Cumberland Times-News

July 8, 2007

Life after Kelly

It’s been 20 years since the last tire rolled down the Cumberland Road

Michael A. Sawyers

CUMBERLAND — On a spring day in 2094, if anybody thinks to do it, people who are not yet born will disassemble a time capsule kept at what is now the Allegany County Office Complex alongside a thoroughfare appropriately named Kelly Road.

By then, the capsule will be 100 years old. That day far in the future will also be the 200th anniversary of the founding of what became The Kelly-Springfield Tire Co., an enterprise that once pumped out 11,000 automobile tires a day at this very site. It was a corporation that fed and clothed thousands of local families. “The Kelly,” as people called it, was a large slice in the pie chart of Cumberland life.

For 82 years, through two wars, through the Great Depression and through thick ply and thin, the smell of rubber was the smell of money.

During the early 1980s, the Goodyear subsidiary generated a payroll of $54 million. Not only did that mean that production workers lived reasonably well, but it meant that Greene Street liquor stores sold more six packs when shifts ended. It meant that nearby Squilaci’s had a line of customers waiting to use the billiards table or to order a sandwich. After all, 7 a.m. is happy hour to someone who started working at 11 p.m. the previous day. It meant that this well-paying smokestack industry remained in Allegany County.

Twenty years ago, on May 21, that all came to an end and 1,010 workers had to go on with their lives.

Rollin’ down the Cumberland Road

there’s some sights you ought to see;

So lean right back in the rumble seat

and take the trip with me...

A catchy advertising jingle used by the company was a recording called “Rollin’ Down the Cumberland Road.” Local radio stations, in the 1980s, often played the full version. It was a snap-your-fingers, move-your-head-from-side-to-side kind of song that not only made you want to mobilize your feet, but mentioned brand name and was a source of geographic pride.

This is Cumberland. We make Kelly-Springfield tires. Life is good.

Everybody won. Bartenders appreciated the tips on a Saturday night and pastors smiled at the heft of the tithing basket the next morning.

Then came Nov. 22, 1986.

“The impact of this constitutes the single-worst economic news in the county’s history,” said Arthur T. Bond, then a county commissioner and now the mayor of Frostburg. Bond’s statement came shortly after Kelly President Clifford Johnson announced on Thanksgiving weekend of 1986 that the plant would close. Many local people still call it Black Friday. Another commissioner, Francis Philpot, hearkened back more than 50 years, likening the situation to the Great Depression.

Delegate Cas Taylor, who would go on to become Speaker of the House in the Maryland General Assembly, said, “By necessity, people are going to be leaving this community and the shock wave throughout the educational system, the health system, the retail system, is going to change permanently the community.”

There were, however, those who had already been able to read the writing on the sidewall, so to speak. The lack of demand for bias-ply tires such as those made at the Cumberland facility made the diagnosis a terminal one, likely giving the local plant five years at best.

But, when Sir James Goldsmith, a European financier, purchased 11 percent of Goodyear’s stock and threatened to bond with others to engineer a hostile takeover, the company reacted, shutting down a number of operations and rebuying the stock. It was a transaction in which Goldsmith made millions of dollars.

To understand the doomsday reaction from Bond, Taylor and Philpot, it helps to know that area residents were still reeling from the 1983 closures of two other smokestack plants: Pittsburgh Plate Glass and Celanese Fibers, where thousands had been employed.

Even Catholic Bishop P. Francis Murphy spoke out. “This is a poignant example of how industries fail to recognize their obligation to the communities that depend upon them,” he said.

The plant’s closing made the kind of news that brought regional media such as The (Baltimore) Sun to Cumberland. Such visits are usually reserved for mining disasters and Abu Ghraib-like incidents or nasty floods such as those of 1985 and 1996.

One high stack industry remains in the county, the paper mill at Luke, which has gone from being named Westvaco to MeadWestvaco to NewPage. Though the work force has decreased, the plant still employs 950.

Rollin’ down the Cumberland road

on a ribbon that’s long and wide

Rollin’ on your Kelly Tires...

for a Kelly-Springfield ride.

John Ravenscroft was 46 and had been building tires for 22 years when the bad news was made official.

