This is a love story that is not quite perfect. It is between a one-company-town that refused to be a company town; an industrial town that never got dirty.
By the time the area was being built up as an industrial center, a sweet spot between the steel-plated eastern United States, and triangulated with Chicago and Detroit manufacturing districts, Buchanan, Michigan was beginning to wake up.
In 1900 it was a small town where farmers could retire into a more convenient lifestyle, but city organizers wanted a piece of the grimy action.
1904, the Buchanan Development Association lured a Chicago firm to move their operations into town. The company was called George Rich Manufacturing, and was organized in 1902 to build large industrial drills. In exchange for moving to rurality, the company was given free rent for three years in a disused knife factory (Hatch Cutlery) and a sweetheart electric contract—the town had built its own hydroelectric facility years before to attract firms like this.
The machinists loaded their equipment into horse-drawn wagons and train cars, and moved everything from their Chicago location, about where Union Station is today. Many of the employees moved to Buchanan as well, but quickly found a severe lack of accommodations. This would be the sad part of the story, there would never be adequate housing for workers in the next century.
The Hatch Cutlery building was an ill-fated move, as fire ravaged the building in January 1906 and again in January 1907.
After the first blaze, the company decided to build a new factory, not knowing that a second blaze would force them to move their machinery into a plant that had not even had its roof put on yet. When the George Rich Co. moved into the new plant it organized a new brand as well, Celfor Tool, which would make machinist’s tools.
E.B. Clark, one of the executives of Celfor took a trip through the steel mills of Europe in 1909 and got the idea of bringing an electric furnace to Buchanan. This was realized in 1910 when Celfor Tool organized Buchanan Electric Steel and placed Clark as its head. The foundry would be built in the place of the George Rich Company’s baseball diamond and open in 1911.
To help meet war demands, the subsidiaries of Celfor, the George Rich Co. and Buchanan Electric Steel merged into Clark Equipment, with Clark as its head. The foundry produced steel wheels, which were particularly favored by the British military, while the machine shops built military truck axels and special drills to bore shell casings. The population almost doubled in Buchanan during the war, and when hostilities ended many of the defense workers were laid off, but nonetheless stayed in Buchanan.
A shantytown grew along the north side of the plant, forcing the company’s hand in building new housing for its workers.
Clark Equipment organized the Buchanan Land Company in 1918 to help relieve the lack of residential units in the town. This led to the purchase and development of much of what is considered modern-day Buchanan. Farms were converted to additions, but not enough to keep up with demand; by the time World War II erupted, the Federal government had to construct a trailer community.
Near the north end of the plant, where the shantytown used to be, 100 trailers were delivered, in addition to laundry trailers, capable of housing 200 workers. The Feds also wanted to building two 100-men dormitories (one for Blacks, one for whites) in 1945, a proposal that was relented to by Buchanan officials, nervous about constructing permanent Black housing.
The factory performed very efficiently during this war as well. Its most important product was its “trucktractors”, the predecessor of the forklift, though it again produced axels, housings, and transmissions. It was this time that the Buchanan plant hit peak employment, just fewer than 4,000.
Globalization and the Breakup
By the time the war ended, Clark Equipment had 3 other factories besides its Buchanan ‘home’ plant. New transportation technology brought along a world of competition, especially from Japan. Foreign producers, not beholden to labor unions or safety regulations, could reproduce Clark’s best lift trucks for much less.
One by one, its other product lines became unprofitable, and it sold off its subsidiaries as one applies a tourniquet to a gushing wound. When all was said and done, the only profitable parts of Clark were outside of Buchanan; the town was not sure when, but their baby had gone global. And, like every child leaves home, so did Clark.
The Buchanan plant was abandoned in the 1980s, and was demolished in March 2012. Clark is still in business today.