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World & Nation

An idle plant, an empty town

This state is scarred with remnants of quests to unearth riches beneath the desert.

Scores of Nevada gold- and silver-mining camps boomed momentarily before the ore petered out and the prospectors scattered. Yet, about 100 miles north of Reno, on the edge of the Black Rock Desert Wilderness, the community of Empire worried little about the ephemeral nature of other mining towns.

Theirs had bustled along since the 1920s — when Empire was named for a brand of plaster — and building materials giant U.S. Gypsum Corp. had run things for more than half a century. When Mike Norman was asked on his application in 2006 why he wanted a job here, he wrote: “To be able to work without fear of company closure; have been told this is a great company.”

Norman, now 57, and his wife, Barbara, 54, moved from Montana so he could work at USG, the sole reason for Empire’s survival. Employees would unearth gypsum at a nearby quarry and truck it to the large yellow plant with rust-colored smokestacks. There, assembly lines churned out plaster and drywall, key components in home construction.

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Workers lived in the shadow of the whirring plant, and USG essentially served as mayor, police chief and landlord. Norman did a little bit of everything for the company, including tending to trash and sewers.

Before long, the Normans had woven themselves into the community, where almost everything sat on company land: the two churches, the nine-hole golf course, the store selling hot dogs and DVDs, the two-bedroom apartment that the couple rented for $125 a month. They planned to stay until Mike Norman retired.

They didn’t foresee the housing crash that would rip apart the American economy — and Empire along with it. There was, after all, still gypsum left to mine.

Empire was founded by Pacific Portland Cement Co. for the gypsum. When Chicago-based USG took over in the late 1940s, it continued the town’s singular focus. There were few other reasons to decamp off State Route 447, which skirts little more than brown peaks and bulbous tufa rocks on its path north of Interstate 80.

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In time, there were enough households, here and in the neighboring blip of Gerlach, to fill a two-page phone directory. (The combined population grew to about 500 by 2000, with the majority in Empire.) Locals survived partly on pluck. The Lions Club, for a time, provided ambulance service in a station wagon.

Anna Marks, now 52, arrived in the 1960s when her father was transferred from a USG operation in California. The family rented a blue-roofed home the company had selected for them.

Marks’ dad was the plant’s quality supervisor. Her mom raised three kids and worked at the general store, which, when it opened, cut down on how often locals had to trek to “town” — meaning two hours to Reno — for groceries. When Marks was in 10th grade, in 1975, the family was uprooted again.

But she so enjoyed her childhood here that she returned as an adult. Then left again. And returned once more, to an apartment not far from the Normans’. While Marks, her husband, Anthony, and their three children missed city conveniences, the cheap rent allowed them to sock away cash.

“I think living here screws you up about money. You’re used to living on so little,” said Marks’ 22-year-old daughter, Monica.

There were other advantages to living in a place where directions involve first names (“Turn right at Anna’s house”). Keeping teenagers in line was a cinch. When one of Marks’ sons was revving his father’s Camaro outside the store, someone immediately ratted him out. The town manager could kick out families who failed to hold their liquor or their tempers.

Marks intended to stay put until she retired from the plant.

A decade ago, hurt by multimillion-dollar asbestos claims, USG filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It emerged in 2006, its sales booming, just before the real estate market began to collapse. “There are just too many homes,” said USG spokesman Robert Williams. “The whole country overbuilt.”

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In 2010, USG announced the permanent closure of five facilities nationwide, including one in South Gate.

It was early December in Empire, and quarry manager Steve Conley had a rotten feeling about the upcoming company meeting. The housing crisis had continued to shred USG’s profitability. Sales had plummeted from $5.8 billion to $2.9 billion in four years.

The recession pummeled Nevada harder than most states. Not much need for drywall when two-thirds of homeowners were underwater on their mortgages, and entire neighborhoods were deserted. Operations here had recently been trimmed to a few days a week.

Conley, 58, grew up in Empire and married his wife, Judy, at local St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church. They live in Gerlach, across from his parents, in a home with a fireplace mantel he carved from the leftovers of a wooden tram that ferried gypsum. He’d worked for USG for 40 years.

Something bad was brewing, co-workers told him. The plant was decades older than most USG facilities and couldn’t spit out drywall as quickly. It had purred along partly on orders for oddly sized wallboard, which had fallen off with the recession. Conley expected more cuts to hours or pay.

Empire had survived economic turmoil before. In the 1970s, managers laid off employees and boarded up much of 4th Street. “All of a sudden, the economy went boom and they couldn’t hire fast enough,” Conley recalled.

Even as rumors of the plant’s demise circulated in 2009 as housing construction cratered, Empire held on. Lately, the company had spent money fixing up dwellings near where workers lived.

Still, Conley had an uneasy feeling the day he shuffled into the town’s community center for the company meeting. Mike Norman was there. Anna Marks too. They braced for some kind of announcement. The plant manager stood up.

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We’re shutting down.

Silence.

The next half-hour was a blur of explanations. How production would halt that month, how the plant would go dark the next. How families could linger until the school year’s end, in June. How the company hoped the plant was just being idled and not closed.

The meeting broke up, and Norman rushed home to his wife, who heaved with sobs.

Marks tried to swallow her grief. Because her husband worked elsewhere, he was one of the few people in town still employed.

By the time Conley spoke to his wife, she’d already heard the news. An administrative secretary at the local school, she’d been enjoying a day off when her substitute called: The students had found out and were inconsolable.

Empire was one of two sites the company idled. The Conleys, probably like many employees, felt conflicted. USG helped them put two children through college. But Judy, 57, still felt betrayed. “It almost does feel like somebody forgot us and forgot about Empire,” she said.

During the quarry’s final weeks, Conley struggled to go to work. He and his crew barricaded the quarry, rid it of chemicals, posted no-trespassing signs. The plant where Marks had worked was stripped down and welded shut.

The plant’s lights had once illuminated Empire. Now drivers passed by a clutch of inky husks.

Conley decided to retire, while Judy hoped to hold on to her job at the red-roofed school complex in Gerlach. The campus started the fall with 82 students. Maybe 10 would remain. Departing students panicked about heading to bigger cities and classrooms. They begged to buy their cross-country and volleyball uniforms as keepsakes.

For weeks after the plant closed, Judy wouldn’t drive through Empire. It stung too much. Five years from retiring herself, she isn’t sure what she’ll do if the campus is whittled down to one room, which district officials are considering. She and her husband have no desire to move.

Third Street, where the Normans live, started to resemble the ghostly cul-de-sacs elsewhere in Nevada and California, where much of the plant’s products had been shipped. By late February, apartments were stripped of furniture and curtains, lawns cluttered with discarded love seats. Winter’s chill had browned the golf course and denuded the trees.

Barbara Norman wanted to rake the yard one day, but her husband stopped her. “What’s the point?” he said.

Every day, Empire crumbles a little more. When Barbara walks their black cocker spaniel, Crumpet, he bolts to the same house and barks. No response. The Normans’ friends, and their dog, have moved.

“People are just disappearing around me,” Barbara said.

That’s true. In the end, Empire’s population will likely shrink to the three people who don’t live in company-owned housing: a couple who built a brick home near the village, and a woman who works and lives at the store.

Barbara tears up watching her home shrivel into yet another ghost town while Mike looks for work.

His best prospect is a job at one of Nevada’s thriving gold mines.

ashley.powers@latimes.com


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