Closing Bass Factory Puts an End to an Era

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Charles Lindbergh was wearing Bass shoes from Maine when he flew across the Atlantic, and Hollywood legend James Dean made Bass footwear a fashion statement with his rolled-up jeans and white T-shirt.

For 122 years, G.H. Bass & Co. has boasted of New England quality and durability while evoking images of Maine's rugged wilderness. That history has come to an end, leaving hundreds of people to pick up the pieces and recall a time when shoemaking was king in Maine.

Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., Bass' parent company, is shutting its plant here--eliminating 350 jobs--and moving the manufacturing operations to other factories in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, far from the Yankees who made the shoes popular. The Wilton factory was Bass' only plant in the continental United States.

"It's a matter of corporate greed," said Gary Paling, who has owned a convenience store near the Bass factory for 19 years. "People are pretty upset. The people up here have done a good job. They make good shoes."

Closing the mill and consolidating some its warehouses will save New York-based Phillips-Van Heusen, which also owns Izod and Gant, about $40 million over the next three years, Chairman Bruce Klatsky said.

George Henry Bass established his shoe company in Wilton in 1876. In 1936, the company introduced its famous Weejuns loafers, which have been staples in the wardrobes of preppy Americans ever since.

Wilton, with a population of about 4,000, is a town struggling to maintain its identity as a blue-collar manufacturing center. Bass was the largest taxpayer in this town, about 60 miles north of Portland.

At its height, Maine made more shoes than any other state, and the industry employed about 30,000 people. But steady job loss has left only about 4,000 people making shoes today, said Charles Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine.

Colgan said that, with lowered tariffs, a strong dollar and weak foreign currencies, "the result was that foreign shoes got much cheaper."

"We're at the end of an exodus of companies," said Bass spokesman Gus Weill. "This is always a painful thing to have to do."

At one time Wilton was also known for its Forster toothpick factory, but a company decision several years ago to consolidate Maine operations in another town cost Wilton about 100 jobs.

Wilton town manager Richard Davis said residents' reaction to the Bass plant's closing was, "initially shock, then a combination of hope and despair."

Davis said he knew of several families where both husband and wife worked the factory, and both expected to be laid off before the plant closes this summer.

"It's going to be tough. This was most people's life, and there aren't a lot of jobs in the area," said Debbie French, who has worked at the factory since graduating from high school 33 years ago. "We've all been a family."

Rob Stevens, shopping at Paling's Market, said he knew of a Bass worker who was "going to go home and immediately put his house on the market."

Weill said the company will work with local and state officials to find a new tenant for the building.

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