It is like walking through acres of a haunted cemetery, with the heavy odor of oil and creosote. The tombstones are the upright factory pillars, some a century old. These are the last days, a funeral for Big Red, the Farmall Works tractor plant in Rock Island.
Wrecking crews last week began slashing rooftops and walls, scattering lockers that may still carry Cubs stickers and forgotten lunch boxes. The wreckers, razing a million square feet of International Harvester’s Farmall heart, likely are unaware that this once was the pride of Rock Island. Some claim that once, the equivalent of a fourth of the city’s population worked at Farmall, or in businesses that served the plant in its peak years of the 1950s.
Big Red’s 49-acre Rock Island home is dead, about to be leveled and buried in the rubble. It is one of the dominoes that fell when much of the farm equipment industry collapsed in the Quad-Cities, throwing more than 20,000 people out of work in the 1980s.
I walk in silence where 5,000 people labored when Farmall roared and hummed through two and three eight-hour shifts each workday. Even the pigeons now roosting on pine beams are indifferent. Always, it will be Farmall — never IHC — where wooden floor tiles still reek of creosote, a standard coating, and oil puddles thinly from years of accumulation. Nothing else is left; the machinery that turned out millions of tractors is long gone.
It will take a year to 14 months to raze the heart of the plant.
I take one last walk through Farmall. It is eerily quiet, save for the thump of a headache ball bashing down a faded brick wall. It is a dim, doomed avenue of a prosperous era when 350 dazzling red Farmall tractors a day slowly moved down the production line. It was so big that the city allowed sections of the plant to be built over streets, curbs and gutters, still visible.
Now, the overhead paint peels — dripping like stalactites in a dark cave — hanging from beams that date back a century to when part of the plant was built as Moline Plow Co. Walls are scarred, like scabs. It breaks my heart. I remember it as a crashing, banging, slamming roaring miracle of one of the world’s biggest tractor plants.
“Look out,” they’d yell when a locomotive hooted a warning to get out of the way. Railroad tracks ran through the heart of Farmall plant, and the CB&Q hauled tractors off the assembly line on flatcars.
I walk the plant slowly, with John Cloninger of Rock Island, who began 37 years ago as a mail boy and left as plant engineer after the gates were closed on June 26, 1986. He was last man out of Farmall, trying now to smile as he calls himself “an industrial undertaker.” But smiles don’t work when Cloninger talks about Farmall: “I’m at last past the stage of crying about this old place.”
Once, Farmall was so vital to the industry that on Feb. 1, 1974, it turned out its 5-millionth tractor. There was celebration; employees gathered around to cheer beneath the crane trackways.
Today, those crane trackways are crumbly with rust. Water drips. It is a dead plant.
Once, the place covered 1,900,000 square feet, wiggling around 49 narrow acres. Since closing, vast sections like the foundry and sand shed have been wrecked and nibbled away. The sand shed’s concrete supports still stand, jutting high and looking like Stonehenge.
Now, it is the heart of the plant that is being leveled. A much smaller west section of the old Farmall, though, has been remodeled and updated and now is a unit of Moline’s McLaughlin Body Co., says Bill Carius, who is facility manager for the current owners, L.R.C. Developers.
There are thousands of Quad-Citizens over the nation who worked at Farmall. Spike O’Dell, the ex-KSTT disc jockey who is morning drive-time person at WGN Radio in Chicago, remembers working there as a security guard.
“I climbed Farmall water tower’s iron stairs on Saturday afternoons to watch Augustana College football games across the street,” he says. “I was 21; my first real job was a guard walking the miles and miles of the Farmall plant. On my shelf, I still have my Barney Fife cap that says International.”
Sally Heffernan, special projects manager for the City of Rock Island, remembers taking classes at Augie and looking down on the immense Farmall site. “When that million square feet disappears, it’s going to look so different. It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of river view they’ll have from Old Main (one of the original buildings on ccampus).”
Farmall tractor aficionados are a cult-like group who see only red. Ten of them from throughout Illinois hauled their tractors to Rock Island recently to pay homage to the demise of the plant. They were allowed inside the hulk where Max Armstrong, agribusiness reporter for WGN, filmed a documentary about the plant. His pals posed alongside two blocks of tractor murals painted by Mary Ramsey in the 1960s.
“We were very melancholy to visit the plant that last time,” says Robert Grant of Roseville, Ill., who owns two Farmalls and is active in a group of Farmall tractor collectors.
Owners of Farmall tractors look upon them as spiritual things. Roger Peet, a Davenport jeweler, once worked in the Farmall foundry and says, “I hope the Quad-Cities realizes that the Farmall plant put roofs over heads, fed families and sent thousands and thousands of kids to college.”
Peet owns two Farmall tractors, a 1949-H and a 1973-1066. He is adamant: “Farmall in Rock Island made the best damned tractors in the world.”
While I stroll the plant, which International Harvester took over in 1924, I listen to Tony Penca of Carbon Cliff , Ill., who spent a lifetime with IH.
“I don’t drive by the Farmall — after being with International for 45 years — without wanting to cry,” he says. “There was a camaraderie, and pride there. I don’t think friendships like that existed in any plant, anywhere. And I mean anywhere!”
Spike O’Dell agrees. “Some of the best friends I ever had in the world, I met at Farmall. We’re still in contact.”
Bill Wundram can be contacted at (563) 383-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.