By Ken de la Bastide
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — When America was making the transition from horse and buggies to the horseless carriage at the start of the 20th century the city of Anderson was a part of the innovation that changed how the nation would travel forever.
From the early days of Delco Remy and Guide Lamp to Delco Remy America by the end of the century, thousands of area residents worked in General Motors plants. As manufacturing changed to an age of electronics the local manufacturing landscape changed forever.
More than 150 people gathered Thursday evening at The Anderson Center for the Arts for the release of The Herald Bulletin book “The Auto Industry of Madison County: A History of Innovation."
Former company and union officials gathered to scan old photographs and to renew old acquaintances.
Scott Underwood, editor of The Herald Bulletin, said the county has a long, rich, wonderful history in the automobile industry.
“From the turn of the industry when the auto industry started through the GM years,” he said, “some of the most important plants in the world were located in Anderson.”
Jim Hensley, former president of United Auto Workers Local 663, which represented Guide workers, started working for General Motors in 1954.
He recalled beginnings of the UAW and the famous sit-down strike of 1936 when 169 workers sat inside the plant for 18 days with food being delivered through the fence.
The first contract between the UAW and GM was a one-page document that recognized the union, started negotiations, terminated the strike and assured there would be no retaliation against the workers.
Hensley worked at Guide for 47 years.
“It was a good job and a good living,” he said. “My children worked there and so did my mother. Four generations of our family. Unfortunately it won’t happen again around here.”
Jim Ault, former general manager at Delco Remy, said he’s been asked many times what happened.
“You would need more fingers than on your hands,” he said of GM closing the plants in Anderson. “There were a lot of factors that influenced it.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a good working relationship with the union, Ault said.
“At the time, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had a monopoly,” he said. “The oil embargo of the 1970s had a lot to do with it. The imports came on the scene and the profitability dropped.”
Ault said technology advanced faster than expected and Anderson lost many jobs to Kokomo when General Motors decided to place all electronics in one spot.
“We don’t need to point fingers,” he said. “Maybe the auto industry has matured. The challenge to this community is to move on.”
Harry Kirchenbauer retired from Guide in 1993 after 37 years in product design. He also worked four years at Delco Remy.
People don’t realize how big the auto industry was in Anderson at one time, employing 24,000 people, he said.
“It was always so popular, always had family working there,” Kirchenbauer said.
For many years he would drive down 25th Street to go to work at the plant and Kirchenbauer still thinks about that trip today.
“To turn the corner and suddenly it’s not there,” he said. “It’s just gone. Go over to Columbus Avenue and Delco Remy is gone.”
Dawn Mihic worked at Delco Remy and American Way for a decade in the late 1990s to early 2000s.
“We worked hard,” she said. “We made cranking motors and I loved it. I helped with the start-up of American Way.
“The people were great, hard working,” Mihic said. “It was a people place. I stayed loyal to the end. I was disappointed and sad that things didn’t work out well. Thought we had a great product and was amazed they moved it to Mexico, India, China and Brazil.”
Mihic said she hopes the book brings back the history of the auto industry in Madison County so people will know what was here.
Mayor Kevin Smith said Anderson was known as a GM powerhouse and is transforming a post-manufacturing dependent economy.
“Do we stay in the past, a comfortable area, dwell on the past,” he said. “Anderson has great opportunities and Indiana is a great state for industry.”
Smith said Anderson’s location along Interstate 69 with its close proximity to Indianapolis and I-465 is a great advantage.
“We’re always in a constant state of change,” he said. “With the right tools in place, people will talk in 50 years about other industries that have located in the community.”
Follow Ken de la Bastide @KendelaBastide on Twitter, or call 640-4863.