On August 25, 140 former employees of the Cooper Energy Services factory in Mount Vernon gathered in the Knox County Historical Society building for their annual potluck. They call themselves the Cooper Old-Timers, a reference to their shared history with the now defunct gas compressor company. Per tradition, they have met every summer since 1999, when Rolls Royce purchased and moved into the factory, to revisit their many years spent working together. In the first few years, these potlucks had an attendance of around 400 former employees accompanied by their families, but because of the age of many of the Old-Timers, the gathering this past August was set to be their last. Many of them traveled from all over the country — some as far as California, Texas, and Oklahoma — to congregate for the final time.
During the reunions, the hierarchical structure that existed when the men worked at the factory would disappear. Jim Gibson, director of the Knox County Historical Society who helped organize the last gathering, emphasized how unusual it was to see how “retired presidents, vice presidents, legal teams, financial officers chatted with the guys who tightened bolts on the assembly line.” A common topic discussed throughout the evening was the business’s recent economic downfall. Gibson said he heard the same sentiment expressed by multiple Old-Timers: “Isn’t it a shame that the company has gone to hell since we’re not there anymore?” Now, after almost 200 years, the factory on Sandusky Street is closing its doors.
Last February, Siemens Energy Corporation, an energy component manufacturer and one of the largest employers in Knox County, announced it would cease all operations at its Mount Vernon facility by September 2018. “The difficult decision was made as part of a necessary step to enable Siemens to meet the competitive pressures in the global energy market,” a spokesperson for the company said. It has since pushed the date back to Fall 2019, but when the facility does close, its last 400 workers, all white-collar engineers, will have to find jobs elsewhere. The announcement followed years of layoffs. In 2014, just months after Siemens purchased the Mount Vernon facility, it let go of a quarter of its 675 employees. A year later, citing “changes in the global energy marketplace,” the company transferred all package assembly and test activities out of the city and laid off its entire blue-collar workforce. “It has really been a blow to us,” Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Mavis said.
The campus that Siemens is leaving has weathered nearly two centuries of industry. A microcosm, perhaps, of Midwestern manufacturing, it saw a burgeoning local company flourish into a beloved employer and a nationally renowned corporation before it eventually left town. Only recently has the historic campus shown signs of rust, and after Siemens leaves, Mount Vernon will lose the last occupant of an institution that was once the center of the city’s life. The origins of the facility go all the way back to a time when Mount Vernon was a fledgling town with just over 500 inhabitants.
Brothers Charles and Elias Cooper founded Cooper in 1833 after they moved to Mount Vernon to start a foundry. To finance their project, they sold one of their three horses for $50, then began producing agrarian machinery such as plows and carding machines. They powered their operation with the remaining two horses until they saved up enough money for a small steam engine.
After supplying the U.S. government with war machinery in the Mexican-American War, Cooper shifted its attention to producing steam-operated farm engines. In the 1870s, the company created a powerful self-steering mechanism that eliminated the need for horses to pull and steer the engines, putting them at the forefront of the industry. Within a decade, Cooper had earned its reputation as a business that produced dependable and good-quality machines, with more than 1,000 of its tractors in use throughout the county. The company was well on its way to becoming the backbone of Mount Vernon life, and their Sandusky Street facility, far from being the nearly-empty shell that it is today, was thrumming with activity.
The turn of the century brought new developments in the natural gas industry that led the company toward increased emphasis on producing natural gas internal combustion engines. In 1920, B.B. Williams was elected president of Cooper, and he led the company through a successful new chapter. Gibson described Williams as a “Jimmy Stewart kind of guy,” someone known to greet his employees’ wives and children by name when passing them on the street. The Mount Vernon that existed during his presidency was a town where everyone knew each other. Its downtown housed a department store and a movie theater frequented by unchaperoned children on Sunday afternoons. “It might sound like an idealized life,” Gibson remarked, “But it really was like that.”
Although there were a few strikes over the years, Cooper under Williams rarely struggled with labor issues. Employees were paid well and relations between white-collar and blue-collar workers were friendly. Work at the factory was passed down generationally, and most people who grew up in Mount Vernon ended up staying. “If your dad and grandad worked at Cooper, you were going to work at Cooper,” Gibson said. The town held several other successful industries, and the economy in Mount Vernon had never been better. Gibson remarked, smiling, “If you didn’t like your boss, you could quit and have another job by 4 p.m. the same day.”
In 1929, the growing Cooper, in need of more production facilities, merged with Bessemer Gas Engine Co. of Grove City, Pennsylvania, to become the Cooper-Bessemer Corporation. The company began churning out powerful new GMV integral gas engine compressors to unprecedented success. Produced in Mount Vernon, they were shipped to and installed in 43 countries. By 1963, Cooper-Bessemer employed 2,400 workers at its Mount Vernon campus. “Everybody in Mount Vernon worked at Cooper once back in the olden days,” Ken McCandless, a 47-year veteran of the factory, said.
Nostalgia is common among Mount Vernon community members, many of whom remember well the days of B.B. Williams and a thriving Cooper. The company was Mount Vernon’s lifeblood, and during its golden years, its international reputation created a name for the small Midwestern town. Cooper and Mount Vernon co-evolved, and their prosperous relationship contributed not only to the job security of residents, but to an immense hometown pride. However, as the company continued to expand in an effort to remain at the forefront of business and technology, it was no longer possible to maintain its identity as a small town corporation. It was the first blow to Mount Vernon in a long line of changes that would sideline the town in the pursuit of outside interests.
In December 1965, Cooper-Bessemer changed its name to Cooper Industries, Inc. to reflect the company’s industrial diversification and exponential earnings growth. Two years later, the company relocated its headquarters and executives from the floor above the First National Bank in downtown Mount Vernon to Houston, Texas, the epicenter of the oil and gas industry. According to Gibson, during this time, the company’s culture transformed: “They tended to hire people with a Harvard Business School degree and not people who graduated from Mount Vernon High School. Little by little it became a big corporation, not a Mount Vernon corporation.”
