Renovated library focuses on history of Independence

Friday, December 31, 2010 | 4:44 p.m. CST

INDEPENDENCE — Independence workers, once employed, often considered themselves hired for life.

Evidence of that was on display at the renovated North Independence branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library, which reopened recently after a yearlong makeover.

The branch now includes permanent exhibits that showcase the working history of Independence, overshadowed by the community's more familiar legacies of Harry Truman and overland trails. While the exhibits document Independence workplace pride, they also recall a legacy of local employment stability that in some cases has disappeared.

"Armco was just a good place to work," said Keith Ploeger, a retired Armco Steel employee whose steel-toed shoes and safety helmet from his 37 years at the company's former eastern Kansas City facility are on display.

"But those places are few and far between anymore."

Anyone idly surfing on one of the branch's 36 public computers may be shamed back to business by the many images — posted on walls, behind glass and even on the vertical end panels of the library's vertical shelving systems — of Independence area residents with noses to the grindstone.

While some images depict professional jobs, many others document heavy lifting, such as digging foundations and assembling large agricultural combines.

"These are photographs of the people who made the community work," said Steve Potter, Mid-Continent Public Library director.

Besides the photographs are many donated artifacts once used or manufactured at Independence area workplaces. Those include a mold for a Wishbone salad dressing bottle (produced at the Unilever facility in Independence), a round of ammunition from the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, and an operator's headset from a Southwestern Bell office.

Ploeger, who took a buyout from Armco in 1988, considers the renovated branch an appropriate home for his artifacts.

"This stuff was, like my bowling trophies, just gathering dust," he said.

Today his materials help tell a larger story of an earlier generation's concept of job security. Ploeger, 77, hooked on at Armco out of high school by working on a receiving dock. Later he served as a buyer for equipment to keep the plant's trucks and locomotives rolling.

"I wanted to go to work every day, and I think I missed about five days of work sick in 37 years," he said.

Longtime Armco employees could feel like family, which often was true, Ploeger said.

"Armco figured if they had one good employee, they could get another from the same family," Ploeger said. "They would take a brother, sister or daughter."

But Armco eliminated around 75 percent of its work force during the 1980s. One of the artifacts donated by Ploeger was a small engraved piece of the last ingot rolled at the Armco Inc. Kansas City Works Number One Melt Shop and Blooming Mill on May 4, 1988.

Elsewhere, branch visitors will be reminded of the Standard Oil refinery in Sugar Creek, which closed in 1982, and the former Allis-Chalmers farm implement manufacturing facility in Independence, shut down about 10 years ago by officials of Agco Corp.

The Standard Oil logo is painted on one of the walls of the renovated library's new private study rooms. Allis-Chalmers will be represented by the branch's largest donation — a combine, donated by an area farmer. That will not be installed outside the library building until spring, after landscaping work is completed.

For Independence officials such as Mayor Don Reimal, who visited the branch during a recent reception, the exhibits reminded him of the efforts made in recent years to attract new investment to the same neighborhoods where employees of Armco, Allis-Chalmers and Standard Oil once lived.

"When kids got out of high school then, they didn't necessarily have to go to college," said Reimal, a 1959 graduate of Van Horn High School in western Independence.

"Kids then had the opportunity to go to work for Armco or Standard Oil, and they knew they could work at those places until they retired."

But since those employers shut down, new families have not always invested in the same neighborhoods that those employees built, Reimal said.

Ploeger's recollections soon will be available to branch visitors who will be able to call them up through touch-screen technology in an alcove devoted to oral histories of Independence workplaces.

The branch will continue to accept items from donors wishing to share their working history at companies such as Armco and others that may — or may not — still be in business.

"These are the places where all the friends of my parents worked," Potter said.

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