Introduction to Silent Workplace

I was about 4 years old when I was first exposed to the world of work. By myself, I was allowed to walk the four blocks from home to Dad’s typewriter shop to watch him repair the machines. He made his living in a small, one-story, two-room building, located a half-block off 5th Street (the main drag) in the small northwestern Indiana town of Fowler.

Inside the Gregory R. Bower Co., there were new and refurbished Coronas, Underwoods, and Remingtons arranged in the front room on desks and tables so they could be admired by passersby through the large plate-glass window. In the back room, a heavy-duty steel workbench (which I now have in my garage) dominated one corner. There was also a tall cabinet (designed to hold printing type) filled with drawers of tiny spare parts, several storage shelves, an air compressor, a tub of cleaning solvent, a mimeograph machine, and a contraption that automatically folded paper.

To me, typewriters were magical, mechanical marvels. But when Dad was repairing one, he liked to work alone, and quietly—so my questions were considered distractions. Rather than explain what he was doing in terms I could grasp, he’d sit me down in front of an ancient, black, upright typewriter, along with a few sheets of paper, in the hope that I would entertain myself.

At first, I eagerly pecked away, learning how to rotate the rubber roller, figuring out how to make capital letters, even mastering an intriguing little lever that engaged the red half of the inked, two-tone ribbon. I especially liked the ding of the nickel-plated bell when the carriage reached the end of a line.

This was all great fun but, eventually, because I could only spell a few simple words, boredom would creep in. My fidgeting, and renewed questioning, would prompt Dad to suggest I go visit Conrad’s Bakery—an excursion I couldn’t resist. For me, the aromas of the warm bakery were always more inviting than the harsh cleaning-solvent odors wafting through Dad’s place.

Conrad was Dad’s favorite older brother, and his bakery was only a half-block away, just down on the corner. He was a bachelor, and we truly enjoyed each other’s company. To my delight, he never minded answering my endless queries. As a result, I learned about making bread dough and pastries, how to open the oven doors and adjust the temperature, and how to clean up properly.

While he made all manner of baked goods, Uncle Conrad liked creating beautiful cakes the best. He was, in fact, a cake-decorating master—able to spread butter-cream frosting with a flourish. Fascinated, I’d watch him fill cone-shaped paper tubes with a spectrum of icings, then carefully squirt out pink rose petals, yellow squiggles, or the deep red, smooth, even lettering of a person’s name. When he was done, he’d let me give it a try on a piece of cardboard, but all I ever made was a mess—but it was a mess I enjoyed eating afterwards. Years later, in my 50s, when I was putting this book together, I realized how my photography was a unique combination of what I witnessed as a young boy—the mechanical expertise of my Dad repairing typewriters and the creativity of Uncle Conrad in his bakery.

Back then (the early 1950s), there were no chain stores in Fowler (except the IGA), and many of the local citizens owned their own businesses. There was Cy the druggist, Fuzzy the lawyer, Joe the barber, and Johnny the junk man. But there were also people who worked for someone else—the gray-haired lady who clerked at the dime store, the friendly man who sold tickets at the theater, Walt and Tom the town’s two cops, and Grandpa Mendy, who delivered mail on a circuitous rural route that wound through the Indiana countryside, and even dipped into Illinois.

It was an era when each town was unique, and every business had its own special character. Fowler, like many small towns, was fairly self-sufficient. You could do your banking, buy a suit, fresh produce, an oak dresser, or a new automobile. There was a theater, a hotel, and a small medical clinic. Because it wasn’t a big place, many people walked the few blocks from their homes to work. A few citizens actually lived right where they made a living. Up until a few years before I was born, Mom’s parents operated Dowell’s Cafe, residing in the walk-up apartment directly above it.

In the midst of my childhood, we moved to Lafayette, a medium-sized Hoosier town. Mom and Dad believed it had more to offer than Fowler and, in many ways, it did. There were 5 theaters from which to choose and 2 drive-ins, more restaurants, a larger city park, and many streets and neighborhoods to explore. There were factories that produced wire (Peerless), gears (Fairfield), aluminum extrusions (Alcoa), jigsaw puzzles (Warren Paper) and prefab houses (National Homes).