The company expanded rapidly in the following decades, acquiring several manufacturers including Cameron Iron Works. In 1995, it went public as the Cooper Cameron Corporation. With a global outlook, Cooper traded in the leadership of local employees and their families who knew the company inside-and-out for professionals who knew the gas industry.
Rolls-Royce Energy Systems’ official acquisition of the Sandusky Street campus in 1999 marked the end of Mount Vernon’s darling Cooper name. The British company, a manufacturer of aero-derivative gas turbines and compressor systems, had operated the facility in conjunction with Cooper Energy Systems, a subsidiary of Cooper Cameron, for 20 years. Local officials heralded the new ownership as a prime opportunity for the Mount Vernon economy. Employment remained stable as Rolls-Royce retained nearly all of the facility’s employees and even transferred several engineers from its British facilities. “Everything sounded good,” McCandless remembered, “and, for a while, things continued as they were.”
But that comfort did not last long. Over the course of 13 years, Rolls Royce laid off nearly half of its original 1,200-person workforce. By the time Siemens purchased the Rolls Royce Energy plant in December 2014, only 675 employees remained.
The outline of a stripped Rolls-Royce logo is faint, but still visible, on a sleek silver building that now bears the Siemens name — a testament, perhaps, to the breakneck pace of acquisition, reduction, and corporate pursuit of capital in a town beginning to feel forgotten by these national companies. Mayor Mavis remembers contacting the JC Penney headquarters in Plano, Texas, last spring, after the corporation announced its plans to close its Mount Vernon store in Knox Village Square. He explained to them how important the store was to the city, but they maintained that, since it was underperforming, they had to close it. “Generally, these larger corporations are not really concerned about the impact on the community,” he said.
The Siemens closure has only compounded Mavis’ frustration. News of the closure reached his office just after Mount Vernon passed a 0.5 percent income tax increase that allowed the city to perform long-overdue maintenance on water treatment facilities. The tax hike, a “light at the end of the tunnel” for Mavis, was darkened by speculations that the cost of Siemens’ departure might exceed one million dollars per year. In a city operating on a 13 to 14 million dollar annual general fund budget, one million dollars constitutes a significant hit.
Jeff Harris, President of the Area Development Foundation of Knox County and the County’s resident expert on local economic development, has been looking for an answer to Siemens’s departure. The prospect of finding a replacement of similar scope looks bleak. “We will never again get one single employer with 1,200 people on the payroll in the Mount Vernon area,” he said. “Those types of opportunities don’t really exist anymore.” He envisions that, with luck, the 47-acre campus might eventually house a bevy of smaller, probably local, companies comprised of 30 to 50 employees each. These companies would likely provide mostly lower-wage warehouse jobs at 12 to 13 dollars an hour, with a few opportunities for 20-dollar-an-hour assembly or office work. “It’s the best we can hope for,” Harris said.
Still, Mavis is optimistic. The city is not waiting passively for an opportunity to rise from the ashes of the Sandusky Street campus. He, too, has largely resigned himself to reality, acknowledging that a Siemens equivalent might be outside the realm of possibility. But he is working with Siemens to find a successor. The City of Mount Vernon, Knox County, and the Area Development Foundation have combined forces with the outgoing corporation to hire a national marketer to head the replacement search. It is a win-win scenario: once they find a match, the community gains jobs and tax revenue and Siemens profits by handing over its lease on the property. Although the search has been fruitless so far, Mavis remains hopeful.
In the meantime, former Siemens and Rolls-Royce workers have dispersed in search of work. A fraction have accepted Siemens relocation offers, uprooting themselves and their families to work at the company’s Charlotte or Orlando branches, but most still live locally. Some have taken blue-collar commuter jobs in Columbus or in the industrial parks in New Albany home to Limited Brands, the Fortune 500 parent company of Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works. Few have found manufacturing work in Mount Vernon. Ariel Corporation, the city’s current largest employer, is wary of taking on the formerly unionized Siemens workers. The non-unionized manufacturer of separable gas compressors “would be taking on real risk, from a management perspective, of bringing in pro-union workers,” Harris explained. Many other former employees are still searching for jobs.
It is a time of uncertainty in a city that has long been sure of its future. Throughout its storied history, the Sandusky Street campus has been a cornerstone of Mount Vernon’s prosperity. “Cooper was really a mainstay of our community,” Mavis said. “It was such a large employer and they did a lot of benevolent things in the community.” When Rolls-Royce moved in, he said there was a reduction in communal leadership. “They never embraced the town like the historic Cooper did.” Siemens only continued to distance itself from the community. The closure of the 200-year-old institution marks the end of both a cultural and economic era, but Mavis, who plans to retire at the end of his term, is trying to lead the city forward. “We have to embrace the future,” he said.
Even as times change, many are finding comfort in reconnecting with the past. The memory of Cooper lives on in friendships and photographs. From the 1800s-era steam engines on display in the Knox County Historical Society to the black and white pictures of employees that line its walls, the history of Cooper is well-preserved and celebrated. Gibson explains the company’s legacy in Mount Vernon on the tours he gives elementary school students of the museum. Although this past year may have been the last official reunion of the Cooper’s Old-Timers, McCandless and several of his friends from Cooper who stayed local make sure to see each other every Thursday morning over breakfast at Southside Diner. Their group is small compared to the factory’s retired machinist union members who, along with their wives, crowd the Diner once a month. All together, they total nearly 90 people. Cooper’s former employees are getting older, but for now, they keep their connections with one another, and memories of a thriving Mount Vernon, alive.