By Ginger Costen
WEBSTER – There was a time when all three parking lots were full as generations of Cranston Print Works employees produced 90 yards of fabric per minute often seven days a week – 24 hours a day.
"We were a family and the only way you could get a job at CPW was to know someone," said Ron Leboeuf, former Maintenance Supervisor. "I started working there in 1966 after my brother got me the job and I worked for 21 weeks without a day off."
Leboeuf started as an electrician’s helper and eventually became the maintenance supervisor for a department of 35 people. "I liked the electrical part of it the best and enjoyed troubleshooting and fixing things better than installations or the stress of managing people."
Everything was done by hand and the work was physically hard often requiring two ‘jackmen’ to lift a 400 pound roller with mandrel up to their shoulders to put into place for printing. "We did a lot of ‘bull-work’ and only had four fork lifts when I started," he said. "But we made a lot of improvements over the years and when we closed we had over 40 fork lifts."
As with any other company, there were ups and downs. "When I started there was a 21 million-yard backlog in fabric and this was right after all employees had taken a ten percent pay cut to help keep the company open.
"In 1965 we all agreed to take a ten percent cut just to stay in business," added 34-year employee and Color Technologist Mike Costen. "But after Doug Martland took over and turned things around, in 1969 we got everything back plus a little bit more," finished Leboeuf.
"That was in the 1960’s and by the 1970’s we were working 24/7 and there was never a lull in operation," said Lebouef. "In the 80’s we started to slow down a bit and only worked five hours every other Saturday and had Sundays off."
But then in the 1990’s the company experienced their first union strike. "It was scary," said Ron’s wife Carol Leboeuf. "I had to take Ron to work and every day we had to cross the picket line."
Although the strike was resolved, Leboeuf said he feels the strike brought a new attitude to the workplace. "More and more people started saying it wasn’t their job so you just got used to doing things yourself."
Both Leboeuf and Costen stated they felt that "what helped make the company - helped to ultimately close the doors completely in 2011."
"In the beginning, we had 85 percent of the business and sold to the American clothing manufacturers but as production went overseas so did our market," said Lebouef. "So when Wal-Mart started buying fabric for the home consumer, we were able to broaden our markets."
As long as Sam Walton was alive and in charge of his corporate policy by giving priority to American made products, this helped the company survive through the 1990’s. With the passing of Sam Walton came an end of that era and the profit-margin mindset for the Wal-Mart Corporation began.
By the start of the 21st Century, Wal-Mart was purchasing cheaper and lesser quality fabrics directly from overseas markets slowly reducing the volume needed to supply their operations. Then in 2005 when Wal-Mart made the decision to close almost all of their craft/fabric departments, CPW began closing all of their remaining American manufacturing plants. The Webster location, one of the oldest continually producing mills in America, stopped full production in 2009.
"Ironically, it’s the very company that helped us keep going that also helped bring an end to our American production," said Costen. "And to add another twist to this story; last winter Wal-Mart decided they’d made a mistake by closing all the fabric/craft departments and are now restructuring their stores to once again make room for this merchandise."
Many of the new Super Wal-Marts are now offering a full line of CPW fabrics that are made overseas and sent to company warehouses for distribution. The exclusive CPW quilt-quality line of Timeless Treasures and designer fabrics will remain at specialty shops around the world.
In December, as the pre-demolition work started at the former Webster plant it was Mr. Leboeuf’s job to turn off the lights on the past so the future of the East Village Square shopping center could begin.
This past week Mr. Leboeuf and Mr. Costen paused at what will probably always be known as Cranston Corner to watch the 130-foot smoke stack and last structure come down. "It’s hard to envision how it all used to look when now all you have is a nice pile of junk," said Leboeuf.
To be continued…
- Wednesday, 02 May 2012
- Posted in Categories: : News