Everyone made the same remark when I said I was touring the former Hostess plant: If you find any Twinkies, they're probably still good.

But the golden, cream-filled sponge cakes are long gone.

In fact, it's peculiar that so many people refer to the old Hostess plant in Davenport as "the Twinkie factory," because Twinkies were never made there.

The plant on River Drive was a distribution center for the full line of Hostess snacks, but production primarily was Wonder Bread, not Twinkies.

Ditto for Ding Dongs. And Ho Ho? No, no.

For our Off Limits tour, I invited along Diane Miller of Bettendorf. She worked in the office for 44 years and knows how things worked and how it looked.

Our tour guide was Dan Dolan (and son, Kevin), the builder and developer who soon will transform the building into 48 riverfront apartments.

Between Miller and the Dolans, we were able to simultaneously peer into the past and peek into the future.

A few naked ovens

Very little proof remains that 620,000 pounds of bread and bun dough was made every week inside the three-story building that's been sitting between Oneida and Carey avenues for 90 years.

The place is dark now. And, in the dark, your mind can trick you into thinking you hear the whisper of history, the hiss of an oven or the thundering roll of a pallet jack against a wooden floor.

With few exceptions, the industrial web of conveyors, tanks, vats and racks have been carted off. The fleet of delivery trucks, declaring their Wonder Bread cargo with red, yellow and blue-painted circles, are long gone from the first-floor parking garage. Office furniture has taken permanent vacation.

The only proof of the building's prolific life of production is a few giant ovens — stripped to their insulation by the demo crew. The 50-foot-long baking ovens surely earned their retirement, too.

A 1982 news clip boasted that six tons of yeast was used every week to produce thousands of loaves of bread, doughnuts and cakes.

"Dough must be really heavy," Dolan said. "You could park vehicles any place in this building. The loads are incredible."

The building is a series of wide-open spaces and confusing hallways. As I turned on the flashlight on my cellphone in one hallway, I spotted a "Hostess" logo painted on a wall at eye level. Of course. But I didn't expect what was on the ground below it: shell casings.

When Dolan said the pistol and rifle rounds were left over from a police department training exercise, I thought he was kidding.

"I invited them in to use the building," he said. "They warned me those rounds really hurt if you get hit by one. I asked to be deputized for the training. They said, 'It really hurts.'"

Judging by the shallow bullet holes that were left in cupboard doors in the break room, no one was kidding.

Turning a corner, natural light shot at us so suddenly, we paused to permit our eyes to adjust.

"This was our boss' office," Miller said, pointing to a smaller room next to the one that contains an entire wall of windows. "This is a great view, but we'd go to the roof to see the floods."

Miller frequently struggled to find her bearings in the nearly 100,000 square feet of waning warehouse.

"I hardly recognize it," she said after turning another corner. "It's like it isn't even the same place."

When Kevin Dolan said he thought it was unusual to find hardwood floors (maple) in a production plant, Miller's recognition returned.

"The floors were always spotless," she said.

It is possible some of the hardwood will be salvaged when workers from Bush Construction get their hands on the building. The project has dragged on for several years, primarily because the tax-credit process through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, is a huge investment in paperwork and waiting.

"Once Bush gets in here, we're looking at a 10-month timetable to be open," Dolan said.

What went on in there

One of Miller's memories surprised me.

At one time, the first floor of the factory was open to the outdoors. Customers could pull their vehicles right into the building, which had a thrift store inside. It sounds dangerous, given how close the building is to the street and the fact River Drive has quite a curve to the east of Hostess.

"The thrift store wasn't in here very long," Miller said. "They eventually closed up the building. We had spectacular upstairs views of the river until they put cubicles in."

Although production ceased in 2005, many employees remained as part of the distribution system until 2010.

"When production left, it felt so empty," Miller said. "For a long time, we could still hear all the carts moving around, and you could hear the shipping sounds. But you couldn't hear the pans clanking anymore."