At that time, Lafayette’s downtown was vital and dynamic—filled with all manner of businesses housed in 2-, 3-, and 4-story brick and stone buildings. A few were chains such as Kresge’s and Montgomery Ward. There was Loeb’s Department Store (with the only escalator in town), Reifer’s Furniture (with its neon rocking-chair sign that actually rocked), and McHaley Army Surplus. There were over a dozen clothing stores (including Three Sisters for women and the Baltimore for men), as well as jewelers, taverns, drug stores, banks, hotels—and five cigar stores. Many of these enterprises were owned by local folk. But even then, the times, they were a-changing.

When we moved to Lafayette, Dad set up his typewriter business, not downtown, but in Lafayette’s first shopping center, Mar-Jean Village, a basic strip named for the developer’s two daughters, Marge and Jean. Within just a few years, he moved again—to the more expansive, and beautifully landscaped, Market Square, when it opened in 1958. With Mom’s input, lines of gifts, greeting cards, and party supplies were added, along with a classier name—Bower’s of Market Square.

Today, both Fowler and Lafayette are quite different places than they were in my boyhood. As with many smaller communities, most of Fowler’s businesses are now just memories. The town’s population has remained fairly stable, but it’s been quite a while since the downtown was a thriving center of commerce. There are several vacant lots where stores once stood, Dad’s old typewriter shop among them. It was razed decades ago.

Unlike Fowler, Lafayette—like many mid-sized towns—has grown and sprawled out into the surrounding countryside. But, despite it’s vibrancy, many of the new businesses are chains and franchises. Loeb’s Department Store is gone, and Reifer’s went out of business long ago—its rocking-chair sign removed. Three of the theaters from my childhood no longer exist, and the other two quit showing movies. The downtown has no drugstores, shoe stores, or hardware stores. They’ve been replaced with offices, antique and gift emporiums, and a few up-scale eateries and coffee shops. And Bower’s of Market Square no longer exists.

In Lafayette, as in other cities and towns, most of the retail, factory, and office buildings erected in recent decades are the same clones you see everywhere—sterile, nondescript concrete-block rectangles, with a little low-cost glitz and glamour added. The trademarked color schemes and graphic logos are the marks of faceless global corporations. I doubt anyone will admire these cookie-cutter buildings in the future, and feel compelled to say, “Save these for posterity!”

While many of today’s businesses offer convenience and celebrity endorsements, they lack the unique character of those places I knew as a kid. I miss the squeaky wooden floors of the dime store and the elevator operator in the Lafayette Life Building who would ask what floor I wanted. I miss the old theaters—The Luna, The Main, and The State—that have been replaced by multiplexes. And, I miss seeing my neighbors’ names on business signs, and the personal attention they so readily gave all their customers.

So, for this book, I decided to focus my camera on those empty, sometimes eccentric, old buildings where Hoosiers used to earn their livings—places that had been proud, filled with energy, bristling with hustle and bustle, but now sit idle and forlorn. Some of these businesses have been closed for only a short time, others for as many as 50 years—or more. Each is still, quiet—yet they all have stories to tell.

On the following pages, are portraits of a variety of former workplaces—factories, mills, shops, offices, and stores. They are where we, our parents, and our grandparents once toiled, sometimes happily, sometimes enduringly—then walked away from, never to return. Some of these now desolate buildings will, in time, be fixed up or restored and have a new life, a new purpose. Others will eventually be torn down and cease to be. My photographs are images of temporary, ephemeral places—caught on film between what they were and what they will eventually become.

Most of these tired and worn edifices were erected years ago—in some cases back in the 19th century, well before my time. Back then, commercial buildings were designed to last for 100 years or more—not just the 20 or 30 years of today’s modern boxes. Many are still stately and solid, built of Indiana limestone or of bricks fired in nearby kilns, with lumber sawn in local mills, by workmen from the surrounding area. Exuberant gingerbread exteriors displaying a family name, and interiors with elaborate tin ceilings, flamboyantly reflect the personalities and status of sole proprietors.

