The father of an Augustana College student was lunching at Arthur's Garden Deli in Rock Island, looking at the big framed photo above the beverage counter.
It's a photo of the last tractor produced at the International Harvester Farmall Plant in Rock Island, rolling off the final assembly line 30 years ago this week, a model 5488 with all-wheel drive.
"Huh," the man said. "Who knew?"
As time passes, fewer Quad-Citians know or remember that Rock Island was once home to a thriving factory along the Mississippi River near the Moline border that operated between 1926 and 1985, making Farmall brand red tractors. In 1974, it celebrated the production of the company's 5 millionth tractor.
The plant with 2 million square feet, or about 42 acres, under roof was operated by the International Harvester Co., a farm equipment manufacturer with plants throughout the country, including a combine plant in East Moline.
But for many of those who worked at Farmall, the memories remain strong and speak not only to a job but to a way of life that is gone.
They recall when good-paying factory jobs were relatively easy to get — right out of high school — and often lasted until retirement. "30 and out" was the common phrase.
"You could go from the west end of Rock Island to Hampton and get a job anywhere you wanted to," Jim Sigler, 72, of Moline, said of the time when he got a job at Farmall in 1964.
"John Deere was hiring. Servus Rubber was hiring, Ametek. It was really a busy time here."
The Quad-Cities was referred to as the "farm implement capital of the world." Union membership was strong.
One worker's story
Sigler started at Farmall when he was 21, earning $2.34 an hour. His story is one of many.
His first job was outside in the yard, unloading 250-pound tractor wheel hubs shipped in from the company's Louisville plant and reloading them onto wagons for hauling inside to the Farmall assembly line. He'd roll 15 hubs on a wagon, filling maybe 20 wagons a day. His first day the temperature was about 20 below zero, and he sweated through his parka.
"I was young," he says.
About a year later he switched to driving a forklift inside. He also worked on the labor gang and for about five years he machined parts.
And he was among those watching from the sidelines during the "last tractor" ceremonies on May 14, 1985.
As a special touch, the company had invited Herbert Hall Sr., then 83, who had worked on the first Farmall tractor built in 1926. Joining him was his son, Herbert Jr., then 56, who had worked on the last.
"They were pretty sad," Sigler said of the crowd, which included retirees and those on layoff. "Sad, but proud. We were proud of the product we put out. We had the best product of any farm equipment manufacturer, bar none.
"It was only because of poor management" that the company went out of business, he says.
When the hammer fell
Sigler's view of management was widely shared by employees as well as financial analysts.
In 1979, a former Xerox executive named Archie McCardell was brought in to try to turn things around. He was determined to improve profit margins and drastically cut costs. Many employees also thought he wanted to break the union.
"He was a hated man," Sigler said of McCardell.
The stage was set for a strike, and on Nov. 2, 1979, members of the United Auto Workers walked off the job. Soon after, the bottom fell out of the farm economy and when the strike ended six months later, IH had lost $600 million, according to reports at the time.
As it turned out, 1979 was IH's last profitable year, and the red ink never stopped flowing.
By 1984, rumors were swirling about the company's future. Still, employees and the community at large felt relatively confident about the Farmall Plant.
Mark Schwiebert, former long-time mayor of Rock Island, then serving as an alderman, recalls that just a few years previously, the city had underwritten a bond for the building of a state-of-the-art computerized warehouse for storing and retrieving parts.
"We took that as a pretty good sign that they were here to stay," Schwiebert said.
But on the Monday after Thanksgiving 1984, the hammer fell.
Sigler heard the news over TV: Houston-based Tenneco Inc. would buy most of International Harvester's agricultural-implement division, but not Farmall.
Tenneco also owned the J.I. Case equipment company, which had a tractor plant in Racine, Wis., and it needed to slash excess manufacturing capacity.
At the time, Farmall had 1,650 employees although about 1,200 were on layoff because of a shutdown. At its high point, it employed nearly 3,000.
"It really hit me hard, hit the family hard," says Sigler, whose family included his wife and two school-age daughters.
Schwiebert recalls it as "the first of the major plant closings."
"It was the beginning of a dark era."
Although only about 20 percent of Farmall's workforce were Rock Island residents, Farmall's property taxes and water and sewer fees constituted a significant part of the city's budget.
"In that decade of the 1980s, we lost 50 percent of our equalized assessed valuation," Schwiebert said. "Our tax base dropped like a rock in a well."
Workers moved on
While the last tractor was made in 1985, Farmall remained open until June 1986 in a shutdown phase.
Sigler's last day was Oct. 17, 1985.
He found a job at another Quad-City company but after several layoffs, put his name on a list to transfer to Springfield, Ohio, where Navistar International, formed from the former IH truck division, operated a truck assembly plant.
Sigler bought a mobile home and "commuted back and forth for seven years, 435 miles, as many others did."
In 1994, he had his 30 years in, so retired with full benefits. He continued to work, first as a custodian for the Moline-Coal Valley School District and then as a snow plow operator for Moline Township.
Today he is fully retired and, among other interests, meets Thursday mornings with four or five Farmall friends at the Hy-Vee on Moline's Avenue of the Cities.
Property gets new use
In March 1988, a development deal was brokered in which the city of Rock Island purchased the Farmall plant, then sold it for $1 to LRC Developers, a firm headed by James and Jon Christiansen of Moline.
They renamed it the Quad-City Industrial Center, and through the years they leased space to various businesses, including mainstay McLaughlin Body, although it was never filled to capacity.
In 2004, a Madison, Wis., firm developed a 20-year redevelopment concept for the roughly 80-acre site that included housing, commercial and retail uses. That vision is mostly unrealized, and Joshua Schipp, the newly seated alderman for the area's 6th Ward, said that he always was skeptical of the plan.
"I couldn't get past how close the residential part was to the waste water treatment plant," operated by the city of Moline, he said. "I think we need to continue to look at that site as a place for manufacturing. It is attractive for that."
Since the plant closed, about half the buildings have been demolished.
An exception are those used by McLaughlin and a four-story building at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 44th Street that is mainly vacant.
In 2012-13, Scott Christiansen, of LRC Developers, unsuccessfully pitched the building as a new home for Rock Island County's administrative offices, courthouse, juvenile justice and adult probation functions.
He still thinks it would make good office space.
Two recent positives are the opening in 2014 of a state-of-the-art maintenance and operation center for the Metro transit agency, on land that was partly Farmall's, and the opening this year of a new Hill & Valley bakery location that includes new construction as well as renovated Farmall space.
The former Farmall office building is occupied by various state of Illinois offices, including the Department of Children and Family Services.
Q-C moves on
Farmall was the first of the major factory closings that wrenched the Quad-Cities in the 1980s. Within a five-year period, the area lost 20,000 jobs, Schwiebert said.
And for a long time it was hard to move on from that, Paul Rumler, chief economic development officer for the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, said.
When Quad-Citians were asked to describe their community, they would reach back to the 1980s, referring to the plant closures and job losses. That was part of the Quad-City identity.
But Rumler believes that has changed.
"About 2010, they stopped doing that," Rumler said. "I rarely ever hear somebody starting with the 1980s anymore. We're now creating our own story of who we want to be. We're not walking in the past."
Manufacturing is still an important driver of the Q-C economy, but now it is more diversified, not dependent on one product.
For those who worked at Farmall, though, it's part of what walks with them every day.