Commercial juggernaut brought the music, video industries to the Valley
By Stephanie Salter
On a 1979 commemorative recording made by and for the employees of CBS Records and Columbia House, a veteran of the vinyl LP presses recalled, "Most of us started out here to just work a year or two 'til we got our children through school or 'til we got through this one big bill."
More than two decades later, the unidentified woman and thousands of others were still working in the vast complex on North Fruitridge Avenue. Many of their children had grown up and also taken jobs at CBS-Columbia House. "Pretty soon, we'll have our grandkids out of school," the record presser predicted.
In truth, only four years later, the music industry would begin to contract and change, CBS would move all its manufacturing to Carrollton, Ga., and the same man who opened the Terre Haute plant in 1953 would preside over its sad, dramatic closing in 1983.
"I told the people in New York not to tell me ahead of time if they were going to close us," said John K. "Ken" Lemry, who was vice president for manufacturing throughout the plant's 30-year run. "I didn't want to have to lie to the people who worked for me."
At its peak in the late-1970s, CBS Records employed about 5,000 Wabash Valley folks in its record and tape plants and distribution center. "The Club," as Columbia House was known to CBS workers, employed another 1,200.
As the presser on the anniversary album said: "I think if they were to remove CBS and the college [Indiana State University], they just might as well take Terre Haute off the map."
Today, Columbia House-BMG is the sole (and shrinking) survivor of what once was a multi-division commercial juggernaut that covered more than 1 million square feet of land on the city's north side. (Sony Corp. acquired CBS in 1988 and operates the Digital Audio Disc Corp. adjacent to the original plant.)
In 1996, long after the manufacturing arm had closed, Columbia House continued to make Terre Haute a globally recognized market for music and video with some 3,300 employees. In 1999, the club's membership hit an all-time high of 16 million.
Come January and completion of job cuts by the company's new owners, BMG Direct, the work force will be about 500.
Betty Netherlain of Shelburn was one of those women who went to work at Columbia Records for a little while and ended up staying 26 years.
"I started in 1957 for the princely sum of $1.22 an hour," she said.
Netherlain's job was pressing globs of hot vinyl into 33 1/3 rpm albums and 45 rpm singles. For many years, the press room - like the whole factory - had no air conditioning.
"We were on our feet eight hours a day and it was hot," she recalled. "It got over 100 degrees. I remember taking ice water and cold cloths around to everybody."
It was noisy, too, and prosperity often dictated six-day weeks and double shifts. But make no mistake, when Netherlain and her former colleagues get together for reunions, "We look back on the good times, not the hard ones."
Significantly, every attempt to unionize the manufacturing operation was voted down.
"They couldn't give us anymore than what we had," said Netherlain. "The pay was good, we had good bosses, the whole place was like family. Ken Lemry's door was always open."
Workers on the 1979 album spoke of Lemry's hands-on management: He not only knew spouses and children, he remembered the names of people's pets. If a class or two at ISU would help an employee on the job, CBS paid for it.
"I used to try to get artists here to visit, but it was difficult," Lemry said of the site that, literally, grew out of corn fields. "I do remember when Tom Jones came. He could only visit the midnight shift. I swear, he kissed every girl in that factory."
CBS RECORDS-COLUMBIA HOUSE FAST FACTS
June 1953: Columbia Records buys the 36,000-square-foot Eaton O'Neill Furniture factory on North Fruitridge Avenue. Employees cultivate corn in nearby fields and hunt rabbits when shifts end.
Dec. 7, 1953: The Terre Haute plant produces its first record, "Christmas with Arthur Godfrey."
1956: With shipments secretly coded "Alabama," the 1-year-old Columbia Record Club quietly moves from New York City to Terre Haute to fill some 700,000 orders from 128,000 members.
December 1957: The first 12-inch vinyl LP ("long playing") records are produced alongside 7-inch singles. In the next 18 months, the number of record presses increases from 20 to 48. By the end of 1979, as the company prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the presses total 186.
1963: Ten percent of Americans' music purchases are from the renamed Columbia House record club. Nearly 24 million records are shipped.
1966: A converted Standard supermarket on Lafayette Avenue becomes headquarters for 6-track, then 8-track tape manufacture. By 1969, the tape plant expands to the Fruitridge complex and adds cassette production. It is one of four separate factories at the CBS site.
1982: CBS Video Club begins.
1983: Most manufacturing and distribution is moved from Terre Haute to Carrollton, Ga. Nearly 5,000 people will lose their jobs by the plant closing in September. Sony Corp. takes over vacated plant.
1986: Columbia House CD Club is established.
1988: Sony Corp. buys CBS Records.
1990: Columbia House's 1 billionth album is shipped.
1996: Columbia House employs 3,300 people.
1997: The DVD Club begins.
1999: Columbia House membership hits 16 million.
2002: Changing technology has cost Columbia House about 2,000 jobs since '96.
July 2005: BMG Direct acquires The Columbia House Co., and announces plans to reduce work force from about 950 to 500 by January 2006.
Sources: CBS and Columbia House employees, 25th anniversary album and book, and Tribune-Star archives