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Quaker Oats Closing Is End of Era

January 19, 2000

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) _ Growing up in St. Joe, Roger Garber didn’t spend a lot of time pondering a career.

When he was 8 years old, he knew he’d work at the Quaker Oats plant, which has employed generations of workers since 1926 in this Missouri River city in the state’s northwest corner.

Garber’s grandfather had worked there since the 1930s; his father, since the late ’40s. Both retired from the plant. Garber, 45, won’t be as lucky.

Chicago-based Quaker Oats announced Jan. 13 that it will close the 73-year-old plant as part of a companywide restructuring. As a result, more than 600 workers will be out of high-paying union jobs that were the most sought after in this solidly blue-collar town.

The skilled workers, most without a college education, enjoyed good benefits, and job security at the city’s sixth-largest employer.

``I always thought Quaker Oats was going to be there,″ Garber said.

``I’ll ride the Titanic till it sinks and grasp onto something else. It’s so much a part of our family. It’s like losing a best friend.″

In this city of 72,000 whose modern economy was built on agribusiness and manufacturing, Quaker Oats jobs were considered ``elite,″ superior to messy jobs in the meatpacking plants that flourished here until the mid-1960s.

``This was the place you wanted to get on,″ said Ron Snyder, a manager with 25 years at the plant. ``It paid well, and they treated you well. Once you got in, you got in for life.″

Jobs were passed from parent to child, from brother to cousin to sister, and provided dual incomes for married couples. By most accounts, people loved their jobs.

Quaker said the St. Joseph plant was hurt by its age and other factors.

In September, Quaker said it would cut as many as 1,200 jobs from its cereal manufacturing plants in the Midwest and East.

For now, Quaker plants in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Danville, Ill.; and Manhattan, Kan., appear to be spared. Less certain is the fate of plants in Shiremanstown, Pa., and Peterborough, Ontario.

In St. Joseph, where the plant produced Cap’n Crunch, King Vitaman, oatmeal and grits, Quaker and the union are negotiating a closing date and severance package. Counselors brought in from Chicago helped workers vent emotions.

All of this comes during National Oatmeal Month.

``We’re keenly aware of how much the community valued Quaker Oats,″ company spokesman Mark Dollins said. ``But the realities of delivering returns might be surprising. We’re about people too. We very much value the people who worked there.″

The rail line to the plant was laid in 1859, local historian and museum director Gary Chilcote said. Workers walked from squat, modest homes in Sugar Town, which sprang up around the plant.

In the late 1880s, St. Joseph newspaperman Chris Rutt concocted in his kitchen what would become Aunt Jemima pancake mix.

Rutt sold the trademark to a St. Joseph miller, who hired a former slave to hawk the mix at the Chicago World’s Fair. Quaker bought the milling plant in 1926.

The sheer size of the St. Joseph plant, a behemoth of red brick and white trim, made it seem indomitable. The grand dame of the city’s manufacturers was a fortress against the city’s economic blows.

Most recently, after the 1993 flood, St. Joseph lost 1,700 jobs and Montfort Pork, Sherwood Medical, and Lee Jeans. But the city rallied and last year created 1,500 new jobs.

Expansions at Sara Lee and other businesses are creating 500 new jobs, which will help the city absorb the Quaker job losses, said Chamber of Commerce director Patt Lilly.

But the wages earned by Quaker workers will be tough to match. Many Quaker Oats workers were earning upwards of $50,000 a year because of union scale, seniority and overtime.

Quaker’s roots run deep in this city, and many locals appealed to the company to stay put.

``The whole town tried to keep it here,″ said Mark Sheehan, editorial page editor of the St. Joseph News-Press. ``But the race was over before we started.″

For his part, Sheehan went on a tongue-in-cheek speaking tour touting King Vitaman.

``Everybody has a memory of Quaker Oats,″ Sheehan said. ``It’s part of the city’s heart. It’s painful to have a big corporation snatch that away.″

At 58 and nearing retirement, William Gentry will be looking for work after 34 years at Quaker Oats. He sent three children to college on his wages.

``Quaker was very good to me,″ he said. ``I had no college education. It paid better than what you could get with a college degree. Far and away, it was one of the best jobs in St. Joe.″

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