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As an industrial field service technician, I traveled to many small rust belt cities that have seen better days. In early February 2004 I traveled to New Castle, Indiana, home to the Basketball Hall of Fame, the largest high school field house in America and to Chrysler's "New Castle Machinery and Forge".

The two historically identifying features of any small city in Indiana are basketball and manufacturing. In New Castle's case it would seem that the residents were so passionate about both that in the fifties they built and christened Chrysler High School, home of the Trojans and the New Castle Field House which boasts a whopping capacity of 9,314 basketball loving Hoosiers. Built after High School opened in 1958, the field house was funded by a community booster group called "Gym Now" which rose $1.1M to build the largest high school auditorium in the entire United States. {1}

The brand spanking new state-of-the-art high school and its accompanying massive field house was in lock-step with the healthy manufacturing growth enjoyed by numerous small Midwestern cities in the post-war era. In New Castle the largest employer was Chrysler, which had operated in New Castle since 1925. In 2000 1,650 people were employed in New Castle Machinery and Forge, still making Chrysler the county's largest employer. {2}

In January 2003 a newly merged Daimler Chrysler group began the transfer of operation and ownership of Chrysler New Castle Machinery and Forge to Metaldyne based in Plymouth, Michigan{3}.

Little more than a year afterwards, I visited the facility and I witnessed painted inside on the walls just how much Chrysler meant to the community. I was surprised and taken in by beautiful murals illustrating and glorifying the history of Chrysler. That is, I beheld maybe 15% of the murals.

Metaldyne was whitewashing them over.

I was struck by what I saw. They were very lifelike and well illustrated. They were beautiful works of art. I saw the Edsel era and the space race. I saw 50's era engineers working and laborers assembling cars. I saw early days of automation, early assembly lines tended by men in garb of the early twentieth century. I saw union pride, the UAW emblem, and the strong arms of laborers. But most of what I was told was a complete historical depiction of the history of Chrysler, painted by local artists, was already gone.

I was very saddened and felt at the time that a great injustice was being done. This mural was New castle history. It was an artistic record of American manufacturing history. I can only hope that some photographic record of the murals resides in an archive somewhere.

Metaldyne had bought the facility and were awarded the contracts to provide some of the parts that had been, up to that point, manufactured in that facility. In those parts of the plant, machining centers were running through their programs and cutting parts. The employees were attending to them, transferring parts from operation to operation. In other parts of the plant the machines were idle, in various states of being disconnected from their electrical services. They were taped off and had lot numbers and forms attached to them. These machines belonged to operations that Daimler Chrysler did not award Metaldyne and were being auctioned off. The jobs for these operations were trimmed from the payrolls.

A maintenance mechanic I talked with sadly told me that one of the murals covered a whole wall of the complex and that smaller murals were in hallways, in the cafeteria and upstairs in the old research and development area. He informed me that New Castle engineers had produced for the war effort during World War Two and then extended to me the permission to take an unguided tour of that area.

It was a beautiful and a sad sight. Just like the idled parts of the factory, the R&D floor looked looted. I saw a few adding machines and the like but most of the engineering tools and things of value were taken already. Lots of old office furniture were taped off and cataloged with forms and lot numbers. All about were desks and file cabinets. Papers were strewen about, mostly inter-office memos and inventoried lists of part numbers. The air was dusty and well bathed in natural light from the large windows that old factories have. The floors were hardwood timbers and in the middle were badly gouged up and splintered where some heavy piece of equipment was dragged away.

Back on the production floor, I became acutely aware of an impending sense that this place's days were numbered. The plant smelled badly like oily and mildewed industrial cutting fluid. I was there to make modifications to an automation system which transferred a suspension yoke arm from assembly station to assembly station. If finality is a sixth sense, this place reeked of it as much as it did of spoiled lubricants.

One of the guys working on an adjacent operation told me he had been working there just a few weeks. He was a non-union guy in this previously UAW shop. Gesturing towards a busier area of the plant he told me, "those guys over there," I took that to mean that 'those guys' indicated the UAW employees, "they were told that they had 30 days to join up with Metaldyne or to get out."

Weeks later I was in another Daimler Chrysler plant which was being built in Kokomo, Indiana to manufacturer Daimler engineered transmission for new Jeep and Dodge SUVs to be released in 2005. There someone pointed out a number UAW workers from New Castle who were being re-trained to work at the new facility. I saw them walking in from the cold blustery wind of the Indiana winter. They looked like refugees. They lost their jobs in New Castle but kept their UAW membership and pensions and didn't have long to wait on the Daimler Chrysler UAW waiting list. Turns out that was a wise move.

Metaldyne was purchased by Japanese firm called Asahi Tec in 2007. Within two years, having "helped eliminating $400 million in debt from its balance sheets", Asahi Tec discontinued its economic support for Metaldyne. {4}

In May 2009 Metaldyne filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has entered into two non-binding letters of intent to sell a majority of its assets. Two days later Metaldyne announced that it would close the New Castle Machinery and Forge within 90 days. This was longer than Metaldyne originally planned but Chrysler wanted them open a bit longer to build up their inventories{5}.

Six years later, in 2010 another auction took place at the former Chrysler Machinery and Forge. The remaining production assets were to be auctioned and removed no later than February 15th 2010. Included in the list of equipment to be auctioned per order of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court were the automation cells that I traveled to work on. {6}

Like so many Midwestern cities, New Castle is changing as it must. The murals are whitewashed over, the factory is empty. And New Castle, it seems, is ready to move on and leave Chrysler in the past. Effective on July 1, 2011, Chrysler High School was simply renamed, New Castle High School. {7}

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{1} http://webserver.nccsc.k12.in.us/chshistory/
{2} http://www.allbusiness.com/north-america/united-states-indiana/494237-1.html
{3} http://www.metaldyne.com/metaldyne/sections/newsroom/documents/Archive/20040102.pdf
{4} http://news.prnewswire.com/ViewContent.aspx?ACCT=109&STORY=/www/story/05-28-2009/0005033835&EDATE=
{5} http://www.indianaeconomicdigest.net/main.asp?SectionID=31&subsectionID=62&articleID=49030
{6} http://www.thebranfordgroup.com/DNN3/Auction/meta0110.aspx
{7} http://www.allaboutauto.us/2007/11/17/Chrysler_Name_Comes_off_the_Building_mdash_at_Indiana_High_School.html

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