The Final Days In Grayling

Here’s how the local press in the Grayling area handled news of our decision to move. These are just excerpts from the Gaylord Herald Times of Nov. 17, 1977 and was written by Jackie Bonkowski.

BEAR ARCHERY CO. WILL MOVE, Grayling to lose firm next September

GRAYLING – The verdict came in at 7 a.m. Monday. Bear Archery Company, Crawford County’s largest private employer, is moving its plant to Gainesville, Fla. The relocation decision, announced after 12 months of study, ended months of waiting and speculation and reaffirmed the worst fears of Crawford County economy watchers.

The loss of the archery company will be a serious blow to a community which has, for 30 years, been known as the archery capitol of the world. The plant presently provides approximately 342 jobs, expends a $4.5 million annual payroll and attracts more than 150,000 visitors a year via its museum.

Here’s how the Detroit News handled it in their Nov. 20, 1977 edition:

The reason for leaving Grayling, according to Kelly, remains economic. “We’re looking at the bottom line,” he said. “We’re paying an average $7 an hour, counting fringe benefits. Our nearest competitor pays $4. It’s as simple as that. There’s Ben Pearson in Arkansas, Jennings Archery in California, Precision Shooting Equipment in Illinois and Arizona. Every year the gap between what they pay their employees and what we have to pay ours gets wider. Overall wage rates in Michigan put us in a very noncompetitive position in our field. We have to hire labor in a market where the auto industry sets the pattern. We can’t pay auto industry rates and sell bows and arrows.”

When asked if the UAW strike was a factor in the decision to move, Kelly went on, “We would have moved had there been no strike. Except for the first three weeks, the strike had no effect on our operations. It’s been no secret that we were planning to move. Townspeople have come to us and asked, ‘What can we do to help you stay here?’ Really, there was nothing they could do. It was a case of looking at the bottom line and finding that we could do better in a different location. It’s best for the company, I’m responsible for the well-being of the company. Whatever is necessary, I will do.”

AN UGLY BREAK

In that issue of The Detroit News they also quoted Joan Rasmussen, the president of the Bear Archery Employee’s Association at the time and one of the most visible strikers out front of the plant: “I don’t talk to scabs. I’ll never talk to them again.”

She had been walking the picket line for 82 weeks by that time and continued for another year until we left town.

Rasmussen, a Bear employee for 26 years, went on, “I grew up in this town and I have a lot of friends here. I found out who they were that first day when out of 200 people, 40 crossed our picket line. My friends are all out here. Nobody in this town will hire us. They tell us we’re unreliable because we’re involved in a labor dispute. Sixty of our people were arrested for name-calling. Fifty-nine of the cases were dismissed as soon as they got to court. This town is getting exactly what it deserves from Bear.”

And to put the state’s spin on it, here’s what Norton L. Berman, director of the Michigan Office of Economic Expansion, said at the time: “We are not going to repeal union shop legislation in Michigan. We are not going to change the state’s climate. There are always going to be companies that are going to move. There are two big factors when you talk about the Sun Belt versus the Frost Belt: the climate and the South’s labor laws. Companies which consider those items to be key factors will move. Those which consider other factors will stay and prosper in Michigan.

LOOKING DOWN THE ROAD

In the meantime, we had a plant to design and build in Gainesville and a huge job ahead of us in planning the actual move. I didn’t have to get involved in any of that end of it, thank goodness. I could continue doing my normal advertising work, plus my political work in Washington, D.C.

Once established in Florida, Fred Bear put on a shooting exhibition one day for our new Bear Archery employees and the supervisory personnel who had moved down with us from Grayling.

I had a friend, Ron Fraser, with whom I served on the Grayling Regional Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, who graciously offered me a position helping him at his new Holiday Inn in town in case I didn’t want to make the move to Florida. I could’ve traveled the Midwest doing promotional work for Ron in bringing in conferences and the like to our Grayling area. But I decided to stay with Fred and the company. I just could not bring myself to leave Fred. He was not happy about having to leave Grayling either, and I was hurting to see him hurt. He did not make an issue of it and put on a good face to all in the community and company, but there were times when we were talking about it between us that I could see the anguish in his eyes. However, none of us involved really had a choice if we wanted to continue doing what we had been doing. And that included Papa Bear.