Miller stuck around until 2012 as part of a small team of human resources workers, doing payroll for the distribution centers and drivers. At one time, part of her job was to pay workers' union dues for 20 different unions.

When it was all over, a few groups of friends vowed to stay in touch, and many have, she said.

"There were a lot of good friends, so it was hard," she said of the closings. "It was even harder when we lost shipping. We would make dinner together, and we had potlucks all the time. We got very close."

She remembers smelling bread on workers who came into her office and said there always was a perk to working at Hostess.

"We got the rejects," she said. "You could eat what you wanted. They'd experiment with the doughnuts. Instead of glaze, they might try cinnamon or something, and we were the guinea pigs."

Miller was so fond of her career at Hostess, she still uses her employee ID number, 1259, in her email address.

"They went in sequence, and a friend of mine is number 856," she said. "She started earlier than me."

More recently, Miller moved into a new house in Bettendorf — built by the Dolans.

Another reminder of what a small world it is came from a story Dolan told on the tour: Two-plus decades ago, he was working for Schebler Heating & Air, and the Hostess plant was having a problem with bread burning in the oven. Any problems or delays on the packaging line would require the conveyors to stop.

He designed a retrofit conveyor that used air cylinders to raise the bread to a reversible storage conveyor, so the oven could be emptied of the product until the conveyor could start again.

He remembers being in the bustling plant and never would have dreamed at the time he would one day own it.

But once he climbed onto the roof and saw the Mississippi River — from the Interstate 74 bridge to the Talbot Memorial Bridge (formerly the Centennial Bridge) — he knew he had found his next big project.

Keeping its look

Part of the deal with using historic tax credits on a project is having to follow the government's rules, regarding historic structures.

For instance, the south-facing facade of Hostess — the one that faces River Drive — once had 69 windows in it.

"It seems like any time we had windows, they bricked them in," Miller said.

And now the bricks must come out. All 69 windows are to be restored, and more glass will round the corner to the west, simulating the factory's original appearance.

The first floor and part of the second will be restored to their original use, which was parking. Entrance from the alley offers a much higher elevation than first-floor access from River Drive.

"One of our biggest competitive edges is that downtown loft parking is kind of a hassle," Dolan said. "Here, we have two levels."

Dolan got a kick out of the reference to the bay of windows that face the river, because they were billed almost 100 years ago as "the latest in solar technology," he said.

Throughout this Off Limits exercise, I've been treated to some truly great river views. The roof of the Davenport Bank Building gave the impression I could see the whole Quad-Cities. The old toll offices in the underbelly of the Interstate 74 bridge made me feel like I was floating above water. And in the bridge house above the Government Bridge swing span, I got the feeling of being in a traffic-control tower, except the river was the runway.

At Hostess, the river appears much closer than it is. You can look directly across at the historic buildings on the Rock Island Arsenal or simply take a panoramic glance at the wide, sparkling expanse that, from the roof, becomes the plant's front yard.

"This is really what got me excited about this project," Dolan said of the view. "I've saved a few things that were part of this place's identity — some pans for hot dog buns and a dome from a dough mixer.

"It didn't make sense to keep any of the bigger pieces. Those ovens will have to be cut into pieces and hauled out through the overhead doors."

One curious piece that compelled our tour group to do some guessing looked like a large bathtub on wheels. Its sides were quite thick and it had the patina of something that spent a large part of its life near heat.

As luck would have it, I looked through some historic photos of the plant in the Quad-City Times archives and found precisely that piece: It was used to catch dough as it tumbled like white lava from the giant mixers.

One portion of the plant is not historic. The eastern-most section was added in the early 1990s. Dolan can do anything he wants with it.

"I'm not a restaurant guy, but I think it would be perfect for a bar and restaurant there," he said. "I could see a brew pub, serving Twinkie the Kid Ale."

They could call it Wonder Inn.

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com

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