Galesburg Maytag facility being partially demolished


by Karen S. Lynch

the Zephyr, Galesburg


The jaws of a yellow monster grasped huge sheets of steel with its rusted teeth, giving the machine an animal-like quality like something out of an old Godzilla movie. It did not take long to reduce the seventies-era building to dozens of truckloads of rubble, hauled in assembly-line fashion to the landfill. There was a certain irony watching the “assembly line” of salvage trucks haul away mountains of twisted steel and other debris. Several light fixtures still hung from an exposed ceiling in the gaping hole where two bulldozers continued to claw away at what little remained of the brick and steel structure.

The demolished building once housed a small part of the sprawling assembly facility of Maytag Galesburg Refrigeration Products where polystyrene plastic liners were formed in vacuum molds. The plastic was heated until it melted and air was injected, forming a giant bubble. As air was vacuumed out, the plastic was pressed into the mold from an upper mold, also called a die, forming the shape of the white liners you see inside your refrigerator and its doors. The “collar” or salvage that sat on the edge of the dies was trimmed away and the liners placed on an overhead conveyor for delivery to the manufacturing lines. Additional truck loading access will be available where the demolished building stood just a few days ago.

Monday morning began the process of what appears from the marketing plans to be several future demolitions, intended to refurbish the aging structures for future leasing options by the new owners, Tower Investments, LLC and Industrial Realty Group. Giant banners hang from a couple of buildings showing a phone number to call for the “available space” ready to lease.

For thousands of former employees and community members it will be hard to shake the Maytag name, despite the turbulent waters they left in their wake after closing the plant and moving much of the production to Reynosa, Mexico. A similar transition in name acceptance occurred when Admiral, Midwest Manufacturing, Rockwell, and Magic Chef all had their names painted on the six-decades-old assembly plant during their ownership. The Maytag name seems harder to remove as the shadow around the removed lettering is “branded” into the buildings by the hot sun.

Galesburg Manufacturing Center is the new name of the former 1.3 million acres of a catacomb of buildings sitting in all directions on 43.83 acres of ground on the southwest side of Galesburg. The new site plans show a facility of several buildings for lease with a slimmed-down 980,894 square feet. The website plans, outlined in various colors contain the building number and show the square footage of each building available. Very apparent between the plans and the photographic aerial view are the void spaces of older buildings that appear marked for demolition. The two-story office building built in 1988 sits isolated on the marketing plans even though the building currently is connected to buildings to the north and west.

North of the new office buildings are the original offices that housed the engineering departments, payroll, data processing, a computer training lab, and timekeeping. Multi-million dollar remodeling was completed on those buildings after construction of the new office building. The west side of that complex of buildings also contained the drafting department, engineering labs, and model shop.

Outside the office doors, a huge complex of buildings had seen uses from the original degreasing and paint shop to an automatic cabinet forming line named “The Blue Goose” by employees for its blue color and acting a little “goosy” with its habit of breaking down. The machine filled almost the entire length of the far northeast building. The machine was about as long as a football field. Giant rolls of pre-painted steel fed into the mouth of the machine, rolled through the various forming stations, and welded and bent into a finished steel cabinet. The Blue Goose required very few operators, unless there was a problem. Repairs sometimes took more men to fix the machine than to run it.

What was state-of-art technology in machine-manufactured metal forming was replaced with complex machinery that also added the foam insulation on pre-painted steel cabinets. The newest technology was located in the newly constructed building 61, the newest manufacturing building sitting closest to Monmouth Boulevard. That major renovation was necessary to meet stringent government mandates in energy requirements and to cut labor costs as an offset to the expense. The final project “to save union jobs” according to corporate executives was financed with $180 million in tax incentives, a Maytag sales tax, and worker concessions after the company asked the IAM union to re-open their contract one year early in 1994. The same fate followed the office union when their contract expired shortly after the plant conceded to the company demands the company said they needed to save union jobs and compete in a global market.

Also missing in the plan layout is the former production line buildings and employee cafeteria that underwent several remolding projects, one just a couple of years before the closure announcement. The line one assembly, which produced the top-mount model had moved south towards the new building and refurbished building 51 to the North. The line five Side-by-Sides and the former Wide by Side lines was located in building 26 built in 1955 still shows on the new plans.

The new owners are attempting to break up the parcels of multiple buildings into more marketable spaces with buildings in better condition. One Maytag officials’ reasoning for choosing to maintain the operations of their recently acquired Amana plant and shuttering the Galesburg plant was the jumble of buildings added onto year after year. Rather than being demolished and replaced with a larger modern building, previous owners simply added needed space without interrupting production. High labor benefits of an aging labor force, including pensions, insurance, and worker’s composition played as much of a role as low Mexican wages in the term, “not competitively viable” a term so many people wanted explained by Maytag executives.

While the new owners just demolished an old building the original pressroom, built in 1939 still shows as an available space for lease. That building does contain two giant overhead cranes used to lift huge metal coils into the room where gigantic and very noisy presses formed various parts for the refrigerators. At one time, the cabinets and doors were formed using dies. Presses formed tremendous pressure from the very heavy weights above the dies that would free fall onto the steel, forming the shape of the part.

Some presses had as many as four stations and employee operators who passed the first step of a formed part to the next operator to complete the next stamping. Each operator had to have both hands on the release buttons before the machines would operate, but malfunctions occasionally caused serious injuries to fingers and hands, most often while setting up dies or during maintenance of the equipment. With the addition of automated lines producing the steel cabinets and doors, the pressroom produced only small parts by many of the original presses. Dies for parts were hand-pressed as well as automatically machine-fed small parts manufacturing. 

A former warehouse once occupied the building adjacent to the demolished plastics department. That building was built elevated to the level required to load train cars that once pulled inside the large warehouse to be loaded with finished refrigerators. The warehouse operation moved to the west side of Linwood Road when a new warehouse was constructed.

What was named building 51 had been refurbished and the uses changed several times since its construction in 1974. The train access was filled with sand and a concrete floor covered the space once occupied by railroad tracks. The west end held the receiving and parts storage area with the east half containing the newest foam equipment and two production lines. A two-story office once housed Human Resources which moved to the new office building, leaving in place the medical office for the company nurses and operated as a “safe spot” during tornado warnings. A library and training rooms sat on the second floor.

Directly north of the demolished building a modern door manufacturing building, constructed in 1991, held a highly automated process that manufactured and welded refrigerator doors. The process also filled the doors automatically with foam insulation, and then sent them through a powder-coat paint process. An electro-magnetic field generated inside a sealed room while the desired color of powder substance sprayed onto the “charged” metal where it clung until baked into a hard, painted finish.

The new process was much less labor intensive requiring fewer workers. That was progress for any manufacturer looking to increase profits. A worker’s pay often is the fastest way to improve the bottom line when sales are slacking or the product the consumer wants is not available. The cold reality of the cost of a competitive world market exists when foreign workers perform the same assembly operations for pennies on the American dollar.

While Galesburg picks itself up and dusts off our former good paying manufacturing roots, there is still hope that smaller manufacturing or warehouse operations can help fill the job vacuum left by that sucking sound Ross Perot once predicted would occur if the NAFTA agreement should pass.

Galesburg has placed our eggs in the growth of good railroad jobs, a logistics park, future tourism, and hopes for the best at the new Galesburg Manufacturing Center. Most people have accepted the days of large manufacturing will not likely see Galesburg again. I hope we never experience that disappointment again. I do wish the new owners the best in their efforts to bring jobs back to Galesburg.