Gary Screw and Bolt
Gary, IN

How This Fastener Factory Came to Be Full of Rotting Clothes

Gary is famously derelict… that much trickles into the collective consciousness of many Midwesterners. It has a famous neo-gothic church, Gary Methodist, a collapsing post office, and a creepy abandoned apartment complex, just for starters.

What you are about to see is not a part of the normal tour.

Baggers demonstrating the range of nut sizes the factory produced, 1956. (Source: rootsweb.ancestry.com)
Baggers demonstrating the range of nut sizes the factory produced, 1956. (Source: rootsweb.ancestry.com)

Boom to Bust

1910 Building Announcement Source (Source: Iron Trade v.46)
1910 Building Announcement Source (Source: Iron Trade v.46)

In 1910 the furnaces in Chicago’s South Side were just being lit, including the well-known ACME Steel. These new plants needed workers, and those workers needed places to live. Very close to these mills, just across the Indiana border, was Gary. It was cleaner than the Chicagoan suburbs, and welcomed the new workers into its city—their respectable paychecks included.

That tax base grew a sizable, well-adorned city, and its exploding population brought even more people, prospective workers from the Southern states especially. Companies in the East saw Gary as a place to build a less urban, more industrial, Chicago. One such firm was the Pittsburgh Bolt and Screw Works, which bough a large parcel on Gary’s East Side in 1910. Construction of a new works started that year.

In the summer of 1912, the factory opened its doors to its first 100 workers, one tenth the number it anticipated to employ, once all the equipment was installed.

The factory operated unchallenged in the world market, partly due to its loyal workforce and partly due to its proximity to the Indiana Harbor steel plant that supplied very high-density steel, made from Minnesotan iron ore.

The exterior of the factory is unassuming
The exterior of the factory is unassuming
A 1920 view from inside the nearby Inland Steel nut and bolt shop. (Source: indiamond6.ulib.iupui.edu, by Inland Steel Co)
A 1920 view from inside the nearby Inland Steel nut and bolt shop. (Source: indiamond6.ulib.iupui.edu, by Inland Steel Co)

Like many other factories of its type, during World War II the plant was put into government service. During those years, 1,000 men produced more than 4,000 tons of bolts, nuts, rivets, fasteners, etc. Unlike other plants, however, many of the workers were retained after V-J day. 1950 stats report about 900 workers.

This is especially surprising considering a 1947 fire that broke out in the plant, destroying two of its main buildings. Production was reduced almost by half, but the plant stayed open. More than that, the company invested another $1 million in 1956.

It was the 1980s recession that finally claimed Gary Bolt & Screw, with the added pressures of global competition.

Gary Bolt & Screw closed permanently in 1986.

Gallery: Worker Graffiti on Fire Door

How Gary Got Screwed

The buildings rusted for 16 years on the edge of the city while its people slowly emptied out. Some migrated back into urban Illinois, into cities like Rockford. Others went East, chasing the moving border of the Rust Belt.

Some of the rotting clothes were in boxes, split long ago from moisture. Others were just heaped in piles.
Some of the rotting clothes were in boxes, split long ago from moisture. Others were just heaped in piles.

When its gates were reopened it was 92 years old. A nonprofit bought the factory from a very relieved city around 2002. The organization’s name was the Gary Urban Enterprise Association, or GUEA.

Their plan was to use the factory floor as a storage area for donated clothing, before the cloth would be cut into strips and shipped to countries that needed bulk textiles, like the Dominican Republic and India. By using the abandoned land and hiring locals, they hoped to turn around the neighborhood’s decline.

Above the old machine shop is a packing building and a crate of cardboard label rolls.
Above the old machine shop is a packing building and a crate of cardboard label rolls.

In exchange for forgiving all the back taxes on the Gary Bolt & Screw parcels, GUEA promised to do basic environmental cleanup on the site, and release it back to the city for private sale upon request. As you might have guessed, by the mere fact that I am writing about the story, GUEA reneged on their responsibilities.

The Gary Urban Enterprise Association collapsed under the weight of several rounds of corruption charges in 2006. As a result, much of the management saw hard time.

Some of the rotting clothes were in boxes, split long ago from moisture. Others were just heaped in piles.
Some of the rotting clothes were in boxes, split long ago from moisture. Others were just heaped in piles.

Actually, if my calculations are correct, some of them should be getting out of prison just in time to see this article.

One of the maddening side effects of GUEA’s sudden end is what they left behind in Gary Bolt & Screw: several tons of clothing, spread out in hundreds of rotting piles.

A disgusting symbol of good will putrefied by greed.

I am not sure whether this is a cautionary tale, an exploration of human nature, or something else. For me, the only thing that is clear is the ongoing theme of our decaying industrial heritage sites being used as pawns, rather than as places.