When Chevrolet closed its Muncie plant in 2006, Bill Grobey and Jary Dawson were there until the bitter end. And beyond.
Grobey and Dawson, who worked at the Eighth Street plant for decades, have become the unofficial historians of the plant, The Star Press reported. Dawson collected thousands of photographs and documents covering the history of the General Motors transmission plant, in its various names and incarnations, from the years when it employed more than 3,000 people to its final days as home to a few hundred hourly and salaried workers.
Grobey turned the collection into a series of DVDs that have not only been played at recent Chevrolet retiree gatherings but also donated to local archives and historical collections to help preserve the plant's history.
Although the plant has been closed for more than eight years — and its iconic smokestack was knocked down in 2008 — Dawson and Grobey's work as the plant's historians has just begun.
When Grobey and Dawson went to work at Chevrolet 50 years or so ago, they were the latest generation of young Muncie men and women to follow their fathers, mothers, grandparents and neighbors into the automotive industry.
The Chevy plant was still a few years away from reaching its peak employment of more than 3,400 people, while plants like Delco and Warner Gear were still providing steady work and a good wage to thousands more.
Grobey hired on in 1965. He was a toolmaker and spent much of his career in skilled trades at the plant, implementing the seat-of-the-pants innovations, maintenance and repairs that keep plants going.
"I went to Ball State for one year, got married and hired on at Chevy after my freshman year," he said. "I didn't have time for college. It was a good place to make a living. I was making more money than a lot of people that had degrees."
"I hired on in 1963, two months out of high school," Dawson said. "You name it, I've done it. I mopped and swept floors, pulled shavings, ran production machines for seven years and got into skilled trades."
Work on a factory floor doesn't always encourage the long view, but Dawson said that his interest in preserving the history of the plant grew as the workers saw changes around them.
"I kept some of my own records," he said, noting that there were often rumblings about the future of Muncie's manufacturing plants.
"When we were down, BorgWarner would be up, and vice versa," Dawson said. "But I saved a lot of things: Papers, newspapers, fliers."
Dawson and others at the plant might have hired thought they would work there forever, but they were actually compiling a history that already had an end in sight.
"It was a good place to work," Grobey said. "I raised my family, two kids, working there. I think most of us felt like we couldn't work for a more secure plant or corporation in the world. Of course we were wrong. General Motors about folded."
The writing was on the wall, Grobey said, if only they were able to see it.
"The plant was cold and drafty," he said. "It would be 50 degrees inside. And in the summertime, it might have been 100 or 110. We should have seen what was coming. They couldn't even afford to heat it."
In fact, Grobey said, even while workers were being asked to produce ever more precise products, the plant was operating at a loss —or so the workforce was told.
"In the 90s, we were told the plant was spending more on materials and overhead, like heating and lights, than what was coming in.
"If we came in and worked for nothing, they would still lose money," Grobey said, pausing a moment before adding, "That wasn't a pep talk."
Ultimately, Grobey retired in 2000, while Dawson kept working until just before the plant closed in spring 2006. He was two months short of his 43-year mark when Chevrolet ended its Muncie run.
Dawson said the workforce was "thinned out" in the last two years until about 400 worked at the plant. The final product, he said, was the transmission for light duty Chevrolet trucks.
Dawson credited Mike Jones, longtime leadership of the plant's United Auto Workers local, and others with saving many documents from the factory. Dawson also got pictures from workers and their families.
"I have scanned more than 50,000 pictures," he said. "We tried to put a name to everybody's picture."
The pictures were initially loaded onto DVDs but many of the plant's retirees weren't up to clicking through hundreds or thousands of photos, so Grobey edited the photos and arranged many of them, with titles, on DVDs that told the plant's history from the 1920s to the 2006 closing.
Grobey said he had no formal training in putting such presentations together but had some practice editing and downloading family Tennessee vacations onto disc. About the polished and professional look to his Chevrolet history, he said, "I did it chronologically. It just seemed like the logical way to do it."
The "historians" were among a handful of former workers who turned out on a cold morning in January 2008 to see the last vestige of the plant — the smokestack, with the world Chevrolet painted in vertical letters — fall through a controlled explosion. That exclamation point to the plant's history was included in the history Dawson and Grobey compiled.
Those discs were played at retiree gatherings and have been donated to local collectors of historical documents like Minnetrista.
Dawson and Grobey's work isn't done, however.
"I've got another 3,000 to 5,000 pieces to do," Dawson said. "I've got shirts and jackets and hats that I want to photograph and record.
"I don't want that to get away."