A piece of Glen Arm is fading into history

Factory: Although the 101 year-old United Container plant is closing, employees and neighbors are determined to preserve its past.

February 07, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

To the people who live in Glen Arm, the United Container Machinery Inc. plant doesn't seem misplaced in the midst of the farms and Victorian homesteads that surround it.

For more than a century, the plant has been the only industrial site for miles. The factory has become so much a part of northeastern Baltimore County, residents said, that it will seem strange not to see the United Container sign on the one-story wood and brick buildings.

"It's one of those things that's always been there," said Edward L. Blanton Jr., a lawyer who has lived on Long Green Road for nearly 40 years and helped establish Long Green Valley, including Glen Arm and United Container Co., as a historical district. "It kind of defines the town of Glen Arm. It doesn't seem to bother anyone. It's almost historic itself."

FOR THE RECORD - A map that appeared with an article on United Container Machinery Inc. in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly depicted the location of the plant in Glen Arm. The map above is correct.The Sun regrets the error.

The factory, which produced machines to make corrugated cardboard, was built by the F.X. Hooper Co. in 1902 when the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, affectionately known as the "Ma & Pa," ran through the valley from Pennsylvania to Baltimore.

The company changed owners and names four times before it was sold last year to Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc. The new owner has combined United's operations with one of its former competitors, MarquipWard of Cockeysville, and has laid off or transplanted hundreds of workers. Only a skeleton crew remains at the Glen Arm site.

The buildings, which are landmarks at the sharp curve on Glen Arm Road, are being sold by the new owners, which will force the remaining workers to leave. The "For Sale" sign out front signals a transformation for a place that hasn't changed much since the railroad stopped running through here in 1954.

"The new managers don't get it. This was home for so many people," said Steve Mettee, who has worked at the plant for 30 of his 49 years and has become an unofficial historian of the company. "It's emotional for a lot of us."

Mettee has been salvaging boxes of old photographs, paper stocks and customer letters about United Container, which he and other employees plan to donate to the Baltimore County Historical Society. They would also like to give at least some of the collection, which includes a catalog of machines the factory has made over a century, to the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

"I couldn't stand to see it all get thrown away," Mettee said. "It's too valuable. I've always liked these kind of historic things. It was like I found a bag of gold."

In the process of collecting black-and-white photographs and fading documents, Mettee has pieced together the stories of many people's lives - from the founder, F.X. Hooper, who created the first rotary wood printer in 1882 to place trade names on wooden shipping boxes, to Ben Curtis, who played for the company softball team as a boy in the 1950s and, as an adult, worked in the plant as an electrical technician.

Mettee hasn't been able to identify all the employees in the photographs, many of them wearing tailored trousers and fedoras. "I'd give anything to know these guys' names," he said.

United Container was the common dominator for them all, from the managers to the labors, who shared a loyalty to the company. It wasn't unusual for generations of the same family to work there. Mettee's brother and son both worked at the plant. Mettee has accepted a job with United's new owners, Barry-Wehmiller.

"I can't see the place being empty for long," said Vito Mosca, who moved from northern New Jersey about a year ago and opened Bella's Market in what was once the railroad station across the road from the factory. "It's a great place - a quaint town. It's quiet. The people are nice."

Many of his customers work at United.

"There's not a lot a lot of turnover in Glen Arm. It hasn't changed much since I was kid," said Lou Hoffman, 69, who grew up and still lives in the town with no traffic lights. He owns Maple Hill Farms nearby with his wife, Nancy.

Glen Arm is home to a florist company. A short way down Glen Arm Road, there is a post office, a lumber yard and a landscaping company, which make up the anchor stores of "downtown" Glen Arm.

It is not all that surprising to some residents that United Container will close. "Industry is leaving America," Blanton said. "A factory leaving is not that unusual these days."

United's 10-acre site is zoned for industrial use - a vestige of an era when the path of the railroad dictated development.

At the turn of the 20th century, Glen Arm - named after a town in Scotland in 1882 by railroad executive Thomas Armstrong - offered a source of labor from the big farms nearby.

Some of the machines, which were shipped all over the world, were partially built on railroad cars, Mettee said. Some employees started out as field hands in the orchard on the company's property until they turned 18 and could work in the factory, Mettee said. Houses built for company employees stand near the plant.

The company's alumni club meets twice a year for lunch, said Bill Thayer, a retired United vice president who helps organize the events. "The people had a tremendous loyalty to the company," said Thayer who started out a mechanical engineer. "When we meet for lunch, these former employees end up staying for hours. It's a lot of fun."

Passing the plant now is like seeing an old, closed school you once attended, Thayer said,

"It's sad," he said. "You look at the beauty of a business that can provide jobs on average for 300 people. It's a huge thing."

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