Promised Land Lost

Posted: May 30, 2017 12:01 AM
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FORT MADISON, IOWA -- Only ghosts and shadows haunt the empty halls of Sheaffer Pens, the onetime giant pen manufacturer on H Street.

Its locked doors and worn brick stand like weary sentinels along the banks of the Mississippi in this struggling southeast Iowa river-and-railroad town.

Rust weeps through the paint on the window frames; the once magnificent illuminated-letters sign with the trademark white dot that faced Illinois is gone, no longer serving as a gatekeeper for its fortress of employees.

At its peak, it employed more than 2,500 people in a town of 14,000; nearly everyone here had someone in their family who worked there.

By the time they were bought out by French-owned BiC in 2003, the 40 employees left in the iconic American company's pen-point assembly department were told it was only a matter of time before the operation would be moved to a third-party manufacturer in Asia; Slovakia would become the home for customer service, purchasing, warehousing and distribution work, as well as packaging and quality control.

What made Sheaffer special?

Ingenuity: Walter A. Sheaffer invented the fountain pen in a back room of his Fort Madison jewelry store in 1912. Risk: He used all of his life savings to invest in the business, not knowing what the impact would be on his family's fortunes. And charity: Ask anyone left in town who worked for the Sheaffer family (they sold the company in 1967) how they treated employees, and the stories are all the same -- they treated them like they mattered.

The other thing that made Sheaffer special was his use of high technology -- at the turn of that century, the fountain pen industry was in its infancy -- using his own technical innovations, in particular his famous lever filler. He invented a pen that was more convenient to use and carry, and much more sleekly designed.

His pen was the smartphone of its day, used to correspond in business, to teach children the motor skills needed to write or work out complex math equations; it was how bankers conducted business, how families balanced their budgets.

It was how the world communicated.

Until it wasn't.

"Sheaffer was the last of its kind, the last big full-line U.S. fountain-pen maker that remained in operation in its hometown in its original form," said Terry Schrepfer, a Fort Madison native who peeled off so many members of his family who worked there that it was easy to lose count. "One year after the family sold it, the union went on strike. Things were never the same after that."

This is what happens when factories roll up and move out of town: The impact isn't just the jobs that are lost in the plant; it includes the loss of the ancillary jobs that support their work in the community. Bakeries close, delis, too, barbershop chairs go empty, and the school district loses its tax base. So does the fire department.

This town, like so many other towns across the country, was once the Promised Land for so many people, from the fur traders to the frontier families to the immigrants who came in the big waves during the turn of the 20th century.

This isn't where you got rich -- but it was where you carved out a living, got married, had some kids, bought a house and a car and, if you were lucky, you took your family on vacation every summer, sometimes even your mother-in-law.

Fort Madison is a town that has seen better days. The layout of the town's main street is charming -- but more storefronts are shuttered than not. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the place would seem dead if not for a loud and rather salty breakup between a young man and woman that included her throwing his belongings out a second-floor apartment window.

The noise of his things hitting the sidewalk and street below broke the silence of a business district which -- like so many others across this country -- once worked hard and helped to make America a little greater for than it feels today.