At our December 1977, sales meeting in New Orleans, I jotted down a note that sort of categorizes this whole sad string of years for all of us:

1976 – The Year of the Strike
1977 – The Year of Decision
1978 – The Year of the Move

One more note about that meeting in New Orleans. The King Tut exhibit was in town. In it were scores of beautiful items recovered from King Tut’s tomb in Egypt. The highlight, of course, was the beautiful funeral mask taken from the tomb. But there were many other handcrafted items on display inlaid with valuable jewels and gold. Quite a sight. Breathtaking, in fact.

We all rode a bus together from the hotel over to the exhibit for a special after-hours evening viewing arranged for us by Hap Fling, our Bear sales manager. Of course, Fred was in the group. My wife, Alice, and I walked around the exhibit area examining the various items, totally in awe. And I noticed Fred over in a corner with his shoulders hunched up and shaking as he did when he was laughing. When I walked over to see what he was so amused about, he pointed to an ancient Egyptian bow hanging on the wall that had been taken from King Tut’s tomb. “I wonder if the King knew he had a twisted lower limb,” he chuckled. Sure enough, the bow had a deformed limb. Leave it to Papa Bear to spot something like that.

Finally, on Feb. 16, 1978, Kelly sent a letter to all of the employees bringing them up-to-speed on the move. Here are some excerpts from that letter:

“Today, we have signed the final papers on our 35-acre plant site, and our contractor will start moving some dirt to get the land ready for footings and foundations. Preston-Haskell, from Jacksonville, is the contractor we have chosen to do the job. They are now working with us on engineering and detailed specifications of the total job.

“We expect to complete the engineering and specification phase by approximately March 10. This will establish for us exactly what our finished job will look like and cost. From now until March 15, the contractor will be working ahead on the land preparation, pouring footings and floors, and is scheduled to start ‘above ground’ construction on approximately March 15. At this time we plan to have official groundbreaking ceremonies on March 17. Bear, Victor United, Kidde and Gainesville officials will be on hand for this event.

“The total building will be approximately 150,000 square feet, and we will have approximately 15,000 square feet in the office area. The contractor assures us that the production areas will be fully completed by September 1 and that the office areas will be fully completed by October 18.

“We will start moving our operation here in Grayling by production departments on September 1. And we would hope to start the office move on October 18. Our goal at this time is to have everything and everyone moved by early December.

“Many of you have gone or will be going to Gainesville to get oriented and help yourself make the final decision. I fully understand that to most of you at least, the decision to go or not to go is probably the biggest and most critical decision you have ever made or might plan to make. I know that considering such a move has been of great concern to all of you, but would like to say that the company will be doing everything possible to make the transition as painless and orderly as possible.”

FOR SALE IN GRAYLING

Unfortunately, our construction schedule got delayed due to unseasonably heavy rains early in the summer in Gainesville and our  move-in dates were affected.

We had moved our arrow department and target line to Columbia, South Carolina, to get it out of the strike atmosphere, and so that production and income could keep flowing into the coffers during the production slow-down and move from Grayling. Finally, once the plant was completed in Gainesville the two product lines were finally moved to Florida in February 1979.

One of the tasks I was asked to manage prior to the move was to prepare a brochure to be used to try to sell our existing plant in Grayling. We decided that we would try to sell the property and buildings in one to three different parcels. At that time we had 114,930 square feet of space on 12 acres. The first part of the plant had been built in 1946. Additions were constructed in 1952, 1956, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1971 and 1974. Our city and county taxes per year paid to both the city and county amounted to approximately $55,000. And the Mackinaw & Detroit railroad line ran near the plant just on the other side of my office, “The Swamp.” We had parking space for 300 cars. I lifted part of the introduction I had written for our 1976 Bear Archery catalog to give the piece some flavor and to communicate what it was like living in the Grayling area. We signed up with Milltown Realty in town to try to move the property.

Some of the pieces were eventually purchased, but most of the property sat empty after we left. Fred and I would always drive over and look at it when we were at Grousehaven on our annual bowhunting trips. And it was a sad thing to see sitting there so forlorn, slowly deteriorating. On those quick drives over from our hunting camp back to Grayling, we always stopped in to visit with our old friends Howard Hatfield and Bob Smock. And we’d drive out past my old house in Sherwood Forest, Fred’s house next to the plant, and the now-empty Fred Bear Museum out at the old Bear Mountain. Fred’s beautiful home along the backwaters of the old logger’s pond on the Au Sable River was eventually sold to a dentist.

