Small town Illinois is good for big business
By Les O’Dell
Vaughn and Bushnell employee Mike Ebbert works with material that will eventually become a hammer. Ebbert has worked at the Bushnell plant since 1984. Photo by Steve Davis.
Manufacturing has been, and continues to be, the biggest slice of Illinois’ economic pie, with annual production of more than $107 billion. Picturing large factories and smokestacks, many of the state’s residents consider manufacturing to be exclusive to urban areas such as Chicago, Rockford, Decatur and Peoria. It’s true that nearly three-quarters of all Illinois manufacturers are located in the Chicago area and many of the others are in communities boasting more than 10,000 people. But in many smaller communities throughout the state, you will find industrial plants of all sizes churning out products proudly made in rural Illinois.
While the companies may employ just a few people or a vast majority of their town’s citizens, the impact these manufacturers have on communities is significant.
“Manufacturing is very important to rural Illinois,” says John Gruidl of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. “It is one of the real economic drivers in many parts of the state. Of course, farming is huge, but in a lot of our communities, manufacturing is just as important.”
Gruidl says not only does manufacturing provide jobs for rural residents, it also brings money into areas from outside the region — money that circulates throughout the community.
“Even if a manufacturer only has six or seven employees, those people take their paychecks to the local bank, they spend money in the local grocery store and they send their children to the local schools. It has a huge impact, representing many more jobs that depend upon those people and that manufacturer” he says.
Jim Nelson, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers Association says that while he estimates only about five or six percent of the state’s manufacturers are located outside of urban settings, those in rural areas benefit in a number of ways.
Shipping doors at Kitchen Cooked Potato Chip’s facility in Farmington are painted just like the bags of chips produced inside. Esquire magazine called the product “the second-best potato chip you’ve never tasted.” Photo by Steve Davis.
“Rural communities provide a good home for companies and manufacturing firms,” he says. “Many times companies locate in these places because owners prefer their own small town environments as a place to live and work. Other benefits include easy access to the marketplace, to transportation and to suppliers.”
For the owners of many rural manufacturers, location is simply a matter of starting a business where they live or continuing business where it started, but often other benefits become apparent as well.
Agricultural electronics maker DICKEY-john was developed by central Illinois farmers, so it was only natural that the company continues production in the area, according to Vice President of Operations Jeff Schertz. About 250 people work in the manufacturer’s plant near Auburn. Schertz says having a rural workforce is a benefit to the company.
“For the work we do, it’s very good to have people who understand our customers. It really helps us having employees who understand and appreciate agriculture,” he says.
Jeff Shaner, owner of J.D. Mullen’s Dressings, a Crawford County maker of salad dressings and cooking sauces, says that his company’s rural address has in no way hampered the growth of his business.
“We’ve got all of the modern conveniences here, just like any other city. I just can’t imagine being any place else,” he says of Palestine, population 1,366.
Mike Wicoff, owner of Sterling Mattress Factory in Herrin says that in some ways a rural location benefits his business’ sales.
Joe Colvin, a craftsman at Sterling Mattress Factory in Herrin stitches a pillow top to a mattress under construction. At last count, the factory had produced more than 20,000 mattresses. Photo by Les O’Dell
“In a small area, people tend to know each other very well and with so much of our business being referrals, we appreciate that word tends to get around faster,” he says. The company of five employees has manufactured and sold more than 20,000 premium mattresses.
Maple baseball bat manufacturer Randy Drone of Ridgway-based Dinger Bats loves conducting business from his location on the edge of the Shawnee National Forest.
“You’d think there would be drawbacks to our location, but there really aren’t any,” he explains. “We have everything we need and it’s less expensive to do business here. Plus, we have the Internet and all of the shipping companies come through town every day. You can be in business any place in the world today.”
Drone’s bats are becoming recognized around the world. They’re popular with a number of minor league teams and are used by several professional players, including All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence of the Houston Astros.
Other rural Illinois products are also gaining national, and even global, attention. Several years ago, in a national taste test of regional potato chip brands, Esquire Magazine called Farmington’s Kitchen Cooked chips the “second-best potato chip you’ve never tasted.” Produced by 90 employees in Farmington and Bushnell, the chips satisfy loyal snackers throughout western and central Illinois.
While there is significant economic effect from rural manufacturers employing even just a handful of people, the impact of large production operations cannot be understated.
“Manufacturers are extremely important,” says Princeton City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh. “They employ hundreds of people in communities like ours and provide good-paying jobs that support our tax base. They are vital to the community.”
Both businesses and communities understand the unique relationship that results from production in a rural area.
“We’re the major employer in Bushnell and we have a great relationship with the city,” explains Ron Miller, Vice-President of Vaughn and Bushnell, a hammer and tool manufacturer that moved to the McDonough county town in 1940. Today the company employs almost 300 people. “We have employees whose fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers have all worked in the plant. That’s really something.”
Many companies find both rural locations and rural workers fit their needs.
“We started out in a rural community and we’ve expanded by purchasing existing plants in other rural communities,” says Don Welge of Gilster-Mary Lee, a producer of private-label food products which can be found in practically any grocery store in the nation. The company employs more than 500 people at a facility in Chester, 100 in Momence and nearly 1,000 in Steeleville. Altogether, Gilster-Mary Lee has 13 plants, most in Illinois and Missouri.
“In many cases, real estate and taxes are less expensive and there is much less congestion for shipping,” Welge adds. “Plus we’re able to get higher-quality people at a reasonable wage in these rural communities. The work ethic is outstanding.”
Sally McCallum, purchasing manager for Independence Tubing, a manufacturer of steel structural tubing in Marseilles says that a rural workforce makes for a more cohesive workforce.
“Things are a lot more laid-back and informal. Everybody knows everybody and it’s a good fit,” she says.
Communities often benefit from manufacturers not only economically, but also in terms of civic pride.
“It’s very important for the morale of the communities,” Gruidl of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs explains. “Some of these companies sell their products all over the world, so it’s a way that the community becomes important in the world.”
“I’d think we generate some excitement for the town,” Dinger Bats’ Drone says. “The town is behind us and they’re excited about our success. This is our home.”
The same can be said for hundreds of manufacturers making barbecue grills to water faucets and everything in between: rural Illinois is home.