That dark day in August 2009 is still regarded by many in the Quad-Cities as “Black Friday.”
When Seaford Clothing went belly up, most of the 300 workers found out about it the day the doors were locked. No warning, no severance, no way to prepare.
Karen Kinney worked at the Rock Island suit-making plant for 32 years and spent part of her career as president of Workers United Local 617, doing battle over working conditions and wages. Shortly after Seaford closed, she was elected Rock Island County clerk.
On Friday, Kinney went back to the old plant for the first time since it closed. Ruhl & Ruhl Realtor David Levin has taken on the listing for the sale of the plant and offered a tour.
Kinney seemed like the perfect person to narrate.
Seeing it through her eyes, the 103-year-old abandoned building became much more than a cold warehouse with a haunting collection of left-behind furnishings.
“I never thought I’d be back in here again,” she said, her eyes moving from the old sewing machines (their bobbins still threaded) to the presses that gave off so much steam, each had its own overhead vent.
“I’m so thankful, over the years, I never had to work those presses,” she said. “Those could be very dangerous. People would get a hand locked in there, and they’d pull it out, and their skin was actually melting off their hands.
“They wouldn’t scream, because they were in shock.”
She talked about workers getting their fingers pinned to the machines by the pulsing sewing needles.
“The mechanic would have to manually lift the needles on the machines, but he was squeamish about blood,” she said. “He would raise the needle, free the worker and then pass out.”
Despite the dangers, the later decades at Seaford wouldn’t make any short lists for sweatshop horror stories. After all, the place had air conditioning, and the fabric came mostly pre-cut from Chicago, so some of the most dangerous work was done elsewhere.
“Everybody wanted a fan because, even with the A/C, it got incredibly hot in here,” Kinney said. “You weren’t allowed to bring a fan from home, because management didn’t know what kind of shape it was in.”
Signs of workers doing what they could to make their long shifts at a sewing machine or press more comfortable survived the closing. Some of the chairs that still sit at work stations have pillows from home lashed to the chair backs.
Many signs of life have survived the plant’s demise.
Dozens of dress forms, some standing in the filtered light of the oversized windows, give off haunting silhouettes. Pieces of suit-lining material are poked into a wall of cubbyholes, waiting for a worker to come by and pull out a few yards.
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The mechanic’s room is filled with oily tools, and a half-full water bottle still rests on an office desk.
The California-based owners of the warehouse are asking $375,000, and Levin said he expects considerable interest. Its location is attractive, too, with newly renovated housing (Washington Square) and the Quad-City Botanical Center for neighbors, and the Rock Island Arsenal just around the corner.
A buyer surely will appreciate the new flat, rubber roof, new parking lot and new windows, he said.
For Kinney and 300 other Quad-Citians, Seaford Clothing already has served its most important and useful purpose.
“Those windows were replaced over a several-year period, and they were so bad, we thought the wind would blow them in,” she said. “We stuffed rags in the holes.
“We didn’t care. We had jobs. It was piecework, and it was hard. But we had jobs.”
Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or firstname.lastname@example.org.