After 56 years, Schmidt's Cumberland bakery to bake last loaf this week

October 06, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

CUMBERLAND -- Being the best wasn't good enough to keep Jim Stratton from losing a job.

Back in 1974, managers at Pittsburgh Plate Glass, one of Cumberland's industrial ghosts, told workers -- including Mr. Stratton -- that they were among the best around but the plant had to be shut down. This left him without a job after 13 years with the company.

Now, at age 47, Mr. Stratton and nearly 150 other Western Marylanders working at the Schmidt Baking Co. plant in Cumberland are getting the same pat on the back, all the way out the door.

After 56 years of wafting the fragrance of baking bread through the Frederick Street neighborhood in this Allegany County community, Schmidt Baking is closing its Cumberland plant. Company President Thomas Bowyer said that the plant is "antiquated and it is not economically feasible for us to modernize the facility." Work done at the Cumberland plant will be moved to Schmidt's plants in Baltimore and Martinsburg, W.Va., Mr. Bowyer said.

Mr. Stratton worries about holding on to the life that he has built for his family. "You work all your life to get what you have, and then social services won't help you until you hit bottom," he said.

Hitting bottom may not be enough to make help available. A federal extension of unemployment benefits is in jeopardy. And with the current state budget woes, it is unlikely that

retraining opportunities will be available from social service agencies.

The last loaves of bread at the Cumberland plant, built in 1935, will be baked this week. The plant is scheduled to close Friday. That is the day that workers will switch from the bread lines to the unemployment lines.

Those lines in Cumberland have been among the longest in the state since 1987, when the Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. plant closed, putting 1,000 people out of work. People here reel off the lists of manufacturing giants that have left town like old Colts fans talking about Unitas and Matte and the glory years of football -- Kelly-Springfield, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Celanese, Cumberland Steel.

Schmidt Baking did not rank among those major employers in terms of numbers, but in a community where the average job pays barely above minimum wage, the $12-plus-an-hour salaries at the Schmidt plant were valuable.

Now, workers with homes to pay for and with children they hope to send to college are likely to wind up far out of town to land a decent-paying job. "There's no work around here," Mr. Stratton said. "An area can only have so many Domino Pizza drivers."

He said he will be looking in the Pittsburgh area for work, which would mean a drive of around two hours each way. He does not want to move, since he built a home in Cumberland last year and has no intention of trying to sell it in a nearly-frozen market.

Mr. Stratton put one daughter through college and is worried about how he will be able to do the same for his 16-year-old son. "This is a tough financial situation," he said. "There's been a lot of gallows humor at the plant, but I think reality will hit home when the plant closes."

Judy Beals, who works in the baking company's surplus store, saw nothing funny about the plant closing, gallows humor or otherwise. Her voice rose with anger as she vented her frustration about the economy. Her husband is in the saw mill business, which has been hit hard by the recession.

"I just bought a new van two weeks before they made the announcement," she said. "It's going to be a struggle for us."

Some of the symbols of hope for this area -- Interstate 68 and the Rocky Gap Golf Course and Conference Center -- are becoming symbols of frustration and disgust with elected officials. "They said that highway was going to bring us businesses," she said.

"It's passing us by. And Rocky Gap. What good is a golf course going to be for working people?"

Mr. Bowyer said that Schmidt is considering an economic package proposed by Allegany County officials to build a new plant in Cumberland. He said a decision on that proposal will be made within three months, but foreman John Fluke, 41, who has worked at the Schmidt plant for 17 years, dismisses the notion. "My personal opinion is the chances of that are nil," he said.

As for many others, a main concern for Mr. Fluke is his ability to pay for a college education for his children. He has one daughter in college and an 11-year-old son in a Cumberland middle school he would also like to send to college. "I don't know what the future has to offer, though," Mr. Fluke said.

He believes his future probably lies somewhere far down the road, not in Cumberland. "A lot of people drive east to Hagerstown or Frederick every day," he said. "When you spend a couple of hours a day on a highway, it's not only time consuming, but it increases your chances of a short-lived life, raising the chances of an accident."

"But what alternative do we have?" he asked. "You can't support a family on $5 an hour. Maybe Rocky Gap, with the millions of dollars they are putting in there, will have some $10 or $12 an hour jobs. How can Allegany County see fit to invest so much money in a golf course when it has lost so many good paying jobs?"

That's the way it was -- good jobs for good workers. Mr. Stratton said the Cumberland workers have always been among the best in the Schmidt business. They baked all the premium products in Cumberland and always had the lowest per-pound production cost.

"When the Cumberland plant closes, they have lost their best," Mr. Stratton said.

, But best wasn't good enough.

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