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Champion Closes Its Toledo Plant

October 25, 1991

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) _ George Houston walked through the gates at Champion Spark Plug Co. 24 years ago to a job he thought he’d have for life.

He left the gates Friday afternoon for the last time, leaving behind good memories of his friends but some bitterness over the plant’s closing.

″I have no idea what I’m going to do,″ said Houston, 48. ″There’s nothing around here. ... I guess I’m going to go out West.″

After 79 years, Champion closed its Toledo plant in a move that idled 300 workers. The company had announced in April 1990 it would close the plant because of less demand for spark plugs.

To outsiders, it may have seen like just another plant closing in another blue-collar city, hurting from a recession that has idled workers across the nation.

But the ties between Champion and Toledo go back to the turn of the century, and the plant closing seemed to touch a raw nerve.

Champion was founded by brothers Robert and Frank Stranahan in Boston in 1907, but moved to Toledo three years later because of the booming automotive industry in Ohio’s fourth-largest city. The Toledo plant opened in 1912.

By 1914, the company had become the world’s largest spark plug maker, and its bow-tie trademark became one of the world’s most recognizable logos.

At its height, the company employed about 3,500 people in Toledo, including 2,000 in its spark-plug operation and more than 1,000 at its DeVilbiss Co. division.

But four years ago, Champion sold DeVilbiss to a Chicago-based company, which later closed DeVilbiss’ Toledo plant.

In January, 1989, Champion announced it was for sale, and Houston-based Cooper Industries bought it for $707 million.

The closing came on the same day that another company, Kasier Aluminum & Chemical, closed its north Toledo plant. Nearly 100 jobs were lost.

Kaiser said it was moving its Toledo operation to Trentwood, Wash. City officials had been working with Kasier to try to find a buyer for the factory that makes aluminum lids. Those efforts failed.

Over the last few years, the city has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs. The last two years has been especially hard for Toledo, with almost 6,000 manufacturing jobs either eliminated or moved to other U.S. cities with lower labor costs.

Mayor John McHugh said he believes the area’s economy will pick up soon.

″We don’t want to lose one job in the city of Toledo. But this (Champion) closing had been on the drawing board for a while,″ he said.

Outside the Champion factory, the mood was as somber as the weather; workers left the plant in a driving rain. McHugh’s challenger in the Nov. 5 election, Paula Pennypacker, was outside the gate consoling workers.

Some workers were angry as they left, hurrying to their cars. Others said they started planning for the closing several years ago when the company began reducing its Toledo work force.

Inside the factory, workers said they spent part of the day sharing memories with their friends.

″I’m not very happy about it,″ said Bob Baird, who worked at the plant for 23 years. ″But there isn’t much I can do. It’s just a sign of the times.″

″There’s mixed feelings,″ said Dave Ruch, 45, who has worked 24 years at the plant. ″We’re going to go on with our lives. We’re not going to vegetate. But I don’t know if the impact has fully hit yet.″

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