Those were melancholy drives.

Finally, in the 1990s most of the Bear Archery buildings were torn down, and pieces of decorative broken tile from the old lobby that was first used as the Fred Bear Museum could be seen lying in the rubble. I was glad that Fred was no longer around to see it. I wept inside as I stood over it on a trip through Grayling that summer.

In preparing to move, Fred and Mrs. B went through all of their stuff and decided to have a garage sale, which they did one Saturday. I just could not bring myself to go over and see what all they were selling, but I know there were some real treasures among their cast-offs. Several people told me what they had purchased. It was just too darn heartbreaking for me to deal with that day.

We had our groundbreaking ceremony the week of March 10, 1978, and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce announced that our annual payroll for the area would be $2.5 million.

Of course, the strike continued right up until the last vestiges of the factory and staff remained in Grayling. Strikers continued to walk up and down the road in front of the factory and were just as abusive as ever to those of us who remained working. One sign they carried at the end said, “Goodbye. Florida’s Loss, Grayling’s Gain.” Another one read, “Goodbye, Bear Archery. Take all scabs.” There was bitterness and sadness on both sides of the picket line. I was still stuck in “The Swamp” trying to function with my staff gone and most of my files and equipment already down in Florida.

FRED’S PAINFUL REMINDERS

One of the most poignant moments of all took place the morning Fred left the plant for good. It was Nov. 21, 1978, and he had stayed in the Holiday Inn the night before, since Mrs. B and all of their household goods had already been moved to Florida. He had flown up from Gainesville for the annual firearms hunt with his old buddies at Grousehaven, and I had picked him up at the Midland-Bay City-Saginaw airport the Saturday before gun season opened. He and I had then hunted at Grousehaven with Gen. Hank Everest and some of the other old gang before returning to Grayling.

I knew it was terribly hard on him to leave the place that he had worked so hard to build, and to leave all of his many friends in Grayling. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the memories swirling around his head that November morning as I watched him slowly walk out of the front office door that he had gone through so many thousands of times over the years. He quietly walked over to the waiting car arranged to take him to the airport for the flight to Florida. I snapped a photo just for the historical record and watched them slowly drive away. He waved to me, but I don’t know if he shed a tear inside or not. I did.

Bob Kelly left for good the next day. And as he did, the strikers across M-72 from “The Swamp” pulled their small travel trailer away. They drove down the road at 10:15 a.m., it was a Wednesday and it was the official end of the strike. I took some photos as they left, leaving myself open for some parting uncomplimentary yells from the pickets. But I could tell that their hearts really weren’t in it either. They had all gambled and lost.

Finally, after everyone else had left town, but just a few of us, once the strikers living around Grayling had quieted down, I drove Papa Bear’s yellow Cougar down to Florida for him, leaving Grayling on December 4th and arriving on December 5th, the day before my 43rd birthday. I arrived to an empty house and was pretty depressed at the time, and very worried about my family still up in Grayling. We had gone on an extensive house search in the spring like everyone else who was moving with the plant, and just had not found anything we really liked. So in the end we had a new home built in the Emerald Woods development on the northwest side of town. Several other Bear management people also ended up in the same neighborhood. I had not seen the finished house until the day I arrived.

I returned to Grayling for the holidays with the family, and we finally moved our household things in a snowstorm, leaving Grayling for good late on the afternoon of Jan. 3, 1979. Before leaving town, however, I made one last trip over to the empty plant, climbed up on a ladder with Frank Scott and took the handmade wooden Bear Archery letters off the front of the building. Fred and Scotty had cut these out and put them up back in the 1940s. I lashed them to the top of my station wagon, safely wrapped in an old quilt, and we were ready to go.

I drove my old, rusty, blue VW bug with our sedated German shepherd, Heidi, in the back seat, our youngest son, Scott, in the front seat, and Alice drove our yellow station wagon with our two oldest kids, Mike and Beth. Snow and ice dropped off both vehicles until we were almost into Tennessee. We finally arrived in Gainesville, our new Bear Archery home, on Jan. 5, 1979.