Because these buildings are so infused with pride, they radiate an emotional, as well as a visual, attraction to me. They have served us well over the decades, and they need to be paid attention to, respected, honored, and treasured. I feel this very strongly—they are an endangered, yet integral, part of our history, of Indiana’s cultural and economic heritage.

For me, the past really comes alive when I set up my tripod in front of a boarded-up, small-town store. I think about the people who interacted there in its heyday. I wonder about the original owner who, like Dad or Uncle Conrad, grew up a few miles away, went to the local high school, started the business on a shoestring, and slowly built up a clientele. He (occasionally, she) was responsible for unlocking the door in the morning, working long hours, waiting on customers, taking inventory, kibitzing with traveling salesmen, placing special orders, handling the inevitable complaints, sweeping the floors, and keeping the books. Ultimately, the success or failure rested on their shoulders—alone.

When I carry my camera through a defunct factory—such as a mill or workshop where hard, manual labor was the norm—I can almost hear the loud repetitive noises, feel the aching muscles, sense the sweat on my brow. I can imagine the cursing when a finger was smashed; laughter from a practical joke played on the new guy; sighs of satisfied relief at the end of a long, difficult job well done; and stoic condolences after a fellow worker was killed on the job. Whether a well-paying factory, or one that doled out starvation wages, it was where a person (usually a man) earned enough (perhaps barely enough) to pay for food, clothing, and shelter for himself and his family—if he had one. It was where he spent much of his adult life. It was central to his identity, of how he thought of himself and how others thought of him.

Despite the poignancy and unnatural silence that shrouds these stores, shops, and factories, I’m very aware of an earthy liveliness, vigor, and sense of fulfillment that once electrified the air. These were places of human activity—of calloused hands and calculating minds. These were times before computers or bar codes, when receipts were written with a fountain pen—or typed on a typewriter. Communication was exchanged with letters and stamps, instead of terse, misspelled emails. Because there were few packaged foods, restaurant workers peeled potatoes and shucked corn by hand for noontime diners. Kids picked out penny candy at the corner drug store by pointing a finger and saying, “Two of those, one of those, three of those,” as an aproned clerk sacked each sugary confection—piece, by piece, by piece. That genuine, direct, visceral, humanness is often missing from many of today’s workplaces.

Of course, it was not a perfect world. In the “olden days,” machinery could be extremely dangerous, with safety requirements ranging from minimal to non-existent. Yet, if you broke your arm, you knew the “Doc” who wrapped it up in a wet-plaster-and-cotton-gauze cast. He answered his own telephone, and he made house calls. When I was a child living in Fowler, if the fire department’s siren went off, I could dial “oper” on our black Bakelite phone, and the operator would tell me whose house was ablaze.

Without a doubt, there are very real advantages of today’s workplaces—minimum wage, higher productivity, nondiscrimination laws, air conditioning, OSHA, the 40-hour work week, and Social Security benefits. However, there are losses that should not be underestimated. Today, few franchises have strong ties to the communities they reside in. And, as mom-and-pop businesses have declined, so has the belief that “the customer is always right.”

I know we can’t go backwards, nor should we. However, the past must not be dismissed as mere nostalgia. If we look closely, the rusted metal and peeling paint of old storefronts and empty factories can reveal much about those who came before us—how they lived, how they worked, and what was important to them. With this knowledge, we can better understand ourselves. For only by respecting and appreciating their choices and life circumstances can we objectively judge our own.

I’m pleased to honor on these pages, all the empty, dusty, commercial buildings that are scattered across Indiana, and the businesses they once housed—barber shops, general stores, flour mills, furniture factories, leather tanneries, gas stations, creameries, and theaters—with a special homage to a small, one-story, two-room typewriter repair shop, and a nearby bakery, where a four-year old boy watched and learned how grown men earned a living.

John Bower