“We heard rumors, but I didn’t want to believe them,” Ravenscroft, a lifelong Midland resident, said recently about the closing. “We’d given up so much, including cuts in pay, to keep the plant going.”

Pay was good at the Kelly, and it came without having to spend thousands of dollars for a college education.

“The average guy building tires was making $16 an hour, some were making more, when things were going good,” Ravenscroft said. Workers paid by piecework fared even better.

Multiply that 1980s hourly salary by 1,010 workers and compare it to the 2007 starting wage of $8 or $9 at today’s area manufacturing businesses. Figure in whatever inflation formula you prefer and you get a feel for the impact that tire production had on area lives.

Some workers accepted jobs at the company’s plant in Fayetteville, N.C. Ravenscroft wasn’t one of them.

Ravenscroft and the others who decided to stay and find a way to make it in these Appalachian Mountains had help available.

“Because plant closures were a thing of that time, there was a whole string of funding possibilities available to displaced workers,” said Jon Loff, who was then and is now the director of work force training at Allegany College of Maryland.

“There were a good many workers who took early retirement,” Loff said. Of those who didn’t, 120 took advantage of training at the local college — 40 who entered degree programs and 80 who opted for continuing education, according to Loff. Some sought education in computer work, others in health care or automotive technology.

Ravenscroft, though, and a good number of others, entered the classes that would help them understand how to run a small business.

Did it work out for him?

“We made it work,” Ravenscroft said, seated in the Frostburg company Raven-Craft Inc., that he created and which his sons now own and operate. The custom cabinet and woodworking company is well-known locally for its high-end products. A new building has just been added. Ravenscroft was also the head keep-everything-taken-care-of guy at Frostburg Village Nursing Home. “I got used to 16-hour workdays,” he said.

With sawdust in the air, Ravenscroft, seated in a meeting room at Raven-Craft headquarters on Grant Street in Frostburg, smiles a lot when he talks about his Kelly days.

“It was physical, hard, dirty work,” Ravenscroft said. “Most guys were good hires after we shut down because they knew how to work. They were fighters. You kick me, I’ll kick you back,” he said. “Not many moped, but if they did, somebody would say, ‘Hey, there’s life after Kelly.’ They drove school buses, worked for the state and county roads. One guy started an upholstery shop. Another guy has a tire shop. Gordon Diehl ... he worked in the bead room with me. Now he’s the sheriff of Bedford County (Pa.).”

Everybody at Kelly-Springfield had a nickname, according to Ravenscroft. “I was Bigfoot or Sasquatch,” he said, pointing at his feet. “You print that and everybody who worked there will know who you are talking about.”

All the stories were not happy ones.

Loff said he was made aware of tragedies, those who took their own lives, because of the situation.

“Some of them kept hanging on to the hope that the plant would reopen. They spent their severance pay and depleted their funds and found themselves in tough situations,” he said.

The mountain’s green and the bobwhites sing

among the blackberry briars;

And over there’re the Kelly Boys...

makin’ Kelly tires.

And there certainly was talk about reopening the plant. The talk came from a number of places and people, but in the end it was just talk.

Two people who said they wanted to kick start the plant were Colorado resident John Joseph Devlin and Ohio resident Lewis Ireland. Each ended up dealing with criminal charges and even convictions in their home states. Both of those efforts went flat.

The Condere Corp. of Hamden, Conn., wasn’t able to follow through on a plan to begin building radial tires in Cumberland. An attempt by Government Contracting Services and Fuller Corporate Realty hit a big enough bump in the road to have a blowout. Ditto for the scheme to manufacture something called the Percy Brake Master that would help trucks come to a stop.

Even the idea to have the Maryland State Highway Administration move in was detoured.

So many people voiced interest in using the former rubber plant that one almost expected actor Fred McMurray, in his Disney role as the absent- minded professor, to step forward and suggest manufacturing Flubber.

There were those who believed that some of the actual proposals were almost as far-fetched.

And then there was Project Impact.

“It was a five-year effort,” said Jim Getty, a veteran tire builder who ended up being the honcho for an attempt by workers to buy the plant.

“I suggested that such a thing would work and the next thing you know everybody is asking me how it’s going and what I’ve done about it,” Getty said. “We knew the plant was making money and that there was a market for the product.”

