Whirlpool withdrawal in Fort Smith: Careers shattered 

The Whirlpool plant was the cornerstone of the Fort Smith economy, once employing thousands. In June, that all swirled away.

When the Norge Refrigerator Co. opened its new Fort Smith plant in 1961, the town threw a parade, a bunting-bedecked affair with marching bands and dignitaries waving to the crowd from Detroit-made convertibles. The Norge plant was bought by the Whirlpool Corp. in 1966, and soon expanded, eventually growing to a massive 1.2 million square foot behemoth on the edge of town. Back then, the plant looked like the shape of things to come; the steel and concrete promise of an American industrial age that would never — could never — end. It was a different time. Nobody watching the parade that day had ever heard the word "outsourced," and the only thing most of them had ever seen stamped "China" was the bottom of their grandmother's teapot.

There were no parades when Whirlpool shuttered their Fort Smith factory on June 29, a closure that had been announced in October 2011. At the time the announcement was made, the writing had been on the wall at Whirlpool Fort Smith for a while. The plant, which had employed more than 4,500 workers in the mid-2000s, had hung on during the worst of the recession, but had seen its workforce slashed to just over 850 by the time the doors were closed for good. After the closure, production moved to plants in Ohio, Iowa and Ramos Arizpe, Mexico. Compounding the blow on the local economy were the layoffs at ancillary companies that existed largely to provide material for the vast Whirlpool factory: everything from plastics companies to carton makers. That doesn't include the local businesses built on Whirlpool salaries — hair salons, grocery stores, convenience stores, barber shops, pawn shops, bakeries.

There are reasons for the closure, of course — good ones. Recession. The unrelenting pressures of the marketplace. Sadly, that's a story that's been written again and again all over this country in the past 30 years. But this is not that story.

No amount of puffing the dry dust of numbers is going to give the former workers of Whirlpool Fort Smith back the comfortable, blue-collar, middle-class incomes that paid for college educations, weddings, Christmases, births, illnesses, and funerals for 50 years. You will not read any carefully measured statements from Whirlpool corporate spokesmen about consumer demand and the need to take drastic measures to remain competitive in the global marketplace in this article. If you've been paying attention over the past two decades, you could probably write that quote yourself by now. Besides, this isn't about excuses.

Instead, this aims to be a story about people — Fort Smith workers, many of whom gave a sizable chunk of their lives to a job, only to be left behind in the shuffle. People like Howard Carruth, 62, who worked at Whirlpool as a millwright for 43 years, 83 days, and served as the vice president of the United Steelworkers Union Local 370. Like Kathy Palmer, a former press operator who started at Whirlpool when she was 19 and who worries that at age 57, she's going to have trouble finding a job. Like Melissa Dorr, 49, who worked 26 years and one month at the plant, and who says she can't bring herself to even drive by the old factory: "It makes me sick that I wasted all that time there."

This is about looking some of those workers in the eye, hearing their stories, and questioning how much we're willing to pay as a society to get things just a little cheaper.

The former Whirlpool plant in Fort Smith is something to behold, even with its presses stilled and its loading docks emptied — a building so vast it seems to have a horizon, most of it painted a shade bluer than sky. In the neighborhoods near the plant, the building looms like a wall in the distance. While one might wonder how people in those houses slept all those years with the constant comings and goings of workers and trucks and the bang of industry at a plant that often ran 24 hours a day — a fact attested to by the existence of at least one surviving all-night diner a few blocks from the factory — it's probably for this simple reason: For many of the people who lived in those neighborhoods, a lot of whom probably drew their paycheck from Whirlpool, any racket from their big blue neighbor undoubtedly sounded like prosperity.   


Speaking of...

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

More by David Koon

  • Arkansas Circus Arts: under the big top

    Group helps keep the three-ring arts alive for a new generation.
    • Jul 28, 2016
  • 2016 Best of Arkansas editors' picks

    A few of our favorite things.
    • Jul 28, 2016
  • 1995: When even the thought of 'Madam President' was offensive.

    Following Hillary Clinton's historic selection as the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party last night in Philadelphia, Jezebel.com makes note of just how far we've come: a 1995 story in which discount behemoth Walmart pulled t-shirts from their stores because they featured the words "Someday, a woman will will be PRESIDENT!"
    • Jul 27, 2016
  • More »

People who saved…

Readers also liked…

  • Casting out demons: why Justin Harris got rid of kids he applied pressure to adopt

    Rep. Justin Harris blames DHS for the fallout related to his adoption of three young girls, but sources familiar with the situation contradict his story and paint a troubling picture of the adoption process and the girls' time in the Harris household.
    • Mar 12, 2015
  • A child left unprotected

    State Rep. Justin Harris and his wife adopted a young girl through the state Department of Human Services. How did she, six months later, end up in the care of a man who sexually abused her?
    • Mar 5, 2015
  • Best and worst 2014

    It's our annual roundup of the year's dumbest, weirdest, oddest, strangest and all-around Arkansasiest.
    • Dec 25, 2014

Most Shared

  • New book documents the work of visionary instrument-maker Ed Stilley

    Ed Stilley is one of those special, extraordinary visionaries who are driven to create. In Stilley's case, God was the driver and He told Stilley in 1979 to build acoustic  instruments for children.
  • Best of Arkansas 2016

    Readers elect their favorites.
  • Hillary hit jobs

    It's always been my conviction that if Hillary Clinton could be appointed president, she'd do a bang-up job. Getting elected, however, might prove more difficult.
  • These Hogs won't be thin

    This may be the strongest returning receiving corps that the Razorbacks have fielded in the post-Petrino days.
  • Trump-Putin 2016

    Among the thousand bizarre aspects of the presidential campaign has been the Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin axis.

Latest in Cover Stories

Event Calendar

« »


  1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30

Most Viewed

Most Recent Comments


© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation