Plant demolition stirs memories

Bata: The shoe-making site in Belcamp provided Czechoslovakians with jobs and a community.

August 15, 2004|By Artika Rangan | Artika Rangan,SUN STAFF

When Lillian Sonberg and other Czechoslovakians were recruited 65 years ago to teach Marylanders how to make Bata shoes at the company's Belcamp plant, farmland along U.S. 40 stretched to the horizon.

It was 1939, a time when people left their doors unlocked and placed money on the dining table for the milkman to pick up Friday mornings.

Now the Bata plant - once the largest private employer in Harford County - is just about demolished.

The last remnant of Bata's existence ---- a five-story building used for assembling parts ---- was bought by Clark Turner Cos. last week for part of its Water's Edge development, a $150 million luxury waterfront community on 200 acres along the Bush River.

Company officials expect to raze the last of the old Bata plant's buildings - once considered architecturally significant as an early example of the Bauhaus school of design - within months.

"The town is disappearing," said Sonberg, 81, of Abingdon, who worked at the Bata plant. "Everything has been torn down."

Bata's shoe plant was built about halfway between Aberdeen and Edgewood, where it stayed for 62 years before being bought by Ramar Equities Inc. in 2001, renamed Onguard Industries and moved to Havre de Grace.

Bata once employed 3,400 workers, but fewer than 200 worked there when it was sold. The company built a town beside the Bush River that included a factory, a five-story hotel, a gym and 70 houses. Its growth was fueled by the arrival of workers from the company's home plant in Czechoslovakia who fled the Nazis.

Sonberg remembers leaving Czechoslovakia at 17, when the world was at the brink of war. Her parents, she said, feared the Nazis and encouraged her to go.

"They said, `After the Jewish people, [the Nazis] will come after the Slavic people,'" she said.

Sonberg was among the 100 Czech employees of Bata brought here to teach Marylanders how to make shoes that were then popular - and still are - in Europe and elsewhere.

In 1940, however, many of the Czech workers were forced to leave the United States because their visas were expiring. Many were sent to Bata factories in South America and Latin America.

Sonberg, however, and many other Czech instructors, remained in Maryland after marrying Americans.

Jerry Valcik, 87, left Czechoslovakia for Belcamp, too. He was born in Chicago to Czech immigrants who returned to Czechoslovakia when Valcik was 10. Because he was an American citizen, Bata officials wanted him to teach in Maryland.

"Someone told me, `Young fellow, we will train you to be an instructor,'" Valcik said. "It was the best job you could get."

In January 1940, Valcik boarded the ship Rex in Italy and spent the next three days sailing to America. When he saw the Statue of Liberty, he had only one thought. "Thank God for that [statue]," he said. "We are here."

Valcik, now also living in Abingdon, worked from 1940 to 1982 at the Belcamp factory. The work he did ranged from cutting parts for shoes to supervising rubber production.

Bata built brick houses for company officials and the hotel that housed employees, as well as a movie theater, bank, grocery store, restaurant, post office and barber shop.

George Peroutka, 87, and his wife, Myrtle, 83, worked at the factory. They live in Churchville.

George Peroutka, who was born in Chicago to Czech parents, had worked as a bookkeeper for a Bata retail store in Chicago for five years before moving to Maryland in 1939. As a company official, he lived in one of the homes near the river.

"It was a great place to raise children," Myrtle Peroutka said.

"The Bata name stood for quality of shoes and also for quality of life," Sonberg said.

Myrtle Peroutka said the factory was "the only job opportunity young people had at one time."

"It affected a lot of people," she said, "but soon it will all be forgotten."

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