"There's a magic about this place."

Armbruster employees reflect on their decades of working for the company

click to enlarge "There's a magic about this place."
PHOTO BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
Morris Grawey, a 48-year Armbruster employee

Several Armbruster Manufacturing Company employees have worked for the 149-year-old firm for approximately one-third of its history. What keeps the employees coming to work at the same place for decades?

"It's been a fun job. I've been to England four times and to Norway," said Jim Wiggins, who has worked for 51 years at Armbruster. "I went to Casablanca and put up tents for the King of Morocco on a contract through the U.S. Embassy. We supplied all the tents for the king's birthday one year and they sent me over there to supervise. We couldn't believe we got that job. We figured they could make tents over there."

Wiggins worked the summers of 1973 and 1974 at Armbruster making $1.50 an hour while he attended Springfield College in Illinois. He was offered a full-time job in 1975 and he has held numerous positions at the factory since then, including rental manager, production manager and a stint as vice president.

Wiggins went to part-time status several years ago when he turned 64 and now cuts tent pieces on the factory floor.

click to enlarge "There's a magic about this place."
PHOTO BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
Jim Wiggins, a 51-year Armbruster employee.
"The biggest change during my time here has been computerization, plus the switch from canvas tents with steel center posts and ropes to much more safe, all-vinyl tents with aluminum poles and ratchets," Wiggins said. "When we moved out to our current location in 1978 we bought all of these heat sealers to make vinyl tents."

Wiggins remembered busy times at Armbruster, including one season when he and his fellow employees had to set up tents at the Virginia, Texas, Illinois and Du Quoin State Fairs, the Miami and Michigan Air Shows, and the Big Sky Fair in Montana. Wiggins once had to erect tents over the opening of a Kentucky coal mine to keep mud and rain from entering the mine shaft.

Wiggins was shocked when he learned that Armbruster would be closing.

"We were always busy, we just got done shipping tents for the new Frankenstein movie," Wiggins said. "At my age I was getting ready to retire anyway, but these younger people who have been here 15 years or so, it was going to be their future just like it was mine."

Morris Grawey has been with Armbruster for 48 years and the news of the firm's closing didn't surprise him.

"It's a lost art. I knew it was coming because we don't have the people coming in to learn the trade," Grawey said. "Being a small company, I couldn't see it lasting much longer because nobody was coming in to take our places."

Grawey has performed "nearly all" of the jobs at Armbruster during his employment there and has enjoyed traveling to places like England and the Bahamas to put up tents.

"I went to Mississippi to build a containment area for a milling machine that put the holes in commercial space rockets. The tent was about 50 feet high and 100 feet long," Grawey said. "I knew where every post and electrical outlet and every other feature was located. It was quite an experience to see where they built those rockets and to meet the people that were doing the work."

Bill Jett is a 24-year Armbruster employee who has traveled to Florida, Kansas City, Connecticut, North Carolina and the 2017 Super Bowl to put up the company's products.

"I have done just about all of the jobs here," Jett said. "I started sewing, then I moved to heat sealing, then the cutting table, then shipping and receiving, cutting pipe and the tent installation crew."

Jett was "shocked, I wasn't expecting it," when he heard about the Armbruster closure, but he understands the primary reason behind the decision.

click to enlarge "There's a magic about this place."
PHOTO BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
Bill Jett, a 24-year Armbruster employee.
"People don't want to work anymore, and that's why they had me doing so many jobs here," Jett said. "I was born to work. This job meant a lot, I enjoyed working here."

Paul Johnson worked at Armbruster for a few years, went to another company, and has been back with Armbruster for eight years.

"There's a magic about this place," Johnson said. "It's kind of a little jewel that a lot of people don't seem to know about that's tucked away here in Springfield."

Like all the other employees, Johnson cherishes the memories of places he's seen while installing Armbruster products.

click to enlarge "There's a magic about this place."
PHOTO BY DAVID BLANCHETTE.
Paul Johnson worked for Armbruster for several years, went to work for another company, and returned to Armbruster eight years ago.

"We had the pleasure of going to the Bahamas to put up a tent. It was an honor to be able to go and do that," Johnson said. "We ship products all over the world and as a manufacturing guy, that's what it's all about."

Seventeen-year employee Allen Schroll takes care of tent, awning and structure installations for Armbruster, including most of the awnings in downtown Springfield. He has also seen the world as part of his job, including a trip to Newfoundland, Canada, to set up a tension tent for a farmers market.

click to enlarge "There's a magic about this place."
PHOTO BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
Allen Schroll, a 17-year Armbruster employee.
"We set up for the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston," Schroll said. "We went back down there when the Super Bowl was going on, but we had to stay a half hour out of town because the hotels were so expensive."

News of the closing "tore me up. I anticipated working here for a long time," Schroll said. "Everybody here is pretty much like family. That's the biggest thing here, the people."

Mark Green, the company accountant, was just 23 years old when he started working for Armbruster. He has been there for 41 years.

"Last year (owner) Hellar Armbruster turned away a lot of business simply because we did not have the manpower to produce the product or to rent the product out," Green said. "I feel sad, but as time went on and I reflected on it, I saw the way things were going and it was the right decision."

Green said the challenge of finding, and keeping, a labor force is ultimately what led to the decision to close.

"We would give you the skill set, we just wanted a willingness to work. It's hard recruiting the people to work," Green said. "Once you recruit them you must compete with the state of Illinois or places like the Rivian factory in Bloomington because they were paying $25 per hour plus full benefits. We can't compete with that."

Green said that Armbruster is going out of business with its pride and heritage intact, and he feels grateful for the chance to work there for more than four decades.

"I always wanted to go out on top. I didn't want to go out in disgrace where we were bankrupt and couldn't meet payroll. The last three or four years have been very strong and I'm proud of that," Green said. "Look at what we sell, how often do you go out and buy a tent? I'm really proud of what we have done. We've held our head up high, we've survived and that's amazing."

David Blanchette

David Blanchette has been involved in journalism since 1979, first as an award-winning broadcaster, then a state government spokesperson, and now as a freelance writer and photographer. He was involved in the development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and more recently the Jacksonville...

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