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Armco Closes Out 75 Years of Smoke and Jobs : Torrance Loses Its Last Old Factory

Times Staff Writer

The closing of Armco’s National Supply Co. today after nearly 75 years of manufacturing oil drilling equipment and industrial steel products at Western Avenue and Carson Street marks the final chapter of the heavy manufacturing industry in Torrance.

A quieter, cleaner chapter is expected to begin next year when the cavernous corrugated steel buildings are demolished for what is hoped will someday be an industrial park with businesses that emit little or no noise, smoke or fumes.

Still, for approximately 100 employees that remained at the 38-acre plant this week to finish up work, it was a time for sad and sometimes angry feelings about the closing of the pioneering plant that had outlasted the city’s other large factories that boomed in the 1920s and again in the 1940s.

“All the ‘smokestack’ industries are gonna wind up in Korea, Taiwan, Japan or maybe Brazil,” said plant manager Joel Borden. “You put up a little black smoke and people want you to move. There must be some ultimate plan to make the entire United States a bedroom community.”

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City and Chamber of Commerce officials have mixed feelings about the loss of National Supply; it was a good employer, but they hope there will be more jobs--and income to the city--from a new tenant.

‘It’s Sad to See Them Go’

“It’s sad to see them go, but we’ll only be hurting if they abandon the plant and walk away,” said Mayor Jim Armstrong. “We hope someone will come in quickly and develop a new, lively use of the land.”

The land is up for sale and the city hopes it will be bought by an industrial/business park developer.

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Like so many other “smokestack” industries, National Supply fell victim to a slump in the oil industry and a decline in steel making.

In announcing the impending closing last October, Robert E. Harris, chief executive officer of National Supply, said, “We regret having to take these actions . . . but in today’s smaller marketplace we simply found ourselves with too many manufacturing facilities.”

Another National Supply plant in Houston will close May 31.

Before becoming a part of National Supply in 1920, the Torrance plant was owned by Union Tool Co. In September, 1911, when the city was nothing more than an idea in the head of its founder, Pasadena financier Jared Sidney Torrance, Union Tool agreed to buy a 25-acre tract for a new plant in exchange for being allowed to purchase 25% of the stock in Torrance’s Dominguez Land Co.

By the end of 1912, Union Tool had 500 employees and pioneered many of the early advances in rotary oil drilling equipment. In 1920, Union Tool sold the company to National Supply, making National the world’s largest manufacturer of oil well equipment. The following year, when oil was discovered in Torrance, the payroll climbed to 1,100 employees.

Over the years, the plant changed dramatically. In 1917, electric furnace steel-making facilities were added to existing cast-iron equipment. In 1941, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, a 25-ton electric furnace was installed, and later a forge shop with heavy engine lathes was built.

In 1980, a $3-million modernization of the forge shop enabled the plant to manufacture forgings to withstand more pressure and more complex configurations. The following year, the plant reached a postwar high work force of 1,050 and broke production records to meet sales of more than $130 million.

Beginning of the End

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But the next year, the oil industry dropped and the plant’s output had been sharply declining ever since, leading to this week’s shutdown.

“It’s like a guy who has been sick for a while, and then the doctor tells him he has six months to live,” said Borden, speaking with a Texas drawl. “You plan for that day. Well, that day is here for us.”

A long corridor lined with color photographs of men and machines at work during National Supply’s glory days provides a stark contrast to the closing week. Offices that once clanked and clattered with typewriters and computers are empty except for stacked boxes.

In the various buildings that make up more than 700,000 square feet of space, lone figures quietly finish last-minute work on products that will be shipped to the company’s Gainesville, Tex., plant.

In back of the property sit rows of unsold oil rig parts, many rusted, waiting to be loaded on long tractor-trailer trucks.

As it has done for the past 17 years, Ron Kelley’s Incredible Edibles catering truck came rumbling into the plant at 11:30 a.m. Kelley usually stayed for half an hour to feed the men who crowded his truck. This week, it has been perhaps 15 minutes at most. Mostly it is the men settling their accounts with Kelley, who over the years allowed credit.

“It’s sad,” Kelley said after crossing out another name in his little red book of accounts. “I have a lot of friends here that have come and gone. And they are friends, not just customers, after all these years.”

Kelley was interrupted by another worker who wanted to pay his tab.

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“I don’t want any bills lingering behind,” the worker said as he walked away.

“I’ve fed these guys day and night,” Kelley said. “I had one guy tell me, ‘If you feed me one more time, I’ll marry you.’ ”

The truck pulled away and one worker remained to talk about the effect of the closing on his life.

‘Rough’ on Older Workers

“It makes it rough on fellows like me who are 55 and older,” said Peter Valdez of Harbor City. Valdez worked for National Supply for nearly 21 years as a welder. “Last time the plant (temporarily) shut down and we went out looking for jobs, (pro-spective employers) give you the applications to fill out, but you know in your heart they are not going to hire you because of your age.

“They are not supposed to discriminate against you because of your age, but they do.”

Valdez will be getting a company pension of about $700 a month, but he said he will try to find another job.

In another building, five welders with a combined 90 years of service sat around eating sack lunches. They were in a good mood.

“I’m going fishing,” said Paul Gaddis, 61, who has been with the company 37 years. He said he had been planning to work until he turned 63 but will take early retirement.

‘I’ll Miss These Guys’

“Naturally I’ll miss these guys. We’ve seen more of each other than our families, especially when we worked those 12-hour days.”

Michael Machuleta, 36, has been with the company 12 years. He will start work next week as welder for a Gardena firm, taking a slight cut in pay. He is one of the few remaining employees to have found another job.

“I never thought this place would close,” he said. “I thought it would go forever. We’ve had slowdowns before. This is my third time being laid off.

“This place is special. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere, but I’ve learned a lot here about welding. I’ve sharpened my skills as a craftsman.”

There was silence for a moment as the men sat with their heads bowed, pondering the past and the future.

Then one asked personnel manager F. G. Armstrong, who was standing nearby, if he, too, would be out of a job.

“Yup,” said Armstrong, who was wearing a blue business suit and a safety hat.

The man then asked, “Do you want to go fishing with us?”


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