Sibley Machine and Foundry
South Bend, IN

The ‘Other’ South Bend Foundry

“I seriously rec’mend you don’ come ‘round here after dark,” he said. I would take the advice.

Ad hoc trails with fresh tracks wound behind The Adult Emporium and the old bulk yard. If it were not for the crane, I never would have known it was there, next to the crusty siding.

Catwalk crating, welded over the yard crane operator cab's windows.
Catwalk crating, welded over the yard crane operator cab’s windows.

Obviously, the old rail bed behind the foundry—the one that worked its way from Indianapolis, IN to Buchannan, MI via Studebaker’s operations—had turned into a different kind of trade route.

Even then, when I saw the old plant, it was obvious it was going to come down. With big industrial hulks like this, all that takes is for the power to be cut—then the scrappers go to work until there’s no more to steal.

Scrapping is illegal, usually carrying a felony theft charge, but it feeds lots of families on the Rust Belt.

When I first walked into the foundry, straight into the furnace hall, I knew there was virtually nothing left. To find out the story, I had to look to the past.

With my boots sinking into inch-deep ash-infused mud, and the smell of more than a century of melting metal burrowing into my pores, I left some of the last tracks the building would ever know.

A screen above the floor apparently shields workers from the disintegrating building.
A screen above the floor apparently shields workers from the disintegrating building.

The South Bend Touch…

An auxiliary crane in the corner of the foundry room.
An auxiliary crane in the corner of the foundry room.

…is one way to describe the effect of this city on small industry. With the explosive growth of Studebaker, all other South Bend industries got a terrific boost. Specifically in the case of Selby Machine’s start, Studebaker needed a lot of equipment repaired.

Three machinists started a shop near the South Bend industrial district in 1874: George O. Ware, John R. Wells, and A. P. Sibley. It was called Wells & Ware, and they specialized in repairing drill presses for Studebaker and lathe parts for South Bend Lathe.

A fire destroyed their shop in 1883, forcing them to buy the property on which the modern foundry was built, probably between 1900 and 1910.

Drill Press Ad (Source- Popular Mechanics, Oct 1947, Vol. 88, No. 4)
Drill Press Ad (Source- Popular Mechanics, Oct 1947, Vol. 88, No. 4)

The move was a good one, leaving them lots of room to expand. Upon the death of Mr. Ware and departure of Mr. Wells, Sibley took over the operation, renaming it the Sibley Machine Tool Company.

Instead of repairing other manufacturer’s power drills, they would make their own.

Sibley sold its top-quality drills to the shops of Studebaker, Oliver Plow, and even the University of Notre Dame. Business was good, until the 1950s…

As a foundry, this plant always had to create castings—the shell which molten metal is poured into to make the rough shape of a part. By the 1950s the castings business was much more lucrative than the drill business, due to an overall drop in manufacturing nationwide after WWII. The factory became a dedicated castings shop.

A stack of flawed casting molds, in the ready position next to where the cupolas sat when the plant closed.
A stack of flawed casting molds, in the ready position next to where the cupolas sat when the plant closed.

Casting Lots—Bad Luck

The 1980s were hard on many industries nationwide, especially manufacturing support companies like Selby. As factories closed, there was less demand for castings. In 1987, a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy was filed, and the owners paid only a fraction of their taxes.

Because of the tax issues, St. Joseph County attempted to auction the property and its buildings twice, first in 1994 and again in 1995, but there were no bidders, so the owners retained the property, which simply accrued more debt. At that time, the foundry was operational, but was being leased from the county at a rate of $10,000 per month.

Too big to be scrapped, to simple to be auctioned. It waited for the demo crews and demo cranes to arrive.
Too big to be scrapped, to simple to be auctioned. It waited for the demo crews and demo cranes to arrive.

In 1998 Sibley was finally sold to a new firm, General Castings, which allowed the management to retain control of the plant and its 130 employees. In 2002, though, that company folded as well, as it shuttered more than half its plants because of foreign competition. The county once again foreclosed on the property, claiming it owed more than $2 million in back taxes.

Another entrepreneur bought Sibley in 2004, temporarily saving the 60 jobs that were still in the plant—40 in the foundry and 20 in the machine shop. As the investment soured, though, the hot potato was passed again.

Not to an investor this time, but instead a real estate group.

With that, the future was clear, and a couple of years later the power was cut to Sibley due to unpaid bills. I do not know what was left inside at that point, but I would guess much of the equipment was disassembled and auctioned to clear past debts.

The foundry and machine shop were demolished in 2012.

Demolition: 2011 vs 2012
Demolition: 2011 vs 2012

References »

  • Allen, K. (2009, Dec 19). I&M set to cut power at AccuCast. South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/418046324?accountid=8111
  • Cast & Machine. (n.d.). Company history. Retrieved from http://www.castandmachine.com/Pages/history.html
  • Hopeful days at sibley. (2004, Jul 01). South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/417294145?accountid=8111
  • Howard, T. (1907). History of st. joseph county, indiana. (Vol. 1, p. 533). Lewis Co. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=QS8VAAAAYAAJ
  • McCall, A. (2003, Jan 02). New year, new name, new hope ; former south bend foundry to reopen under different owners.South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/417135903?accountid=8111
  • -----. (2004, Apr 17). Sibley foundry to close ; huge tax debt hands ownership to county. South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/417242449?accountid=8111
  • New trial sought by convicted killer of sibley security guard. (2003, Nov 01). South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/417213318?accountid=8111
  • Roll, C. (1931). Indiana: 150 years of american development. (Vol. 3).
  • Sulok, N. J. (2004, Apr 18). Foundry owners and county officials blame each other for closing. South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/417269267?accountid=8111
  • Wenstis, J. (2004, Apr 28). Former sibley corp. woes spark political battle ; ross, niezgodski trade jabs. South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/417254253?accountid=8111
  • -----. (2004, Jun 29). Former sibley plant could be sold soon ; officials optimistic that business, jobs will be saved. South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/417219512?accountid=8111
  • -----. (2004, Jul 13). Commissioners: Foundry will be saved ; chicagoan to take over former sibley property. South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/417249923?accountid=8111
  • Soukup, A. (2005, Jun 14). Group buys part of sibley property ; wittenburg LLC estimates it could spend more than $1 million in cleanup. South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libpdb.d.umn.edu:2048/docview/417368356?accountid=8111