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Death of an industry giant

  • The John E. Morgan Memorial Fountain was unveiled at Tamaqua's Depot Square Park, August, 2002, one year after the industrialist's passing.
    The John E. Morgan Memorial Fountain was unveiled at Tamaqua's Depot Square Park, August, 2002, one year after the industrialist's passing.
Published May 03. 2013 05:03PM

It was ten years ago when a town of 7,174 lost several hundred jobs. The end of an era.

The announcement came on November 12, 2002, crashing down on the community like a tidal wave of shock and disappointment.

After 57 years, J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills would fade away and lock the doors, with the loss of 460 livelihoods.

"We're phasing out the textile operations in Tamaqua," said Christopher Romano, then vice president, manufacturing.

The longtime reign of Schuylkill County's largest employer had ended. And everyone felt the hit.

The setback for the Tamaqua area was tangible in many ways, especially for laid-off workers. Today, they recall the ordeal through individual stories and struggles to start anew.

"It made a huge impact on the whole area," said Linda Handler, Tamaqua, a Morgan employee of 31 years. "The whole economy was affected."

Debbie Meredith Delp, Tamaqua, with over 30 years at the mills, remembers how difficult it was. "When the announcement of the closing came, it was pretty much devastating to everyone," she said.

Tamaqua, established 1799, is a history-rich town accustomed to surviving loss. First came the death of King Coal. Then the decline of the railroad. Then, when number one employer, massive Atlas Powder Company, folded in nearby Reynolds, residents said "Well, we still have Morgan Mills," which assumed the title of area's largest employer.

But now textile jobs were gone, too, and officials of Sara Lee Underwear, plant owner, tried to ease the blow.

The first employees affected were 40 workers in the sewing and folding unit.

"This is a painful decision," said Linda Woltz, president. Woltz blamed it on global market forces. "This is not about the quality of the people or their work. Both are superior." It was simply that products could be made more cheaply overseas.

Government leaders quickly huddled to try and figure out how to deal with the crisis.

Improvising a plan were: Frank Zukas, executive director, Schuylkill Economic Development Corporation; Kevin Steigerwalt, Tamaqua borough manager; Joseph Plasko, president, Tamaqua Area Chamber of Commerce; Herman Lutz, president, Tamaqua Borough Council; Larry Wittig, president, Tamaqua Area School Board; John Schickram, chairman, Rush Township board of supervisors; Richard Hadesty, Tamaqua mayor and Tom Mullahy, Pa. Career Link.

They tried to develop a systematic response to the devastating news. They knew the region had been walloped.

Fortunately, Sara Lee qualified employees for U. S. Trade Adjustment Act financial assistance, with allowances for retraining and education. The firm reviewed with each employee what it called "separation benefit programs."

To assist the community with transition, Morgan Mills made a one-time donation to the school district and provided supplemental water and sewage payments to the town. Those concessions allowed officials additional time to try and replace lost earned income tax and utility payments.

But the hit to Tamaqua's economy was staggering. For instance, the Tamaqua Area Water Authority instantly lost $130,000 each year in revenue. Morgan Mills had been the largest water customer.

Sewage fees and other utilities also took a hit. Eventually, those rates went up, hitting hard many of the same homeowners who'd lost their jobs.

Search for work

Hundreds of former Morgan employees scrambled to find new careers in a lean job market.

Today, some work a combination of part-time jobs, still seeking full-time employment.

Handler, the former Linda Neifert of Quakake, took advantage of government-sponsored educational benefits offered at separation. She completed an associate degree at McCann's School of Business and now works for Charlotte Solt Real Estate, Tamaqua.

She has fond memories of the Morgan operation as a fine employer and regrets that it closed.

"It was a good place to work," she said. "I liked it there. I felt sad."

Former co-worker Gary Willing, Tamaqua, echoed those comments. He now works in West Hazleton, and has words of praise for how Morgan Mills handled the lay-off.

"I worked in the cutting department for 33 years," said Willing, "and helped it enter the computer age. The company really bent over backward to help us move onward after the massive layoff. Even though I lost my job, I have much respect for what they have done. Through them I was able to land a job with Bimbo Bakeries (formerly Stroehmann's) in less than three months and am still employed there."

Marie Skripnek, West Penn Township, worked at Morgan Mills for 34 years, first in knitting, then in order entry, and later in other capacities. For her, the place was like family and she's sentimental.

"I planned on retiring from there," said Skripnek. But she was forced to shift gears and ended up working for a short time in the finance industry, first at Nesquehoning Savings Bank and later, Sovereign Bank. She is now employed in the Tamaqua Area School District cafeteria. Bob Kunkel, a 20-year-employee, is now a mailman with the U. S. Postal Service.

Barb Parrish, Tamaqua, was one of the lucky ones. She worked at Morgan Mills for over four decades. When it closed, she was able to coast three months until retirement.

"I worked on the drawer line about 15 years," Parrish said. She served other roles, too, in 44 years. "We were let go in 2005. My husband also worked there" she explained. "He had 43 years as a truck driver. His last was in 2008 and they were open a year after that, then everything shut down. I loved the place," Parrish said. "It was my first job."

The plant operated with a skeleton crew for a period of time, meaning that a few remained on hand.

"I worked there several times over the years," said Tom Applegate, Lansford. "As a J.E. Morgan employee in various departments, then later between 1992 and 97, I worked at night doing their mainframe stuff. And I worked there after it had become Hanes Brands in 2006. I was a security guard working for Wackenhut then. Our contract ended in 2007 and they brought in another security company ... and it closed just a bit after that."

Today, Morgan Mills is history, a closed chapter in the story of local industry. Nationally, the textile industry continues a decline. Analysts say textiles lost one million jobs since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

But a depressed economy is best measured by changed lives, not statistics.

The hundreds of former employees of Morgan Mills will tell you that each job lost is a life-changing event, especially when employment is the very foundation of one's way of life. Morgan Mills was a big part of their lives and a good living.

"I met my husband of 30 years there," said Delp. "Home for both of us was 5 to 10 minutes away and the work was steady."

The same is true for Applegate.

"Both my wife and I worked at J.E. Morgan," he said. "In fact, that's how we met."

In total, there are at least 460 individual stories of what the loss of J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills meant to local families.

And each is testament to the shifting, unpredictable winds that ultimately define how a family and community survive.

Next Friday: Morgan Mills is gone, but legacy endures

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