The Factory Whistle
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— An early memory as a child born in 1941 in Vermilion, Ohio, was hearing the “fackie fickle.” That’s what I called the whistle that blew every morning as Father left for work at the F.W. Wakefield Brass Company, an industrial lighting manufacturing business started by Grandfather at the start of the last century. Sounding daily at 9 a.m., noon and 5 p.m., I knew the whistle meant jobs for my family and many other families in town.
Grandfather started the company after he invented a brass fixture that converted gas lamps to accept Thomas Edison’s electric light bulbs. Father had inherited F.W.’s creative brain and in his career as chief company engineer he had 29 patents for the company along with many other inventions.
Father was most proud of his invention of infrared signal lamps the company manufactured for the U.S. Navy in World War II that enabled ships in the Pacific to signal each other without the Japanese reading them. The company earned 5 “E’s” (engineering awards) for its contributions to the war effort. After the war ended, I watched as the high school band played at the now defunct New York Central train station when politicians came to town to present awards.
In those days a family only had one car, so Mother drove Father to work each day and picked him up at 5 p.m. I would run through the factory and throw myself into the arms of my beloved uncle, A.F. Wakefield, president of the company.
I passed skilled workers on my way to his office that manned the machinery and produced the beautiful ceiling lighting fixtures. The cement floor was covered with shards of metal and I had to be careful if I were barefoot, which I often was, because I wanted the soles of my feet to be as tough as the Indians who had originally settled along the Vermilion River. (Mother had her hands full making a lady out of me.)
There was a union at the factory. When a strike closed the plant, I watched Father cross the picket line to go to work. As a child I saw anger between neighbors, division where there had never been division before, and the horror of men trying to stop a man from going to work. I have never forgotten it.
The summer I was 14 years old, I worked as a waitress at the “Dairy Bar.” Father insisted his three daughters work just like everyone else in town, and never think of ourselves with “airs,” as he called it. Working at such an early age taught me what Father wanted me to learn—having a job was good and that no work was ever beneath anyone.
“Mike,” a handsome, rough and tough, blue-eyed Irishman who headed up the factory union, would come in each day for a cup of coffee. I always told Mike exactly what I thought whenever his union had shut down the plant. Over the counter, face to face, my elbows on the counter, Mike and I would have a hot debate whether the union or management was right. He had striking blue eyes.
“How can it be right to stop a man from going to work?” I would say with teen-age passion.
“Because my workers want more money, Miss Mary.”
“But, Mike, how does more money ever come from not working?” and so forth, while I kept Mike’s coffee cup filled to the brim.
Mike would shake his head saying he was glad he had to negotiate with the son and not the granddaughter. He would always leave me a dime tip. I adored Mike.
Eventually, the company was sold to ITT. Father was heartsick. He considered going off on his own but finally decided he was too old for such risk.
But Father would never wear the required ITT pin in his coat lapel and retired early. I knew that Mike and I could never wear such a pin either. Never. This was a time big corporations were buying smaller companies across the nation. The word was diversification.
Many years later, A.F’s widow told me how hard it was for him to meet payroll every week through many years of good and bad times. I was genuinely shocked. I never realized how tough it was to make a profit and survive in the competitive business world. I thought money was easy to come by and that anyone who had a good idea and worked hard would be successful.
The company is now just a memory. Like many other industries that were once bustling, it now stands in my hometown an empty hulk. The factory whistle that once symbolized work for so many years has disappeared forever . . . like pollen in the wind.