“Boom, Bust, Exodus”

Like many cities throughout the Midwest, deindustrialization hit the community hard.

By some indicators, Connersville appears to have done well in comparison to other industrialized cities at the time because deindustrialization came later to its community. But if you ask Connersville residents themselves, they would argue differently, saying that their community suffered just like other communities throughout the Midwest, regardless of the timing.

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Connersville was no exception to industry leaving and relocating in the Sunbelt, other locations internationally, or just plants closing and never reopening again (for more information on other cities impacted by deindustrialization, see Further Information. Many changes came to Connersville in the late 20th century: more of Connersville’s locally owned industries were absorbed by national concerns; farms became larger and more mechanized; smaller schools disappeared with consolidation; and shopping malls and residents’ relocation to the suburbs weakened the downtown area.

The rapid growth and decline of Ford Motor Company’s presence in Connersville is an interesting case. Ford’s purchase of Philco Corporation and subsequent plant expansion in the early 1960s led to positive social changes in Connersville and Fayette County in general, until Ford Motor Company and other major manufacturers struggled at the national level in the late 1980s, causing a wave negative social changes in Connersville from which the city has not yet recovered.

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Picture of the original Rex Manufacturing plant, owned by Historic Connersville, Inc.

The company that would eventually become Visteon in the 1990s began as a local business in 1898, called the Rex Buggy Company, which manufactured the well-known Rex and little-known Yale line of buggies and light carriages. In 1928 the company discontinued the manufacture of automobile tops and bodies and began concentrating on its electric refrigerator and freezer business, which was still in its infancy. During World War II, all civilian production ceased at the company and Rex began packaging parachute flares and bombs, as well as other products, for the army and the navy.

After World War II, the company converted its facilities back to the production of refrigerators, freezers, and household appliances. In 1947, the company became a subsidiary of Philco Corporation of Philadelphia and within a year 1,800 men and women worked at the plant. Philco-Rex was one of the largest employers in the city when it was purchased by Ford Motor Company in 1963.

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Philco Corporation published their own news celebrating the purchase of their company by Ford Motor Company.

A year after the acquisition, the Connersville plant again began making car parts, specifically air conditioner coils.  After the company stopped making the home refrigerator, employment dropped from an estimated 5,000 to 2,400. Not even ten years after the company was spun off into Visteon, the plant closed in 2006. Impacted by national forces and with executives uninterested in what happened in the community since they were no longer a part of it, thousands of workers lost their jobs.

Much the same story can be told about Stant and Roots during this period: increased production and high employment rates until the 1980s when many companies struggled nationally and a continual decline in employment and production as technology increased, people were laid off, and plants cut back production.

Many companies did not remain in Connersville past 1980. Companies like H.H. Robertson, D & M, American Kitchens, and others were not bought out by national corporations and simply shut their doors forever, both in Connersville and in plants throughout the country.

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D&M advertisement, located at the Fayette County History Museum, owned and operated by Historic Connersville, Inc.

Even as plants closed and industry left Connersville, community members don’t recollect that as the moment of decline in the community. When asked about this period, John and Don Brown remembered the economic troubles – Don was even laid off for a brief period of time – but they did not attribute the local troubles to unexplainable forces. Charlie Hughes agreed with their assessment, talking about how, when the CEOs were local men, the country club and Boys and Girls Club and other parts of the community like them thrived:

“… a good example is the boys and girls club that closed. Well D&M… maintained the club and I know Tim Rodgers was the head of the Boys and Girls Club at that time and he’s told me a number of times… their audit showed that D&M had donated this amount of money, that amount of money. If a room needed repaired they’d get it done. They’d just call Chomels’ say go fix it, send us the bill. Well, when those guys all belonged to the country club that was the way it was. When they needed something, they’d just tell the members “Pool up” and the money was there. But when [company executives] moved away, they’re living some place else and you’ve got people that are living in Chicago or Detroit or wherever that’s making the rules for this community, it’s just hard to do something. But when I was growing up, those people were all local people. Because they wanted to see their community grow, they lived here and they were part of it… they wanted their names out there for the public to see.”

Similar to Charlie Hughes, the Browns believed that the industry and community took a downturn in Connersville when national corporations began buying local businesses, like Ford buying Philco-Rex and Halliburton buying Dresser Roots. In some cases, like Ford’s purchase of Philco, this was before the “slow decline” of deindustrialization in Connersville; others, such as Halliburton buying out Dresser, occurred in the 1990s. The Browns recalled a feeling of family at Roots, a sense of community and wanting to take care of each other, which went away when Halliburton bought Dresser.

Regardless of the timing, the Connersville community has slowly declined as industry has moved on and moved out. Following their boom in the 1960s and 70s – the peak of industry and prosperity in the community – deindustrialization hit the community hard, but they have proved to be resilient and they continue to struggle to rebuild today.

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