There were 750 workers willing to ante up $150 apiece to create a business plan. Getty said that state officials told him if he came up with $75,000 that they and the county would each match that amount to pay for the plan.

“We raised $112,000 and it took some effort on our part, but the state finally came up with their $75,000,” Getty said. “So did the county.”

Getty and others claim that Goodyear sent in some sort of a rubberized SWAT team to disable equipment, snipping a gear here and a chain there so that the facility could not operate and compete.

“It would have taken $10 million just to make the repairs,” Getty said. “But we were ready to do it.” Getty said the company tried to ply him by offering a job at another plant just to get him out of Cumberland and away from the Project Impact effort.

Getty has an intricate story that twists and turns like U.S. Route 50 between New Creek and Mount Storm and involves private lenders and state government officials. The bottom line, he said, is that the state would help no more, thus killing Project Impact.

Eventually, the building was given to the state, and then the county bought the 2-million-square-foot complex for $1.5 million. Gone was $401,000 in annual state taxes and another $1.1 million in local taxes. Gone was $11 million in purchases the company made from merchants within a 50-mile radius. Gone as well was $160,000 in donations from workers and the firm to County United Way.

Kelly-Springfield was the biggest user of USAir, the commercial flight service that existed at the Potomac Highlands Regional Airport, according to Jim Stahl of the airport authority. The company also had two planes of its own quartered there, an annual operation in the $4 million range that accounted for 1,000 or more annual takeoffs and landings, many shuffling company moguls to Akron and back.

What would not be gone, at least for a while, were company employees who wore white shirts and neckties instead of Dickies pants and safety glasses.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and others in power approved for Kelly-Springfield the construction of a $15 million corporate office building on Willowbrook Road, keeping hundreds of jobs in the county. When it was announced in October 1998 that even that part of the operation would shut its doors, 400 still worked there and the payroll was as much as $20 million annually. Official closure came on the last day of 1999, though some Goodyear design technologists remained for a few years after that. That building now houses the county’s health department.

Some white-collar employees stayed with the company. But staying actually meant moving. To this day, there are families with one spouse in Akron and the other in or near Cumberland, their families intact existentially if not geographically.

“People did what they had to do,” said Ravenscroft, speaking for those who smelled like rubber and those who sat down when they worked.

In 1996, the two smokestacks at the manufacturing plant were knocked down, the literal crash of 1.2 million bricks very much a reflection of the figurative crash of local tire manufacturing.

Manufacturing news hasn’t improved in this area recently. In the one-year period that began in May 2006, Western Maryland had a loss of 8 percent in manufacturing jobs, the largest in the state.

Over on the right, by the Braddock tree,

is a thing you’ve never seen;

they’re the ghosts of General Braddock’s men

a-campin’ on the green.

Here and there, pieces of Kelly-Springfield’s past remain.

A wealth of knowledge about all things Kelly is available every Monday at 8:30 a.m. in the Ponderosa Restaurant on Winchester Road where former tire company employees meet to chew biscuits and bacon and remember rollin’ down the Cumberland Road.

The most accessible connection to the rubbery past is an exhibit at the Allegany County Museum at Town Centre where visitors can view such things as a poster of Miss Lotta Miles, the company’s pinup girl, or the original papers of incorporation from 1894 for what was called The Rubber Tire Wheel Co.

There is a wall-sized photo of New York’s Times Square. A working Kelly- green neon sign has been attached to the photo so that it appears to be atop the roof of a skyscraper.

Look around and you’ll see that the company abandoned tires and made ammunition during World War II. Ask Curator Joe Weaver to show you around. Just don’t go there during hours that are not 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, or 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, or you will have to look through the windows of the old Liberty Trust Building on Baltimore Street.

“It is one of the best corporate displays anywhere,” Weaver said. The Kelly stuff is right next to the exhibit for Cumberland’s breweries, the placement creating a benign mixture of drinking and driving.

Downtown Cumberland bustled in those days. In the 1960s, for example, it might be dinner at Sheehe’s. Drinks at the Cadillac Lounge. A movie at the Strand or the Maryland Theater. A lot of people were rollin’ down the Cumberland Road and they didn’t need a highway atlas.

