Putting Away the Silver

As Baltimore's Kirk-Stieff factory shuts down, die maker Herman Engel and his co-workers pack up their tools, polishing off a 184-year history of silver-making.

January 14, 1999|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN STAFF

As Herman Charles Engel Jr. walks through the Kirk-Stieff factory, there is an eerie silence. The formidable hammering machines stand mute, hundreds of tools and dies await reassignment while employees tend to final chores. It's like the lull after a memorable dinner party, a few people reliving the high points while they clear the table.

The 76-year-old die maker stops to chat with Patricia Flanagan. She is polishing up the last order of mint julep tumblers, another Kirk-Stieff product that has helped smooth out life's rough edges.

As Engel moves along, past candlesticks and baby cups, pewter Jefferson cups and sugar scoops, he assumes the fond and proprietary demeanor of a man who has spent most of the past 57 years in this building.

Engel has known for months that Brown-Forman, owner of the Lenox company, which purchased Kirk-Stieff in 1990, would cease production at the Baltimore factory to consolidate operations at its plant in Rhode Island.

But it still seems strange, he says, to clean out his file cabinet and pack up the tool box with its worn photo of Jane Russell, another timeless classic.

Tomorrow the factory closes, ending a 184-year tradition of silver-making in Baltimore that began in 1815 when Samuel Kirk founded Kirk & Son.

During Engel's career, the trade that once supported three local silver companies dwindled as consumer tastes changed.

In the 1950s, when Stieff was producing Colonial Williamsburg's line of pewter as well as silver replicas, it became the largest manufacturer of pewter products in the country.

In recent times, the factory concentrated on making pewter holloware and gift items such as Christmas ornaments and picture frames.

Herman Engel remembers the days when he was making steel dies for some of the nation's most desirable silver flatware. There was the Stieff Rose pattern, the Betsy Patterson -- the plain and the engraved -- the Chantilly, the Clinton, the Lady Claire, the Royal Dynasty, the Homewood.

It was exacting, meticulous, wonderfully concrete work, work that belonged to an era when couples poured over place settings instead of pre-nups.

When Engel first showed up at the Wyman Park Drive factory in 1941, he said he would take any job the company might have for him. Mr. Gwaltney Fleet found him a spot working four drop hammers in the spoon department, stamping up the bowls and handles on certain patterns.

After serving in the South Pacific, Engel returned to spoons temporarily, agreeing to move into the tool and die department when the need arose.

"I said, `I'll be honest with you, I don't really care where I work as long as I have a job!' "

As it turned out, Engel liked the work of cutting dies just fine.

Walking through the factory now, he remembers punch ladles and soup spoons, points out silver Christmas ornaments and silver bells, brags on about the special-ordered silver goblets and tea sets and the craftspeople who work on them.

Nancy Tomlinson, for instance, does hand ornamentation on some of the fanciest silver pieces to still originate from Baltimore: the sterling silver replicas of the Woodlawn vase trophy given for winning the Preakness every year. Tomlinson also creates the intricate details and engravings on the edges of silver trays and creamers, the carefully worked flowers, the stuff that makes people sigh. She learned the ornamental art of hand chasing from the late Ed Collins, a man who had already had 43 years of experience when he taught her.

This factory has always been a place where people were textbooks and skills were heirlooms to be passed along.

Closing up shop not only robs the city of a traditional craft but also steals these workers' power to bequeath it.

"It's losing trades for the next generation," worries moldmaker Irvin Fretwell, who has been in the business 31 years. "Not everyone's a mental genius and goes to college. But there's a lot of people who are very intelligent with their hands."

Tall, lanky and modest, silversmith Tom Peddicord is a major part of what connects the raw materials on the bench to the museum-quality trophies displayed in his department's portfolio. He recently finished working on a magnificent trophy for the Maryland Hunt Cup using detailed drawings first rendered for it in 1940.

"There's no one could do it -- or can do it -- better than Stieff," insists Bill Walker, a "finisher" who has been polishing silver and pewter for 27 years.

Like the others, Walker got a severance package. Some employees talk about going to work at a local filter company or repairing jewelry or driving professionally. But the silver company also provided them with a workplace family they can't replace, the sort of school days camaraderie that fades despite everyone's best intentions.

Herman Engel left Kirk-Stieff in 1987 when he was 65. When he found he didn't like retirement much, he came back. For the past few years, he has been getting up at 3: 30, four mornings a week, to be at work by 6 a.m.

Now he's wondering just how he's going to feel about not getting up and going out the door, no matter what. He's thinking about working for his son-in-law, Karl Myers, who has a pipe organ repair business.

And what of the tens of thousands of silver and pewter pieces he helped to create? He's never thought much about them, he admits.

But just in case he feels a sudden urge, Herman Charles Engel Jr. will be able to see his handiwork in at least one place that is worthy of it. Two of the dies he made for a Stieff Rose Pattern teaspoon are proudly displayed, right next to a Stieff spinning lathe, in the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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