Third shift on the kiln gang

by Mike Hobbs

This is the first summer in many years that men haven't sweated at the old Pottery in Abingdon. The Pottery's foreign owner closed the plant early this year bringing an end to a local institution. Jobs at the plant were the reason that many Italians came to Abingdon decades ago and why Arkansas people came later. The Pottery made Abingdon an American microcosm -- a melting pot of peoples with different cultures and dialects.

Generations of families worked there -- grandfathers, fathers, sons. If you grew up in Abingdon, as I did, you knew many people who worked there. As a boy, I recall seeing men trudge home to the Fourth Ward in the southeast part of town after a hard, hot day at the plant, some still covered with the slip of the casting shop. Some would clean up, eat supper, and go coach baseball or work with Boy Scouts in the evening after their tough day on the job. In their different ways I think all the Pottery men I knew were good men. Pottery wages enabled many of them to buy homes and cars, take vacations, participate in the community, and generally provide a pretty good life for themselves and their families.

I went to work at the Pottery in June, 1967 just after graduating from Abingdon High School. This was a two-fold opportunity for me -- a chance to experience first-hand a place I had heard about all my life and a way to earn money for college in the fall. I was assigned to work swing shift on the kiln gang which consisted of two first shifts, one second shift, and two third shifts. Third shift worked Friday and Saturday nights midnight to eight. I can still recall my trepidation going into work at midnight on Friday night that first time. Here I was just out of high school. I had never stayed up all night, let alone worked all night. I entered the plant through the west entrance and reluctantly proceeded to the time clock to punch in. Some of the old heads I saw at the time clock looked fresh and ready to go. Some looked as morose as I felt. I wondered to myself why anybody in their right mind would be going to work at midnight on a Friday night at this god-forsaken place.

As I walked toward the kilns, it got hotter and hotter and hotter. I thought that I was being swallowed up into the jaws of Dante's Inferno. It was a horrible feeling. For two cents I would have quit on the spot, turned around, gone home, and climbed into bed where I belonged.

I was a placer. My job was to place clay toilet bowls, tanks, and lavatories on one double-decked car and one single-decked car every hour. A double-decked car took eight bowls and eight tanks on the top and six tanks and six lavatories on the bottom, twenty-eight pieces in all. The single decked cars took eight bowls and eight tanks. There were four tracks, like narrow-gauge railroad tracks, by the kilns. Two tracks were for double-decked cars; two were for single-decked. There were two placers.

Since I had forgotten many of the details of the job since my Pottery days in the late '60s, I talked to Jim Bent of Abingdon, who put in over thirty-eight years at the plant, the last thirty-three third shift on the kiln gang. Talking to him was like taking a trip back into time. Jim reminded me that the foreman would leave us instructions about what color ware to place. Colors I remember were blue, yellow, sandstone, and white. We would go to a nearby storage area, get the four-wheeled racks loaded with the appropriate-colored ware, and push them to our cars. Before you loaded the cars, you had to spread a white silica sand-like substance on the decks. Then you put down thin corrugated paper pieces that you would set the ware on to cushion it as the car was moved down the line.

You had to be careful when you placed the clay ware on the cars. If you set the piece down too hard, you would crack it or break off a chunk. Believe me, with the heat and the weight of the pieces, especially the bowls, you didn't want to damage them and have to replace them. That was extra work, and the company frowned on broken ware. You also didn't want to scrape the paint of the pieces on the posts of the double-decked cars. They could be patched and re-sprayed, but that was extra work for somebody. You didn't want to touch any part of the cars. They were still hot from being in the kilns. Some of us worked without our shirts on. I went home many times with burns on my arms and chest.

As if the heat weren't bad enough, placing the ware was excruciating until you got used to it. Many of the pieces were heavy, and you had to be gentle with them when you set them on the car. I remember my first week or two on the job trying to place a bowl on the shoulder-height top deck. My boney arms would start shaking, and I'd set it down too hard and break it. After a few seconds of cussing and wondering why in the world I was in this hell-hole, I'd remove it and place another. It was like a lot of jobs. Once you got used to it and built yourself up a little bit, it was tolerable.

When you finished placing your cars, you would push them down the tracks to the fireman who would pull one car at a time onto his transfer dolly, move it to a kiln, and shove it in. Jim Bent reminded me that you could usually push the cars to the fireman by hand, but there was a gas powered three-wheeled vehicle you could use to push them. He asked me if I remembered the time when I first hired on that I started to refuel the three-wheeler by putting gasoline in the radiator. Fortunately, someone yelled at me before I made the mistake. I didn't remember that, but I don't doubt it. That must have been one of those life experiences that you try to forget but are reminded of by your friends.

The four kilns were about a hundred yards long. Their peak temperature was 2285 degrees. Jim said he took a thermometer in to work one summer night to check the temperature in our work area. It was 130 degrees. I think the kilns held thirty-six cars, and the fireman would shove another car of clay ware into a kiln about every hour, so the ware was in them about thirty-six hours. On the other end two drawers would take the cars out of the kilns, remove the fired pottery and put it on pallets awaiting processing, inspection, crating, and shipping. The drawers would push the unloaded cars halfway up the tracks for the placers, and the process would begin again.

The money was good on the kiln gang. I made $3.90 an hour back then. That was better than what many factory jobs in Galesburg paid at the time. It provided me spending money at college. My folks paid for my board and room. Would you believe that room and board at WIU in Macomb was $258 per quarter in 1967?

My best memories of third shift on the kiln gang were of the guys I worked with. My hunting and fishing buddy and friend Terry Hansen was my placer partner for part of my three summers on the gang. Harold Still was the third shift fireman, and Goose Tabb and Frannie Lambasio were the drawers. Depending on people's days off, I also worked with Dick Sherman, Peanut Taylor, and Eddie Bellar.

Every hour, if our work went OK, we would have ten minutes or so to go to an open dock on the east end of the shop to cool off. It was peaceful there, a welcome respite from the kilns. I can remember sitting there gazing at the stars and listening to a cool breeze rustle the corn leaves in the field across the railroad tracks. I can also remember thinking how lucky people were to be home in their beds.

With several of the guys sitting at the dock the stories would start. Some of them were pretty tall tales. There was good-natured bickering back and forth. One guy had a real good dry sense of humor. A couple of the guys were like a comedy team with one being pretty testy and quick to fly off the handle and the other real calm and slow-moving who was an expert at getting under the first one's skin. One time at the end of the shift when we were standing around the coffee machine waiting to go home, one of the guys gave another, who was a notorious tightwad, a dime for a cup of coffee. The tightwad took the dime, put it in his pocket, and said, ''Thanks, I'll keep it.'' The other guy blew up. I thought he was going to strangle him. That made for a good story for a long time.

I'm glad I got the opportunity to work third shift on the kiln gang. Doing my job despite the heat and strain, which seemed like impossible obstacles at first, gave me some self-confidence. Sharing the hardships of the job with my coworkers gave me a sense of belonging to a group of friends whose memories I still hold dear. Working at the Pottery allowed me to experience an institution that strongly influenced my hometown. It saddens me to think that future generations of boys just out of high school won't get that opportunity.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online August 1, 2001

Back to The Zephyr