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Across the Ozarks—and throughout United States—buildings that once housed large industrial operations sit empty as manufacturing has become mechanized or jobs move overseas. In more recent years, many of these buildings have undergone transformations that bring them into the new economic environment. KSMU’s Emma Wilson brings us the story of one factory building in West Plains, Missouri that has been given a new life.
[Sound: cafeteria noises]
It’s a pretty typical scene in a college dining hall. Students get their food cafeteria-style, sit with friends, and some even study. But next to those industrial-size kitchen appliances are features that echo the industry of this building’s past. Large bay doors, brick walls, and huge I-beams are remnants of a shoe factory that was hugely important to the development of West Plains. Dick Davidson has owned the factory building since its closure in 1994 and has recently developed it into The Shoe Factory Lofts, a residence hall for students attending MSU West Plains.
“First class residential facilities particularly on campus or near campus are extremely important in attracting students and students having a successful college experience,” said Davidson.
With the growth of MSU West Plains, there’s also been a growing need for student housing, particularly for students coming to use their A+ certificate and want a traditional college experience. A+ is a state program that grants tuition to a two-year college for high school students that meet certain levels of academic achievement. Davidson said the old factory was a logical location because of its proximity to campus. During the process of renovation, he and his business partner also got the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which took two years and required demolishing a 30,000 square foot addition.
“The historic significance of the building that allowed that to happen was not because it was architecturally unique, nothing of that sort. Although it’s a very attractive building now—that old original façade. But it was the historical significance that it had for the city of West Plains,” Davidson said.
Shoe manufacturing was big business around the turn of the 20thcentury. By 1911 it was the largest industrial employer in Missouri. That year, the International Shoe Company was created by a merger of two St. Louis manufacturers. Shoe companies in Missouri had an advantage over the big northeastern companies: cheap labor. The average shoe worker in Massachusetts made around 25 dollars a week, that was more than any female and 90% of male shoe-workers in Missouri. The conditions in the International Shoe Company factories were grim, their employees mostly young, female and disenfranchised. It wasn’t long before unions formed and tried to force the company to improve working conditions…and these companies started looking for alternatives.
“A number of the shoe factory ownership companies, International Shoe in this particular case, went out to small communities. The deal they did in West Plains was very typical,” Davidson said.
Agreements struck between the ISC and rural communities offered extreme benefits to the company in exchange for the large number of jobs a factory would bring to the area. The West Plains Chamber of Commerce set aside city land to build the factory and subdivided the adjacent land for housing. Money generated by the sale of that land was used to build the factory.
“Literally, the city of West Plains built and owned the factory,” Davidson said.
In 1946, its first year of operation, the International Shoe factory employed 289 employees. That was about 7% of the town’s entire population. The economic impact was enormous, as was the incentive to keep ISC in the area. During its first years, suspected unions were actively suppressed by local police and members of the Chamber of Commerce. The factory led to a huge amount of economic growth for West Plains. Labor did eventually become organized and there were good employee-company relations for years.
“It changed the entire dynamic of West Plains when it came in in the late ’40. Because there were no manufacturing jobs this was a rural area, there were farm jobs. There were very few, if any, jobs for women,” said Davidson.
“The shoe factory was the main income in West Plains,” said Wilda Hand, who worked at the factory for more than 30 years. Her husband worked there for more than 40. She says it was hard work, but you can measure the benefits in houses built, families raised and the success of other local businesses.
“There’s very few easy jobs, I think, anywhere. Like I said, we’ve raised our family and bought our house and you know, that’s where our living was,” said Hand.
Hand lost her job when the factory closed, but by that time it was not employing the large number of residents as it had before—which was up to 600 at its peak.
Now, Davidson says the building can become important to West Plains in a different way, to support a new economic driver: education. The students I talked to were excited about being able to live in a residence hall, especially one with a loft-like restored factory atmosphere. K.D. Sullivan is a “community ambassador” at what has become known as “The Shoe.”
“My first year I had to commute because there wasn’t any place in West Plains I could find. But this place is like my home-away-from-home and the residents here are like my family,” Sullivan said.
This is the first semester The Shoe Factory Lofts have been open to house students.
For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.