sold the building to Memphis businessmen Chester Ervin and Harold Johnson, and they plan to demolish the building and sell off the scrap material.
Ervin told The Messenger Wednesday he and his business partner will actually transfer the building over to their company, National Econ, an environmental consulting firm based in Memphis. It is expected to take about four months to take down the factory and sell off all the reclaimed brick, metal and wood inside, according to Ervin.
Ervin and his partner have about 18 years of experience doing this kind of work and he said they have hired experienced contractor Ricky Rogers with Rogers Construction to actually demolish the factory.
The Brown Shoe plant is historically significant because in 1923 it became Union City’s first major industry. The three-story red brick shoe plant ushered in the industrial age for Obion County.
The campaign to bring Brown Shoe to Union City 90 years ago is well documented.
It was in 1922 that the Brown Shoe Co. of St. Louis entered into an agreement with Union City “to locate one of its branch factories in this town,” Bill and Charlene Threlkeld wrote in their history book of Obion County — “A Time Returned: A Pictorial History of Obion County,” published in 1994.
“The inauguration of this institution was celebrated June 5, 1923, with appropriate ceremonies. In many ways the opening of the Brown Shoe Company plant ushered Obion County into the industrial age,” they wrote in their book.
That was 90 years ago, when then Gov. Austin Peay and Congressman Finis Garrett came to town to help celebrate the city’s first industry.
“For decades, the growth of Union City was linked to the success of the Brown Shoe Company,” the Threlkelds wrote.
The shoe company’s move to Union City capped off an intense fundraising campaign. A total of $100,000 was raised to finance the construction of the three-story factory.
Officials with the shoe company basically told a delegation from Union City if you build it (a new plant) we’ll come, according to John Bell of Union City. He said he can still remember the campaign the city undertook to raise the money for the Brown Shoe plant, including the use of public subscriptions.
Bell said when milestone amounts were raised during the fundraising campaign, a steam whistle at the city’s old waterworks plant was set off.
The day the plant officially opened, there was an industrial parade that morning. The plant opening was celebrated with aerobatic flights over Union City, wing walking, a parachute jump, a ball game and then that evening a “picture show” was shown on the second floor of the factory and there was a dance held on the first floor.
It was a festive and monumental time that was celebrated in grand fashion.
The Sabin Photo Exhibit even features several images related to the Brown Shoe campaign and the plant’s opening in Union City. There is one image of hundreds of local residents gathered downtown to welcome Brown Shoe to town.
The Brown Shoe plant remained in operation at its original location from 1923 until 1966, when a new plant was opened in Union City’s industrial park off Everett Boulevard.
Longtime Union City banker and current member of the Union City city council Bill “Rat” Harrison remembers the early years of the Brown Shoe Company in Union City.
“It (the plant) was the backbone of Union City. When they locked up, Union City shut down,” Harrison said. “There have been many families in Union City raised out of the Brown Shoe Company.”
The local plant opened when Warren G. Harding was the president and the plant survived The Great Depression. In the early years of the Brown Shoe plant, workers were paid around 15 cents an hour and worked up to 10-hour days, five days a week.
The employees were like a large family, as evidenced by video footage from the original plant as well as the second plant in the industrial plant.
James Matheny provided The Messenger with a couple of videotapes from the two plants.
He worked for Brown Shoe for more than 50 years, starting in 1943. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1945-48, but after his military service he returned to work for Brown Shoe until his retirement in 1992.
He has many fond memories of his career with Brown Shoe and, like many other employees with the company, he still enjoys attending the annual reunions.
Matheny remembers having to use mules and donkeys to haul materials to the upper floors of the original plant.
There were no elevators in the plant during the early years.
“We made the little white hard top shoes, men’s and women’s shoes, sandals, boots and even Buster Brown shoes,” Matheny said.
He lives on the east side of Union City and maintains an impressive collection of Brown Shoe memorabilia, including the videos, a stack of black and white photos and newspaper clippings related to the local Brown Shoe operation. And then there are the memories and the friendships he has maintained from his time working for the company.
“We had over 500 people working at the plant at one time,” Matheny said.
He still recalls the week the plant relocated its operation to the industrial park in 1966.
“That was a long week; it was quite a task. I worked 82 hours that week,” Matheny said.
That plant remained in operation there until shutting down in 1993.
As for the annual reunions held each fall, Matheny said the number of attendees is dwindling.
Soon, the shoe plant on the north side of town will become nothing more than a vacant lot. The memories of the plant though will live on through people like Matheny and others who worked for Brown Shoe.
Meanwhile, Ervin, Johnson and Rogers have a busy summer ahead of them as they work on the old shoe factory.
“We’re just going to take it down. It’s in really bad shape,” Ervin said.
Work has already begun on interior demolition work, he said.
Ervin said he is also working with local officials on the former Reelfoot Packing plant site off West Reelfoot Avenue.
The National Econ Corporation was first established in 1986 in California as an environmental auditing, consulting and project management firm. Ervin and Johnson own and operate the Memphis operation.
Staff Reporter Kevin Bowden may be contacted by email at kmbowden@ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger 5.23.13

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