You can almost see Capt’n Washington

down along the Potomac shore;

In this land unchanged by time or space

two hundred years or more.

Lee Fiedler wraps his hand around a cup of the flavor of the day. As the top gun of Kelly-Springfield from 1991 until its quietus, Fiedler presided over the company’s death. Now, on a misty morning in late June, Fiedler, in his third term as Cumberland’s mayor, sips a cup of hot joe on the second floor of Mark’s Daily Grind, smack dab in the middle of a downtown that is experiencing a rebirth.

Fiedler talks openly, candidly about the tire business, a business into which the Ohio native followed his father. There are no “you can’t print this, but” kinds of things. No “I wouldn’t want this in the paper, but” caveats.

“I don’t think the Kelly brand will endure,” Fiedler said. “There aren’t that many of them being made now anyway.”

Those that are manufactured come from Goodyear’s plant in Fayetteville, N.C. It is a plant where some, but not many, of the displaced Kelly workers chose to move.

Fiedler was working in Akron as president of Goodyear’s chemical division when the Cumberland plant bit the dust.

“Not many in Akron could believe that so few workers would choose to keep their jobs by moving to Fayetteville,” he said. “We didn’t realize that Cumberland was such a draw, that people would not want to move away. Pretty much the same thing happened when we closed the corporate office.”

Getty, though, said hardly any production workers were offered jobs at other locations. “They could apply if they wanted to, but even if they got the job, they would have had to go in as new employees, losing all their seniority.”

Fiedler agrees that the dwindling popularity of bias-ply tires — which had a life of about 18,000 miles — and the growing acclaim of radial tires — which started out with a promise of 50,000 miles — was a major factor in the closure of the plant. He agrees, as well, that the threat of a hostile takeover played a role.

“But another big factor was the fact that Interstate 70 was built north of Cumberland,” Fiedler said. “When the Kelly plant was built here, Cumberland was the hub of the transportation world. When I-70 was built north of us, that was no longer true.”

Fiedler said the profit margin of 5 percent per tire simply didn’t allow for additional transportation costs, either for raw materials coming in or finished products going out.

“Unions? You heard some people talk about unions being a part of the closure, but that’s not true. Goodyear was dealing with unions everywhere.”

Goodyear has sold its Freeport, Ill., plant and will close its Tyler, Texas, facility this year, Fiedler said. Those facilities, too, had been devoted to making Kelly tires.

Fiedler believes a mistake was made by not keeping the Cumberland plant open to continue producing bias-ply tires for tractor-trailers.

“The best bias-ply truck tire in the world was made right here,” he said, adding that 10 years after closure, he was still getting requests for the tires that were no longer made. “I visited tire dealers in Brazil and they wanted them badly, wanted us to start making them again.”

Fiedler was 58 when Kelly shut its corporate doors on Willowbrook Road. He was offered a spot with Goodyear back in Akron. He turned it down, believing it to be a powerless position meant only to maintain relationships between Goodyear and Kelly customers until the trip to the end of the Cumberland Road was completed.

“I didn’t want to preside over the demise of the brand,” Fiedler said, the bottom of his coffee cup almost visible now.

If you listen over there,

by the stone-walled banks of the C&O; Canal,

The mules still bray and the crewmen cuss

as if it were here and now.

There’s a graveyard where the flowers grow

in the shade of ancient spires;

Nearby you’ll find the Kelly Boys...

makin’ Kelly tires.

The Kelly boys haven’t been making Kelly tires in Cumberland for 20 years now. And, if Fiedler’s projection is accurate, they won’t be making them anywhere in the near future.

It’s a long time until 2094, 87 years in fact. By then, individual transportation may not even require rubber circles filled with air.

In 2094, to find out about life in Allegany County 100 years earlier and about something called The Kelly-Springfield Tire Co., people will have to go to Kelly Road and unlock that time capsule, which was never actually buried, but put in safe storage.

Somebody mark the calendar.

Michael A. Sawyers can be reached at msawyers@times-news.com. The Times-News gives a special thanks to Al Feldstein for sharing his Kelly-Springfield memorabilia. The lyrics to “Rollin’ Down the Cumberland Road” were provided by Frank Burkett of Hyndman, Pa., a former Kelly employee who has a private collection of company items.